I would like to offer a different perspective on the passing pageantry of politics than you might expect, however; one that may seem naïve on its surface, or even counterintuitive. From the perspective of Zen, it seems to me that the prescribed attitude in the face of the onslaught of the campaign—or a Zen definition of sanity—would be defined as apolitical. That is, instead of getting caught up in the hysteria that is our political system today, and taking sides, we might instead take a backward step, and see it for what it truly is. Which, ironically, our current candidate(s)—take your pick—is/are making excruciatingly clear.
The conventional, usually dismissive view of anyone taking an apolitical stance is implied in the definition provided by the New Oxford American Dictionary bundled on my laptop: "not interested or involved in politics: a former apolitical housewife." That being apolitical would be typical only of someone like a housewife, conjures an image from 1950s television, with the happy housewife blithely gadding about the home in her apron, blissfully unaware of anything outside the front door—from which her husband bravely sallies forth and returns each day, dealing with bringing home the bacon—including the vagaries of such realities of the politics of the day, better left to the judgment of men. The vestiges of the fight for women's suffrage, it seems, are still with us, lurking in the hidden corners of the language itself.
The first presidential election that I became aware of was in the 1950s, when Dwight D. (Ike) Eisenhower ran on the Republican ticket against Adlai Stevenson. I remember my father and grandfather (his stepfather) arguing politics vehemently when we would visit. Which was frequently, as they lived in our home town, and my dad was very devoted to his mother. I was so impressed with what I thought to be my dad's grasp of politics, that one day I blurted out that he ought to be president! He was taken aback by this, and in retrospect, I could see that he was somewhat mollified. Kids can sometimes be a mirror to ourselves.
I also remember my dad's disbelief, anger and exasperation, when my mom disclosed that she had voted for Eisenhower. He couldn't believe that she would vote in such a way that simply cancelled out his own vote for Stevenson. They may as well have both stayed home. But mom was not just a happy housewife. She worked in a grocery store, for one thing, and had a strong, independent streak. And, evidently, liked Ike. Dad apparently, and erroneously, assumed that she had been persuaded by his superior grasp of the politics of the day. Whether Stevenson would have been a better president than Ike, we leave to the speculators. For one thing, we may not have had our national highway system, which again, I leave to others to judge as a good or bad thing. It certainly has a down side. And such developments do not always depend on the man.
I also remember, from high school history, I think, hearing about the earlier Thomas Dewey "victory," published as a front page headline, before the embarrassing results, showing that Harry Truman won, came in. As one result, perhaps the Atomic Bomb would not have been dropped on Hiroshima. Or at least, not the second, seemingly gratuitous one, on Nagasaki. Who knows what difference a different president may have made? There are surely some grave consequences, which we still have difficulty confronting, to our selection, and election, of a president. Presuming that we actually select the candidate, when an examination of the "rigged" electoral system, as more than one candidate has pointed out, suggests that we the people do not elect anyone.
When I think back on the history of presidential politics, as impressed upon my vague awareness by the campaigns of the day, I remember that each time, the world was going to come to an end—or we would finally find paradise on Earth—depending on the outcome of the current election. I hate to contemplate how many four-year cycles that would add up to by now, but it is quite a few. You do the math. But each time, the frenzy that was whipped up, over which turkey we were going to have for Thanksgiving this time, caught my attention—as a kind of absurdist, peripheral backdrop to the stresses and changes that were central, operative, and dispositive to the arc of my own little life story. Who was elected president did not seem, ultimately, to have all that much bearing; but that could be a symptom of my ignorance, and not the reality.
What did stand out for me was the hysterics, the absolute conviction on the part of the parties, that unless their guy (and now, for the first time in our history, their gal) was elected, all hell was going to break loose. When Ike beat Adlai there was widespread breast-beating and foretelling of doom. Likewise when JFK won: we would soon be kowtowing to the Pope. And this was long before the sexual scandals of The Church came to light.
When LBJ was elected, we would return to the New Deal of FDR, which many are still trying to repeal. And carry on the insanity of Vietnam, with young men my age heading to Canada, Japan and other redoubts to wait out the next election cycle, when it might be safe to return. Now, of course, the "all-volunteer army" has lifted the dread threat of the draft from most of the upcoming generation. Those with other choices, anyway.
When politics once again raised the sweaty head of "Tricky-Dick-you-won't-have-me-to-kick-around-anymore-and-I-am-not-a-crook-Nixon," predictions of doom abounded. But Nixon is credited with opening the gate to China. Which, in retrospect, may not now look like such a great idea, after all.
The list goes on: Goldwater; Ford; Bush one and W two; Reagan OMG; Clinton one—and maybe, soon—Clinton 2; with Obama thrown in for good measure. All marking the end of America as we knew it. And now TRUMP. TRUMP. TRUMP.
I expect any day now to see the new symbol of the GOP revealed: the wooly mammoth. At least in a cartoon.
Even Lincoln, now widely revered, was considered a disaster by a large enough contingent of the citizenry that they saw fit to assassinate him. Whether he can be credited with saving the Union, I leave to the historians to debate, but we can imagine the lines of the map if the Civil War had turned out differently. The Confederate Republic of America, stretching from somewhere near the Midwest Canadian border to the southern tip of Florida, with a Gaza Strip in the West. Some have suggested ceding Texas back to Mexico, making it the northern tip of Greater Mexico. The remaining western and eastern coastal states, and a balkanized Great Lakes region, comprise the Un-united Democracy of America. The former USA as a larger version of Israel, a two-country solution on the never-never plan.
I have said this before, but it is not lost on me that Climate Change Deniers, primarily conservatives (which begs the question, just what are they trying to conserve?), would cede the coastal ("blue") states to the rising ocean, creating a ("red") continent of the inner states, so-called "fly-over" country. Good riddance to bad democrats, I guess.
Should anyone be wondering by now, not that it's any of your damned business, I am registered interdependent.
Please forgive the hyperbole, but in the context of what passes for politics today, the above is really not much of an exaggeration. You can understand, in a sense, why certain folks would see the desirability of walling in the country, i.e. walling out our neighbors, speaking of Israel. The proposition seems even more reasonable, in that our east and west boundaries are defined by the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. All we have to worry about is, first, our southern boundary, and that mainly with Texas. And, maybe later, if they get too feisty up north, a longer, but even more beautiful wall, cementing our separation from Canada. Not that walls, from Hadrian's to the Maginot Line, have ever worked before.
But it is understandable that we would want to reify the boundaries of our country, much as we do our states, counties, and municipalities; even our own back yards. Particularly because these boundaries—and indeed, these entities—do not actually exist, in Nature. Like most of what exists in the minds of man, they are mere matters of agreement. They are entirely made up, by us chickens. And, as we see in other parts of the world, such boundaries are pliable. They can shift like the shifting sands of the desert. Our precious identity might be lost in the shuffle. And we can't have that.
As with our self-identification with our country of origin, or of choice—heaven forfend that one should consider oneself a "man without a country" (as Matsuoka Roshi did)—just so with our politics of identity. We identify with one party or another, based on a complex of issues and values that we associate with who, and what kind of person, we are, or want to be. Just like our favored sports teams. But this very self—that we are patriotically associating with our homeland, and loyally reinforcing our political preference¬—is regarded with skepticism in Zen Buddhism. Its extensions to nationality, ethnicity, and political identity, are likewise suspect, if not more so.
The melodrama drummed up by the quadrennial orgy/ordeal of presidential politics begs several questions: Who says that it is this important? Important enough to occupy so much bandwidth of the public airwaves, for four years? And it never stops. We are in the age of the continuous campaign. The inauguration has morphed to a 4-year exclamation point in a continuity of monotony, one jazz musician's description of early rock and roll. Like the seasonal overlapping of sports, we go from baseball to football to basketball to soccer to the Olympics in one big blur. But in politics, it is the same game, over and over.
And the results keep coming out more or less the same. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer, like the old Irish folk song. No political system can provide a workaround for the follies and foibles of power-obsessed people. Venality and corruption are not the exclusive province of any one party. The predicted collapse of the entire system keeps refusing to happen, though it is always looming on the horizon. We are repeatedly sold the same proposition—through hope and fear, alternating until we cave in—that this is the most important thing happening, at this time, in the history of the world. Nothing we ourselves are doing can be nearly as important.
The ongoing lack of voter turnout tells another story—peaking in the 80 percent range in the mid-1800s, it currently floats around 50-plus percent. About half the eligible voters have dropped out, whether they have turned on or tuned in, or not. Not everyone is buying into the proposition that whomever is elected POTUS is all that important. And many are questioning whether or not one-man-one-vote really counts any more, and not just because their spouse may vote the opposite. The system is clearly rigged in favor of incumbency. And intelligent voting requires a lot of research.
Those who demur from voting may be wrong, of course. But they may have a point. All of the people who were disgusted at the election of honest Abe at that time are now dead. How important—how real—was all the hysteria? What did the assassination accomplish? What would have been different had Abe lost, or not been so honest?
But the kind of apolitical attitude that I hold is intrinsic to Buddhism, is not a stubbornly ignorant dismissal of the importance of the political campaign—to the future of the country, and its effects on us as individuals—but one that suggests that other areas of our lives are just as important, even much more so, than that which is presented as the political choice du jour. And in fact, that our actions are always political, even if not directly engaged in the politics of our era. Going off-grid, for example, is very political.
The establishment of the original Buddhist Order in India was a political phenomenon, whether conceived of as intentionally so, or not. That a community (S. sangha) would invite and allow participation by anyone, regardless of caste, at that time, amounted to a powerful challenge to the established order. The very word polity means an organized society of people. Any alternative constitutes a potential challenge. That the state of Buddhism in India, today, is not a factor in its politics, does not materially change this fact. Those who follow Zen or Buddhism today are not intentionally disengaged from politics; but the manner of their engagement may not follow the norm. All politics is local, so goes the phrase. And the Zen community is largely local.
When we look at the hype and hoopla surrounding a campaign, especially for president of the US, we have to wonder, what is all the excitement about? It is, of course, a bit like the iconic train wreck, or a multiple vehicle collision on the expressway (single collisions are far too common to attract our attention any more). We want to turn away, but some insidious force keeps compelling us to look, against our better judgment. It is admittedly obscene, but in a publicly approved way. Thus, it is irresistible. We wonder, how much worse can it get? And the next news cycle dependably delivers the answer. It is not like an addiction, however; it is an addiction.
The answer—to who says the election is so important—can be found by following the money. The vested, or moneyed, interests, have a fiscally measurable stake in the outcome. In the process of the election itself, they can ultimately be ferreted out, though today's laws, passed by the self-same individuals that the moneyed support financially, make it very difficult. Nothing is so obvious as that which is hidden.
We hear a lot of breast-beating and hand-wringing over the amount of money in politics, but not much reporting about where, and to whom, the hundreds of millions¬—now approaching billions—of dollars go, each cycle. Who is profiting directly from the excess of campaign spending? Which spending, failing in the last cycle to elect the victor's opponents, suggest that the amount of money squandered is not determinative.
So-called conservatives, as I am given to understand, are the first to dismiss the idea that throwing money at something is the best approach. So why do they keep throwing bushels of dollars at the presidency? Because the other side does so, also? POTUS is, essentially, a low-paying job, and a thankless task; one that few of the "1 percent" would take. For them, it would amount to a cut in pay, and a demeaning daily grind.
I suspect that the campaign is not actually about what it is purportedly about. Which is not a new idea, but I may mean it in a different way. I suspect that it is mainly a shell game—directing our attention toward a fascinating, if degrading, spectacle—in order to divert attention from the real action. Basic slight-of-hand, a magic trick.
The presidency, if we remember our high school civics lessons, represents the Executive branch of government, which supposedly is in a check-and-balance system with the other two branches, the Legislative and the Judiciary. So a big part of the campaign for president, I think, is to exaggerate its importance in relation to the other two branches, so that we do not see what is going on under those particular rocks. When we turn them over, it is revealing, and revolting, in a different way than the jockeying for president. The campaigns for Congress or SCOTUS are no less unlovely.
When we take a jaundiced, and unwavering, look at what we call the "Congress," we are reminded of the dynamic definition of the term, "the action of coming together: sexual congress." Just as our approval, or revulsion, at what we witness, depends on whose ox is being gored, it also depends upon who is the goat, to reference an even more vulgar, but sometimes apt, expression.
In the case of the Supremes, we see a deadlocked court of eight, not nine, robes; hamstrung by the "greatest deliberative body in the world" —as a check, but not a balance—to the presidential prerogative to nominate a replacement candidate, and have that nomination considered. They prefer a dead judge to a living one.
But I suspect that our attention is intentionally being deflected from coming to terms with something even more disturbing than the obvious dysfunction of the so-called political system. Again, not a new idea, not invented here. But it is becoming more and more apparent, it seems to me, that our democracy, our republic, is not. When no stone is left unturned, you find that we have the same resurgence of self-serving and self-centered striving that has been characteristic of civilization since the formation of the ancient tribes, and the first city-states of record.
TRUMP is simply the predictable manifestation of this cultural meme, just as factory farming is the predictable manifestation of the desirability of the one-dollar hamburger. Just as we self-identify with a "right" to eat what we want, and at a price we can afford; we also self-identify with the wealthy, whom we emulate; and feel that we have a right to whatever kind of lifestyle we can imagine. If we cannot literally finance the level to which we would like to become accustomed, at least we can identify with those who can. And in doing so, we can feel righteous in our prejudices and ownership: "This land is my land." Whether it is also your land, however, is open to question.
The "me-first" mentality is not limited to either party. Witness the advent of wealthy individuals on both sides, self-financing their startup campaigns; as well as the accumulation of wealth of those that made their fortunes while in politics. When we look at the Buddhist Precepts—particularly that of not taking what is not freely given—where in the political landscape can we find a single example?
Does anyone ever win the presidency, or any elective office, without taking it from their opponent? In which case, it is not freely given, but taken by brute force, the domination of a majority of votes. Which are not always free of corrupting influences. Of course, the office does not belong to the incumbent, but to the people. So it has to be taken from the people, through corruption, or we, the people, have to give it to the winner, if not entirely freely. We now measure the cost of acquiring each vote, in dollars spent.
This self-aggrandizing motive underlying political striving is also indicated by the value associated with name recognition, which is another way of saying fame, or celebrity. If we have name recognition, we have a better chance of being elected. It is not necessary to be famous for anything; to be famous for being famous is enough. With both fame and fortune, we have hit the jackpot, won the double lottery. Now we can dedicate our lives to "serving" the public. As long as we are compensated adequately.
Nowadays, it seems an inconvenient truth that industrial corporations have become the new nation-states, and are marching onward to hegemony over the entire globe. Again, not an original conclusion. But the battle for our way of life, as we imagine it to be determined by the arc of history, has already been lost. We are now being entertained by the corporate entities—some old, some new—that stand to benefit from whomever is elected as their Executive; checked and balanced by their Judiciary; their Legislative branches; also in thrall to their direct influence or ideology, which is just another way of saying self-identity. This is the modern-day version of us-versus-them. Another word for it is oligarchy, or more appropriately corporatocracy. Corporations are people, too.
The entertainment being served up to us is the current political sideshow, while business-as-usual proceeds under the big tent, hidden from view. In a declining state, such as England¬—formerly "Great Britain"—distraction is provided by the present parliamentary system, recently divorced from the Euro union, with an assist from the royal family. This latter amounts to a kind of satyr play, or cartoon, following the feature film, the Greek tragedy of the "empire on which the sun never sets." We are still cleaning up after that narcissistic catastrophe, all around the globe. But what if it had never happened? Would the world be a better place, without the introduction of Western "civilization," courtesy of the colonial powers? We will never know for sure.
While we cannot wash our hands of presidential politics, though approximately half of our fellow citizens regularly do so, we can at least take a deep breath, and get a grip on the relative unimportance this painfully public form of theater has for our lives. At least the candidacy of TRUMP has a certain carnivalesque honesty about it: you don't con a con man. Whereas what his short-lived primary opponents trotted out was of the wink-wink, nudge-nudge variety. What you see is not what you get, in any case, and they all wear new clothes. It is up to us to see through the style to what substance is underneath, however unappealing.
Our own actions, taken in our daily lives, form the basis for the true, living politics. We just concluded this year's annual conference of the Silent Thunder Order and Precepts Retreat, at the end of which a group of eight candidates underwent the formal Zen Initiation ceremony (J. jukai) If we are successful in helping others to take up the way of the Precepts, there may be hope even for the political system. Barack Obama may indeed be a closet Buddhist, rather than a closet Muslim, but he was not able to compensate for the resistance of human nature found under the gold dome. If all were dedicated to more than lip service to the Precepts, however, things might be different.
Take but one example, the aforementioned: do not take what is not freely given. While this Precept cannot be separated from the others in any holistic consideration of their meaning and import, allowing it will simplify my point. Without getting into the ethical dilemmas and social justice considerations, or all of the many ways we can steal from one another, just imagine for a moment that no one ever intentionally stole anything from anyone else, ever again. Without thieves, we would need no locks. Without locks, we would need no keys to our homes, or to our automobiles. This is not to say that this is possible, or should happen, but only "what if?" This single change in human behavior would constitute an absolute social revolution, that would change everything.
But in order to bring about such a change in human behavior, human nature must change. That is, humans must begin to emulate something other than human nature, to aspire to something that has nothing to do with self-centered striving, fame and fortune, power and prestige. That something is what we call buddha-nature, or Original Nature.
Buddha-nature is original with us, finds its origin in us, and is not distracted by the goings-on of human commerce. It is not, however, only "inward," and does not require, or suggest, turning away from society. In fact, we can manifest this original nature only in and through our interface with society, i.e. outwardly. Voting for president, or buying into the conventional public wisdom, is not the only way to do so, however. In fact, it may be just the opposite, a distraction from the most truly effective action we can take.
What that may be I leave to your imagination; or better yet, to revelation, in your zazen.