Is this zen politics?

How does zen politics connect to the way we engage with the world, the way we operate as individuals in society, to politics and (Jonathan Rowson’s sphere – see my last blog) to policy?

As a starting-point, let’s take a Zen monk, Norman Fischer, quoted by Rowson, arguing that spiritual practice is ‘useless, absolutely useless’. You can do lots of good things for self, family and friends, but spiritual practice won’t help you address any of these concerns.

Elsewhere Rowson quotes Steven Asma in the RSA magazine: ‘If care is indeed a limited resource, then it cannot stretch indefinitely to cover the massive domain of strangers’.

Fischer’s experience is opposite to mine. And I don’t think it’s Zen. As for Asma, Rowson suggests he hasn’t heard of the metta sutta (a core practice in the Theravada tradition of Buddhism), which involves expanding that sense of loving kindness we keep for ourselves and our family and community and extending it to the wider world – and then the whole world.

Extending loving kindness… someone today said to me yesterday how difficult that was. I disagree. We simply, and constantly, need to focus less on our selfish preoccupations, and more on the needs of others. It is a remarkable and simple corrective, and tunes into a fundamental part of each of us. Violence and confrontation are seen for what they are, at best an aberration and at worse and outright evil.

Care and compassion need not be, are not, limited resources. Care can be infinite, where we attach the same value to others as we do to ourselves. So we need less a sense of something beyond, more something a natural extension of ourselves, and the excitement and the mystery comes from realizing simply how wonderful and powerful that might be.

How do we get there? One suggestion…

By reflecting on the world and taking in all sides of an issue or argument, and by practising mindfulness. In Rowson’s words: ‘Over time, mindfulness helps behaviour to become significantly less reactive, and much more in people’s conscious control.’ If you don’t believe him, or me – try it.

I hesitate these days mentioning mindfulness. It’s out there – a therapy, an accepted business practice or fad, depending on your outlook. Whereas I see it a part of the very fabric of life, essential to understanding how best to live our lives, a corrective against a partial or overly-personal view of the world, and all the negativity and false emotions that go with that view.

If you’re with me this far, you may argue that while it’s wonderful having the right attitudes, how do we translate them into practical action, how can we make (encourage our politicians make) better public policy, how can we as members of society engage with policy and both criticize and help enact it as appropriate? And how can we ensure we have a popular press that takes part in that process, allows debate and argument, and by its own engagement and actions encourages readers to be likewise engaged.

Not easy of course, and that’s not easy even on this beautiful Sunday morning. and cannot be achieved by preaching from pulpits, by politicians or by headline and leader writers. It has to come from within us, and that is both easy, with self-knowledge, and appallingly difficult, in our current climate, where we rush to judgement and prefer to follow the herd.


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