The Real Revolution Begins at Home
It has always seemed to me that what Buddha did, in establishing the first Order of monks and nuns in India, was revolutionary. But we have to be circumspect in asserting such assumptions, as the cultural and political context of the time was so different from ours. What may appear on the surface to have been a counter-cultural departure from norms of the day, may not have been. That is, the Buddhist Sangha may have been only one of many such experiments in alternate lifestyles. In America today, proposing that we all move into the forest, where we spend long hours in meditation, pausing only to go begging through residential neighborhoods for our meals, would not only be considered radical; it would probably land us all in jail.
To make such a public display of our practice path today would invite pushback, in an era of confrontational identity politics, and special-interest movements. This is why Zen is, in my estimation—revolutionary; yes—but it is the quiet revolution.
ZEN IS NOT A CULT
Zen meditation (J. zazen) itself looks non-threatening, from the outside. The only thing we claim it threatens is the ego, or constructed self. It seems an innocuous exercise in self-improvement, with its emphasis on silent illumination. Socially, Zen communities present as well-intentioned groups of like-minded people, at most a harmless cult. But those who get inside a Zen center come to see that it is the opposite of a cult, in that we strive to train every individual to lead, or at least to define their relationship to the group in a proactive, creative, collaborative way.
But we should not underestimate the power of Zen. Including its effect on our personal lives, of course, but also the ripple-effect on our larger community. There is something radical about sitting stock-still for extended periods of time, doing nothing in particular; not even thinking. That we embrace the process of change that emerges, to be a form of intentional personality disintegration, would be alarming to many, especially those in the mental health industry. Better to take a pill to calm down, than to risk going out of your mind.
ZEN IS COUNTER-CULTURAL
That substantial groups would flock together from time to time, to spend whole days, even weeks or months, engaged in purposeless activity, should be even more disconcerting to the overseers of a society that values productivity above all, other than profit. Which terms are virtually synonymous, in a capitalist milieu. But the main social or political issue with Zen practice, fully understood, is that it leads to true independence. Not only of thinking, but even of motive. Whatever their protestations to the contrary, the powers that be would not welcome true independence on the part of the hoi polloi.