Recently, if I am honest, I have been paying far too much attention to politics. It is almost impossible not to look at a train wreck, especially if it keeps happening on a daily basis.
We watch, with fevered anticipation and some hope of change, the unfolding melodrama, one that promises to lead us to Valhalla, the shining, gold-plated city on the hill. Or, like so many lemmings, to the wrong end of the cliff. Every tweet and twitter of the big yellow bird, followed by endless analysis and commentary, promises to be the one that will do the trick, the straw that will finally break the camel’s back. But no. Here comes another.
The latest soap opera, the Roadrunner Repeal and Repeat of Obamacare (meep-meep), took a mere seven years to reach a climax, resulting in the déjà vu denouement du jour. In spite of coming off like a swan dive into a vat of jello, it did not disappoint. There was enough schadenfreude and blame game to go around, entertaining a gratefully addicted audience for weeks, after the slow reveal of there being no there there. It beggars the imagination to find an analogy apt enough to embrace the theater of the absurd that is now our daily newsfeed fare.
One recalls the caucus race from Alice in Wonderland, which turns out to be not what it appears—a way of drying out after the flood, rather than a contest that anyone can actually win. Or the Wizard of Oz hiding behind the curtain, artificially amplifying his puny voice to a booming volume. Political life no longer imitates art, but is itself an artless form of performance, in which it has become impossible to commit a gaffe, defined as “an unintentional act or remark causing embarrassment to its originator; a blunder: an unforgivable social gaffe.”
For those of us practicing the ancient wisdom of Zen meditation, and benefiting from its effects upon our daily lives, this curiouser and curiouser obsession with all things Trump stands as a particularly excruciating test of our compassion. It is a good thing that the word literally means “suffer with,” because that is what we are doing, whether we like it or not, in the face of so much that is insufferable. But it raises the question, why are we paying SO MUCH attention to this farce? And what might—or should—we be paying attention to, instead of Trump and the Trumpettes?
Well, we might say—and actually believe—that if we did not pay attention to these political shenanigans, something might go awry. As if our colluding would make any difference. Millions of people may actually lose their healthcare, et cetera ad nauseam. And die. Which, incidentally, sidesteps a lot of pesky details, such as how good that healthcare is in the first place, or whether it would actually prevent anyone from dying anyway.
But setting such quibbles aside, it does seem that we have all been overly agitated and inconvenienced by the Chicken Littles on all sides (libs, conserves & pundits) who kept insisting that THIS IS THE MOST IMPORTANT THING HAPPENING RIGHT NOW! Especially when it culminated in a punt. Or more accurately, like poor, naïve, trusting Charlie Brown interminably whiffing the football, with an assist from Lucy. Not even a punt. More like a reboot.
The entire point of replacing Obamacare is that it was never going to happen. It was all smoke all along. So all of that time, energy and ulcer-engendering worry was for naught. But what could we have been focusing on, and possibly accomplishing, instead, in the interim? I found that I had to turn the news off, in order to get anything done. My work in the studio and shop requires extreme focus; otherwise the painting is ruined, or I might cut my finger off on the table saw, if I am listening to unrelenting angst and anger.
And now after all that, replace redux: Repubs are threatening another attack, just when we thought it was over. But it ain’t over ‘til it’s over, according to Master Yogi Berra. And it never seems to really get over. Here comes the latest: Tomahawk missiles turn out to be better attention-getters than tweets on Twitter. So yes, bad things may happen, but it has nothing to do with whether or not we are paying attention.
So let us turn our attention to the second part of the proposition: To what, exactly, should we be paying attention? If not to the most earth-shaking news of the day, or these days, of the next moment? In a world of alternative truth, is there anything left that qualifies as actual news? If it is all opinion, whose opinion is worth listening to? Or are all opinions equal, in politically-correct land?
Buddha had an opinion. It was something like: Unless you yourself know whereof you speak based on your direct experience, your opinion doesn’t amount to much. Unless, of course, you happen to be the POTUS. Then it counts a lot.
The politics of Buddha’s day embraced the caste system, which is likely still in place in India today, if obfuscated by appearances. It’s the same the whole world over, as the old folk song says. We don’t like to recognize it, but we also have a caste, or class, system in place in the good old USA.
But whatever political program is paramount in our interesting times, the focus of Buddhism has not changed. It was never a movement, organized to save the world. The simple premise of Zen is that we pay attention to our own foibles and follies, first. We have plenty on our plate demanding our attention, and until and unless we address our own failings, we have little room to speak of the failings of others. Thus the Precept.
On a more positive note, we have an embarrassment of riches to confront, on the personal level. As Master Dogen reminds us, in his first writing, Universal Promotion for Zazen (J. Fukanzazengi), “If you do zazen for some time, you will realize all this… the treasure house will then open of itself, and you will be free to enjoy it to your heart’s content.” A more positive promise would be difficult to imagine.
It is important, I think, to ponder the relationship, and the difference, between the personal and the social dimensions, especially in regard to the amount of attention we pay to each. And to even larger realms of living in interesting times, such as the political, especially as exacerbated by 24/7 media. Or, for that matter, how much attention and time go to all of the relatively irrelevant messages competing for our attention.
In advertising, attention is considered a form of currency. That is, if I can capture your attention to my message (or my client’s), in the form of a billboard, a TV commercial or radio spot, that is worth money. Such media venues are valued, based on the number of exposures, or size of audience, for that specific location on the expressway, or prime time slot. Today the success of such campaigns is measured in “reach”: “clicks” and “eyeballs,” as well as “retweets.” So it is incumbent upon each of us to value our attention at least as much as it is sought by those who are frenetically trying to attract it to their message.
When we sit in zazen, we choose to pay attention to certain aspects of what is happening in the moment. Which, compared to the onslaught of messaging from media, is not much, facing a blank wall in a rather subdued environment. Our monkey mind senses an opening, an opportunity to provide entertainment to fill the void. Suddenly we find ourselves reprising memories from our immediate and longer-term past, mulling over worries about our immediate and longer-term future, as well as speculative imaginings and outright fantasies that may have nothing to do with past, future, or present. Nonetheless, they are more interesting than just sitting there, doing nothing.
But we can take comfort in the fact that whatever the monkey wants to do, we can learn from it. If nothing else, we learn that “this” is not “it.” Master Dogen is said to have made a comment to the effect that the Zen life is one long mistake. Whatever we are thinking is probably wrong, in some way. But thinking enlightenment is not possible. So it doesn’t matter what we are thinking. What matters is to what we are paying attention. Our “take” on what is happening in the present moment may be a mistake. If we regard it as such, we may do a double-take, seeing through our first impressions.
Then it becomes possible to reach a “higher approximation to reality,” a phrase that one of my mentors, Bucky Fuller, used to describe new theories of science. For example, the dualism underlying Descarte’s “Cogito ergo sum”—“I think therefore I am”—which places a premium on conscious thinking, ignores the fact that we are conscious before we are thinking beings. We may claim that Zen’s Original Mind, which includes, but is not limited to thinking, is a higher approximation to the way the mind actually exists and works.
From our conventional view of reality, we may find an opening to Zen’s right view. As we recognize that whatever we think, even what we directly perceive, is in some sense a mistaken, or wrong, view—or better yet, incomplete view—then we may encourage ourselves to think that we may accede to a less mistaken view.
Bucky’s higher approximation to reality describes the evolution of scientific thinking around physics, from Newtonian mechanics to relativity to quantum theory. Evolution here is not used in the technical Darwinian sense, but in the more vernacular sense of developmental progress. The latter theories may not completely obviate their precursors, but fill out our understanding more completely, yielding a more comprehensive model of reality. It is also notable that the replacement theory is more seemingly contradictory, less amenable to ordinary understanding.
Buddha’s teaching also evolved in this sense, from the First Sermon to the Lotus Sutra. The latter teachings are also more seemingly contradictory. For example, the idea of emptiness is not even mentioned in the teaching of the Middle Way. It was more an exposition of the true condition of existence, that of suffering, its origin and cessation. And what does not work to bring about cessation, namely the extremes of self-gratification and self-mortification. And that right view evolves from the thoroughgoing practice of the Eightfold Path in daily life. Very practical and down to earth.
But it gives vision, it gives knowledge, and it leads to calm, to insight, to awakening, to nirvana. Leading to insight into what, or awakening to what? Awakening of our original nature, or Buddha (awake) nature, to itself, or to the emptiness of the constructed self.
It bears repeating that Zen insight is based on personal experience, not scriptures. But it is also obvious that such insight is separate and apart from conventional wisdom.
Buddha had to package and present his first teaching to relate to what his audience knew at the time. By the time he delivered his last teaching, which may be regarded as the most refined, most complete exposition, as well as the most contradictory, his followers had evolved as well, through their own, direct experience in meditation. What may have sounded like a contradiction or dichotomy in the beginning of the teaching, now made sense.
Today, following the Bodhisattva vow, and especially in presenting the Buddhist teachings to contemporaries, we must lay the foundation in contemporary terms. We are still in same boat as people were 2500 years ago, and the fundamental problems of existence have not changed.