The Real Revolution Begins at Home

It has always seemed to me that what Buddha did, in establishing the first Order of monks and nuns in India, was revolutionary. But we have to be circumspect in asserting such assumptions, as the cultural and political context of the time was so different from ours. What may appear on the surface to have been a counter-cultural departure from norms of the day, may not have been. That is, the Buddhist Sangha may have been only one of many such experiments in alternate lifestyles. In America today, proposing that we all move into the forest, where we spend long hours in meditation, pausing only to go begging through residential neighborhoods for our meals, would not only be considered radical; it would probably land us all in jail.

To make such a public display of our practice path today would invite pushback, in an era of confrontational identity politics, and special-interest movements. This is why Zen is, in my estimation—revolutionary; yes—but it is the quiet revolution.

Zen meditation (J. zazen) itself looks non-threatening, from the outside. The only thing we claim it threatens is the ego, or constructed self. It seems an innocuous exercise in self-improvement, with its emphasis on silent illumination. Socially, Zen communities present as well-intentioned groups of like-minded people, at most a harmless cult. But those who get inside a Zen center come to see that it is the opposite of a cult, in that we strive to train every individual to lead, or at least to define their relationship to the group in a proactive, creative, collaborative way.

But we should not underestimate the power of Zen. Including its effect on our personal lives, of course, but also the ripple-effect on our larger community. There is something radical about sitting stock-still for extended periods of time, doing nothing in particular; not even thinking. That we embrace the process of change that emerges, to be a form of intentional personality disintegration, would be alarming to many, especially those in the mental health industry. Better to take a pill to calm down, than to risk going out of your mind.

That substantial groups would flock together from time to time, to spend whole days, even weeks or months, engaged in purposeless activity, should be even more disconcerting to the overseers of a society that values productivity above all, other than profit. Which terms are virtually synonymous, in a capitalist milieu. But the main social or political issue with Zen practice, fully understood, is that it leads to true independence. Not only of thinking, but even of motive. Whatever their protestations to the contrary, the powers that be would not welcome true independence on the part of the hoi polloi.

If they did, we would not be persuaded to engage ever-more excessive levels of consumption, in all categories of the material world, as well as the social. The appeal to identity in politics is a kind of consumerism of the self. We want to be the “best version” of our selves, which includes, implicitly, a substantial level of material comfort. We also are sold the idea that we need to identify with, and back, that flock of birds that appears to display the same feathers as ours.

To introduce into this picture the idea that sitting still enough, for long enough, may threaten the underpinnings of this societal scam seems ridiculous on its face. But the personal revolution that zazen can bring about can also knock the supports out from under our unthinking obedience to the dictates of the culture.

We ordinarily categorize meditation as a personal choice having certain effects upon us, helping us to conform to and accept our lot in life. Or to be better able to improve upon our circumstances. The well-known, positive effects of meditation on are not to be gainsaid. But the complete footprint of zazen is impossible to measure, as Dogen reminds us, in his teaching on “Self-Fulfilling Samadhi”:

Hundreds of things all manifest original practice from the original face; it is impossible to measure. Know that even if all buddhas of the ten directions, as innumerable as the sands of the Ganges, exert their strength and with the buddhas’ wisdom try to measure the merit of one person’s zazen, they will not be able to fully comprehend it. 

In this startling claim, Master Dogen asserts that even the buddhas do not comprehend the full import and implications of zazen. Any “merit” is usually to be understood as primarily personal, one supposes, including the well-known benefits of meditation to daily life: more balance in one’s physical being and health; more calmness and less anxiety on the emotional level; more clarity and less confusion in the mental realm. These are all to be expected from a modicum of meditation, if pursued wholeheartedly. And this eventuality is certainly preferable to the alternative.

When we begin to be at ease in our own skin, patient with ourselves on the cushion and off, then we also begin to be more at ease with others. This in itself is a radical departure from the current politics of promoting suspicion and fear of others who are not birds of my particular kind of feather. The Loving Kindness Sutra (S. Metta Sutta), if taken to heart in this society, would turn everything upside down, with its call to take all beings, not just those in your inner circle, and not even solely of your species, into consideration:

May all beings be happy
May they be joyous and live in safety
All living beings whether weak or strong
In high or middle or low realms of existence
Near of far born or to be born

That’s a tall order, if we take it to be our charge and responsibility to make sure that all creatures of the Earth are happy. Remembering that the Buddha was nothing if not practical, however, we realize that he meant all beings should or could be happy with existence, but just as it is. Including aging, sickness and death. So to that extent, we are off the hook. In fact, it may be argued that humankind’s efforts to make things better—for fellow humans, but occasionally for other sentient beings—often result in unintended consequences that have actually made matters worse, especially for the latter. So the main take-home here may be to stop interfering with the natural order of things, and make an effort to reduce our footprint to as close to zero as possible. This is one meaning of the hoary Zen phrase, “Leave no traces.” Which has now been adopted as a motto by some current environmental movements around tourism landmarks.

We in Zen, Soto Zen in particular, are sometimes regarded as pacifistic to the point of being out-of-touch, owing to our emphasis on zazen-only, which looks to the uninitiated like feckless navel-gazing. But if you are engaged in zazen on a regular basis, wholeheartedly committed to its practice, “dropping off without relying on anything” and “making effort without aiming at it,” you are doing “the most you can do” on a personal level, according to Matsuoka Roshi.

Further, if you are enabling the propagation of Zen practice by supporting your Sangha by your presence and financially, or leading meditation sessions as a practice leader, you are doing the most you can do on the social level. Of course, any additional altruistic activities you choose to pursue are all to the good, and up to your discernment as to their appropriateness for you and your lifestyle. But make no mistake as regards the political and societal implications of your efforts.

We can do no better than to train others in getting beyond and seeing through the accepted norms and memes of the cultural milieu to the hollowness at their core. We are all familiar with the axiom that it is far better to teach a person to fish than to provide fish to the person when we can afford to. Zen has been referred to as fishing with a straight hook. There is no barb to trap the fish. Each fish swims in the water to the extent of their ability. If we train folks to become truly independent, we should have trust in Mind that they will independently decide what to do with their new-found freedom. They may not take up our personal favorite of the causes of the day, but they will engage in those that are best suited to their causes and conditions, their personal makeup. Who are we to try to decide this for them? We cannot know what they will be facing.

In Zen, we are training an army of multi-generational citizens of the world, whose members will be well-equipped to meet and master the problems of the times. It may have gone too far on certain fronts, as the doom-sayers are always ready to warn us. It may indeed be too late to return to the norms of yesterday, both on the natural and social scales. But Zen is always contemporary. It has survived the unthinkable conditions of the past, and will meet, head-on, the unimaginable world of the future. More than politics, the arts and sciences, the STEM branches, sociology, anthropology, or psychology; Zen practice will stand us in good stead. It is, truly, the quiet revolution. But it will be heard ‘round the world.