Before going on I want to mention the new link I put up about Zen books that don’t suck. People keep asking me about this. So here you go.
While I was up north for Thanksgiving I stopped by the Berkeley Zen Center where my friend Greg Fain, who kindly let me stay in his pad while I was up there, was giving the weekly Dharma talk. His talk was, among other things, about the issue of speaking about politics from the “pulpit” — if we can use that word to describe the seat from which Buddhist teachers deliver their talks.
I was a little worried because I knew that Greg had spent some time in Nevada getting out the vote on behalf of a certain candidate I won’t name here. And this was, after all, the People’s Republic of Berkeley. As some of you must have noticed by now I’m pretty down on the idea of Buddhism being used as a pretext for pushing liberal politics and on the widespread assumption that anyone who is a Buddhist must, of course, be at the very least a Democrat if not someone of a much more left-leaning political mindset. While I didn’t really imagine Greg would use his Dharma talk as a campaign platform, especially after the election was finished, I did fear for the worst.
I should have had more faith! Greg’s talk was a very good one about how a Dharma talk should never be a platform for political campaigning. He related a story about how he was giving a talk in Nevada (I think). Before he went on, the head of the temple warned him, “Don’t talk about politics here! This group is evenly divided between ‘red state’ people and ‘blue state’ people.” Greg said he hadn’t planned to get political but that he appreciated the advice. He said he thought we as Buddhist teachers should always assume our audience is half ‘red state’ (conservatives, for those of you reading this outside the USA) and half ‘blue state’ (liberals). I’d take that further myself. I don’t even assume my audience cares about or even knows much about America’s politics. A decade in Japan taught me a lot about just how trivial American politics really are to people who don’t live here.
Back on October 25th, my hero, Gene Simmons, bassist of the rock band KISS, posted this on his website:
Ok, folks. Everyone is so touchy about the forthcoming election. And for the record, I don’t believe any celebrity should be using their bully pulpit to coerce their fans to vote either way. I refuse to tell anyone what my political leanings are. I agree with both parties on certain issues and strongly disagree with both candidates on other issues. VOTE FOR EITHER CANDIDATE, but vote.
Yet around the same time someone sent me a video of some Zen teacher giving his Dharma talk in an Obama T-shirt. It’s truly pathetic when Zen teachers aren’t even as enlightened as Gene Simmons on such matters. I don’t pay enough attention to the Zen scene to know whether there are more teachers like Greg or more teachers like that guy who thought his Dharma talk was an appropriate place to plug his favorite candidate.
We Buddhist teachers must never assume that our political views are one and the same as the Dharma, nor should we try and influence the people who listen to us on how to vote.
Greg talked about social justice, about the recently passed California Proposition 9 (not 8!) and how it affected the inmates he teaches at San Quentin prison. He talked about the uncomfortable mood at a post election party he attended and how it was all “We won and they lost!” I could certainly feel that myself driving through Los Angeles on the night of November 4th. There was such a tremendous buzz of negative energy in the air that I wanted to get off the road as quickly as possible. Ironically most of those responsible for that nearly palpable wave of horrible negativity almost certainly believed it was nothing but positivity (actually the two are the same, ultimately) (and just by the way, I don’t mean that I somehow psychically sensed this stuff. There was all kinds of shouting and hooting and horns honking and vehicles swerving like the drivers were drunk) .
Greg also talked about engaged Buddhism. All Buddhism, he said (quoting someone I can’t remember), is “engaged Buddhism.” I think this is important. How do you work most effectively for social justice? You do zazen practice every day. You. Not someone else. Every day. Not just when your sitting group meets. This is where the real work for social justice happens. Without it you’re just making noise.