Where dharma meets the “art of the possible.” A discussion with Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown, Roshi Bernie Glassman, and James Gimian.
Lion’s Roar: Perhaps the best place to begin this conversation is to offer a fundamental definition of “politics,” which is a word with many levels of meaning.
Mayor Jerry Brown: The political is about the collectivity—the nation, the state, the city, the community. It refers not to personal choice—I want to do this or I want to do that—but to working with other people to arrive at some operating agreement about an issue that are important.
Politics is different from contemplation; it’s different from personal friendship, although the political implies like-minded people sharing certain beliefs and certain understandings of what the good is and what the bad is. Politics is about working through divisive issues, because by definition, in a democratic society there is lots of disagreement. Politics refers to a process of struggle, of competition, of discussion, and ultimately of agreeing on certain actions by certain methods. Politics requires people listening to each other and finding some accommodation that will allow them to live peacefully in the same place.
Roshi Bernie Glassman: A lot of people talk about three sectors in society: the government, the major corporations, and the nongovernmental organizations and religious groups, which is the sector our organization, the Peacemaker Circle, is working in. The politics within each of these sectors may look very different. And among these three it’s hard to know who’s really in control.
James Gimian: When you ask for a fundamental definition of politics, my mind goes to the basic experience of duality. From a Buddhist point of view, duality arises whenever you experience separation from the so-called external world. In society, that means that whenever you relate to another person, they will have needs or desires or aspirations that will not necessarily coincide with your own. And the process of working that out so you can both occupy the same space is essentially politics.
It is helpful to start from that point of view because for Buddhists the question is, How does working in the political realm become an extension of my practice? Mayor Brown said that politics is different from contemplation. I would say that if politics is about resolving issues arising from duality—which essentially means contention and conflict—then anybody who undertakes a deep contemplative process to overcome the false belief in ego is doing deeply political work. That’s because they are addressing the root cause of the basic duality, which is what leads to conflict and gives rise to the need for politics. Now, that may seem theoretical, but I think it’s the basis of the political work that Mayor Brown and Roshi Glassman are deeply involved in and are very articulate about.
Shambhala Sun: The involvement of religion in politics can have a positive effect or, as we are seeing in many parts of the world, it can have terribly negative consequences. What can make the entrance of spiritual principles into politics helpful as opposed to destructive?
Glassman: In our work we have three basic tenets that come right out of Buddhist training. First, when we enter into the political world, we enter from a standpoint of not knowing. We don’t enter with a solution in mind; we enter with a deep listening and an open space. The second tenet is bearing witness, fully knowing the situation we are in. And the third tenet is creating actions. We are not just contemplating what is going on; we put a lot of energy into creating actions, but based on not knowing and bearing witness. This is quite different from coming into a situation and saying, “I’ve got the answer, this is the way it has to be.” To me, this makes it a spiritual approach.
Brown: Certainly, starting from a position of not knowing is open, whereas starting from a position of conviction leaves less space for any listening or learning from people who are different from you. So not knowing and openness are very important principles. Of course, in politics one is not easily received as a “not knower.” People expect the people they elect to know where they are going, even if they don’t, even if they have a lot of doubts. But as a general principle, I think not knowing would be a good starting point.
I think what religion and spirituality should bring to politics is a rootedness in perennial wisdom, as it is called in some quarters—a rootedness in the traditions people have. Based on where people live and what their upbringing is, there are principles that are passed on from one generation to the next, and these are the bedrock of who people are.
At the heart of these traditions are understandings about the way we need to treat each other and the way we need to live. These understandings are more fundamental than campaign principles, which are tactical ideas, and economic principles, which are based on limited premises like scarcity and maximizing utility. Economics dominates politics, but I believe the direct spiritual experience and the basic axioms of religious tradition are a more inclusive and fundamental set of reference points. That’s what is needed today because the cost-benefit analysis—the reduction to efficiency—becomes inhuman, hostile and destructive of the environment when taken beyond a certain point. I see our direct spiritual experience and the traditional wisdom people have been brought up with as a counterpoint to the hegemony of economic thinking.
Lion’s Roar: Which is a fundamental nihilism really, a mechanistic view of human relations.
Brown: I thought it was significant that when the chicken pox vaccine was being introduced, the analysis went like this: mothers in the workforce lose x numbers of days a year because their children have chicken pox, and that costs y amount of money. The vaccine costs considerably less, so we should introduce it. There was no real commentary on the reduction in suffering, or the human dimension, but only the very abstract proposition of its impact on the gross national product. That is what I am talking about.
Gimian: One way to approach this question is to distinguish between religion and spirituality. If by religion you mean some established organization or belief system that a person uses to substantiate their existence, then they are just using it to create more territory. That makes it difficult to work effectively in politics, because if you are trying to solidify your sense of personal identity that creates more duality and conflict, as opposed to what we could call spirituality, which tries to create openness. You are willing to look for a solution that transcends your own objectives and includes the goals of all sides. Then the resolution can go beyond what you may have thought possible.
There is an interesting dynamic between the initial open space and the first moment you begin creating action. While openness and not knowing are fundamental to creating a ground where you can resolve conflict, you also do that with some kind of basic direction or vision. But as soon as you take some action, people start sorting themselves out in relationship to that and asking, “What’s their agenda?” So how do you present a vision and have openness at the same time?
Glassman: I use the metaphor of a carpenter. The carpenter has a bag of tools that he has accumulated over his lifetime. Somebody calls and says there is something wrong with their door. Coming in from a standpoint of knowing would be like having your hand stuck to a particular tool. Maybe it’s stuck to the hammer, so you come and start banging away at the door. The not-knowing stance is that you come with all these tools, and you bear witness to this door. Where is it sticking, what is the problem? Then you pull out the right tool.
It is very important to have lots of tools—to have the vision and ideas you talk about—but not to the point where you are stuck on anything in particular as you approach the situation. You are coming with deep listening, with deep openness, and then you use the right tools.
Gimian: Doesn’t conflict arise if you are not willing to fix the door the way the owner wants you to? If you have a basic difference, are you then willing to repair that door however the homeowner wants it, whether or not that’s the best way to fix it?
Glassman: First of all, I don’t believe in a utopia of non-conflict. Whatever you do is going to create conflict in some ways and peace in other ways. We are looking at the overall reduction of suffering, but there is no way that what you do will not cause conflict somewhere. You can’t come from the position of saying you will eliminate all conflict. I think the approach of not knowing and the bearing witness is the most effective way to reduce suffering. But as soon as you take action, you create all kinds of conflict. Whatever action you take is going to create some conflict—with your spouse, with your community, with your whatever.
Brown: Oliver Wendell Holmes, in his great book on the common law, said, “Men must act and whenever they act, there are consequences.” But I do think there are some reference points we can use. One is the well-being of each individual. There is a certain level of material well-being and intellectual and imaginative possibilities that each child brings with them into the world, and that’s a reference point we can use to measure how our communities or our country or our world is doing. Second, we have the environment—the oceans, the rivers, the soil, the air, these interconnected systems that are being disrupted to a greater or lesser degree. The environment can be a reference point for what we should be doing about manufacturing, about jobs, about how we move around and how we collect things. So there are two reference points we can use to judge our actions: their impact on each individual and their impact on other forms of life and the larger ecology.
Lion’s Roar: Here is one of the most difficult problems of political action, from a spiritual point of view. Politics is an inherently conflictual, dualistic arena and to act politically you have to take some sort of position. But how do you do that without contributing to the conflict and division that lies at the heart of the problem? How do you take sides without taking sides?
Glassman: In my book, Instructions to the Cook, based on Dogen’s classic work, the main theme is that we have to see the ingredients as clearly as possible and then make the best meal with those ingredients—not with the ingredients we don’t have but with the ingredients we have. We make the best meal we can and then offer it. It may be yucky or it may be good. We don’t know that beforehand, and that’s not our role.
I can’t wait until I have the right ingredients, whether it is money or enlightenment or a chef’s knowledge or any of that. I have to work with the ingredients I have, knowing that some people are going to hate that meal and some are going to love it. My job is to take those ingredients and do the best I can and offer it. I don’t have any sense of a utopia, or waiting around for a nondual world, or an enlightened world, or for me to be fully enlightened, or any of those things. During each moment stuff is coming up and I have to do the best I can.
Gimian: Sun Tzu’s Art of War talks about the idea of “taking whole.” Whenever you are faced with a conflictual situation, you have to accept the responsibility of the central seat—you are the center of your world; it is you who has to take the actions that are required. If you are looking to win in the lowest possible sense, then it’s just you over the other. Taking whole means finding a resolution to the conflict that includes the deepest hopes and wishes of the other side.
What connects personal practice to this question of how to work in the world without perpetuating the basic confusion of duality is including yourself in the process. You have to be working on yourself, as opposed to thinking you are just working on an external reality. When we talk about the bodhisattva vow and putting other people before ourselves, that’s based on an experience of emptiness. You realize that these actions you take are not to fulfill your own grasping and fixation. At the same time, you realize you are working to help the bigger situation. If those two understandings go hand in hand, then you don’t have to wait for some perfect situation. You start right where you are.
Lion’s Roar: Mayor Brown, you are the one person in this discussion who is a clearly identified member of a political party. You are known to represent a certain pole in the political spectrum, a certain territory or position. Why do you feel that is the best way to act politically?
Brown: Well, it is the best way because it happens to be what fits with the conditions in America. Some 75% of the voters vote for one major party or the other. That leaves only a small amount of space for an independent. The party is a frame that simplifies issues, but neither party can serve as any major repository of truth. Nietzsche said, “A thinking man is not a party man.” I think that is probably true. If you are a member of a political party, it gives some indication of what you generally prefer. The Republicans tend to want to keep taxes down and protect wealth and property. Democrats tend to try to equalize things through the instrumentality of government. But both approaches have plenty of negative consequences when pushed too far or pushed in the wrong way. So it’s really a collision of imperfect approximations.
Many of the things that are done in politics are very small adjustments in the ongoing flow of economic and political activity. It isn’t like we can look into our toolbox and reshape the world. Human beings can’t be engineered and shouldn’t be engineered in that way. In politics we show up in a situation and make relatively limited choices.
So I would say that we have to have a certain level of modesty about what is possible in politics, and that the parties are not profoundly different. If you look at the differences among people, the party is only one part of it. Ethnicity is another part, geography is another part, and maybe gender is another part. We have all these categories we find ourselves in, with a lot of collision among them. Even though you have to be in a category—you are male, you are female, you are over 65 or under, you are a Democrat, you are a conservative—these are just approximations. They say some important things, but being human transcends all of that. And that is where we should be looking when we have to make the really important decisions.
Lion’s Roar: The American Buddhist world, or at least its prominent adherents, is generally skewed toward the liberal end of the spectrum. Is this a reflection of inherent Buddhist values or simply of the type of Westerners who have been attracted to Buddhism over recent decades?
Gimian: A lot of what we are seeing in North America is because of the particular generation, what we might broadly call the Boomers, who have largely populated and been leading the North American Buddhist communities. Also, Buddhism is still a new and fringy phenomenon in the West. It is not enfranchised in the society like it is in Asia. Perhaps in a couple of generations, if it grows and survives, if it becomes propertied and enfranchised, you might well see different values reflected in the Buddhist community, conservative values having to do with maintaining a tradition. But right now, Buddhists are generally people who reacted to a certain time in history and sought spiritual solutions for problems which were deeply political, deeply societal.
Lion’s Roar: Roshi Glassman, do you feel Buddhist values call for any particular political position, such as liberalism?
Glassman: It can’t be that. If you look through history—Japanese history, for instance—Buddhism did not play such a liberal role. I don’t think you could say about Buddhism in general what you said about Buddhism in the West. In the 1960’s, Buddhism attracted a certain kind of Westerner who was coming from the liberal side. But I agree with Jim that with time, as it gets more vested, Buddhism won’t be just liberal anymore; it will include the whole spectrum of people.
Brown: There are a lot of transitory arrangements and ideas in politics; they are fashionable for a while and then they pass out of practice. I don’t think we can escape being positioned in some temporary arrangement—that’s just part of what it is to be human—but I can’t see that Buddhism is going to align itself with some category that will keep changing over time. It seems to me we have to get beyond these things, although each way of being in the world—from Tibet to Japan to Berkeley, California—will develop its own rituals and liturgies and folkways to manifest the basic experience.
Glassman: Yeah, the difference between Texas Buddhism and Berkeley Buddhism is going to be huge.
Lion’s Roar: Beyond questions of policy, there are profound problems with the political process—the parties practice a take-no-prisoners partisanship and the voters feel a corrosive cynicism about it all. What can we do to bring some dignity and civility and respectfulness to the political process?
Brown: One reason why politics seems so disreputable is that politicians, in order to stay in their profession, have to keep very divergent interests somewhat mollified. People with very different opinions all have to feel that they are being represented. Therefore, politicians can’t always be totally precise, so they get the reputation for speaking dishonestly. The people they represent can’t agree and yet they only have one representative, so that builds into the process a certain footwork on the part of the politician that leads to cynical interpretations.
I think the basics of nonviolence and treating people and things with more care is a powerful idea that has to be brought to bear in the hurly-burly of politics. The conflictual nature of political competition is always in need of the corrective of interconnectedness, of nonviolence.
Glassman: The practices of not knowing and deep listening have led me to try to bring all of the voices to the table. This is not unique to Buddhism, but I think if you are coming from a deep Buddhist viewpoint and you really acknowledge the interconnectedness of life, you must listen to all the voices, all the aspects of yourself. That changes the political process dramatically. When I built Greyston, I brought in Democrats and Republicans. People told me, “Don’t deal with the churches, they’re going to screw everything up.” I brought in the churches. “Don’t deal with the government.” I brought in the government. I tried to bring every voice into the discussion. It’s not always easy to do—to get people to sit down at the same table—but it’s something extremely helpful that Buddhism brings to the process.
Gimian: If you’re asking what a unique Buddhist contribution to politics could be, I think it would be about maintaining a radical perspective throughout the process. By radical I mean always coming back to the roots. From a Buddhist perspective, basic reality has to do with the truth of suffering. We accept that there is going to be a certain kind of dissatisfaction. We don’t try to ignore it or cover it over, because it is often the covering-over that perpetuates conflict.
Along with suffering, we have egolessness and impermanence, which are the other two of the three marks of existence. Things are constantly changing, and that scares a lot of people. In a political arena, people don’t like change. But it’s a fundamental truth of human existence that things are constantly in flux—changing from an inner point of view and from an outer point of view—and if we acknowledge that it will help people become comfortable with it.
All of these things lead to a more natural gentleness, and I think that’s what it comes down to in the end. The result of this kind of radical perspective is a natural gentleness that makes it possible to work with groups of people and come to resolutions that they can’t even imagine initially.
Lion’s Roar: Finally, Buddhism says that the real answer to human suffering is spiritual. So what are the limits of what can be achieved in politics? The converse might be: If we want to really change things, would we be talking about using politics to present a spiritual view? For instance, Roshi Glassman, can you have a powerful effect on the situation in the Middle East by purely political means, or do you have to act as a spiritual teacher in some way?
Glassman: I don’t think I have to act as a spiritual teacher to do that. My feeling is that to have real effect you have to be dealing in all of the spheres. You can’t leave any of them out. In the Middle East, we are involved in the political world, the social action world, the religious world, the cultural world. I think you have to deal with each of those. Whichever one you leave out, that’s the one that will destroy your progress.
Brown: I have to say two things. First, I think the idea that we can have some big impact on this complicated thing called the world—all these billions of people and all these complicated systems that we form a small part of—is a bit fatuous. I don’t know what to say about it. However, at the same time, I do operate with the idea that I am doing something that has some impact that can be positive. So that right there is a rather dualistic stance of both impotence and empowerment.
Second, presenting people with spiritual teachings is no easy matter if you are a politician and hold an elected office. It would be difficult to be heard unless one spoke very carefully. I still recall Yamada Roshi saying when I lived in Kamakura, “You yourself are completely empty.” But I don’t think I’m going to bring that up at a city council meeting, much less on the campaign trail or on Hardball.
The more we can talk in common sense, the more we can utter simple and straightforward truths, the more people will listen. We can’t get caught up in the latest language. There’s a lot of cant in the political process. The important thing is to speak in words that you use when you are speaking to a friend or another person. Words at the most basic level have a certain power because they are not so abstracted and distorted. Common sense is so rare, and it has a power that constantly has to be brought to bear on the politics of our time.
Gimian: I think what Mayor Brown has articulated is a very Buddhist perspective—that it comes down not to a religion but to our basic human experience. If you can communicate that from the depths of your being, that’s a very powerful contribution in a political context.
Jerry Brown is mayor of Oakland, California. Governor of California for eight years and a three-time presidential candidate, he has long been one of America’s most interesting politicians. He has a strong spiritual and philosophical background as a student of Zen and former Jesuit seminarian.
Roshi Bernie Glassman has a created a series of successful social action and political organizations. He founded the Greyston Mandala in Yonkers, New York, which provides employment, housing, health care and other services to the disadvantaged of Westchester County. His current project is the Peacemaker Circle, a multi-faith organization working to create more effective peacemaking and social transformation in trouble spots around the world.
James Gimian is executive director of the Denma Translation Group, which produced The Art of War: the Denma Translation (Shambhala Publications, 2001), a new edition of Sun Tzu’s classic text with explanatory essays. He was a close student of and aide to the late Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche and was publisher of the Shambhala Sun (now known as Lion’s Roar).