INTERDEPENDENCE DAY: AN AMERICAN ZEN MANIFESTO
NOTE: the following is a work-in-progress, reacting to recent political developments, based on study of historical documents such as the Britannica “Great Books of the Western World,” including Greek and West European philosophers and historians on the origins of civilization, as well as the foundational documents of America. The Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels formed the turning point in inspiring this Manifesto. I am not interested in confirming the historicity or scholarly astuteness of various points in the essay, but only how to move to a point of wisdom and action in defining Zen’s role in the commonwealth. Otherwise, your comments are welcome as always. Please forgive the long form.
Because Zen Buddhism is not really a religion as culturally defined, this statement amounts to a manifesto, rather than a creed. Because Zen has to do with the true meaning of independence in the real world, I propose the term interdependence, instead, as more fitting. Originally attributed to the historical Buddha Shakyamuni, in his teaching of Interdependent Co-arising, sometimes called the Twelve-fold Chain of causation, interdependence is the dynamic of Nature.
Zen is the meditation sect of Buddhism. Its worldview is derived from direct experience in meditation, rather than based upon a system of beliefs. Thus it propounds what is in essence a realistic outlook, rather one that is pessimistic, or overly optimistic. Zen Buddhism shares certain tenets that could be considered beliefs, in the conventional sense of the term, such as the conviction that all human beings have the innate capacity for spiritual insight, like Buddha.
We also believe in the veracity of the teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha and his descendants throughout Zen’s countries of origin, as well as the legitimacy of living teachers. Among the most central teachings are the Middle Way set out in the First Sermon, declaring the Four Noble Truths and Eightfold Path. The former define the determinative conditions of existence; the latter prescribes what to do about them — that is, how to live in harmony with reality. Other seminal teachings include the Five Aggregates of Clinging and the Six Perfections, along with the Twelve-fold Chain. Buddhist teachings labeled as Sutra are attributed directly to Shakyamuni.
While these doctrines are not regarded as inerrant scripture, but rather as models of reality, they are revered for their clarity, and their thoroughness in describing the most salient aspects of our existence and situation as sentient beings. But they are to be verified by ourselves in direct realization. Thus they are not a form of knowledge to be gained, especially from intellectual study, but descriptions of the original state of body and mind to be recovered, or returned to, the meaning of taking Refuge in Zen. Our independence in this endeavor is not totally dependent upon others, but independent on the more personal level, interdependent on the social level, with our fellow denizens of our nation, and the Earth.
INDEPENDENCE – NATIONAL VS PERSONAL
On July 4th, we in the United States of America celebrate our independence, declared in 1776, from the British Empire, of which the original thirteen states were former colonies. Whatever the historicity and details of what actually brought about this revolution, we are living with the consequences in our daily lives, some 240 years later, give or take a few calendar anomalies.
My intention in putting this Zen manifesto in writing is to share a worldview that I believe can shed some light on the confusion and distortion of the original intent of the union — amongst those to ensure its citizens of fundamental freedoms of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness — that has come about through the development of unforeseen changes in the polity in the intervening two-and-one-half centuries, including intentional subterfuge from both within and without.
This span of a quarter-millennium seems the mere blink of a gnat’s eyelash, upon consideration of the scope and scale of those changes evolving in such a brief time, and their effect upon our common culture, as well as upon the individual citizen. It is part of our underlying premise, that conflicts such as those between emerging technologies versus inherited traditions have outstripped the ability of the governing system, and of most citizens, to keep pace, or to even know what changes are transpiring in the aggregate. This in spite of the more ubiquitous and continuous access to information emerging from the digital revolution. I believe that Zen can help to resolve these conflicts, for the individual, as well as benefiting society at large.
On the other hand, I remain unconvinced that any large-scale resolution or solution is likely. All such uber-analyses of history appear subject to the same weakness: subsuming the nature of the individual into that of a cultural group. Many examples come to mind, but one familiar meme will suffice to make the point: Marx and Engel’s division of the polity into the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. Few would argue that this model of class conflict has no basis in reality. But in terms of the individual confronting her/his life circumstances, it leaves little wiggle room for taking action of an independent nature. One either rejects or embraces the truth of the model; and if the latter, either engage the revolution, whether on this side or that, or resigns oneself to the status quo, perhaps hoping to move from the latter to the former.
This is not to overlook Marx’s finding of movement between the classes, as touched on in the Manifesto. He suggests that when the financial basis for one segment of the bourgeoisie is superseded by technology — the horse and buggy whip-maker at the advent of the automobile — whole groups fall out of the bourgeoisie and into the proletariat. But it seems just as obvious that others rise into the bourgeoisie – i.e. the auto makers.
The proletariat is typically defined as the working class, people who own nothing, and so their only value is their labor. But if we look at the working class today, we see that they are being replaced by robotics, and that what work many people do would not classify as work in the sense of manual labor, or turning physical tricks, as one of my mentors defined it. Many of the productive class today are working online, and while they are paid for their time, and perhaps by the hour, it would be a stretch to call what they do manual labor. The new members of the bourgeoisie have elevated themselves to that station by dint of their grasp of the digital revolution, identified a need, and developed an application to meet that need.
Some of these are, famously, college dropouts, who therefore would not be considered educated in the old sense of the term. Other entrepreneurs analyzed an existing industry, and figured out a way to disrupt it, using mobile technology, and are in the process of replacing the older businesses. So it seems to me that the Marxian model is out-of-date on several levels, and we face a brave new world in which, as Bucky Fuller pointed out, the buttons we can push have gone invisible.
That is, whereas a ruling lord in medieval times could assess the wisdom of waging war on an enemy by counting up the visible assets — human, horse, weaponry, et cetera — of the enemy and that of his own resources, today the information is not directly accessible to the senses. The decision-makers have to rely increasingly on those who understand the language of technology to make judgments and take decisions based upon information provided by trusted aides. This makes for high anxiety in an atmosphere of distrust and competition, which is rife in a system where ownership and wealth are out of balance.
After the demise of the village system, in which all members of the tribe owned all property, i.e. real estate, in common (with exceptions for items demarking status and functionality, such as for hunting and gathering), the feudal system created the first division of the local populace into lords, or owners, who were also assumed to be the tribal protectors or benefactors; and their indentured servants, serfs and vassals.
The inequality of wealth distribution in much of the world still reflects this division, and has become one of the hot-button issues dividing what are commonly considered today’s classes — the haves and have-nots — supporting and supported by the two-party political system, loosely labeled liberal and conservative, supposedly reflecting their imputed, relative worldviews.
Like all stereotypes, these amount to generalizations for convenience, and largely function as shortcuts to propaganda and kompromat, utilized to reinforce negative publicity in the continuous campaign for the hearts and minds of the public. These shortcuts to thoughtful analysis work because they relieve their promoters and believers of any burden of careful consideration of causes and consequences. But upon closer examination, they are seen to be semantic exaggerations of faux simplicity.
LIBERAL vs. CONSERVATIVE
The current meme of identifying others, and self-identifying as conservative or liberal, the latter now trending to progressive, has some obvious double-think going on, I think. Further, these labels are confused, not clarified, by crossing them with the terms fiscal and social, though the combinations provide a veneer of logic. One can be a fiscal conservative and/or a social liberal, a fiscal liberal but socially conservative, a fiscal and social conservative or liberal, and so on. So the terms seem to take on meaningful application, through juggling the combinations, as if that provides enough flexibility to legitimize them. But if we look at what liberals want to liberalize, we see that they are wanting to conserve certain things. Likewise, if we closely examine conservative dogma, we see that they want to liberalize other things. So conservatives are liberals, and liberals are conservative. It amounts to a distinction without a difference, at least from a semantic perspective.
There was a time when liberal was associated with generosity (S. dana), the first of the Six Perfections (S. paramitas). To be socially liberal has much this same connotation, or that of magnanimity, as in the three minds of Zen Buddhism, sometimes defined as Magnanimous, Nurturing, and Joyful mind. This is connected to the concept of compassion in Zen, but which must be balanced with wisdom to be most effective. Sometimes true compassion looks like cruelty, as in the tough love of a parent, manifesting the Nurturing mind.
The term conservative also has powerful positive connotations, or did before it became another political football. Because its root is conserve, in its most innocent application, who could have an issue with it? Again, it is a matter of what one wants to conserve, or to liberalize. If all we are trying to conserve is our privileged position, for example, or the advantage of the contemporary bourgeoisie over the modern stand-in for the proletariat, then conservatism loses some of its altruistic luster.
A simple test as to whether you are a conservative at heart, in the old sense of the term, is the shower temperature. If the water is too hot, or too cold, do you adjust the other faucet up, or turn the offending faucet down? If the former, you are not really a conservative. If the latter, you may be. Stretching the point a bit further, you would shower only when needed, rather than for pleasure or comfort. This is not as far-fetched, or as petty or picayune as it may seem.
Traditionally, in entering into a long Zen retreat (J. sesshin), it is customary to shower and shave at the beginning, but to refrain from doing so during the period of retreat. This takes a lot of stress off of the local ecosystem, especially where the facilities may be limited to one shower. It is simultaneously conservative and liberal, deferring to others instead of oneself. It both conserves water, and expresses a magnanimous attitude toward fellow retreatants. Of course, if you really need a shower, e.g. after working up a sweat during a heavy work party (J. samu), the effect on your fellows may be the opposite.
These are two terms you probably never expected to appear in the same phrase. The Zen view would propose a third alternative to taking sides in the polarization of the population, I think. This approach would suggest that individuals who others see, or who see themselves, as fitting into one class or another, need not self-identify with such a definition of who and what they are, their place in society, and in the world at large.
With the technological revolution under way, as mentioned, this would seem even more self-evident. That is, in spite of all the hand-wringing as to the isolating effect of social media, the Internet also raises the bar in terms of creative possibilities of finding a niche online to make a living as an entrepreneur. Apparently the “jobs” on offer online are often low-pay, offering no benefits, and so amount to another expression of the owner class oppressing the labor class.
In Zen, we begin to see the possibility of a true third way, in sharing our common space and resources, as expressed in the eighth Precept, “Share generously — do not spare the Dharma assets.” Here, Dharma may be taken to mean not only the teachings, which the Zen priest brings to the table as her/his offering of dana; but also Dharma as beings, including any material asset that is available, and needed to be shared with others. The history of Zen has many stories around this idea, such as of great Ancestors burning the wooden Buddha statues in order that the monks survive the cold of the winter; giving away silk or copper to villagers who are in desperate need, thus depleting the stores of the monastery. The underlying assets are the generosity and magnanimity of the buddha-nature itself, which owns nothing.
In the Zen community (S. sangha) in general, and on retreats in particular, we begin to experience a microcosm of society at large. Even if everyone is highly trained in Zen, and in the protocols surrounding group practice, their very expertise may itself become an issue, for those who are less initiated into the mysteries. Subtle or not-so-subtle cues may begin to manifest, suggesting an “us-and-them” factionalism amongst the otherwise harmonious community (the technical distinction marking a sangha). This factionalism is the root cause of political class divisions, and by extension, intercultural and international disputes. It amounts to the logical extension of the idea of self to the larger community. Those I see as like me are of my community; those less like me are not.
Just as it is not possible for an individual who is part of a group of protesters to “disperse” (other than on the molecular level) — an action that applies only collectively to the crowd as an aggregate — it is not personally helpful to see oneself as a part of a group, especially as defined by others, unless one is prepared to engage in collective action on behalf of that group. Organizers of such movements may identify and articulate common cause to inspire their followers to take action, but the cause as identified is bound to fall short of any comprehensive program of improvement of the conditions of all such individuals who self-identify with the group, let alone benefit others who are not identified as members. It necessarily requires that one side loses in order that the other side wins, or gains in the aftermath.
It should go without saying that when revolutions have occurred, it has merely replaced one ruling class with another. Shortly after the Bolsheviks succeeded in overthrowing the Tsarist autocracy, they magically appeared as the new owners of the coveted dachas at the resorts. Human nature will not be denied, until individuals transcend it, in favor of buddha-nature.
This goes to one tenet of engaged Buddhism — which I term nondual realpolitik — which derives its legitimacy from a story told of Shakyamuni Buddha. Wikipedia defines realpolitik as:
politics or diplomacy based primarily on considerations of given circumstances and factors, rather than explicit ideological notions or moral and ethical premises
The difference in a Zen context would impact the “given circumstances and factors,” which would include impermanence, imperfection, and insubstantiality, as well as the other fundamental tenets of Buddhism, into the bargain. Buddhism emphasizes compassion and wisdom, which perhaps imply moral and ethical premises, but not as mandates to be imposed upon others. This is not a distinction without a difference, as may be made clear by the story.
Leaders of another clan in prehistorical India consulted with the Sage (Shakyamuni means “sage of the Shakya clan”), the story goes, as to the wisdom of waging war on a neighboring clan or tribe. The Buddha is said to have responded — not that war is always wrong, according to ideology or doctrine, or a didactic moral philosophy — but instead. inquired as to the outcome of the war: would both sides be better off, after the dust had settled?
Who knows whether the tribal leaders had an answer to this question, or whether the attack was called off or not. But the Buddha’s response raises the obvious question: How could anyone know, a priori? Can we be absolutely sure that both sides to a conflict will be better off afterward, especially in modern times, when literally millions of innocent non-combatants may be killed, maimed, or displaced?
POWER vs. POOR
This brings up a sobering factoid regarding the 18th Century English figure Thomas Robert Malthus, whose world resource inventory is referenced by Bucky Fuller in explaining the political ideology of the Age of the Robber Barons, contemporaneous with Malthus, and which is largely still in effect today. Fuller pointed out that Malthus basically said that with population growth, there will eventually not be enough resources, i.e. food, to go around; at about the same time, Darwin was publishing the origin of species. The politicians of the time wed the two theories — distorting Darwin’s meaning of the “survival of the fittest” — to campaign on a promise that, essentially, if you keep me in power, I will make sure that we get ours. The attitude toward the poor of the world promoted by Malthus may also still prevail in certain quarters today. Again from Wikipedia:
Clergyman and political economist of the eighteenth century who theorised that the world’s population always grows faster than its food supply, and thus, rather than attempting to alleviate perpetual hunger by misguided compassion, one should allow inevitable famine, disease and war to act as natural retardants to population growth. M. argued from an empiricist point of view against the ideological, theoretical ideas of philosopher William Goldwin and other supporters of the French Revolution who believed in the perfectibility of human kind.
And this from a member of the Christian clergy. In his defense, he was only ten years old when the American colonies declared their independence, when “the empire on which the sun never sets” was approaching its peak, and so can perhaps be forgiven for his myopia in attempting to justify the deaths of colonial subject populations, in the context of pillaging and plundering their material wealth for the sake of his fellow educated and “enlightened” Englanders. He was obviously a man of his times, though many disagreed with his conclusions.
One unintended consequence of the ubiquitous spread of the world-around (to use another Fuller coinage) media network, is that today we literally see the suffering of the world, in all the remote corners of the globe. They are broadcast right into our living rooms, if we do not turn off the TV in fatigue or frustration. The warning “some of these images are graphic” is occurring with greater and greater frequency in our newscasts. If we take the Malthusian view, we can simply regard these atrocious human disasters as the action of Nature in balancing an out-of-control population. But we cannot forgive ourselves for not taking action to curb the growth of populations in a more humane manner.
Food and health insecurity are growing issues on a global, as well as a local, basis. And while it is true that the people who cannot afford to have children are probably the ones that are having children, we cannot blithely declare that actions have consequences without in the same breath recognizing that inaction also has consequences. In Zen, the acts of omission that we commit are just as determinative of karmic consequences coming our way as are acts of omission. There is no possibility of evading this truth, even though from a three-score-and-ten perspective, it looks like bad things happen to good people, and good things happen to bad people. It looks like the self-striving tyrants of the world often get away with their vicious transgressions against their own people, or neighboring peoples via the horror of the proxy war. But this belief does not take into account the possibility of rebirth, the corollary theory to karma. We can hope that rebirth is a myth, but we cannot be sure that we are safe in death.
The phrase misguided compassion goes to the heart of the Buddhist view. Literally meaning “suffer with,” compassion does not dictate any specific action, but only suggests that we share the suffering of others, rather than see their suffering as their just due, and not our responsibility. Karma is no excuse for inaction. While we cannot prevent aging, sickness and death, we can do a lot to mitigate the worst-case scenarios. Fuller pointed out that what the politicos of the time missed was the curve of technology toward ephemeralization — a term coined by Fuller, denoting the ability to get more and more out of the same resources — and that, in fact, there is plenty to go around. Most of the resistance to the fair and equitable distribution of goods (i.e. wealth) is in the form of misguided self-interest, creating political barriers to sharing.
It goes without saying, I suppose, that Buddhism in general and Zen in particular would argue for the perfectibility of humankind. But the premise of Zen suggests that the ultimate, innate nature of human beings transcends even the definition of humanity. Indeed, the inborn, self-centered striving behavior of people has to come to an end before realization of buddha-nature can occur. In the meantime, we are guided by the teachings of Zen Buddhism, such as its Precepts.
One unifying meme that cuts across cultures, philosophies, and various endeavors of industry, commerce and government, including manifestos such as this, is that of the Precept: an explicit or implicit, underlying rule or presumption. An example is the first of the Three Pure Precepts of Buddhism: Do no harm. It correlates with the primum non nocere: “first, do no harm,” of the medical community. As with most precepts, it is subject to a wide range of interpretations, and adaptation to changing circumstances, for its specific application in daily life.
The Acknowledgment of Karma precedes receiving the Precepts in practice path ceremonies in Zen. This recognizes that most of the causes and conditions of sentient existence, and resultant behaviors, come with birth. They are born of body, mouth and mind, and arise from the Three Poisons of greed, anger or hatred, and delusion. They are not entirely of our own making, as they come with the territory of sentience. But we acknowledge them, and accept all consequences of our past actions, as our just due.
We come to embrace the Three Refuges, in light of the difficulty of living compassionately and wisely in the face of reality. We take refuge in Three Treasures of Buddhism: the Buddha; the Dharma; and the Sangha. Each has at least a dual meaning, respectively: the Founder, as well as our true or original nature; the compassionate teachings, as well as the law of the universe; and the community of the Ancestors, as well as that of our present peers. These are the highest values, the highest good, to which we dedicate ourselves in Zen. They surpass, but do not necessarily conflict with, loyalty to the laws of humankind or nations. Taken together, they constitute the first six Precepts.
Next, the Three Pure Precepts are taken, including the aforementioned do no harm, followed by do only good, then do good for others. Any governing body that follows these precepts would likely be embraced wholeheartedly by the governed, being truly of, by, and for the people. Do no harm is the mother of all further precepts, which simply articulate, in detail, what it means to do no harm in any and all circumstances and situations.
The first Five Grave Precepts received during initiation (J. jukai) into the Soto Zen sect are against killing, stealing, sexual greed, lying, and intoxication. They are largely in the personal realm, but have a halo effect upon our social relations. Each prohibition has a preceding, positive corollary: Affirm life – do not kill; Be giving – do not take what is not freely given; Honor the body – do not engage in sexual misconduct; Manifest truth – do not speak falsely; and Proceed clearly – do not cloud the mind with intoxicants.
But these are not commandments, in Zen, but ways that we take up, obligations we take on voluntarily. They are not as simple as they may sound. There are many ways in which we kill, for example, some of which cannot be avoided if we are to survive. There are also many ways to steal, as with the pen rather than the sword, and some of which are not apparent, especially to ourselves. Misconduct is socially defined, but we may commit personal transgressions in sexual relations, such as mentally objectifying our partner. We cannot actually speak the truth, but we should recognize when we are intentionally deceiving others. Intoxication is seductive on many levels, such as that of power, not only in the form of chemical substances. All aspects of life can be, or may become, addictive.
The second five precepts are given as the latter half of the Ten Grave Precepts in the first formal stage of training to become a teacher of Zen. They have a more social slant, concerning the relationship that someone representing Zen has with others, and each has a positive as well as a prohibitive aspect: See only your own faults – Do not discuss the faults of others; Know self and other as one – Do not praise yourself at others’ expense; Share generously – Do not spare the Dharma assets; Actualize harmony – Do not indulge in anger; Know intimacy with all things – Do not defame the Three Treasures.
The idea of independence implies that one can or should be able to pursue life, liberty, and happiness, all independent of others. Interdependency suggests that this is not true. How can we be truly happy, when others are suffering so deeply? If we try to dodge the bullet by insisting that their suffering is their karma, while true enough, this does not exempt us from the suffering of others. Karma is shared, according to my understanding. Even the knowledge of suffering is itself a form of suffering. Nor does taking any such attitude, excuse not taking action to mitigate the suffering we witness. Many of the Jataka Tales (apocryphal tales of Buddha’s former lives) illustrate how the nascent bodhisattva put his own life and safety at risk, for the sake of stopping the suffering of others.
Of course, some situations are more intractable than others. Such as the homeless person, or addict, who will not cooperate in doing that we feel sure is just what s/he needs, to get off the streets, or to recover; or the recalcitrant student, or obstinate child, who refuses to go along with the program in their best interests. So in Zen we have to balance so-called compassion with so-called wisdom, as captured in the famous “Serenity Prayer” by Reinhold Niebuhr:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.
Zen does not look to God to grant these aspects of the enlightened life, but offers instead the method of Zen meditation (J. zazen) as the most expedient and efficacious means to develop them. This change in awareness, penetrating to the root meaning of life itself, as revealed through Right Meditation, is the central theme and praxis of our revolution: propagating the practice of the natural posture and breath, eliciting the natural state of mind, at all levels of society. It is literally too simple to believe.
Unlike other manifestos of social change, Zen does not propose or even suggest a prescribed content of its meditation, which would amount to propaganda. We believe that the unguided human consciousness will come to the same insight, conclusions and implications regarding the functioning of society, as did Buddha and his followers down through history. We do not believe it is necessary that we dictate the form of government, the distribution of wealth, or the method and means of production to meet the needs of the world community. We think that this will naturally evolve from overcoming raw human nature, through zazen.
This may seem to suggest that Zen is another self-improvement program, the objective of which is to become a “better person.” This, I think, is a common misunderstanding. However, it should be stated that Zen training is not about making us better people. We are probably the same in that regard as we were the day we were born. What Zen training does is make us a better practitioner of Zen, in particular its meditation. Like training in the arts and sciences, the most we can hope for is that we become better at the art or science in question. Becoming a competent or even outstanding artist or scientist does not necessarily mean that one is a better person. I believe that this attitude toward Zen amounts to a puritanical overlay on what is a very simple system, devoid of moralistic pretension.
Precepts in Zen are the natural outgrowth of meditation. If no one ever transgressed, there would be no Precepts, as there would be no need for them. As Master Dogen reminds us, “In zazen, what Precept is not fulfilled?” For zazen is bringing human nature to heel, allowing the emergence of the original, or buddha, nature.
Again, the first Five Precepts are more oriented toward personal behavior and the internal consequences thereof; while the latter half of the Ten Grave Precepts have a more social, transactional slant. They remind us that our actions are not taken in a vacuum, but like ripples on the surface of a pond, interact with and mutually modify all other beings. In this regard, the personal and social dimensions of the Precepts are not-two:
In this world of suchness there is neither self nor other-than-self. To come into harmony with this reality, just simply say, when doubt arises, “not-two.” In this “not-two” nothing is separate, nothing is excluded. No matter when or where, Enlightenment means entering this truth.
So as a Manifesto, this essay is intended to encourage you to penetrate to the essence of your own existence. In doing so, you will become empowered and enabled to do the right thing in the social and political context. Our motto is not exactly “Zen meditators of the world, unite!” but “First, do no harm – get to the bottom of things so that you are personally at peace and know how to do good. Then take action to spread peace and justice locally, doing good for others, on a global basis.”
The most we can do is share the buddha-dharma, enabling others to exercise compassion and wisdom in their own lives. We have the Original Nature on our side, and the most excellent method of Zen meditation as our heritage and technique. Let us get to work.