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The Missing Peace: Artists Consider the Dalai Lama Print
Shambhala Sun | November  2006

The Missing Peace: Artists Consider the Dalai Lama


A new exhibition traveling the country presents works of contemporary artists inspired by the person and message of the Dalai Lama. For Kay Larson, the show raises interesting questions about how artists, like meditators, work with essence and construct.

IT’S A RARE ART EXHIBITION that begins with a text by Shantideva. On a visit to the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala in the winter of 2005, the artist Bill Viola digitally taped His Holiness at prayers, his head bobbing over his text, which includes one of his favorite passages from A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life. Viola’s DVD loop of a segment of these prayers plays continuously in the entrance of The Missing Peace: Artists Consider the Dalai Lama, an exhibition of work by eighty-eight contemporary artists, some Buddhist, some not. Mounted on the wall nearby is a translation by Tashi Chodron:

The Precious Bodhichitta
If unborn, may it arise
If generated, may it never diminish
And may it remain ever-increasing.

As long as space endures
And for as long as living beings remain
Until then may I too abide
To dispel the misery of the world.

May all Motherly sentient beings be blissful and happy
May all the lower realms be permanently empty
And may all the bodhisattvas on whatever stage they remain
Fully accomplish all of their aspirations.

With that prayer ringing, you enter an exhibition that would not look out of place in any secular arena (museum, alternative space, or international biennial) but that holds a question quivering with stored kinetic urgency, like a tightly pitched string: Have artists—quietly and almost invisibly—become a conduit for Buddhism’s entry into the West? This exhibition—and several others focused on art and Buddhism, including those recently associated with the Buddhism Project (on the East Coast), and Awake: Art, Buddhism, and the Dimensions of Consciousness (on the West Coast)—are early ventures toward an answer.
It’s hard to tell how many artists represented here are Buddhist practitioners, but their sympathy or empathy with the Dalai Lama and what he evokes is evidently not restrained by their degree of exposure to the nuances of Buddhism. This exhibition is self-selecting, in the sense that the organizers—the Committee of 100 for Tibet, the Dalai Lama Foundation, and curator Randy Rosenberg, helped by a set of international advisers—sent letters to artists whose aesthetic histories they felt were compatible with the show’s intentions.
Artists were asked to donate a work for a traveling exhibition—which opened at the UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History in Los Angeles in June, is at the Loyola University Museum of Art in Chicago from October 28 through January 5, and comes to the Rubin Museum of Art in New York in March 2007—and for eventual sale at a fundraiser after the tour ends. Those who responded became part of the show, so it’s interesting to see who contributed.
Traditional iconography is quite rare in The Missing Peace. There is a “touch-the-earth” thangka lent by the Dalai Lama and an Avalokiteshvara limned in brilliant mineral pigments by Yumyo Miyasaka, a Shingon monk who grew up in his father’s temple and studied oil painting in Tokyo and thangka painting in Dharamsala, facts that speak to the cross-cultural influences at work here.
The “not-a-Buddhist” category includes Richard Avedon, whose brilliance as a photographer was to know the media stars and shoot them in telling circumstances. Avedon’s image of the Dalai Lama surrounded by his monks is an astute study of their candor and clarity, as well as a testament to the star power of His Holiness and, increasingly, of his message.
Viola, Marina Abramovic, and Laurie Anderson have long been known for their complicity with the spirit and heart of Buddhism, although the art press has been persistently befuddled in interpreting what that might mean for their work. Abramovic met the Dalai Lama in the 1980s while she was filming in India, and she told me that his compassion and generosity have informed her performances and videos ever since. Abramovic’s installation in The Missing Peace is a wall-sized video projection of 108 head-shots of monks and nuns saying prayers, their voices merging into one flowing interconnectedness.
Besides the Shantideva segment, Viola and his wife, Kira Perov, have a video installation of a male and female figure, each bisected by a brilliant white light that cycles up and down through the chakras. “The luminosity of the central channel is the essence of the whole thing,” Viola told me recently. He regards digital media as akin to prayer wheels, and in “spinning” them—as with the Dalai Lama DVD—he feels he is making contact with powerful ideas that came through extraordinary individuals such as saints and religious philosophers. He continued: “When you say the prayers and read the sutras, you are bringing the knowledge from the storehouse and into the living moment, and embodying it with being.”
Anderson’s video projection is an uncanny simulacrum of an elf-sized arhat (Anderson) and her dog, Lolabelle, both in chairs. If you turned off the projector, you would see two carvings about the size of your hand, shaped like chairs holding a person and a dog. Flip the switch, and a diminutive Anderson begins talking about taking Lolabelle on a walk in the woods, where the dog is dive-bombed by vultures. The story—about impermanence, the sky falling, the Trade Centers falling, and a renewed nervousness about samsara—accelerates quietly.
Literally, these are projections of the self and its fears. Anderson began making them in 1975, around the time she sat her first “life-changing” meditation retreat at the Barre Center in Massachusetts. After ten days of silence she discovered that her peripheral vision was activated and she could see nearly 180 degrees. “It was really eerie to realize how much I was using my eyes,” she told me. As we spoke, she was getting ready for a visit from Mingyur Rinpoche. “To the extent I have a teacher, he is my teacher,” she said. “I see him when he’s here, and he’s like many Tibetans, he’s very relaxed about that. He says you’re practicing all the time in your music. I’d like to think that, it would be an easy out for me. But in many ways my work is about trying to pay attention. It doesn’t feel like there’s that much difference.”
The exhibition lineup includes artists with clearly stated affinities for Buddhism and renown in the closeted realms of contemporary art: Pat Steir, Arlene Shechet, Sanford Biggers, Dove Bradshaw, Kimsooja. Two Tibetan-American painters are Losang Gyatso, with a “portrait” of the Dalai Lama’s foot in a flip-flop, standing on a mandala, and Tenzin Rigdol, who has two paintings, one a dramatic takeoff of Picasso’s Guernica, in which the mangled Cubist horse and its fierce-faced rider (representing Mao) wreak brilliantly colored havoc on the Tibetan nation.
By far the biggest category, however, consists of artists it’s surprising to find here. One is Salustiano Garcia, a Seville-based painter who exhibits in the international circuits and who says he’s inclined toward the spiritual but knows little about Buddhism. To prepare, he sought out Tibetan teachers and did a lot of reading, he said to me at the Fowler on opening day. He pointed to ten different reds—all hand-ground and applied with a precision evocative of the Renaissance—that envelop the head of a girl. Her piercing lapis lazuli eyes seem to miss nothing and contain everything. Behind her are red Sanskrit letters that translate as “reincarnation.” Salustiano explained what I could not have guessed: that the painting is a “portrait” of His Holiness in his next incarnation—presumably a challenging gender change, even for a Tibetan master.
“She is a girl moving through her future,” Salustiano said. Artists tend to hide their intentions in their work, so determining exactly where the Buddhism is in The Missing Peace can be challenging. The “opacity factor” could lead you to believe that nobody in the exhibition has any Buddhist sympathies. Yet Salustiano said that he spent a year on his portrait, trying and discarding three versions before he got the one he wanted, because he is so drawn to what the Dalai Lama represents. “This moment is so material,” he said. “The Dalai Lama offers a profoundly different way of thinking.”
Katarina Wong’s installation in The Missing Peace is a classic case of the opacity factor. Wong, who studied Buddhism at Harvard Divinity School, marveled at the way Buddhism changed as it moved out of India to other countries. That thought led her to recall friends who had moved and the ways they were still interconnected with her in codependent origination. “They remind me that we do hold each other’s lives as vessels and we share them,” she said. So she began collecting fingerprints, asking people to let her take impressions of the last joint of the index finger. Six years of impressions, cast in tinted beeswax, are pinned to a wall of the museum in spirals resembling the arms of galaxies. The piece, she said, is “literally dependent” on the people who let her take their prints. She wondered, “How do you talk about a not-language-based experience in art? It’s a question of translation.”
To achieve that translation, artists at ease in the international art world typically rely on a grammar of form drawn from a century of modernist and postmodernist conversations. Deconstructing the work in The Missing Peace involves knowing at least some of that grammar, but the “not-language-based” experiences that created the originating intention are embedded in the work nonetheless, and they can be “unpacked” just as any experience can be. The unpacking process is its own reward.
The cliché that the teacher appears when the student is ready has a corollary: when the student meets the teacher, the baggage that has always been there becomes very interesting to look at. The baggage, for artists, consists of experiences inseparable from qualities of mind that are otherwise indescribable. My sense is that Buddhism intersects seamlessly with the artist’s project in two ways. First, the baggage is not only interesting, it is the expression of our humanity, and artists turn to it in the same way practitioners do—to see themselves in the world and to create from that vision. Second, the work itself, when it appears, is newborn and becomes a conundrum containing both the artist’s humanity and the viewer’s. The process of unpacking it is not unlike what happens in practice, when you see (and start dismantling) the construct you have created.
The mind of art-making and the mind of living are not two minds. I think that many artists understand this subliminally, if not explicitly, and are deeply drawn to what Buddhism offers. To be at play in the fields of mind is a fine thing—a source of joy—and offers a glimpse of vast and fascinating complexity. ©


KAY LARSON  is an art critic, writer, editor, and educator who is a frequent contributor to the New York Times. Over the last decade she has been asking herself questions about the subtle states of mind that art and meditation activate and about the union of the spiritual and the creative. Along the way, she has discovered many artists on the same road. She lives in New York State and Washington, D.C.

The Missing Peace: Artists Consider the Dalai Lama, by Kay Larson, Shambhala Sun, November 2006.


The Vomit of a Mad Tyger Print

The Vomit of a Mad Tyger

The Spiritual Autobiography of Allen Ginsberg


The Shambhala Sun presents this exclusive auto-biographical account from the late poet and cultural icon Allen Ginsberg, narrating his spiritual journey from Blake to the Buddha.

We’ll begin at the beginning, because what I’d like to do is trace what spiritual inklings I had that led to interest in Tibetan Buddhism and guru relationship.

I was in love with a high school fellow who went off to Columbia College when he graduated a half-term before me in Central High School in Patterson, New Jersey. So I decided to go to Columbia College instead of Montclair State Teachers College, where all of my family had gone. Out of some kind of devotion I broke away from the traditional pattern of my family but I didn’t have money, so I had to take a scholarship entrance exam. On the ferry between Hoboken and New York I got down on my knees and made a vow that if I were admitted to Columbia, I would do everything I could to save mankind. It was a naive bodhisattva’s vow out of fear of not getting into Columbia.

Around the time I got into school, I ran into William Burroughs and Lucian Carr and Jack Kerouac. We became friends. Our conversation between 1945 and 1948 was recollections of our own childhood inklings, including the big question, “How big was the universe?” I think Kerouac and I had a sense of panoramic awareness of the vastness of space. So the question, how big was the “unborn,” arose. Or, how vast was the space we were in, and what was the mystery of the universe?

That led to a lot of conversations and inquiries with marijuana and wandering around the city considering the look of the buildings and the appearance of the facades of Times Square, particularly. Times Square seen as a stage set with a facade that could vanish at any second. That impression of the apparent material of the universe as “real,”  but at the same time “unreal” in some way or other, either because we were high, or because time would dissolve the “seen,” or maybe some trick of the eyeball reveals the “facade” as empty.

So we began talking about what in 1945 we called a New Consciousness, or a New Vision. As most young people probably do, at the age of fifteen to nineteen, whether it’s punk or bohemia or grunge or whatever new vision adolescents have, there is always some kind of striving for understanding and transformation of the universe, according to one’s own subjective, poetic, generational inspiration.

That led to an exploration of the otherwise rejected world of junkies around Times Square and the underworld. The world of drugs—which had a slight effect in transforming consciousness or altering moods and was presumed to be a kind of artistic specimen trial—I found quite harmless and useful as an educational experience, though some of my contemporaries did get hung up, like Burroughs—although the main problem seemed to be alcohol more than any other.

In 1948 I Had some kind of break in the normal modality of my consciousness. While alone living a relatively solitary vegetarian contemplative life, reading St. John of the Cross, Plotinus some, notions of “alone with the Alone,” or “one hand clapping,” or The Cloud of Unknowing, or Plato’s Phaedrus, and William Blake, I had what was, for me, an extraordinary break in the normal nature of my thought when something opened up.

I had finished masturbating, actually, on the sixth floor of a Harlem tenement on 121st Street looking out at the roofs while reading Blake, back and forth, and suddenly had a kind of auditory hallucination, hearing Blake—what I thought was his voice, a very deep, earthen tone, not very far from my own mature tone of voice, so perhaps a projection of my own latent physiology—reciting a poem called “Sunflower,” which I thought expressed some kind of universal longing for union with some infinite nature. The poem goes:

Ah, Sun-flower, weary of time,
Who countest the steps of the Sun,
Seeking after that sweet golden clime
Where the traveller’s journey is done:
Where the Youth pined away with desire,
And the pale Virgin shrouded within snow
Arise from their graves, and aspire
Where my Sun-flower wishes to go.

I can’t interpret it exactly now, but the impression that I had at the time was of some infinite yearning for the infinite, finally realized, and I looked out the window and began to notice the extraordinary detail of intelligent labor that had gone into the making of the rooftop cornices of the Harlem buildings. I suddenly realized that the world was, in a sense, not dead matter but an increment or deposit of living intelligence and action and activity that finally took form—the Italian laborers of 1890 and 1910, making very fine copper work and roofcomb ornament as you find along the older tenement apartment buildings.

As I looked at the sky, I wondered what kind of intelligence had made that vastness, or what was the nature of the intelligence that I was glimpsing, and felt a sense of vastness and of coming home to space I hadn’t realized was there before but which seemed old and infinite, like the Ancient of Days, so to speak. But I had no training in anything but Western notions and didn’t know how to find a vocabulary for the experience. So I thought I had seen “God” or “Light” or some Western notion of a theistic center, or that was the impression at the time.

That got me into lots of trouble, because I tried to explain it to people and nobody could figure out what I was saying. They thought I was nuts, and in a way, I was. Having no background and no preparation, I didn’t know how to ground the experience in any way that either could prolong it or put it in its place, and certainly didn’t know any teachers whom I could have consulted at Columbia University at the time, although D.T. Suzuki was there.

My first experience with Blake was quite heavenly, but the second experience, about a week later, was just the opposite. At the Columbia bookstore looking around and thinking about this and that, suddenly a sense of sea change of my consciousness overtook me again, and I got scared because everyone in the bookstore looked like some sort of wounded, neurotic, pained animal with the “marks of weakness and marks of woe” on their faces that Blake speaks of in “London.”

A night later, wandering around the Columbia campus, it happened again with a poem called “The Sick Rose,” which goes:

O Rose, thou art sick!
The invisible worm
That flies in the night,
In the howling storm,
Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.

And I had a sense of the black sky coming down to eat me. It was like meeting Yamantaka without preparation, meeting one of the horrific or wrathful deities without any realization that it was a projection of myself, or my nature, and I tried to shut off the experience because it was too frightening.

By 1950 or 1951, because of those experiences, I was curious about the Tibetan thangka paintings that had the wrathful deities, but I had no idea what their functions were. I also began experimenting more with peyote and other psychedelics—mescaline and later LSD—to see if I could approximate the natural experience I’d had. My experience with them was very similar, although the natural experience was much more ample and left a deeper imprint on my nature, and it certainly turned me around at the age of 22.

By 1956 There was some poetry and fame. The impulse of my own poetry, Burroughs’, and Kerouac’s was still based on some kind of examination of the texture of consciousness. That was probably the key to why we were of interest to others. Kerouac, in spontaneous prose, trying to track his mind and give some imprint to the actual sequence of thought forms as they rose during the time of writing. Burroughs, similarly interested in alternative modes of consciousness, getting away from stereotyped mentality, experimenting a great deal with drugs, with psychoanalysis, with hypno-analysis, with writing, and finally arriving at a kind of writing that was like the nature of his own mind, primarily visual.

I remember when talking with Burroughs once, I asked him what he was thinking of. He had his hands over his typewriter, hovering, ready to write something. “What are you thinking of?” And he said, “Hands pulling in nets from the sea in the dark.” I said, “That’s a very Blakean image of God the Fisher, or something.” He explained that it was just the visual memory of fishermen on the beach at Tangiers, pulling in their nets at dawn. Burroughs’ thought forms were primarily visual, whereas mine were more verbal, auditory, rhythmic. We were interested in the texture of consciousness and how to notate it on the page, preoccupations that go through to the present for everyone alive of that group.

By 1950 Kerouac had begun reading Buddhist texts, in reaction to our friend Neal Cassady, who was involved with Edgar Cayce, a sort of “channeling” specialist somewhat famous in those years. Kerouac thought this was a crude provincial American “Billy Sunday in a suit,” so maybe go back to the original text relating to metempsychosis and reincarnation. Kerouac began reading Goddard’s Buddhist Bible, which had samples of Hinayana and Maha-yana texts, including the Diamond Sutra, and some Vajrayana texts, at least relating to Milarepa and others. And he laid that trip on me.

Now as an ex-Communist Jewish intellectual, I thought his pronouncement of the first noble truth, that existence was suffering, was some sort of insult to my left-wing background, since I was a progressive looking forward to the universal improvement of matters, if only through spiritual advancement. Kerouac’s insistence was that existence contained suffering. I thought he was trying to insult me, for some reason or other. It took me about two years to get it through my head that he was just telling me a very simple fact.

I still remember the first real dharma instruction I got from Kerouac, which was consistent with Burroughs’ laconic cynicism and critique of “all apparent phenomena”: “All conceptions as to the existence of the self, as well as all conceptions as to the non-existence of the self, as well as all conceptions as to the existence of a Supreme Self, as well as all conceptions as to the nonexistence of a Supreme Self, are equally arbitrary, being only conceptions.” That made quite a bit of sense, since Burroughs had already presented me with Western semantics, Korzybski’s book Science and Sanity, which had some similar insight.

The first time I heard the refuge vows was from Kerouac also, crooned like Frank Sinatra in a beautiful way. That it imprinted itself on me, and I began going to the New York Public Library and looking at Chinese paintings of the Sung Dynasty, interested in the vastness of the landscape scrolls, as correlating with the sense of vastness that I had already experienced.

In 1962, after a trip to Europe, I went to India, primarily to look for a teacher, because I realized I would have to get a teacher, or wanted one, or intuited that I needed one, or wasn’t quite sure.

By then I was quite well-known as a poet, and I figured that the proper move, being now famous, would be to disappear into India for a couple of years and look for some wisdom, and also experience a different culture than the Western culture, which I thought from the viewpoint of Spengler, the decline of the West, was perhaps exhausted of inspiration and it was time for a second religiousness, and so I went to look for a teacher. I went in company with Gary Snyder, who four years earlier had gone to Kyoto to study at the First Zen Institute at Daitoku-ji Monastery and had begun helping translate Zen Dust, a handbook of koans.

We went on a Buddhist pilgrimage to Sarnath, Sanchi, Ajanta, Ellora. In a cave at Ellora, Gary sat himself down and chanted the Prajnaparamita Sutra in Sino-Japanese, with echoes of the cave around, and that blew my mind. It was such an extended, long, and obviously spiritual breath, vocalized, that I got really interested and asked him about what it meant, and why he was doing it in Japanese, and what was the history of it. 

In the course of our trip we went to visit the Dalai Lama, and I was interested in what he thought of LSD. He asked me if with LSD I could see what was inside of a briefcase. And I said yes, because it is empty. And Gary said, “Oh, stop quibbling, Ginsberg. Give him an answer.”

I went to Sikkim, just sightseeing, and wound up in Rumtek Monastery. I met the Karmapa and saw the Black Hat ceremony, which came to mean a great deal to me much later on. We also visited the Lamas’ Home School at Dalhousie, where my later teacher, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, was the director. Although I didn’t have much conversation with him, Gary Snyder took a picture showing Peter Orlovsky leaning over, me looking on, and Trungpa Rinpoche showing us a text that was on the altar.

I went on to Kalimpong to visit Dudjom Rincpoche, the head of the Nyingma school, and I brought him my problems with LSD, because I had had a lot of bum trips. Every time I took acid or psychedelia, I would come back to “The Sick Rose,” like some kind of monster coming to eat me from an outside space. He did give me a very good pith instruction, which I never forgot. It turned my mind around and made the world safe for my democratic thoughts: “If you see something horrible, don’t cling to it, and if you see something beautiful, don’t cling to it.” That cut the Gordian knot that I’d inherited from too rash and untutored experiments with psychedelics.

On my way home I went to Japan and visited Gary. I sat at Temple Daitoku-ji, and actually did a short sesshin, but didn’t learn anything because I didn’t get any real instructions. The problem I had in India was that I didn’t know what to ask for. I went there looking for a teacher and I saw many swamis, but I didn’t know enough to ask them for a meditation practice. Which was the simplest way in? What kind of meditation do you do, and can you suggest a practice? I was too dumb to ask that. I remember asking Dudjom Rinpoche for initiations, wang, as if I were trained enough or prepared for it, but I didn’t ask him what kind of meditation should I practice meanwhile.

Ever since then, I have perhaps been overeager to teach meditation to people who are too dumb, like myself, to ask for it. It seems to me that in America it might be useful for people to be more forward. Usually, I understand, the proper etiquette is to wait until someone asks you three times. But you can always suggest to them that they might ask you three times.

In 1968 I tried using mantra chanting, which I had been doing all the years from 1964 on, when I came back, usually “Hare Krishna” or OM SHRI MAITREYA, a mixture of Hinduism and Buddhism, which I liked, without any instruction in how to do it. By 1968 I applied mantra chanting to situations of violence in Chicago, and I found that it worked on a limited scale. At least, it kept me safe and the people who were around me.

After I met Chögyam Trungpa, for the rioting after the bombing of Hanoi Harbor and the increased bombing under Nixon about 1972, he suggested using the mantra AH instead of OM, because OM was much too foreign sounding, while AH was just a good old American Fourth of July sound, like “Ah, fireworks.” Also, it goes out as purification of speech and a measure of the breath. I did try that.

By 1970 I met Swami Muktananda Paramahansa at an interesting meeting with Ram Dass, Muktananda, and Satchidananda, all of them sitting up on the altar at Universalist Church, Central Park. Swami M. invited me to come down to Dallas. I had nothing better to do, so I went down to Dallas, registered in the hotel where he was staying, and then he had the sense to say, “What kind of practice do you know, or do you have practice?” I said, “No, I don’t.” He said, “Why don’t you go to your room and sit and meditate using a mantra GURU OM at your heart level, using that on your breath.”

I was relieved. I had thought he was going to exploit me or parade me in front of his Dallas disciples as an asset of some sort, but instead he suggested that I go to my room and stay by myself and sit. That was a tremendous relief; I suddenly realized that I had a practice finally.

I did that, and he would come in and check me out every once in a while. I think he comes from the same related lineage as the Vajrayana practitioners. I remember once he invited me into his room where he was having a darshan with some students and giving them chocolate cookies. Donald Duck was on the television, and suddenly he turned and offered a cookie to Donald Duck. Somehow, I got the idea of emptiness out of that.

I ran into the Tibetan lama Chögyam Trungpa in 1970 on the street, coming from a poetry book-signing party on 47th Street. I had brought my poet father Louis to meet Snyder for the first time. This was a big meeting, since it was already many years since my father had read Snyder’s work and knew his influence on me.

My father was over seventy years old and couldn’t move very well. It was a New York summer, really hot, and as we went out on the street toward the Port Authority to get him back to New Jersey, I realized that he was going to faint. We got to 43rd and 6th and I saw this Asian gent hailing a taxicab with a bearded friend. I stepped in front of them and said, “May I borrow your vehicle?” which was an odd word to use—you know, the three vehicles of Buddhism—but it was a word.

The friend, named Kunga Dawa, said, “Are you Allen Ginsberg?” and I said, “Yes.” And he said, “This is Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche.” So I bowed and said, “OM AH HUM VAJRA GURU PADMA SIDDHI HUM,” the Padmasambhava mantra I’d learned the week before from Gary Snyder. Years later I said to Trungpa, “What did you think of that?” and he said he wondered whether I knew what I was talking about. So we exchanged addresses, and I got my father to the Port Authority in the cab.

About a month or two later, I got an invitation to visit with Trungpa Rinpoche at a tiny apartment on the Lower East Side. We sat down and Kunga Dawa, at Trungpa’s side, offered me a joint of marijuana—skillful means, I thought—and I was amazed that Trungpa was that much of a bohemian, or that supple-minded. So I smoked a little—he didn’t but Kunga did—and then he gave me his Sadhana of Mahamudra, which he offered as a poem for me to read and critique.

He asked me to read it aloud as a way of hooking me into his mind-beam. It’s a very great poem, a long poem. The refrain, “Although I live in the slime and muck of the dark age, I still aspire to see your face,” is repeated over and over in different stanzas, which appealed to my romantic heart. I really liked it, as both a religious document and as a poem, and went through the entire thing, which takes a half hour, and made friends with him.

A while later, in 1971, we had a really interesting meeting in San Francisco. I had made a date to meet at his motel. When I got there, everybody was late. Then I heard a noise outside, and I saw him with two disciples, stumbling totally drunk up the stairs. He was so drunk that his pants got caught on a nail and ripped. He got into the room, and his wife was angry at him. She had a new little baby and was pissed off that he was drunk in the middle of the afternoon.

I sat down with my harmonium. I saw his itinerary of talks and wondered, “Don’t you get tired of that?” I was on the road, and I was getting a little bored and fatigued traveling. He said, “That’s because you don’t like your poetry.” I said, “What do you know about poetry?” He said, “Why don’t you do like the great poets do, like Milarepa? You’re bored with reading the same poems over and over. Why don’t you make poems up on the stage? Why do you need a piece of paper? Don’t you trust your own mind?”

Actually, that was some very good advice, the same advice given me by Kerouac many years before. It was right in the groove of everything I had been learning but coming from another direction entirely—the insight or mind-consciousness of a well-trained meditator and specialist, a kind of genius meditator.

Then I showed him mantras I had been chanting and playing, and he put his paw, drunk, on the harmonium keys and said, “Remember, the silence is just as important as the sound.”

We went out to supper and got more drunk, and he said, “Why are you hiding your face? I’d like to see your face. Why do you have that big beard?” I had a big sixties beard, hung over into the seventies, and I said, “If you’ll stop drinking, I’ll shave my beard right this minute.” I went into the drugstore, bought a razor, and shaved my beard. I came back and said, “Now you’ve got to stop drinking.” And he said, “That’s another matter. You didn’t shave your beard completely.” Because it was still in rough tufts. 

We went off to his lecture, and I remember he was sitting very sadly in a chair, talking to this group of San Francisco hippies, saying, “No more trips, please, no more trips, no more trips.” Meaning whatever, acid, but also spiritual materialist trips, the accumulation of Blakean experiences for the purpose of impressing other people as credentials of one’s own sanctity or accomplishment. It was probably the series of lectures called “Buddhadharma Without Credentials.”

At this lecture I continued shaving and I came back out again, and he asked me to improvise. “This is Allen Ginsberg, the great poet. Now we are going to have him improvise.” I couldn’t think of anything: “Here we are in the middle of June/I just ate with you and I had a spoon/and we were talking about the moon.” Actually, walking on the way over he’d said, “America is not ready for the full moon,” meaning full doctrine, I think, full dharma. And I said, “That shouldn’t dismay the moon.”

I tried improvising but I didn’t do very well, and he said, “You are too smart.” But the next day I had a regular poetry reading at the Berkeley Community Theater as a benefit for Tarthang Tulku, and I resolved that I would go on stage without any paper at all, but I did bring the harmonium and improvised something like:

“How sweet to be born in America where we have like a devaloka where the god world is here and we have all the watermelons we want to eat and everybody else is starving around the world, but how sweet to be here in the heaven world which may last for a little bit of time but how sweet to be born.” It was a bittersweet song, it was still at the height of the war. So it’s “how sweet to be born in America where we’re dropping bombs on somebody else but not on ourselves.”

I’ve forgotten because it was improvised, but it actually did me a lot of good, his prompting, because from then on I was never scared to get up on stage even if I’d left my poetry back on the train or something. It was always a workable situation from then on.

A year later I was invited to Boulder to do a poetry reading to raise money for the Rocky Mountain Dharma Center. Trungpa, Robert Bly, Gary Snyder—whom Trungpa had not met—and I were all going to read at a big auditorium, the first big reading in Boulder for dharma. 

We were lined on stage and we had been joined by a sort of desert rat-Japanese-Zen-lunatic-poet-meditator Nanao Sakaki, a great character and good meditator and a really great Japanese poet, an old friend of Gary’s and mine from the sixties in Kyoto. I was going to do some singing GATE GATE, and we each chanted our own version of Prajnaparamita: Gary, the regular Japanese, “Kanji Zai Bo Satsu Gyogin Han Nya Ha Ra Mi Ta Ji…” and then Nanao a long KAAANNJJII using an extended breath, a beautiful hollow voice, and Trungpa Rinpoche almost in pedestrian offhand Tibetan. I did a version that I had worked out from Suzuki Roshi’s English telegraphese translation.

First Robert Bly read. Trungpa was drunk, as ever, and while Bly was reading, he did something very strange. He picked up the big gong and he put it over his head while Bly was reading. Bly couldn’t see because we were all lined up parallel, so he didn’t see what was going on there. The audience was tittering a little bit and I leaned over and said to Trungpa, “You shouldn’t do that. They’re making a benefit for you, they’ve come here to do you a favour. You shouldn’t be carrying on like that.” And he said, “If you think I’m doing this because I’m drunk, you’re making a big mistake.”

Then Gary Snyder read, and while he was reading Trungpa Rinpoche took the gong and put it on my head. So I just sat there figuring, well, he must know what he’s doing, or if he doesn’t, I don’t, so I’m not going to get in the way. I’m not the host, I don’t have to worry about it, though Gary was a friend of mine. After it was over then I read, and he didn’t do anything. I asked later why not and he said, “Because you don’t know what you’re doing.”

A couple of weeks later I asked him why he had done that, and he said, “Well, Bly was presenting Robert Bly—a big ham, so to speak. Gary Snyder was presenting Gary Snyder as sort of the finished Zen product. You know, neat and perfect and proper shoes and all of that.” He said that the people in the audience were his students and he didn’t want them to get the wrong idea of what was the ideal version of a poet. Later, he wrote a spontaneous poem saying Robert Bly presented Robert Bly, Gary Snyder presented Gary Snyder, Ginsberg was Ginsberg, but only Trungpa was the original drunken poet. That was the kind of original take I had on poetry from him.

That year we gave a reading in New York, this time with Anne Waldman and William Burroughs and Rinpoche and myself, and afterward I drove up with him to Karmê-Chöling, the retreat center in Vermont, then called Tail of the Tiger. On the way back, I read him through Kerouac’s Mexico City Blues, ’cause it’s a four- or five-hour ride. He kept laughing all the way at Kerouac’s humor. I don’t know if you’re familiar with it, but it’s a very good book of freestyle poetry, and when we got to New York, he got out of the car and said, “It’s a perfect manifestation of mind.”

I was really amazed because Kerouac had been attacked for that book by Kenneth Rexroth—somewhat an accomplished scholar and Buddhist-oriented—as a book that “separates the men from the boys,” and Kerouac was just “an amateur boy that didn’t know what he was doing”—that he was making a slapdash pastiche. All the San Francisco poets loved that book for its spontaneity and quick mind and quick notation of mind, but it was widely attacked and considered as a beatnik jerk-off. Now here was a very accomplished lama saying “perfect manifestation of mind,” and his understanding and appreciation was amazing to me.

The next day he said he couldn’t forget that voice, mine or Kerouac’s or Anne’s, or the style, and that it had changed his style of poetry from more formal Tibetan five-seven-nine syllable verse form to more international freestyle spontaneous dictated English. He asked me to be his poetry teacher and I asked him to be my meditation teacher, and so we made a kind of exchange, of which I think I got the better in the bargain.

A year later, he invited me to attend and teach some poetry at his first seminary, which is a three-month retreat, and at that point I heard a detailed exposition of Hinayana, Mahayana, and Vajrayana styles and practices—a detailed map, not the actual practices, but a map with all the different stages of Vajrayana yoga. A little while thereafter I began doing the foundation practices for the Kagyu lineage. 

While I was sitting, I had an idea for a poem but I didn’t want to interrupt my sitting. We were doing shamatha/vipashyana on the breath, and I had this fantasy that my breath was going out the window and over the mountain into Idaho and across the desert to San Francisco, and then the zephyr was going under the Bay Bridge, and then maybe a little tornado out in the Pacific and breeze in Guam and a typhoon in the China sea and an airplane flying through the clouds over Cambodia Angor Wat all the way through to papers scattered by the wind by the Wailing Wall, and the Sunday Times lifting and settling in the breeze at Trafalgar Square or Picadilly, and then a breeze across the Atlantic across Labrador a cold wind and finally at the end, the breath coming back around the world where we were in Teton Village in Wyoming, the last line being “a calm breath, a slow breath breathes outward from the nostril.”

“Mind Breaths” was the title of the poem, and I asked, is it legitimate to write poetry about meditation? He said, well, most poetry about meditation is shit, because people are just repeating their neuroses in a sense, or writing out their complications, rather than some objective description of the mind. So this is all right because it actually describes the process of meditation—it comes back like returning to the breath. He gave me a sort of encouragement to consider poetics and meditation as related activities of scanning the mind in a sense. Related activities of observing mind and observing breath, observing space and observing the mind.

As I was still in those days dungareed and black-shirted, Trungpa suggested also that I try a white shirt on, and I said why? He said, well, see how people treat you, see if they treat you any differently. I was not sure because I thought, well, it takes a lot of money to get shirts cleaned, and so he said, well, wash them yourself. So I went to the Salvation Army and bought about a dozen white shirts (for twenty-five cents each in those days in the early seventies in Boulder) and tried them on, and I found that people treated me slightly differently, more trusting.

I began noticing the three-piece-suit sartorial manners of his Vajra Guards, his dharmapalas, and I decided, well, I’ll try some more elegant clothes. I went to the Salvation Army and bought all sorts of Brooks Brothers suits and pretty soon was all dressed up like a professor. And people treated me nicely befitting my age.

In ’74 Trungpa invited myself, Anne Waldman, Diane di Prima, John Cage, Gregory Bateson, Ram Dass, and others to Boulder to try a summer school, like a big smorgasbord festival, everybody all mixed up, and instead of a hundred or two hundred people we had about twelve hundred people registering.

So there was this enormous dharma culture explosion that took place, and after the summer was over, Trungpa sat at a round table with myself and Cage and Waldman and Diane di Prima asking us to take part in founding a poetics school. So we took that responsibility, particularly Anne Waldman, and that was a whole education in itself. Trungpa’s conception was that there were many varieties of practices for a kind of international tantra or international Mahayana that could be adapted to an American style of Buddhism based on the Tibetan insights. It would make use of the American genius for certain things, which he saw in poetry particularly, and to some extent in painting and music, to transform those or alchemize those, paint them gold. That was his particular genius as a teacher, and as a teacher of teachers.

The next interesting encounter—I’m trying to remember the pith exchanges that we had—was in 1976, when Vajradhatu decided to buy a building in Boulder. He gathered the whole sangha together to give a big lecture about how we are now citizens of America, we’re establishing Buddhism in America, and we have to have property, and we shouldn’t be cultivating what he called Ginsberg resentments.

I was up in the balcony. Ginsberg resentment, what is he talking about? I remember I resented it terribly. After it was all over, I went down ’cause I didn’t really have any objection to his buying a building, I had property of my own already, and I said, “Ginsberg resentment is Mukpo dumbness”—Mukpo is his family name—and he said, “Oh, I thought dumbness was a sign of genius in your vocabulary.” Which was true. In the little vocabulary that Kerouac and I had, we would talk about dumb Harpo Marx saints, and I realized at the moment that I was resentful, and I realized what a well of resentment I had within me. He had pointed out that one specific thing that I really had to work with.

In 1978 I had my picture on the front page of the magazine section of the Denver paper, and we ran into each other and he said, “Oh, I saw your picture in the paper, are you proud?” And I thought that was a baited question, but I didn’t know quite how to answer, but I said, “Well, the word never entered my mind,” and he said, “Well, you should be proud, you’ve worked very hard, you’ve worked for a very long time, you’ve done something, you should take pride in it. Be doubtless. Go ahead and do it, and not be hesitant about what you’re doing as a poet, or teaching poetry, or reciting poetry.” That was a kind of funny pat on the back or encouragement to take myself seriously as a poet, or take the poetry seriously if not myself, to take the function or role of poet—as he would define it in Shambhala Training—as a kind of warriorship where you do face the phenomenal world and make your proclamation into that space.

He had all sorts of ideas of poetics that interested me, partly in the Shambhala tradition, such as the notion of speech, or sambhogakaya, uniting heaven and earth, as in the traditional Taoist view that the emperor unites heaven and earth. That is, speech unites the impalpable heaven—mind, thoughts—with the physiological body-breath. So the body provides the palpable breath, the mind provides the impalpable thoughts, and the speech unifies them.

His phrase would be, speech synchronizes—proper speech synchronizes body and mind. He saw poetry as proclamation from the seat, from your seat or from your zafu or from your throne or from your chair as teacher, or from you chair as meditator or your chair as a human being or a Vajrayana student.

Poetry as unhesitating and doubtless proclamation. Proclamation of what? Proclamation of the actual mind, manifesting your mind, writing the mind, which goes back to Kerouac but also goes back to Milarepa, goes back to his original instructions: Don’t you trust your own mind? Why do you need a piece of paper?

So writing could be seen as “writing your mind.” In other words, you don’t have to make anything up, you don’t have to fabricate anything, you don’t have to fix up something to say, which causes writer’s block. All you have to do is tap into the immediate mind of the moment—what are you thinking about?—and just note it down, or observe your own mind, or observe what’s vivid coming to mind. 

Where do you start? Well, with the chaos of your mind. How do you do it? Just tap into it and write what’s there in minute, particular detail. For the purpose of relieving your own paranoia and others’, revealing yourself and communicating to others. It is a blessing for other people if you can communicate and relieve their sense of isolation, confusion, bewilderment, and suffering by offering your own mind as a sample of what’s palpable, visible, and whatever little you’ve learned.
After Trungpa Rinpoche’s death in 1986, I guess it must have been 1989 or so, Philip Glass and I got together. Philip was a Buddhist from a long time back, with a good deal more experience than myself in a long steady relationship with a teacher. He’d been asked by his teacher, Domo Geshe Rinpoche, to help his friend Gehlek Rinpoche and do a benefit for Rinpoche’s Jewel Heart Center.

So I came out to Ann Arbor with Philip and we were greeted at the airport by Gehlek Rinpoche, who immediately struck me because he had the same, or similar, voice as Trungpa, and it turned out that they were friends, which I hadn’t known, and had actually begun learning English together and shared a room when they were young, when they first came out of India. So there was like a family relationship, and apparently Trungpa Rinpoche, a Kagyu, had invited the old enemy lineage, the Gelugpa, to visit and teach at Naropa. I thought that if Trungpa felt he was trustworthy, then I could trust him.

I began a friendship with Gehlek Rinpoche that also involved a series of conversations that slightly altered my attitudes and refined my understanding of where I was at and what to do. One of the first things I was interested in—by this time getting on in age, sixty-five at the time—was what do I do when it’s time to kick the bucket? Where do I put my mind?

Gehlek Rinpoche’s first answer was, well, cultivate a sense of openness, perhaps some emptiness; recur to the meditation practice you’re most familiar with; cultivate some sense of sympathy or compassion for all sentient beings, and perhaps recollect your teacher’s face.

I thought that was pretty good; I’d had lots of experience with shamatha/vipashyana over the years. Then I remembered that a drowning man still has eight minutes before the brain goes dead—you can resuscitate a drowning man eight minutes after he’s stopped breathing—and I suddenly realized, wait a minute, what happens after I stop breathing? What do I do with my mind then? Because shamatha depends on the breath. So what do I do then?

I went back, and he laughed and said, “Well…” and I said, “What about emptiness?” And he said, “Well, if I were you, I wouldn’t put all my eggs in that one basket.” So he suggested the teacher’s face as one thing I could grasp onto, and compassion, whatever combination I could get, but the teacher’s face seemed to be the most available. [Yelled from the audience: “Although I live in the slime and muck of the dark age, I still aspire to see your face.”] Yes, I still desire to see your face, even in the muck and slime of these dark ages, I still desire to see your face, so that seems to be both a last resort and at the same time a romantic first resort, for a last glimpse.

Another question arose: how long is the world going to be able to maintain itself in the present rate of decay, destruction, muck, and slime of the dark ages? If civilization’s not going to be around that long, certainly not my books or records, what’s the use of poetry? What function has poetry got if the world is going to hell in a handbasket? Gehlek Rinpoche’s answer was really great and clear: the relief of suffering, the relief of mass human suffering.

That instruction or direction is a good compass for any vocation, but it’s particularly applicable to the rudderless poet who is shifting from preservation of his own ego or projection of immortality or the romance of being a poet, to an activity that functions well for other people. There is a bodhisattva aspect of poetry, particularly when you combine it with the notion of poetry as proclamation. So:

proclamation of original mind
proclamation of primordial mind
proclamation of your candid mind
proclamation of your own chaos
proclamation of your own uncertainty
proclamation of your own fragility
proclamation of your own sensitivity
proclamation of your own cheerful neurosis, so to speak, a cheerful attitude toward your nature, which fits in well with the meditation-practice suggestion to take a friendly attitude toward your thoughts rather than try to push them away—“invite them to tea,” merely observe them with a friendly attitude, and that can be applied to poetics, taking a friendly attitude toward your thoughts, and when you catch yourself thinking, if you have an interesting and vivid thought, notating it, particularly the sequence of thoughts that might lead other people to notice their own mind.

In other words, if you can show your mind it reminds people that they have got a mind. If you can catch yourself thinking, it reminds people they can catch themselves thinking. If you have a vivid moment that’s more open and compassionate, it reminds people that they have those vivid moments.

By showing your mind as a mirror, you can make a mirror for other people to recognize their own minds and see familiarity and not feel that their minds are unworthy of affection or appreciation. Basically, poetics is appreciation of consciousness, appreciation of our own consciousness.

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Return to the (Political) World Print

An excerpt of this piece appears in our July 2009 "For 30 Years the Best of Buddhism in America: Commentary" retrospective. Here, we present the piece in its entirety.

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Return to the (Political) World


In the last of the famed ox-herding pictures, the disciple returns to the world with open, helping hands. That includes, says Zen teacher John Tarrant, the messy, neurotic, imperfect world of politics, the very place where the bodhisattva way is practiced and our realization is put on the line.

Politics is the art of the possible.
   OTTO VON BISMARCK, August 11, 1867, in conversation with Meyer von Waldeck

Forget the self and you’ll help others.

Politics and lobbying are a mark of being human. We can ignore partisanship to some extent, we can try to avoid it, we can hide ourselves in peaceful places and call ourselves pure if we dare, but that’s not as interesting, or even as kind, as the world of delusion within which politics has its being.

Politics belongs in the general realm of imperfection, self-deception, desperate hope, and congenial affection we call civilization. That’s where the bodhisattva, who is interested in the fate of others, hangs out. Also, if you indulge in politics, certain personal implications accompany you; you don’t get away without being transformed by the material you are working with.

To consider politics is to open yourself—your mind and body, your naked and apparently unoffending skin, your naive hopefulness, and your joy in human company—to a tsunami of lies, humbug, drivel, false promises, masquerade, hypocritical piety, prejudice, greed, murder, and fattening food. To consider politics is to dive into this Hokusai wave of inauthenticity and to say, “Hmmm, this seems like a situation I can work with.”

My own direct experience of politics began long ago in Australia, in the era of megaphones, microphones, and harangues in an atmosphere of incipient mayhem. I found it as tedious as a long afternoon in high school. The bloke at the mike, maybe me, would say, “Err, let’s get out of Vietnam,” and a lady in a tweed skirt and cardigan would scream back, “What are you going to do when the communists rape your sister on the front lawn?” We seemed incapable of thinking up good lines. Esoteric flags, for example the red and black of the Spanish anarchists, hung listlessly in the park, perhaps indicating that this was as much theater as politics. I never developed a taste for riot, and disliked seeing people banged about.

A more particular memory of the frustrating labor of politics comes from a period some years later in the mid 1970s. I’m sitting in a bar in Canberra, the capital of Australia, slightly drunk. The bar isn’t a comfy English-style pub, an “Eagle and Child”; it’s recent and tatty—veneer and carpet and cigarette machines. Outside, the streets are swept; there are trees, a lake, and a war memorial that a Mayan prince, fond of public expressions of state power, would have thought put the idea of empire in a good light.

I had recently arrived from the slums of inner Sydney and found the city’s cleanliness, leafiness, and lack of exhilaration rather pleasant. Hitler, on the other hand, had taken a more severe view and asked Albert Speer not to build him a capital like Canberra. I was technically a student at the National University but my presence was intermittent; I was actually working on land rights. I had grown up with some Aborigines and had noticed that they were not well treated. Perhaps that had something to do with my choice. In those days you could always get Australians to protest “the evils of apartheid,” and everyone knew about Oliver Tambo and Steve Biko and other South African heroes. But the issue of Aboriginal rights, being local, was almost invisible.

In the bar, a meeting around Aboriginal land rights is more or less occurring. We have a loaner bodyguard for the night, a big boxer from Queensland, one of those sweet, large-hearted men who move loosely and are good to know in most circumstances. In general I appreciate the Queenslanders; they know the world is terribly unfair and they want to have a good time while they address the problem. The boxer is good to have around for other reasons too—people come to political action out of desperation and after many injustices, and sometimes taking yourself seriously means fights with those around you, usually people on your own side. People get stabbed, and feuds are initiated or continued.

Occasionally in life you forget for a while who’s black and who’s white in a room. Mostly you don’t. In the bar are a few white apparatchiks, including at the most junior level, me. Some have the lean and hungry look of the political insider; others are more romantic, devil-may-care types who enjoy Aboriginal culture and look forward to undermining civilization-as-we-know-it. There are people from the slums who want liberation, justice, an outlet for their rage, and a good time—goals that are not always compatible with each other—and there are grave, scarred old men in from the bush who probably are here because they want to be left alone.

The old men don’t want mining and this is the source of their alliance with the cities, where they have found people who don’t want mining either, particularly when it is uranium mining. The old people tell stories of walkabout, of riding for months at a time over the vast inland, and recount ancient myths about rainbow serpents as if they were news of the family you haven’t seen for a while. They have initiation scars on their chests, which you can see when they don’t have their shirts on and which they will show you to explain some point. Some of the old people from the bush have a gravitas and dignity that seem to have transcended greater differences and problems than mere color. And they carry the back story, the legend behind why we are sitting in the pub.

So in that bar and bars like it, and the parliamentary dining room and various cubicles, we worked away and quarreled and drank and conspired with and against each other and the tide shifted until at least lip service was given to land rights. Whether our efforts played any part in the turning of the tide was hard to say, of course. Eventually legislation passed, not terrific legislation but, nonetheless, better legislation, and later there was a backlash. If you plotted the progress in three dimensions you would probably get a rather slow spiral.   

This might be the first of some general conclusions I might draw about politics:

1. You can go towards and through uncertainty and difficulty.

We end up trusting in and working with the imperfection of all embodied things. This story doesn’t have to go anywhere dramatic. The benefit of politics is to act upon the world, possibly with a view to improvement or at least making things not worse. Minor improvements are made to the culture, perhaps. It’s hard to estimate the value of the outcome. And considering the bad outcomes that are possible in the world, uncertainty might be an excellent result.

The spiritual benefit of engagement in politics comes from going into rather than away from the imperfection. And if you are diving right into the heart of delusion, naturally this means into the heart of your own delusion. There’s always a chance that such a plunge might increase self-knowledge more than it increases self-righteousness. The point here is that you have to forget all that spiritual stuff about what a good person you are or intend to be someday, something that is anyway unlikely to be attained. The spirituality in politics might not be visible to others or even to yourself. Down there in the heart of delusion you look like a demon too, just like the rest of us. You’ll have to adapt your fashion sense to having horns and fangs. This is the force of Bismarck’s famous comment about the art of the possible: in order to bring about any sort of transformation you have to work with what is actually the case, rather than what you might have wished for or pretended—in the world, in others, in yourself.

2. Empathy is a natural and even involuntary impulse, as well as a kind of guide; there is just a reaching out that occurs.

When I accepted how the world is, I noticed that empathy is part of how it is. It’s not easy to explain; it doesn’t have a reason. Empathy seems to be a basis for spiritual work—for the bodhisattva way. Empathy also doesn’t seem to be entirely personal. We didn’t work for change because we liked each other or the people who might benefit; there was empathy even when people were behaving in ways that I might find painful.

3. Meditation helps; knowing you are on a path helps.

Another general conclusion or observation was that if I meditated for a couple of hours every day, I was less crazed by the injustice, madness, and lost hopes around me. In more or less the same category, I also noticed that my mind was incredibly boring after drinking. And since having a few drinks, which gestured towards trust and companionship, was necessary to the work, I had to learn how to tolerate the full experience of my own meditation at its most mundane. This seemed not a large price to pay to be useful in this world, something that’s always in question. The big issue is always whether you can bear your own mind. Boredom was one of the obvious disadvantages of being around people who were having a few drinks, so it was a nice discovery that I was that way too. I also noticed that, regardless of its apparent quality, the meditation helped a lot. When people got overwrought, I didn’t have to.

4. Politics can also be the art of not having a self and of meeting the impossible.

Politics and partisanship are usually a bit light in the department of not taking yourself seriously, so Buddhism might have something to offer here. It could be one of the spiritual advantages of politics: if you don’t take yourself too seriously, you might stop taking yourself seriously at all. You might not bother to have a self that you have to cart around with you and feed and maintain.

This goes in the opposite direction from Bismarck’s dictum: if you are not the person you have claimed to be, limited in the ways you thought you were limited, then perhaps the world and other human beings are also not limited in the ways you thought. In this way politics might be able to rest on taking away foundations and standing on nothing at all; it could be the art of the impossible. This means achieving things that no realistic person would believe could occur. And if you can do a small impossible thing, like walk around without a self, then perhaps you can do a large impossible thing like change the mind of an entire people or be kind to the person you are at war with.                      

Finally a couple of observations about our culture now. In our time a kind of anime demon rises up out of the metaphor of life as a market. This metaphor has become central because it’s persuasive and useful, and it simplifies life to think that everything has its price and that things that don’t have a price don’t count. So any public action involves an assessment made of yourself and your ideas as an item in a market.

I don’t know that I object to this. I do notice that the efforts of many powerful people in our time are devoted to distorting the market in their favor. Perhaps that makes me like a market better—if greedy people are trying to stop it working, it might have something good. It also can be very freeing to be judged as an object, like soap powder. The market only values you according to your use and no being really has a use. This discovery might help us escape any abject wish to get a high rating against other soap powders. If there’s no self, there’s no need to win approval, be famous, get your face lifted, get more all-knowing. Joy isn’t a brand and doesn’t have market share, yet it’s freely available. If you have it, you will always want to reach out to others and share it.

Finally, the state often muscles in on private life. (Spiritual people who are fond of knowing what’s good for others also have a dismal record in this regard.) The state wants to keep its own activities secret, spy on everyone, collect infinite phone records, regulate abortion, sex, dissent. Just knowing that this kind of control will eventually come unstuck, and that you yourself don’t claim to know what is best for others, can be freeing. If we free our minds we’ll reach out naturally to help people, and the planet. And we can remember that meditation is the beginning of private life, the true rebellion against human limitation. It’s for you and it is also for the universe; it brings joy and willingness to embrace life; it’s nobody’s business but yours, and it steadies you in whatever action you might take.

John Tarrant is the author of Bring Me the Rhinoceros and Other Zen Koans to Bring You Joy, and director of the Pacific Zen Institute.

Return to the (Political) World, John Tarrant, Shambhala Sun, September 2006.


Dharma for a Dangerous Time Print

Dharma for a Dangerous Time


Yes, the world may seem particularly dangerous and uncertain now, says the novelist Charles R. Johnson, but it’s wise to remember that the ways of history—and the dharma’s response—haven’t changed since the time of the Buddha.

The painfully perturbing dissolution of familiar forms, which suggests to weaker spirits that the ultimate reality is nothing but a chaos, may reveal to a steadier and more spiritual vision the truth that the flickering film of the phenomenal world is an illusion which cannot obscure the eternal unity that lies behind it.
—Arnold J. Toynbee
A Study of History

For those who take refuge in the teachings of the dharma, a crucial and recurring theme in our meditation is the experience of impermanence (anicca) and the inevitability of change. For a decade now, I’ve occasionally tried out on my friends and students a prediction about the historical moment we find ourselves living through at the dawn of the twenty-first century. It’s an idea about change for which I have only anecdotal examples, and no empirical proof whatsoever. That means this conjecture is only a hunch at best, something glimpsed furtively in my peripheral vision, but perhaps it might serve as a useful thought experiment when the changes, local and global, that are reshaping our world so rapidly cause us to feel anxiety, fear, or anger.

For me, it is axiomatic that while pain is inevitable in life, suffering is produced by the mind, frequently by our conditioned ideas of what is and ought to be. I find it helpful to remember that in the 4.5-billion-year history of the earth, modern humans (one of twenty humanoid species that once existed) have only been around for an estimated one hundred thousand  years, the mere blink of an eye in a universe that is 15 billion years old. Twenty-three percent of the universe consists of dark matter, 73 percent is dark energy, discovered eight years ago, which leaves the measurable cosmos—what we can experience—at only about 4 percent.

During our brief, flicker-flash time here, there have been long periods of stagnation in our social evolution, notably the Dark and Middle Ages, which lasted a thousand years. But since the seventeenth century of Descartes, and certainly since the European Enlightenment, civilizational change has seemed relatively constant, sometimes marked by brief, intense periods that compress paradigm shifts and technological developments so far-reaching one is tempted to compare them to the movement of tectonic plates that alter continents and reshape the surface of the earth. Old and often cherished ideas and ways of life die; new experiences arise and require a new vocabulary, a new grammar, a new vision.

For example, a glance at the thirty years between 1895 and 1925 discloses a startling shift from the horse-and-carriage world of my great-grandparents (who lived a hairsbreadth from slavery and when average life expectancy was forty-seven years in 1902) to one in which the era of the Victorians ended, quantum mechanics provided a deeper understanding of matter than Classical or Newtonian physics, and new forms of art emerged (poetry’s free-verse movement, the revolt against formalism, the paintings of Picasso and sculpture of Eric Gill), and new philosophical and conceptual models took hold. In a very short time, our lives filled with the all too familiar “furniture” of the twentieth century. Just three dizzying decades produced such forms as the airplane, radio, modern naval submarine, diesel engine, typewriter, electric iron, talking pictures, television, x-rays, zippers, and the calculating machine—all came into being and restructured the possibilities of lived experience.

However, even that period of accelerated change seems lethargic when compared to the florescent moment we find ourselves immersed in at the beginning of a new century (and millennium). Given the sequencing of DNA, and the exponential progress in such fields as biotechnology, robotics, and nanotechnology, our children may live in a world as experientially different from the twentieth century as our time is from, say, the eighteenth. As a species, we have sent probes to Mars, Venus, comet Tempel 1, and to objects in the outer solar system like Saturn’s moon Titan—all with the aim of clarifying the origins of our universe and delivering knowledge unknown to our predecessors. (A company with the wonderfully ludic name Genetic Savings and Clone will duplicate your cat for only $50,000.) “Chimeras,” creatures genetically engineered with the traits of two species—florescent animals, for example—are already among us. Two years ago, scientists achieved “quantum teleportation,” the transfer of physical characteristics between atoms. A time may come, and soon, when stem cell research allows us to grow livers and kidneys keyed to our individual DNA, thus removing the likelihood of such organs being rejected by our immune systems. “People have this sense that as twenty-first-century humans we’ve gotten as high as we’re going to go,” says Greg Wray, director of Duke University’s Center for Evolutionary Genomics. “But we’re not played out as a species. We’re still evolving.”

Yet that evolution, of course, is contingent on whether we as a species can survive. Martin Luther King Jr. observed in a sermon delivered in 1954 that “The great problem facing modern man is that the means by which we live have outdistanced the spiritual ends for which we live. … The real problem is that through our scientific genius we’ve made of the world a neighborhood, but through our moral and spiritual genius we’ve failed to make it a brotherhood.”

How remarkable it is that half a century after King delivered that speech our era looks eerily like the time of Petronius, author of the Satyricon, at the end of the Roman empire.

On the global level, we often feel that we are helpless spectators to a war on terrorism that the vice president of the United States warned will continue well into the next generation. The Iraq war, now three years old, with its “thousands” of strategic errors Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice confessed the United States has made (which include, many would say, invading that country after cherry-picking basically flawed intelligence), leaves Americans of conscience and goodwill in a daily state of anxiety and suspense greater than any novelist can achieve, hoping that a sectarian civil war between Sunni, Shiites, and Kurds can be avoided, and that the Middle East will not be further destabilized by the dream of jihadists spread across eighty countries: namely, a modern holy war between Muslims and Christians (and Jews).

As I have followed the unfolding events in dangerous neighborhoods like Iraq and Afghanistan, I have been shocked and sickened by the almost surrealistic images of prisoners humiliated at Abu Ghraib, by the videotaped decapitation of American businessman Nicholas Berg by al-Qaeda led by Iraq’s then leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, by the seemingly endless suicide and car bombings, by the kidnappings and torture of innocents, and by the deaths and mutilations of between 30,000 and 100,000 Iraqis, and over 2,000 Americans and coalition forces (and counting). Even Stephen King’s feverish imagination doesn’t compare to this real-world horror story.

Across the border from Iraq, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad questions the abundantly documented reality of the Holocaust, promises in his speeches that the state of Israel must be “wiped off the map,” and works with his nation’s mullahs toward the production of enriched uranium that could be used to make a nuclear bomb. In the first letter to an American president from an Iranian leader since 1979, Ahmadinejad attacked the fundamental values of the West, stating that liberalism and Western-style democracy “have not been able to realize the ideals of humanity. … Today these two concepts have failed. Those with insight can already hear the sounds of the shattering and fall of the ideology and thoughts of the Liberal democratic systems.”

Meanwhile, in Sudan’s Darfur region, where an Arab militia called the Janjaweed has raped, killed, and driven ethnic African villagers from their homes in the past three years, 20,000 people have died. The United Nations calls this “one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters.” (Given so much admirable work done by the UN, I would rather not dwell on distasteful reports of its peacekeepers, aid workers, and teachers trading money and food for sex with African girls as young as eight years old.)

And here in America, a plutocracy with a broken moral compass, a Cook’s tour of our dilemmas reveals that our ship of state has run aground on the problems of immigration; poverty; the lack of universal health care; the complex issue of a planet-altering global warming; political corruption such as influence peddling by lobbyists like Jack Abramoff; the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina; racism; the startling decline of literacy (only 31 percent of college graduates can read a complex book and extrapolate from it); the loss of not only civility and courtesy but also safety in so many of our public spaces; the failure of 1,750 schools to meet the No Child Left Behind standards for math and reading (all fifty states received an F from the federal government on demonstrating their teachers had a bachelor’s degree, a state license, and proven competency in every subject they teach); a burgeoning prison industry; the failure to address the plight of young black males who are increasingly alienated from society in violent, drug-ridden neighborhoods; the outsourcing of jobs; growing electronic surveillance and accumulation of private information on citizens; a president (and congress) with the lowest approval ratings since Richard Nixon; and the saddling of future generations with a staggering national debt. The list of dysteleological characteristics—all signs of internal social decay and decline in what historian Oswald Spengler described in The Decline of the West as a culture’s period of senility—goes on and on.

Looking at such a pain-wracked world of samsara where many people in non-Western nations live on a dollar a day (or less) while materialistic Americans recklessly consume the lion’s share of the earth’s resources for their entertainment and ease, one justifiably feels despair and a powerlessness to alleviate one’s own pain, let alone that of others. Some cultural commentators recommend that we simply withdraw from those dimensions of the world that have become unworkable. I’m thinking of a beautiful Modern Library edition of Voltaire’s Candide that bears a blurb by the esteemed philosopher A. J. Ayer, who says, “When we observe such things as the recrudescence of fundamentalism in the United States, the horrors of religious fanaticism in the Middle East, the appalling danger which the stubbornness of political intolerance presents to the whole world, we must surely conclude that we can still profit by the example of lucidity, the intellectual honesty, and the moral courage of Voltaire.” And what wisdom does Voltaire’s 1759 classic offer us? The story’s final eight lines reveal a psychological strategy popular among many in our troubled time (as well as a surprisingly Buddhist understanding of cause and effect):

Pangloss sometimes said to Candide: “All events are linked up in this best of all possible worlds; for, if you had not been expelled from the noble castle, by hard kicks in your backside for love of Mademoiselle Cunegonde, if you had not been clapped into the Inquisition, if you had not wandered about America on foot, if you had not stuck your sword in the Baron, if you had not lost all your sheep from the land of Eldorado, you would not be eating candied citrons and pistachios here.”
     “Tis well said,” replied Candide, “but we must cultivate our gardens.”

Living scarred and scared, stressed and depressed, burned out on utopian thinking, many citizens have turned to tending to their own personal gardens, cocooning with their immediate family and friends, and retreating with a feeling of disillusionment and defeat from efforts to tackle social problems (in other words, “dropping out”) as their existential default position. Unlike the era of leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and Eugene McCarthy, in our period of postmodernism the belief in a historical and progressive Grand Narrative has been lost.

A more positive spin on the Voltarian solution, one that inches closer to a Buddhist approach, can be found in Morris Berman’s powerful The Twilight of American Culture (2000), a work the author says he created as “a kind of guidebook for disaffected Americans who feel increasingly unable to fit into this society, and who also feel that the culture has to change if it is to survive.” Berman, whose most recent book is Dark Ages America: The Final Phase of Empire, is an admirer of Ray Bradbury’s inspiring and influential Fahrenheit 451, a novel that imagines a coterie of cultural rebels in a book-destroying future dystopia. They each memorize a classic work of literature and thus become living books themselves in order to transmit the hard-won treasures of civilization to the next generation.

Today we must do something similar to this, Berman argues, becoming what he calls a New Monastic Individual (NMI), “a sacred/secular humanist dedicated not to slogans or the fashionable patois of postmodernism, but to Enlightenment values that lie at the heart of our civilization: the disinterested pursuit of truth, the cultivation of art, the commitment to critical thinking inter alia.”

Not retreating from an infantilized, culturally diminished social world, where consumers are bombarded with three thousand product messages a day (according to Brad Adgate, senior vice president of the New York branding firm Horizon Media), the NMI “knows the difference between quality and kitsch, and he seeks to preserve the former in the teeth of a culture that is drowning in the latter. If she is a high school teacher, she has her class read the Odyssey, despite the fact that half the teachers in the school have assigned Danielle Steel. If he is a writer, he writes for posterity, not for the best-seller lists. As a mother, she takes her kids camping or to art museums, not to Pocahontas. He elects, in short, to save his life via the monastic option.”

Both the cultivate-your-own-garden and NMI models for dealing with no longer healthy societies have value, but they are missing the profound clarity provided for 2,600 years by the buddhadharma, which has witnessed and survived the waxing and waning of civilizations. Albert Einstein is reported to have claimed, “If there is any religion that could cope with modern scientific needs, it would be Buddhism.” That quote may be apocryphal, but if the attribution is accurate, Einstein may have been inspired in part by these memorable lines that conclude the Diamond Sutra:

Thus shall ye think of all this fleeting world:
A star at dawn, a bubble in a stream,
A flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
A flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream.

After looking outward, a Buddhist is compelled to look within, and through meditation recognizes the truth of the ephemerality, the arising and falling, of all labile phenomena, whether that be our thoughts and feelings, nations, or situations we judge from our relative perspectives to be “good” or “bad.” From the moment of our birth we have been dying, and one day this universe itself will experience proton death. Black holes will eventually evaporate into photons, leaving only a void from which (perhaps) another, different universe will arise. All that men and women have done will be as if it never was. There is nothing to which we can cling or be attached, including our passionately held “views” on matters political, scientific, or spiritual.

Even Buddhism—especially Buddhism—knows it is subject to change. Instead, what is required of practitioners, first and foremost, is what I call “epistemological humility,” and an egoless listening to all that is around us, for attentive listening is an act of love. Arnold Toynbee recognized this in 1947, and in a remarkably Eastern way, when he wrote in A Study of History that “The music that the rhythm of Yin and Yang beats out is the song of creation; and we shall not be misled into fancying ourselves mistaken because, as we give ear, we can catch the note of creation alternating with the note of destruction. … If we listen well we shall perceive that, when the two notes collide, they produce not a discord but a harmony. Creation would not be creative if it did not swallow up all things in itself, including its own opposite.”

That region in which a dhammin dhammiko (dharma practitioner) dwells is, therefore, beyond the countless illusory forms of dualism—Christian and Muslim, spiritual and secular, East and West, Democrat and Republican, liberal and conservative, black and white, male and female, life and death—that moment by moment we impose upon our experience, thereby obscuring it.

We are all these opposites. And none of them. Recognizing this, a young Thich Nhat Hanh and his fellow monks during the Vietnam War were empowered to come selflessly to the aid of the wounded women and children on both sides of the civil strife that overwhelmed their country. They chose not to merely tend their gardens or remain in the monastery memorizing beautiful sutras (although they certainly did such important things, not blind to the classics but not bound by them either), but put the dharma in practice, here and now, by alleviating the suffering of sentient beings regardless of their politics, their past, or their deeds. Clearly, they understood Shakyamuni Buddha’s counsel that we must “Give up what is behind / Give up what is before / Give up what is in the middle / Cross to the other shore.”

Those words refer, of course, to the movement from delusion and ignorance to awakening. But, as with all things in the polyvalent dharma, they provide us with upaya kaushala (skillful means) when we feel “unable to fit into this society” and feel that “the culture must change.” Indeed, it must. And like all impermanent things, it will, whether we want it to or not. The point is that we must always first examine ourselves. When he feels anger or fear, a Buddhist rightly asks, “Who feels this anger and fear? What is this I that knows despair and depression?” (Hunting for the self, one soon discovers, is as futile as searching for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.)

During periods of great transition, like this moment in history, we cannot afford to be trapped and limited by our own narratives, by a miscellaneous list of egoistic “likes” and “dislikes,” or by the forever-running magic show that is a product of the conditioned Monkey Mind. All that we must give up. As Thich Nhat Hanh and his disciple Claude Anshin Thomas teach endlessly and so beautifully, if we want peace, we must be peace ourselves. When I wonder how to achieve right speech, I try to remember one of my favorite Zen sayings, Open mouth, already big mistake, and frisk my planned utterance at three gates before I release it into the world. These three gates are questions: Is it true? Is it necessary? Will it do no harm?

Like right speech guided by nonviolence and ahimsa (harmlessness), right action necessarily demands that our deeds do not contribute to division and divisiveness in the world. Leaving our private gardens, we got to our workplace, the professional and service organizations we belong to, and other places in the social world where we work in concert with other men and women on life-enhancing, dukkha-reducing projects too great for us to accomplish individually. Such work is done with no thought of reward. If we feel we have achieved “merit” through such action, we—inspired by the bodhisattva ideal—might transfer in our practice that “good” karma to other sentient beings for their benefit and happiness, seeking nothing for ourselves, for when we progress enough along the path we no longer create for ourselves the dualism involved in either “good” or “bad” merit. And, once done, we “let go” that particular project and move on to the next, understanding that everything in life, each precious moment, is an opportunity for spiritual practice, not to be wasted by a lack of mindfulness. We live always in the present moment (for where else is there to live?), not becoming “stuck” on results, nor to “hope” or “despair,” those false polarities that are more about the needs of the fictitious ego, so full of itself, than anything else.

For when we hope, we prelive or project an imagined future spun from our conditioned desires and fears. Hope is baggage we no longer need to carry into this stormy new century, once we “cross to the other shore.” Hope is thirst (trishna), the cause of suffering identified in the second noble truth. Hope begs the question and, as every practitioner knows, hankering for the experience of nirvana—enlightenment or liberation—is a major impediment on the path, an obstacle to addressing the real, quotidian demands of the here, the now. If we are not monks but lay practitioners, we must work and practice daily at the white-hot center of samsara with a glorious hopelessness and devotion to the ten paramis (virtues): loving-kindness, compassion, joy in the happiness of others, equanimity, giving, keeping precepts, forbearance, assiduousness, meditation, and wisdom. The paramis vouchsafe no guarantees. They offer no safety net. But for followers of the dharma, this exhilarating challenge, during the Buddha’s time or in our own era of complex and tempestuous change, has always been quite enough.

Charles R. Johnson is a novelist, scholar, and essayist. He holds the S. Wilson and Grace M. Pollock Professorship for Excellence in English at the University of Washington in Seattle. He has been the recipient of many prestigious awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship and a MacArthur Foundation grant. Johnson’s novels include Dreamer, based on the life of Martin Luther King Jr., and Middle Passage, for which he won a National Book Award. 

Dharma for a Dangerous Time, Charles R. Johnson, Shambhala Sun, September 2006.


Who Does God Vote For? Print

Who Does God Vote For?

Seeking an Alternative to the Christian Right


Barry Boyce reports on the movement to develop a political platform that is both progressive and spiritual.

Washington, DC, is where America goes to make deals with itself, to argue over its path and its destiny, and to try to discover who it really is. It’s a place of grand gestures—rallies, conventions, speeches, conferences, and protests—where heated debate is the stock in trade. Had you been riding the Metro there on May 17, 2006, you would have heard announcements instructing you on what stop to take for the immigration rally, where advocates from all over the country would plead their case for liberalized treatment of would-be Americans. Had you gone to one of the many hearing rooms on Capitol Hill, you would have heard pro-choice advocate Nancy Keenan defending the use of the early-abortion drug RU-486. In the Starbucks and salons near K Street, you would have heard lots of talk about whether America was ready to elect a woman—Hillary Clinton, to be exact—as president. And if you were a fly on the wall in the high-ceilinged office of Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), the only openly lesbian member of congress, you would have heard her tell a clutch of her constituents that she has been composing a statement of values, because values are more important than issues and politicians ought to “care about our collective well-being rather than simply the well-being of each person. We share a destiny.”

It was clear to those sitting in the congresswoman’s office that we—all Americans, and perhaps all people in the world—share a destiny. But it was not clear that we share a “we.” The eagle on America’s great seal holds a banner reading E Pluribus Unum—“Out of the Many, One”—but increasingly people are more sure of the pluribus than the unum. Whereas once people might have thought that God, or at least faith, was something that transcended political divisions and united people, it has now become clear that faith and partisan politics are intimately intertwined. Not only that, but God and faith have become aligned, as one person in Tammy Baldwin’s office said, with a “radical right-wing agenda.” The people in her office had come to Washington to try to do something about that—to become more a part of the “we the people”—by taking part in something called the Spiritual Activism Conference.

People from forty different states gathered at the conference to show Americans that just as those in the faith-based radical Right have an agenda—expressed, as one person put it, in “a language of meaning, of caring, concern, and faith”—so too those with a more “progressive” agenda—embracing concerns about poverty, environment, peace, gender equality, and nondiscrimination—want to express their political aims in terms of spiritual values. These progressives’ natural home is the Democratic Party, but historically that party is strongly committed to secularism as a preventive against extremism. While there is some indication that leading lights of the party like Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and Howard Dean are willing to use the language of spiritual values from time to time, there is every indication that their main weapon to unseat Republicans will be a safe and centrist retail politics (that will tread lightly, for example, in critiquing the war in Iraq and the “war on terrorism”).

From the point of view of spiritual progressives, secularism and cynical politics aimed at satisfying the parochial needs of individuals and their interest groups are a very thin gruel. It is time, they say, not only to revivify the visionary spirit of progressive politics but to acknowledge that a political animal is also a spiritual animal. While the conference was sponsored by the fledgling Network of Spiritual Progressives, not everyone who took part was willing to wear that label. But everyone I met there felt that politics and spirituality belong together, even though church and state should remain separated.

Some, like Doc Miller, an educator from Boston who works on history curricula that teach about racism and genocide, spoke about what politics means from a spiritual perspective. “If you feel that all life is sacred,” he told me, “then politics deals with the sacred. We are all called to care for each other, and that’s what politics is all about. People need a platform with a heart. They are hungry for spiritual vision.” Pat Casey, a former aide to the governor of Michigan who has worked on every Democratic presidential campaign from Jimmy Carter on, spoke about spirituality from a political perspective. “God-talk,” he said, “has been interjected into politics by the Right in a narrow, divisive way that confuses a lot of good people. Republicans on the right are cynically exploiting church-going people, while Democrats are often dismissive of churchgoers, no matter how progressive their views. Democrats need to articulate a vision of social progress that has heart and meaning, that connects with the best ideas and values of many religions while insisting that organized religions be kept out of the public sphere.”

The conference, attended by 1,200 people and held at All Souls Church (Unitarian) in the inner-city neighborhood of Adams–Morgan–Mt. Pleasant, provided an opportunity to meet dozens of people like Miller and Casey, with a variety of political positions but united in their opposition to the religious Right. It also provided the chance to meet and talk with four strong spokespeople who espouse a spiritually motivated approach to political issues and who are not political conservatives: Rabbi Michael Lerner, of the Beyt Tikkun congregation in San Francisco and the editor-in-chief of Tikkun magazine; Sister Joan Chittister, an activist Benedictine nun who is a popular speaker for the progressive spiritual agenda and a regular columnist for the National Catholic Reporter; Reverend Jim Wallis, an evangelical Christian, founder of Sojourners: Christians for Justice and Peace, and author of the best-seller, God’s Politics; and Reverend Deborah Johnson, founder of the Inner Light Ministries, near Monterey, California, and a civil-rights activist and diversity advocate.

They are clergy with political vision. Each of them said their piece with great passion and conviction, and not in the abstract but as people who want to speak directly to people’s needs. It is impossible to gauge the impact of the left-leaning spiritual world of today, but listening to some of its leaders makes you wonder whether spirituality and politics are as far apart as you thought.

Although Rabbi Michael Lerner is standing one story higher than you in the soaring pulpit at All Souls, it feels as if he is going to grasp you by the lapel. His hair disheveled, his suit rumpled, he is reaching out to you, thrusting his hands forward, wanting you to meld with his mind. “Do you get what I’m talking about here?” he asks rhetorically. What he is talking about is a lot of things. He is overflowing with ideas and visions and stories, but for the most part they center on the themes he’s presented in his latest book, The Left Hand of God: Taking Back our Country from the Religious Right.

“The Right Hand of God,” writes Lerner, “is the hand of power and domination… And that view of God fits neatly with a politics of militarism, xenophobic nationalism, and support for U.S. domination over other countries.” That approach to spirituality has so many supporters, Lerner believes, because “most people have never been exposed to a coherent spiritual–political alternative. They’ve never encountered people who take seriously the path of love, generosity, and compassion as a realistic strategy for building a different kind of world.” In fact, Lerner says, the moment Democrats, many of them “militant secularists,” are challenged on their views about peace and justice, they protect their credibility by “locating themselves in the discourse of the Right Hand of God.”

Lerner wrote the book, and co-founded the Network of Spiritual Progressives (along with Sister Chittister and Princeton religion professor Cornel West, who was unable to take part in the conference because of an illness in the family), to help to bring about a “new foundational philosophical framework for all those seeking progressive social change.” He hopes that “militantly secular leftists,” “spiritual but not religious people,” and “progressive people in the religious world” can forge a new alliance. Admittedly, he says, it will be difficult for these groups to get over the differences that keep them apart. The alternative, however, is that “the political Right and its allies in the religious Right continue to have the power to make war, escalate militarism, weaken the First Amendment separation of church and state, reduce taxes for the rich while eliminating social programs for the poor, dismantle environmental protections, lead campaigns against gays and lesbians, and pack the Supreme Court so that it could place new restrictions on women’s right to choice.”

Lerner bases his campaign to unite the secular and the sacred on a detailed philosophical and historical analysis, which he delivers in his book and which he repeated with fervor and at length from the pulpit of All Souls Church. At its core is the notion of an anti-religion scientism (not to be confused with science, a valid enterprise for studying the phenomenal world), that has dominated the public sphere for most of the modern era. Scientism postulates that “anything that cannot be subject to empirical verification through sense data or measurement is fundamentally not real. It’s nonsense, something beyond the senses.” What this leads to is not merely a separation of church and state, whereby no institutional church can govern the country and which he believes is valid, but a situation where people feel their religious values, which cannot be validated empirically, are private and personal and have no place in the public sphere.

Warming to his topic, he tells the assembled, “You can have a religion that quiets you down and satisfies you, but keep it out of the public sphere, because in the public sphere you have no right to your values. They are private and personal. So, all day long you can be asked to build atom bombs or create products that destroy the environment, and then you can go home and join a peace group or send money to an environmental organization. But it would be wrong for you to articulate your values and impose them on somebody else. I don’t know how many liberals tell me that, as an excuse for not acting according to their values.”

When values based on faith and religious experience are kept out of the public sphere, the result are policies, approaches, and “mild reforms” that are based merely on pleasing people’s narrow self-interest. In the conclusion to his book, Lerner calls for a “new bottom line,” which is the rallying cry for the Network of Spiritual Progressives. The traditional bottom line is about fear and need; the new bottom line is based on hope, and it “fosters generosity and caring.” While the “progressive social change movement” that grows out of such a new bottom line can “draw upon the cultural resources of existing religious and spiritual traditions,” it is dominated by no religion and in fact must appeal to the needs of “secular people.”

Taking a page from Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America, Lerner developed a Covenant with America that establishes a policy platform for critical areas such as education, health, environment, safety and security, and so on, and bases it on the new bottom line. The health care covenant, for example, “is not only about the fairness of distribution,” Lerner says, “but also about a way of doing medicine in a way that recognizes human beings as not just material beings, but also psychological and spiritual beings. We need health care that deals with the whole being.” In foreign policy, Lerner says, “We recognize the unity of all being, and that the well-being of every American depends on the well-being of everyone else on the planet. Politicians ought to be saying not simply, ‘God bless America,’ but rather, ‘God bless America and all people on earth.’” What motivates environmental policy, Lerner says, is awe and respect for “the wonder of all creation.”

Lerner boldly proclaims the covenant is “unrealistic.” But he wants that word highlighted and bracketed, he told me, because “When I say unrealistic, I mean not buying into the frame of realism that governs the current debate between Republicans and Democrats, because that realism does not take into account people’s highest ideals, and is therefore extremely unrealistic, in the negative sense. We are unrealistic in the way that the early women’s movement was unrealistic. People thought nothing would come of it, but those in the movement refused to be defined in those terms—and look at the effect that movement has had.”

In fact, Lerner wants to create a political movement—moving from principles to policies to practice—without hitching the movement’s wagon to immediate ballot-box results. So, he says, the next step for the Network of Spiritual Progressives is “leadership training, training people in the vision of a spiritual politics and how to communicate that effectively while also learning from others. We are trying to draw on thousands of years of wisdom and spiritual practice to build a structure for societal transformation. It would be a big mistake to measure the importance of what we’re doing in terms of its impact on the next election.”

Sister Joan Chittister beautifully blends gentle and tough. She seems the sort of person who could dismantle your edifice brick by brick in a proper debate, but also just the kind of person you would want to comfort you in a crisis. When Chittister starts to speak, publicly or in person, it feels like you’re just hanging out with her, in a kitchen, or a neighborhood tavern near the factory, or maybe a school cafeteria. She is down, to, earth.

What accounts for much of Chittister’s appeal is that she is a Catholic who likes to asks questions rather than provide answers or edicts. She is a walking Vatican III, a breath of fresh air in a strikingly conservative and closed-minded period for the church. In the chapter on religion in her latest book, Called to Question: A Spiritual Memoir, she presents the book’s central question, which turns the notion of “faith” on its head: “Is openness to other ideas infidelity, or is it the beginning of spiritual maturity?”

Chittister is not content merely to inquire. She is a very big doer. Her CV lists dozens of organizations and efforts she has been part of or spearheaded, having to do with equality for women (especially in religious contexts), monasticism, education, and peace. She has written thirty books and is the founder and executive director of Benetvision, in Erie, Pennsylvania, a national research center for contemporary spirituality.

Contemporary spirituality, the way Chittister approaches it, has a lot to do with how spirituality is embodied in culture, not simply practiced as an adjunct. Private spirituality works best when it supports a culture and is supported by a culture. She believes we are deep into a cultural crisis, which is not a bad thing per se, but something that must be acknowledged. “It’s tough enough to talk about culture in this country right now,” she tells the conference, “it’s even harder to talk about spirituality. But if somebody doesn’t put the two of them together with some sanity pretty soon, we’re going to lose both.”

Chittister is adamant that spiritual practice must evolve; otherwise, its practitioners fall into the greatest of sins, false piety, the self-serving and judgmental religiosity that often clings to past trappings of spiritual practice and institutional power. “Piety is cultural,” she says. “So, true holiness depends on our choosing the pieties proper to our time. The pieties of the past were not wrong, but the pieties of the past are past. We need new, holy, spiritual responses to the world around us. As Moses knew, spirituality does not exist to protect us from our times but to enable us to leaven it, to stretch it, to bless it, and to break it open to the present will of God.”

The new piety that Chittister champions is what she calls “contemplative co-creation,” a bridging of private spiritual practice and public action. She believes this is a form of spirituality suited to the modern era. It goes beyond—and here she reveals her background as a social psychologist—the three historical spiritual responses to culture: the intellectual, which is creed-centered and good at drawing lines of orthodoxy and heresy; the relational, which is all about love, but which “may comfort the oppressed but do little to stop the oppression”; and the performative, which is action-centered and reformist, and “tries to create a bright new world in the shell of the old, whether it wants it or not.”

Contemplative co-creation goes beyond these three in that it does not attempt to impose something; it attempts to expose something by bringing the fruits of inner reflection to bear on the uncertainties of the outer situation. It takes the form of probing and honest questioning so people can find their way together—so they can “co-create.” This process is needed now, she says, because in the last fifty years, the “Western belief–value system” has been subject to tectonic shifts: “Family patterns and sex roles have changed. Governments that had been the standard-bearers of freedom, justice, and human rights have been riven with one corruption after another, and so have become less and less credible to the people at large. Scientific and technological progress have now become more of a threat than a help, changing the nature of life and death, changing human creation from critically unique to cloned, changing war from struggle to annihilation. Military security has became our highest priority—both our greatest expenditure and our scarcest commodity. We live now with great poverty in the midst of great affluence, challenging all the American myths about fair play, the Protestant ethic, freedom, and justice. Ten percent of the world controls 75 percent of the world’s resources. No wonder the 10 percent buys so many guns.”

Chittister sees the conditions of our world as the seven deadly sins writ large. She asks, “Isn’t the national passion for instantaneous gratification simply lust, which has sinfully led in the undeveloped world to the feminization of poverty and the practice of economic pedophilia on children between six and twelve who work seventy hours a week for seven cents an hour?” Yet, she also feels that the breakdown of old consensus values and norms has paved the way for “a spiritual–cultural revitalization.” This will need to come from a new generation of leaders, who have known nothing but a period of radical transformation and will need mentorship and counsel from an older generation who can provide a link to traditional moral principles.

In our own conversation, Chittister stressed the need for a spiritual approach to power, which takes others into account and is not addicted to superiority, as opposed to a secular approach to power, which says that whoever can gain control has a right to it. It is not easy to find ways to bring spiritual power to bear on the world, she admitted. “Everybody wants instant answers,” she says, “but at this juncture, when things are very unstable, you’re going to have a lot of confusion and ambiguity.” This confusion can be healthy, she suggests, because it is indicative of a learning process and the possibility of transformation. “After having been the largest political island on the globe, America is coming lately to be more conscious of its place in the universe, and it may finally be losing its messianic image. Now we know there are people in the world who hate us. President Bush says they hate us for our freedom, but maybe what they hate is that so much of the wealth and power is centered here, and has often come at their expense. In our entire history, Americans have not been truly confronted with the rest of this planet, and now we are. It’s part of a broadening of our worldview that began in 1962 when John Glenn took his snapshot of the earth. We saw that we are not the universe. We are a dot out in space.”

Reverend Jim Wallis is a superstar of the spiritual progressive movement—except that he would never call himself a “spiritual progressive.” He also bristles at the label “religious Left.” The only label he is proud to wear is “evangelical Christian.”

He is a superstar nonetheless. His latest book, God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It, spent fifteen weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. He teaches a course on faith, politics, and society at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and his columns have appeared in all the major newspapers. He’s done the Sunday morning talk show circuit and even braved seven minutes toe-to-toe with Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, alien territory for most evangelicals. That’s not surprising for Wallis. He is affable and folksy, and it’s quite evident that he loves people more than he judges them. Evangelicals are named for the Greek word for “good news,” or “gospel” in English, so they like to quote scripture. But when Wallis quotes scripture, you feel he is trying to teach rather than frighten.

Wallis is the poster boy for redefining what it means to be an evangelical. As such, he is fond of the work of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, which recently showed that as evangelism has grown and evolved from its roots in the Billy Graham days, it has become much more diverse. Pew estimates that about a quarter of all Americans are white evangelical Protestants. Of those, it labels a little under half as traditionalists (holding orthodox beliefs and showing little interest in adapting them) and a little over half as centrists and modernists (many still pretty conservative but all more diverse in their interests). Broadly speaking, while traditionalists, represented by clergy such as Jerry Falwell or Focus on the Family’s James Dobson, maintain a narrow focus on personal morality, evangelism’s other half embraces public morality as well. So they include poverty, environment, peace, and other concerns in their theology. From an electoral perspective, Wallis says, they are “up for grabs.”

Fresh from putting out his provocative book last year, Wallis made more waves when he started his “Budgets Are Moral Documents” campaign to oppose the Bush budget and promulgate what he called “compassionate priorities.” Rep. Tammy Baldwin vividly remembered Wallis’ address to the Democratic caucus on that subject and how it helped spur her to write her statement of values. It was about that time that Wallis appeared on The Daily Show and told Jon Stewart, “It’s hard for me to believe that Jesus’ first priority would have been a capital gains tax cut and an invasion of Iraq. You wonder how Jesus has become pro-rich, pro-war, and only pro-American.”

Wallis wants “a better conversation in America” about moral values. For the Right, he says, there seem to be only two moral values, abortion and gay marriage, but there are “three thousand verses in the Bible about fighting poverty.” That’s a major moral value, he says, along with taking care of the environment, deciding when it makes sense to go to war, and whether it’s moral to torture someone.

This is what he means when he talks about “God’s politics”: what God’s priorities for the world would be, as we understand them from scripture. In the book he writes, “God is not partisan… When either party tries to politicize God, or co-opt religious communities for their political agenda, they make a terrible mistake. The best contribution of religion is not to be ideologically predictable nor loyally partisan. Both parties, and the nation, must let the prophetic voice of religion be heard. Faith must be free to challenge both Right and Left from a consistent moral ground.” He gives an example of what he means by thinking that goes beyond right and left: “Someday, a smart Democrat will figure out how both pro-life and pro-choice people could join together in concrete measures to dramatically reduce the abortion rate by focusing on teen pregnancy, adoption reform, and real support for low-income women.” Although he eschews secularism, Wallis is also at pains to emphasize that the moral values he espouses must also appeal to those who are “agnostic or spiritual but not religious.”

Addressing the conference, Wallis excoriated bad religion, which “pulls out our worst stuff—divisions, fears, hostilities, angers, hatreds.” He went on to say that “the answer to bad religion can’t just be secularism; it has got to be better religion.” He is daring in taking on the religious Right. While some spiritual progressives would like to avoid any of the sexuality issues and focus only on economics, justice, and peace, Wallis wants to take the Right head-on about their bread-and-butter issues: “For example, they say they’re pro-life. Well, if I am an unborn child in America, and I want the support of the religious Right, I better stay unborn as long as possible, because once I’m born, I’m off the agenda. No health care. No child care. No nothing. You can’t just be pro-birth; you have got to be pro-life too.”

These attacks on the Right garner the most enthusiastic applause and whoops from the spiritual progressives crowd, but when he says that “Neither party in this country has a pro-family agenda,” the response is much, much lower on the applause-meter. In a conversation right after his speech, Wallis indicates that the people he was just speaking to are largely the old Left, moved by their own spiritual convictions, but that he himself is not a leftist. His own constituency is larger; it includes the spiritual progressives, but a much larger component comes from “young people on Christian college campuses who would never self-identify as religious Left.” He says, “The Right has lost control of the agenda on these campuses. I’ve been to thirty evangelical Christian campuses in the past year, and I can tell you, the agenda has moved. It is HIV/AIDS, Darfur, human trafficking, the environment.”

He is also making headway among the megachurches. “One young pastor in Grand Rapids with 10,000 people in his congregation talks to me all the time now,” he says. “You would never say he was on the Left, but the frame he fits in is much larger now. I went on TV with Rick Warren, author of The Purpose-Driven Life, right after the last election, and poverty was not on his list of ‘non-negotiable’ moral issues. At the World Economic Forum in Davos a year later, all he talked about with me was poverty, and he never once asked me what I thought about gay marriage. The monologue is over. More people are ready to come together now about what they have in common and leave other things at the door, and work on them more slowly over time.”

Reverend Deborah Johnson, or Rev D as she is sometimes known, can work a room. She is all about finding out how people are ready to come together and leave things at the door for a while. When I first saw her she was conducting one of the more popular break-out sessions at the conference, “Moving the Movable Middle: Compassion for the Challenges of Change.” She bobbed and weaved and moved about the crowd as she led a conversation about getting past the polarities that divide us and “creating a sense of oneness.” Her message: if you are willing to change you can see how others are willing to change. We are all in the movable middle.

An MBA consultant to Fortune 500 companies, a civil rights activist, and pastor of a church, she is equally at home in the intricate thinking of the “social change agent” and the robust spirit of her Pentecostal upbringing. In fact, they can’t be separated. When I go up to meet her, she hugs me right off. Maybe it’s a California thing, but it feels genuine. Her whole ethos is that we need to break down “our illusion of separation—not a real separation as the fundamentalists believe—but an illusion that we are separated from God, our sense of our own goodness, other people, or even our own selves.”

At a certain point, Johnson gets a little tired of all the sitting and talking. She tells me, “You know, we black folks like to move.” Her traveling companion is Valerie Joi Fiddmont, whose title at Inner Light Ministries is “music minister.” The audio version of Johnson’s book, The Sacred Yes, opens with a funky tune about love overcoming hatred. It’s a reminder that in many churches “gospel” is a type of music. The spiritual progressives conference offers many opportunities for movement and song, such as singing John Lennon’s Imagine while embracing and swaying with those nearby, but Johnson feels that next time the conferees could do better on that aspect, which some of the participants felt was contrived and forced. Johnson was a key participant in the preparations for the conference, and during the conference she freely offered her views on things the spiritual progressives needed to work on. For example, both she and Michael Lerner were disappointed when a Pray-in for Peace in Lafayette Park across from the White House transformed into an old-fashioned anti-war rally, with throbbing “stop-the-war-now” cries and a storming of the gates at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Despite a few qualms, however, Johnson thinks this gathering of spiritual progressives was a success: “It was a galvanizing point and it created a critical mass of energy and of bringing people together across a wide array of backgrounds and interests.”

But now Johnson, like Lerner, wants to look at the frontiers that lie beyond a couple of days of consciousness-raising in Washington, DC, a place where rallies are a dime a dozen. And she wants to do it in the terms of her ministry, which is best summed up in The Sacred Yes, a work of revealed spirituality presented as a series of letters from the Divine that “help us to see ourselves first and foremost as spiritual beings and to live our lives and conduct all of our affairs from this vantage point.” In the book, God speaks through her and tells her that “prayer is action,” which is different from “mere activity” because one can “engage in many activities that produce no action. Activity for the sake of activity gets you nowhere.” Activity must be combined with deep intent, a “determination beyond all reason and understanding for your desire to manifest.” Once that happens, one gives up the sense of being solely responsible for bringing about whatever needs to happen, and one experiences God’s “inexhaustible supply” of means and possibilities, and “no is simply not an option.”

The attitude of saying yes is behind Johnson’s concern that the spiritual progressive movement not be engulfed by an “anti-” orientation. When we talked, she cautioned that the “push that comes from pain, from being hurt or excluded, will burn out.” What’s needed in greater measure is “the pull of vision.” She says, “Movements like antiwar and environment are so often expressed in response to what others are doing, whereas the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the gay and lesbian movement, are about being empowered to realize who you are.” She’s looking for the kind of spiritual power Chittister talked about.

In her closing remarks to the conference, she challenged people to go beyond their preconceived ideas about who belongs and who doesn’t, to “be big enough to embrace all of the nation,” to ask why there were raucous rounds of applause for “anything that had to do with the Right being awful people,” but “when we were being asked to consider how we need to change, what we need to become, there was silence. We need to go back to the places where we were deeply silent.”

The country didn’t just suddenly end up in the condition it’s in, she told the audience, and “we’re being extremely naive if we think we can just get away with blaming it on the Bush administration or the Republican Party.” She also emphasized that there is a very big need for the spiritual progressive movement to diversify, especially in terms of class. “We tend to want to talk about the big corporate people, the people who have all the money, who are controlling everything, and say what they need to do. Well, to the rest of the world, the rich people are the American middle class. We may feel we don’t have so much in comparison to the very rich, but considering what we consume compared to the many who are starving, what we really have to ask is, ‘How much are we willing to sacrifice? How much are we willing to change?’”

Who can say what the political impact of these calls for a spiritually renewed politics will be? A piece in The New York Times on the third day of the conference dismissed it as an insignificant struggle on the part of the religious Left “to find a unifying message.” The very next day, The Washington Post ran an upbeat story on the front page, declaring in the first line, “The religious Left is back.” Like politicians from time immemorial, the spiritual progressives will have to learn not to live and die by what it says in the papers, particularly if they are intent on forging something that transcends partisan boundaries.

The calls by these religious leaders to look beyond right and left are based in a very sound theology: if godliness is to have any real meaning, it has to be above any version of us versus them. But street politics, electoral politics, boils down to contests between people and parties. It is partisan by its very nature. Not one of these religious leaders denies that. They simply want people to first tap into what they really care about—which they say is the welfare of everyone on the planet—before they step into the political arena.

This, they believe, is what many people in America are looking for: public life based on deep meaning. The Right has tried to supply that, but in a way that has been judgmental and ungenerous, out of keeping with the understanding of God that these clergy experience in their own traditions. In straying from a politics of meaning altogether, the Left has done little better.

The Network of Spiritual Progressives includes people of many religious persuasions, including Buddhists, Hindus, Sufis, and Wiccans, and people of no religious persuasion whatsoever—but in small numbers. Like America itself, the progressive religious movement is basically Judeo-Christian, and the most important political struggle now taking place in the United States may be the one among American Christians. It’s a debate that all Americans, believers or not, have a stake in. It’s about what the true Judeo-Christian values and virtues are, and what influence they can, or should, have on society. It’s a debate about who God really is.

Who Does God Vote For? Barry Boyce, Shambhala Sun, September 2006.


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