A New Democracy

Part one of Joan Halifax’s teaching, A New Democracy: The Koan of Servant Leadership, which she gave on January 21, 2009 at Upaya Zen Center.

Joan Halifax
25 March 2009

From koans to politics, this is from Upaya Zen Center’s weekly newsletter. It’s part one of Joan Halifax’s teaching, A New Democracy: The Koan of Servant Leadership, which she gave on January 21, 2009 at Upaya Zen Center.

About a thousand years ago in China, the interactions between Zen teachers and students began to be collected. These interactions were called koans which means ‘public case.’ As koans were being collected in China, Chaco Canyon was being constructed. It is interesting to be in a place where the structure of the buildings and the orientation of the buildings were an endeavor to create clarity and coherence in a universe that was perceived as being fundamentally indeterminate. Koans are very much in that same spirit.  They are a means wherein people can contemplate an interaction from a thousand years ago that points to a quality within the human psyche, which has the capacity for deep discernment, for clarity.  We’re in an indeterminate time when discernment and clarity are useful.

I think many of us yesterday morning sat in front of our television sets and our computers watching the historical inauguration, and here at Upaya were many people in the zendo sitting in front of a huge screen watching the inauguration of  Barack Hussein Obama.  I was reminded that many of my friends on Facebook gave themselves the middle name of Hussein as a way of using an identity marker to peel away the associations with an identity that turns us against half of the world and thus ourselves.  I thought it a wonderful joke and a skillful means.

The koan that I’d like to present this afternoon as we touch into this exploration of Buddhism, democracy and Obama is a simple one.  It is from Basho,  a 17th century monk-poet and teacher who ended up eschewing the so-called social life.  He walked around the countryside in Northern Japan and composed many wonderful haiku that we continue to appreciate many years later.

A Monk once asked Basho: “What is the essence of your practice?”
Basho replied: “Whatever is needed.”

I live with that koan inside of me, not that I always actualize it.  But it’s absolute plain-riceness, which is typical of Basho, is something that I have come to deeply appreciate.  What is the essence of this practice, our practice, whatever our practice might be, and the response by Basho, “Whatever is needed.”  Because the practice is not about Basho, we understand.  It is not even about the practice, it is not about Zen, it is not about Buddhism.  It is about just one thing and one thing only and that is what is needed.

To read the rest, check out the Upaya newsletter.

Roshi Joan Halifax photo

Joan Halifax

Joan Halifax is the abbot and head teacher of Upaya Institute and Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Her most recent book Standing at the Edge: Finding Freedom Where Fear and Courage Meet explores how we can face the challenges we are facing in our current fraught political climate.