One of our senior Practice Leaders requested that I discuss this duality in relation to Zen. Some of the specifics cited herein are his, as unattributed quotes. Thanks to him, and he knows who he is. In a follow-up email he noted the connection to politics in my last:

I would like to see increased public pressure towards democrats and republicans working together to get something accomplished. Too much competition, not enough cooperation. The thundering silence of both sides, when it comes to publicly acknowledging valid points made by the opposing party, is likely/sadly a better prediction of the future than the actual policies being presented in the platforms. Too much focus on winning and not enough on what will actually be delivered by the "winner." Too much focus on getting the majority in the house and senate rather than merging policies to come up with a vital fusion. Everybody knows a mongrel dog is healthier than a pure bred. I think the same applies to government policies.

Well said and agreed. The "mongrel dog" comment is a dead giveaway for those of us who know him.

It is truly an unfortunate and inconvenient truth that getting elected to office no longer bears the romantic and altruistic connotations that it did when "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" appeared on the big screen. Human nature will out, especially when lavished with 24/7 attention and near-worshipful levels of reverence. Which turns to unrelenting scorn and derision when expectations are not met, like milk curdling. Thus the low esteem in which "the world's greatest deliberative body" is held. And why we in Zen aspire to buddha-nature, not human nature. This unenlightened self-serving is not an exclusive trait of Western politicians, but it does seem to derive from an overemphasis on differences hard-wired into egocentric tribalism, nativism.

One of the hoariest and simplest definitions of the difference between Western and Eastern mindsets, so-called, is that the former prefer to see everything in terms of either/or, black-and-white; while the latter tend to view the world as both/and, in subtler shadings of gray. While this is a gross oversimplification, like most stereotypes it carries a kernel of truth. And there are other constructions that point to similar conclusions.

Another analogy posits that the Western proclivity for analysis is more like an algebraic equation, i.e. linear; while the Eastern tendency for holism is more like the connections of geometry, i.e. spatial. The first is related to a simplified view of cause and effect acting in step-by-step sequence, following a one-way street of time; while the second embraces interactive simultaneity, in which every cause is also an effect, and vice-versa. The analogous Buddhist model is that of the 12-Fold Chain of Co-Arising.

The cultural meme of accentuating the negative results in such relatively trivial but consequential attitudes as that either the Republicans or the Democrats, or the Libertarians, or the Greens, have the "right" answer to the issues of the day; as opposed to each party (and the rest of us) acknowledging a valid point or idea coming forth from the opponent. That would constitute being soft on the loyal opposition. DOA.

Even the label opponent sets the political parties in opposition to each other, rather than as colleagues or team members of diverse views. This syndrome can be seen in any other competition between interest groups, corporations, or individuals, for that matter. Actions have consequences, but words and labels also matter.

This presumed either-you-or-me-but-not-both opposition seems a natural outgrowth of what we notice in zazen, as the mind poses itself in opposition to others, continually comparing self, favorably, to other. Clearly, some cases of disharmony in the Sangha, and/or discontent in some student/teacher relationships arise from self-centered preconceptions, e.g.: "Either you match my preconceptions of how a Zen priest should look, speak, and act, or you are not the real thing." This viewpoint appears to prevail in the USA, it seems, rather than the more magnanimous attitude that there can be more than one version of a true Zen teacher.

Some other Zen prescripts and tenets come to mind, along with the Western cliché that you cannot tell a book by its cover. One is that you should seek out a teacher who does not agree with you, or one that you do not agree with. This disagreement can manifest on many levels, from cultural stereotyping to intellectual interpretations of teachings of Zen.

Huineng was an illiterate bumpkin from the boonies, but he was confirmed by Hongren, much to the consternation of his students, who thought they knew better. Master Dogen was Japanese, in a Chinese monastery, when he was confirmed by Nyojo. Matsuoka Roshi was Japanese, teaching in a second language and culture, when he confirmed me, a WASPy middle class white boy from the Midwest. Zen resists stereotyping.

A classic example of intellectual accord is the story of Master Dogen and Ejo, his eventual successor. They were both from upper-class Japanese extraction. Ejo, who was a couple of years older, and an accomplished scholar of Buddhism, had sought out Dogen, the story goes. At first, he basically agreed with everything he heard Dogen teaching. He was preparing to leave, assuming there was nothing more to be learned from the young master. But Dogen then began speaking on a different level, illuminating insights that Ejo did not find familiar, or agreeable. This is what induced him to stay.

Another salient point is that throughout the history of Zen, the transmission of the buddhadharma has relied almost entirely on the sincerity of the student, and his or her absolute confidence that the teacher is the real thing. Whether the teacher has genuine insight or not, or the skillful means to help others, is less important than the sincerity of the seeker.

But this does not reduce Zen training to some sort of scam. No one in his or her right mind would undertake the responsibility of taking on Zen students if they did not have sufficient personal experience in zazen, and the requisite appreciation of the necessity of training others in this wondrous worldview and method.

And that is another clarifying point: method. We who are engaged in the propagation of zazen and the promulgation of Zen teachings are more like coaches than preachers, or ministers of a higher power. We do not pretend to anything, we have nothing up our sleeves. When aspiring students project upon Zen teachers their culturally-conditioned or presumed stereotypes, they cut themselves off from the potential of their own insight. In Zen, teacher-student relationships may necessarily be interdependent, but they are not co-dependent.

Placing the onus on the teacher is an unfortunate but predictable aspect of the assimilation of Zen into the American culture. It finds a parallel in the evaluation of university teachers by the very students they are trying to teach. These are examples of consumerism gone awry. The customer, or student consumer, is not always right. Nor are their parents.

However, this phenomenon was not unknown from the beginning of Zen. Buddha himself is said to have had an encounter with a young man who declared that unless Shakyamuni was prepared to answer the "Ten Cosmic Questions" to his satisfaction, he would not become his student. Buddha is said to have responded with compassion to this arrogance, saying that he, the young man, was under no obligation to become his, Buddha's, student; and that he, Buddha, was under no obligation to become his, the young man's, teacher. And so it is, even today. Zen is not a crusade. We are not driven to save the souls of recalcitrant students, peers, or politicians.

So it appears that this self-striving and -absorption is not a purely Western trait, though we have certainly raised it to a whole new level in our "everything, all the time" consumerist culture. It clearly is a built-in dimension of human nature, probably baked into our temperament at birth. So it becomes our obligation to become aware of it, and to take into account that we may not always be right. Nor may we need always assume that we are wrong. This is where compassion is tempered with wisdom.

Another of our Practice Leaders, and she knows who she is, developed a mantra to chant to herself when confronting differences and difficulties with others: "I may be wrong, I may be wrong, I may be wrong." This helps imagine walking in their moccasins for a mile. At a later time, I suggested that she might try an alternate: "I may be right, I may be right, I may be right." Eventually, the two merge in a new, all-encompassing mantra: "I may or may not be right or wrong."

It really doesn't matter a great deal. "I am not such an important person," to quote Seikan Hasegawa. We in Zen are not out to save the world. We save ourselves from our own ignorance. In doing so, we go beyond either/or and both/and, right/wrong and good/evil. Then we may be able to make a difference in the positive sense of the term.