Buddhism and politics – never the twain shall meet?

‘Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.’ (Rudyard Kipling, Barrack-Room Ballads.)

I don’t claim to be a practising Buddhist. But there is no better way in my experience of understanding the world. That’s why I began this blog. To explore how Buddhism, and Zen especially, might connect with the ordinary world.

Unhappiness, dissatisfaction – in the world and with the world – dukkha – are the Buddhist’s starting-point.

‘Unhappiness arises because there is resistance and rejection … Rejection and resistance are part of anger because nothing will ever be exactly as we wish. If we are still looking for satisfaction in worldly matters, we haven’t seen Dhamma [the Buddhist truth] yet.’ (Ayya Khema)

So do we put worldly affairs behind us? If we’re following a path to enlightenment then, it seems, we must. And yet of course, we can’t. Monks cut their bonds with home, they move as far from obstacles as they can. This requires discipline and sacrifice. For a higher reward.

But the ordinary outside world will and must go on as before.

The Venerable Myokyo’s comments on Zen Master Daie help. (Zen Traces, September 2018.) Master Daie highlights the contrast between ‘gentlemen of affairs’ and ‘home leavers’ (meaning monks of course).

A gentleman of affairs – a nobleman back in Tang dynasty China. ‘Affairs’ – the daily grind, affairs as we understand them?  No, ‘this affair, this great affair of birth and death.’

What if we substitute ‘men and women going about their ordinary daily affairs’ for ‘gentlemen of affairs’. Bring ‘this great affair of birth and death’ down to earth.

If we are mindful in our daily affairs there is always something blocking our path – something we want and can’t have, something that simply isn’t right, something beautiful but beyond our reach, something ugly and too close to home. (I’m paraphrasing the Venerable Myokyo.)

For men and women in their daily affairs, as for the gentlemen of affairs, there is one route to follow. Faced with all the wants, likes, dislikes, loathings that block the path – ‘just sit down in meditation: not to get rid of them, but to look at them. To look at them clearly and recognise them. In that recognition they lose their power.’

We don’t all sit down to meditate.  But if we step back (meditation in its simplest form) and look at all our likes and loathings, and see them for what they are – our own projections on to the world, and not of the world itself – then they will lose their power.

Their emotive power. But we do not lose, surely, our power to distinguish between right and wrong. If we are political in that sense we can’t put our compassion behind us. We want to ensure that a world in which everyone may follow their own path, free from hindrance, and follow a path to enlightenment if they wish, will always be there.

There can be no guarantees that will be the case.

The Camino and the poem

I didn’t carry a book of poems with me on the Camino. I thought about it. But I wanted all my responses to be my own, and not guided by the insights of others. Now I’m back, and I’m reading, and writing.

Antonio Machado has a reminder of another way of walking:

I have walked many roads, / I have found many paths; / I have sailed a hundred seas, / and landed on a hundred shores…

And in all places I have seen/ people who dance and play, / when they can, and work / their four spans of land.

Never when they come to a place / do they ask where to go. / When they make their way, they ride / on the back of an old mule / and do not know to hurry /not even on the days of the fiesta…

We’re privileged to walk the Camino. Countless others have travelled before us, and they’ve travelled wisely, and slowly. (Walking slowly is something I’m not always too good at, as my Camino friends will testify!)

Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken reminds us of chance and serendipity:

…Two roads diverged in a wood, and I – / I took the road less travelled by, / And that has made all the difference.

There is of course only one route westward (and a few diversions) on the Camino. But is there? Depending on when you start, the month, the season, the weather, the clouds, the shadows – there are a thousand routes.

Rudyard Kipling’s The Way through the Woods catches the sense of those who’ve travelled a path before us:

…Yet, if you enter the woods / Of a summer evening late… / You will hear the beat of a horse’s feet, / and the swish of a skirt in the dew / Steadily cantering through / The misty solitudes

This is a corner of England, not Spain, and it’s woodland, and the path is no more… but the resonance is still there. And that sense of impermanence: the Camino hasn’t always been there, and won’t always be there.  We are our own moment in time.

I was always conscious on the Camino of those who’d walked before me, maybe a thousand years ago. St James never walked the way, but as Santiago Matamoros he led the Spanish army against the Moors, so legend would have it. He could also be my companion, and to see what I mean by that check out another post, with two poems of my own, under the heading ‘Shadow – four poems’.

On another tack, there’s Pablo Neruda:

And that’s why I have to go back / to so many places in the future / there to find myself… / with no task but to live / with no family but the road

I love Neruda but there’s a Rilke poem I can’t find that captures the idea of the future, of a light ahead we never reach, even  better.

[Rilke poem, The Walk, now found, thanks to my friend, Sarah, my companion for three days on the Camino.

Already my eyes touch the sunlit hill/Far ahead of the road I have just begun/ So we are grasped by what we cannot grasp;/We see its light even from a distance –

And it changes us, even if we do not reach it,/Into something else, which, hardly sensing it, we already are;/A gesture seems to wave us on, answering our own wave,/But what we feel is the wind in our faces.]

Finally, another, and famous, Machado:

Walker, your footsteps / are the road, and nothing more.

Walker, there is no road, / the road is made by walking.

Walking you make the road, / and turning to look behind / you see the path you never / again will step upon.

Walker there is no road, / only foam trails on the seas.

We experience highs and the lows, joys and sorrows, we walk in company and alone, we laugh and we keep silence. There’s a poem somewhere which captures every mood.

Or almost does, which is why we keep writing our own poems. No-one quite captures a moment or a mood as we do ourselves. We only need the pen, and the silence.