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.
DESHAN XUANJIAN, Zen koan
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.