Jerry Brown: Zen and the Art of the Possible
In American politics, an enterprise too often characterized by adultery, dyed hair and spin doctors, and in which obvious intelligence has long been held suspect, Jerry Brown remains a maverick original. The son of former California Governor Edmund “Pat” Brown, Jerry Brown studied for the priesthood at Sacred Heart Novitiate before leaving to major in Latin and Greek at U.C. Berkeley. He graduated in law from Yale and in 1969 won his first election, to a seat on the L.A. Community College board of trustees. Just a year later, he was elected California’s secretary of state, and in l975 became the youngest governor in California history.
Brown’s eight-year tenure as governor was unconventional. He lived an austere lifestyle, dated Linda Ronstadt, and occasionally repaired to Zen retreats with Buddhist friends. He led the country in the introduction of progressive legislation and the appointment of women and minorities to high office, often in the face of considerable opposition. He made three tries for the Democratic presidential nomination, the last against Bill Clinton in 1992. For two years he hosted “We The People,” a syndicated radio program featuring interviews with prominent thinkers.
In l998 Jerry Brown re-entered politics. He was elected mayor of Oakland and embraced the daunting task of leading this needy, workaday city of 380,000 toward rejuvenation. Not surprisingly, Mayor Brown has ruffled plenty of institutional feathers. Using the “Strong Mayor” city charter he championed, Brown has addressed the city’s longtime pattern of cronyism, reformed the school board, made sweeping changes in the police department and city hall staff, and worked to revivify the weary downtown core.
Now sixty years old, Brown enjoys a communitarian lifestyle in an unpretentious, multi-purpose warehouse adjacent to Jack London Square on the downtown waterfront. I met Mayor Brown at his office in Oakland City Hall, where on the desk one notices prayer beads and a sign reading, “The Buck Stops Here.” —Trevor Carolan
You have been known throughout your career as someone willing to bring big ideas into the political sphere. But nowadays you’re a “non-ideological centrist,” devoted to what Andy Warhol used to call “bringing home the bacon.”
Bringing home the bacon, exactly! That’s what people in the city want—lower crime, a vital downtown center, exciting opportunities. They want more shops instead of one major store, which is all Oakland has today. They want better schools, where their kids can get ahead. So you’ve got to deliver that. And in a capitalist society, you get a flow of capital entering because there’s a return equal to or better than other opportunities elsewhere. That’s the framework we’re in and I’m working with it.
If you read Dialogues, the book of interviews I’ve done with people whose ideas have impressed me, you won’t find many who have an obvious “left” ideology. They’re activists like Gregory Bateson and Ivan Illich, people whose ideas cannot be pigeonholed. I can still read Bateson’s Steps Toward An Ecology of Mind and learn from it, because there’s plenty left to understand. This is part of my pursuit—I study these people to understand my own life, the world that I live in, and my role in it.
From your long political experience as scion of a famous political family, governor of California, presidential candidate, and now mayor of Oakland, what is your understanding of the place of spirituality in politics?
Spirituality is one of those words that feels good, but what is it really pointing at?
Perhaps some sense of belief and commitment, a sense of the sacred? How do you try to keep your politics consistent with the idea of a higher way, a virtuous way, in the Taoist sense?
I don’t think politics is distinct from other activities that involve a lot of people. It’s the same whether you’re running a store, building a dot-com business, or being the mayor—there’s simply a lot of activity. To me, the spiritual path is being very clear about what you’re doing, being very clear in asking, “What is it I’m engaged in now?” And from that clarity I make whatever decisions I have to make.
So for me the path would be the clarity. I went to hear Krishnamurti several times and he would say, “Just observe.” That’s very much like sitting meditation.
And close cousin to the practice of mindfulness. You discuss this with Thich Nhat Hanh in your book Dialogues.
Yes. As a matter of fact, Thich Nhat Hanh visited Oakland last year and we had a “Day of Mindfulness.” I issued a proclamation as the Mayor on the eightfold path. It’s worth looking at.
Do you think it’s possible, or even desirable, to govern from a spiritual point of view?
Spirituality has to entail awakeness—an awareness and respect for other people. A politics based on that would have to exhibit compassion and concern whenever there’s suffering that could be avoided. So from either a Christian or a Buddhist perspective, there is a basis for justice, mercy, compassion. The difficulty in cases like Sri Lanka or Bosnia is that religion hasn’t always been the peacemaker it theoretically should be. Nevertheless, I believe that the practice of zazen meditation, or the practice of remembering, of being more aware of good works—all these should call politics to a higher vocation.
You are one of those relatively rare people in politics who has a deep and long-standing interest in religious and philosophical issues. What were some of the important influences on you when you were growing up?
My grandmother used to read Bible stories to me from a picture book—Moses, Delilah and Samson, all the different Bible stories. Later, at school in the fifties, G.K. Chesterton was very much in vogue. Growing up within the Catholic educational framework, one learned there was a right and a wrong and a higher path one should be following. That’s obviously what propelled me forward to the seminary.
At the seminary we read the lives of the Jesuit saints, Thomas a Kempis, and the New Testament. After that, coming out of Berkeley and going to law school, there was a whole other set of influences. Paul Goodman’s book, Compulsory Miseducation, which critiqued education as a conformity-building structure, really had an influence on me.
When did you first encounter Buddhism?
I heard a speech by Aldous Huxley at a symposium on the mind in San Francisco, in which he talked about a different kind of education. He said our education system was cognitive and hyper-rational, and that it left out the most important part of the human being. I went up to him afterwards and asked him what he was talking about, and he said, “Read Zen Flesh, Zen Bones.” I might have heard about Zen before then, but since Aldous Huxley was saying so, I looked into it and it certainly had an influence on me.
That’s a beloved little book by Paul Reps and Ngoyen Senzaki. What attracted you to it?
Just reading those koan stories. They had a flavor that rang true. There was a zest to them that I appreciated.
How serious would you say your engagement with Buddhism has been?
I’d say that when I went to Japan it was very serious, because I practiced every day for six months and did four sesshins [traditional one week period of intense zazen]. This was at Kamakura; I did two sesshins under Yamada-roshi and two under Father Lasalle, a Jesuit at a Jesuit retreat house there.
What prompted you to study Buddhism in Japan?
I had visited Tassajara, I knew Richard Baker Roshi and Gary Snyder, and I’d read different things. Then in l986 I went on a trip to China with a non-profit foundation and we passed through Tokyo. I visited a group of Jesuit priests living there and I asked if any of them knew anything about Zen. There were two people interested in Zen, Fathers Hugo Lasalle and Heinrich Dumoulins, both elderly people. I had a conversation with Father Lasalle and he said, “Philosophy is dead. Theology as we’ve known it is dead. What people want is experience—experiencing God.” He suggested I talk with Yamada-roshi, so I went to see him at the hospital where he worked as an administrator. Yamada-roshi said, “Well, come and practice.”
At that time I had the opportunity to take six months to do something different, so I said, okay, I’ll do it. I found a place to live in Kamakura, and every night I’d go and join the loose community of practitioners under Yamada-roshi. Father Lasalle would come by sometimes, too. In dokusan Yamada-roshi would always say “You yourself are totally empty,” and his saying that had an authority. He was speaking as someone who evidently had had a kensho. He had that clarity.
What interested me was emptiness as a practice, as opposed to an idea. The principal foundation of the Jesuit order—it’s right in The Spiritual Exercises—is detachment, and the evil in Jesuit spirituality is inordinate attachment. Ignatius in his Foundations uses the word “indifference.” Whether your life is long or short, whether you are rich or poor, whether you experience honor or dishonor—it should all be a matter of indifference to you in order that you can follow the will of God.
That’s something I always found difficult. It sounded cold. The Buddhist practice of emptiness seemed to make this non-attachment natural, whereas in the Jesuits we were told to fight the self. Adere contra—go against oneself; immolatio sui—immolate the self. We were supposed to war against the self and all its attachments. Buddhism offered another type of insight.
How much meditation do you do now?
I haven’t been sitting lately, not like I should be. I have a cushion right in the middle of my room; it’s sitting there, but I’ve sat infrequently. It’s an intention, but not a strong enough intention! But definitely an intention.
You visited Mother Theresa in Calcutta in 1987. What effect did this experience have on you?
I spent about three weeks working there, mostly at her home for the dying, the Kalighat. I was very impressed and moved by the volunteers who came every day, by their presence and their serving attitude. People from around the world just showed up and helped bathe people, fed people, wash down the floors. It was a very good feeling to be involved in that.
I experienced Mother Theresa as a person of really clear authority, something I hardly ever encounter. She was someone who spoke in such a way that I was inclined to listen, to follow. I felt this woman was speaking out of some enlightenment, some clarity in her way of seeing. When she said that this person lying on the floor from the streets of Calcutta is Jesus, and what you do for him, that is Jesus, well, it was not only supremely Christian, it was supremely compassionate. She manifested her being and was grounded in a way I’ve seen in very few people.
How do you evaluate the influence of religion in U.S. politics today?
Religious identity groups are a part of the business of politics, which is to create enough loyalty and appeal to build the 51% you need to win. Given the diversity of America, this can involve minorities, ethnic groups, and religions. So religious identity is part of the mundane process of coalition-building and creating a successful political marketing plan.
The liberal side is not generally characterized by overt religious activity, although there’s certainly a tradition—from Martin Luther King, Jr. to the Jesuits opposing the School of the Americas—of a left religious commitment. On the right, the fundamentalist Christians are maybe 20% of the population grouped around certain ideas and practices. They are in opposition to some of the practices of contemporary society, such as pornography, homosexuality, abortion, but not in opposition to others, like free markets, technology, genetic engineering and nuclear power. They are a cohesive group and there is power there.
Mikhail Gorbachev is one of the many people who have said that the most important politics is now taking place at the municipal level. Do you agree with this assessment?
In some part that is true. However, we have trading regimes, international alliances, and global environmental treaties that are very important. You cannot solve global warming or the destruction of the oceans or the protection of the ozone layer just by local action. Even though everything always seems local, because we’re in a body, standing on our own two feet somewhere, there is a role for international work and national work, for all these different levels of organization.
Having said that, we need to recognize that there is a difference, a vitality, in a city. There are schools and neighborhoods. There’s West Oakland. There’s Thirty-first and Martin Luther King Boulevard. These are concrete images: you can see the people and encounter them and their issues.
Being mayor is different than being governor, which is a more derivative position. The governor proposes a law on, say, increasing the penalties for crime—“You should serve three more years in prison for robbing a house at night”—and goes and makes speeches about it. That’s what governors do. As a mayor, you take action in a far more immediate way. You look at the number of commercial burglaries in the last three weeks in an area of Oakland, compare the statistics from the three weeks before, and then talk to the police chief about what we’re going to do. You get specific. You think about more police, more jobs, the schools, housing blight, all the different issues.
And how do the citizens get more involved so they can influence the political process?
In Oakland, we get involvement through community policing and through parent involvement in the schools. We also have community involvement in development proposals—all the immediate neighbors are asked their point of view on whether a building should be demolished or a new business permitted. People can join political organizations or neighborhood committees, and of course there are bond proposals and elections to city council and school board. There is a lot of citizen participation at the local political level.
And when special interests play such a large role in the political process, how do citizens ensure that public resources are allocated fairly ?
The term “special interest” obscures the fact that the political realm is where decisions are made by many people regarding money, taxes, buildings, or criminal prohibitions. In a capitalist society, money has an impact. It’s about money. If money isn’t the most important thing, it’s right up there. Therefore, anyone with a lot of money is going to have an impact, and usually their request is to be able to make more money. Now, if more money is added, that’s theoretically a good thing. However, other people who don’t have exactly the same interests, like a union or a homeowner group, may fight and say you’d better give us some money. As an example, there’s a building here that was constructed seventy years ago. The Gap came along and said we want to tear it down and put up a new ten thousand square foot store. Now most people in the city wanted that, but some people didn’t. So you get these contests, and I find that at the local level the citizens have a lot of clout.
When you were campaigning for mayor you spoke of “America’s unfinished agenda.” What did you mean by that?
Fostering conditions so that people of different ethnic and racial situations can live in harmony, as well as alleviating the harsh consequences of market capitalism and setting the framework for an economy that works within the environment explicitly, thereby becoming increasingly more sustainable.
You’ve made schools a key part of your work in Oakland.
Never before in the United States, maybe anywhere in the world, have we offered so many hours of organized educational instruction. Yet if you look at the number of hours people spend in front of the television, if you look at the way people allocate their resources, you have to ask seriously what this education is for. Is it just to make people happy hyper-consumers, or is it to teach people to think and to express themselves?
Today education is generally about getting a job and making the most money you can. I’d like to see some special schools here, like a performing arts academy or a vocational school teaching technical repair skills. I’d like to see effective reading programs. I’d also like to see a college-prep military academy—because of the discipline involved and the Pentagon money that could be brought into Oakland.
I also understand that education is one of those terms that people invoke very easily to cover a multitude of questions. Not that long ago, when I was in college, it meant a liberal education. It was supposed to teach the whole person and it was based on the concepts of time and eternity, which were Catholic ways of talking about the material and the spiritual.
Andrei Sakharov observed that we always prefer dead heroes to living men and women who may have made mistakes. What do you make of this?
When someone’s dead, it’s easy to remember them in a more positive light and minimize the flaws that most human beings have. There’s a pervasive tendency to transmit a history that is more favorable than it really was. In Japan they don’t like to talk about the rape of Nanking, or the germ experiments in Harbin, or the Bataan Death March. In America, the history books don’t like to talk about the massacre of the Indians, or really get into the slavery issue or the war against the Filipinos. There’s a rosy glow in all countries that conditions the history books, and this conditions our view of dead heroes.
In your inaugural speech as mayor of Oakland, you acknowledged that you have flaws and have made your share of mistakes.
Today, with all the debunking and flaw-finding that generates news stories, we have the view that leaders are always flawed—Eisenhower, all the big heroes, whoever it is. People in politics are dealing with power. They are possessed of ambition. They are maneuvering and they’re competing, and that will generate plenty of less-than-ideal, Mother Theresa-type behavioral traits. Okay, that’s inherent. Politics doesn’t look at all like the hagiographies I read when I was at the Jesuit monastery, where all the saints were perfect, no venial sins even. Of course, the world is not a monastery, but I don’t know if there were perfect people in the monasteries either. I doubt it. In that environment, there are plenty of vices along with whatever virtues you can find.
What keeps you going in politics after all these years?
There’s a certain zest in political life. It engages me. I’ve also been around the political life since my father first ran for office the year after I was born. There’s a skill, a practice, a knowledge that I’ve acquired. If I were to go and work as a lawyer, I’d be nowhere near the professional or the practitioner that I am of political work.
So what is political? It’s being able to see different points of view. It’s being able to articulate in a way that can martial action. That’s what I’m doing, although it’s frustrating at times. When I worked in radio it was satisfying intellectually, but at the end of every day, then what? Sometimes just talking isn’t enough.
There are folks you meet in stores here who say they supported you in part because of your radio show; that you sounded like a man who was honestly searching for answers.
That’s good. As mayor, though, I feel there’s more action. I can actually engage developers, police chiefs, neighborhood activists; I can help get a swimming pool built, increase recycling, create a charter school, bring a new restaurant to downtown, as we’re going to do next door to City Hall. That’s energizing. It is a pleasure to be engaged in that, as opposed to just talking.
You’ve had a lot of political success and become a national celebrity. I imagine Sixty Minutes never did a story before on the mayor of Oakland. John Updike has expressed the view that celebrity has a peculiarly corrosive quality. What’s your take on this?
Well, celebrityhood is certainly distracting. It offers an opportunity to make yourself feel good—which, I might add, can be very deleterious to the path of enlightenment!
Also, you have experienced defeat a number of times. What can you tell us about the experience of defeat?
In some campaigns, when the stories in the press aren’t that pleasant and you’re losing, defeat can almost be a relief. Maybe it’s like death: you get sick, you suffer and suffer, and then you say, I’m ready to die now. Losing can be very unpleasant, but after a few years you forget about the pain and say, “I’m back fighting.” I came back. I wasn’t quite sure what mayor was going to be like, but I find I’m very happy to be here. The old images of Oakland as a city of crime and danger are pretty overrated now. We’re strategically located and, increasingly, a fairly exciting place to be. The flow of money has now directed itself into Oakland. It’s coming. We may be able to attract more people of talent because the housing is a little cheaper, the weather is a little better, the openings are more abundant. Oakland will continue to transform itself. I feel very grateful for the opportunity.
Trevor Carolan is a freelance writer and former municipal councilor in North Vancouver, British Columbia.