The old expression, “Where Shall I Begin?” comes to mind. But I think we should not take the easy shot here. It would be helpful, and perhaps insightful, to examine what we think of the new president-elect in the context of Buddhist teachings, at least as we understand both of them. Or perhaps better to admit that we do not really understand either, but why let that stop us from engaging in comparative thinking? Note that I did not title the piece “What’s Wrong with Trump. Period.” I really think we should return to the basic question.
But even from a purely sociological or political perspective, I would submit that the trouble with Trump does not only consist in the litany of his behaviors and misbehaviors of body, mouth and mind (the “Three Actions” of Buddhism), as portrayed in the media, though there is plenty to criticize and complain about there. The problem, as I see it, is captured by a quote from the famous cartoon Zen master, Pogo the Possum: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” (Full disclosure: I started a Pogo club celebrating Walt Kelly’s creation in high school, and wrote a column about Pogo’s wisdom in the school newsletter).
In other words, the reaction of others to now-POTUS Trump’s antics is the problem, and hints at the potential solution. As soon as his competitors in the primaries began reacting to what he said and did, either in opposite of like fashion, they were doomed. As soon as Hillary began to run her campaign as a commentary on his, she had lost the battle. You don’t con a con man.
Permit me a mini-rant, before returning to the main point of this essay. In my opinion:
Anyone who believes or distrusts the content of the Trump campaign, and whether or not he will follow through on his campaign promises, does not get the point of his campaign: it doesn’t matter. If he does follow through on what he has promised to do, it will hurt many of the people who voted for him, as well as those who didn’t. If he doesn’t achieve the goals he outlined as his main priorities, it will not benefit the same people. It simply doesn’t matter to his worldview, either way.
If he is unable to prevail against opposition, he will blame the opposition. If he succeeds in pushing through his objectives, and people realize that they are disasters, he will blame the opposition. Either way he wins. This is the art of the deal. Others have to lose.
The real, conventional trouble with Trump is that his marks fall right into his plan. They pay attention to the sideshow that he creates, not noticing what is going on under the tent. He is creating the distraction at one end of the carnival, while the robbery takes place on the other. The loud and flagrant flourishes of the ringmaster distract the rubes from the real action. It is the old sleight-of-hand, writ large. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, the ruling class is changing the rules of the casino to benefit the house. You don’t bet against the house.
Congress is where the real action is, aided and abetted by the new white house cadre of billionaire owners, otherwise known as the cabinet. While it is questionable from a class perspective that anyone can “earn” a billion dollars — that is, that there is anything that one can do that is worth that amount of money — let us accept the accounting fiction that by owning, one is earning. Even if you inherit your wealth from your ancestors, formerly the “landed gentry,” you earn the money that comes from it by dint of the fact that you do not let others take it from you. I know at least one wealthy heir whose annual dole of $300,000 or so shaped his whole life. He tried to become a lawyer in order to protect it, then became an accountant after failing to pass the bar. He could never be sure if his friends really liked him, or were just after his money. Wealth itself is not the problem, nor does it amount to a personal solution.
We recognize the “108 Delusions,” recited as “Dharma-Gates of Illumination” on New Year’s eve, as guidelines from Master Dogen. They remind us that our own weaknesses are gates to insight, if we are aware of what they really are, and thoroughly examine them in practice, as Dogen and others advise.
Mr. Trump’s list of apparent foibles and follies, so thoroughly vetted in the media, would probably exceed that number. Recalling a few of them, the gentleman appears to have little more than a passing acquaintance with the truth; a propensity to insult and disparage anyone who appears to contradict or disrespect him; an unusually impulsive and public potty-mouth for an incoming POTUS; a level of self-regard that is only exceeded by a lack of embarrassment, or his reticence to display it; the by now well-known phenomenon that having been born with a silver (gold-plated) spoon in his mouth, he seems to feel that he deserves it by divine intervention, or perhaps personally invented gold. I could go on, but we have all seen and heard enough of this deconstruction of the Donald’s persona. Suffice it to ask: so, What’s wrong with that?
If the worst fears of Trump’s opponents are justified, there is plenty wrong with all that, but what if they are not? Remains to be seen, as we say. We are seeing it unfold on the daily news. Ironies and contradictions abound. Dems are self-criticizing that they need to better speak directly to their constituency, while Trump tweets on a daily (nightly) basis, doing just that. But I come not to praise Caesar, nor to bury him.
A few snippets from the press to satisfy those still chafing from the fracas:
- Harvard professor says there are 'grave concerns' about Donald Trump's mental stability
- 'An apparent inability to distinguish between fantasy and reality leads us to question his fitness for the immense responsibilities of the office.' Three leading professors of psychiatry have written to Barack Obama to express their “grave concern” over Donald Trump’s mental stability. In the letter addressed to the US president, doctors from Harvard Medical School and the University of California have urged him to order a “full medical and neuropsychiatric evaluation” before the President-elect takes office in January. The group said it could not speculate on a diagnosis, but Mr Trump’s “grandiosity, impulsivity, hypersensitivity to criticism” led them to believe he was unfit for office.
- “Professional standards do not permit us to venture a diagnosis for a public figure whom we have not evaluated personally,” the letter…reads. “Nevertheless, his widely reported symptoms of mental instability — including grandiosity, impulsivity, hypersensitivity to slights or criticism, and an apparent inability to distinguish between fantasy and reality — lead us to question his fitness for the immense responsibilities of the office.”
As an aside, to quote an earlier saint of the party that takes credit for Trump’s ascension, “Government is not the solution; government is the problem. I would submit that this would be true only if it is not “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” The question becomes, who do you mean, by “the people”?
I have been watching politics, warily, from the time I first became aware during my high school days, through hearing my father and grandfather argue over whatever was happening in those days. It seems to me that the same patterns come around again and again, the pendulum swinging this way and then back, between the extremes. That’s the thing about a pendulum. It does not swing in one direction only. But a pendulum can become unhinged from its mooring. It can wear out.
The extremes to which it swings can destroy the pendulum itself. Or, to stretch the metaphor, it may set into motion a larger pendulum. The actions and arrogance of humankind can function like a cancer, one that in killing its host, kills itself. This is the warning of climate change, and the extreme changes in weather that we are now experiencing may be like the canary in the mine. The pendulum may have already swung too far. Returning to balance may not include the survival of the species. But the pendulum will return to balance anyway. This is karma, and this is Zen Buddhism. You cannot rewrite the rules of reality.
The Metta Sutta, attributed to Buddha, repeats the line: “May all beings be happy; may they be joyous and live in safety; all living beings whether weak or strong… may all beings be happy.” But Buddha was a realist. He did not imagine a world in which all living beings actually live in physical safety, free from the predations of aging, sickness and death. So I take from this that we are to be happy, in spite of the unforgiving conditions of existence that we are facing. And to understand that in spite of our mortality, we are safe. I would hope the same for those in positions of power.
I would suggest that what's wrong with Trump, from our unique perspective in Zen, consists in those aspects where he is at odds with the teachings of Buddhism, if not common sense. But this is not limited to the current administration. We have not seen, and are not likely to see, a Buddhist-inspired leadership in this country, of either party, in our lifetime. But I do not see a “political” solution to the problem.
If we look to the teachings of Buddha, there are many that address the interface of personal practice with society. The Metta Sutta is a good place to start:
This is what may be accomplished by the one who is wise, who seeks the good and has obtained peace
Let one be strenuous, upright and sincere, easily contented and joyous
Let one not be submerged by the things of the world
Let one not take upon oneself the burden of riches
Let one's senses be controlled
Let one be wise but not puffed up
Let one not desire great possessions even for one’s family
Let one do nothing that is mean or that the wise would reprove
Let no one deceive another nor despise any being in any state
Let none by anger or hatred deceive one another
Even as a mother at the risk of her life watches over and protects her only child
So with a boundless mind should one cherish all living beings
Suffusing love over the entire world above below and all around without limit
So should one cultivate an infinite good will toward the whole world
Does that sound like the Donald? Have you seen the emperor’s new clothes?
I sincerely think that the action that we in Zen are already taking, in propagating zazen, and sharing the buddhadharma as best we can, with as many as are willing to seek us out in pursuit of it, is the most we can do. It is the most necessary message we have to bring to the fray. This does not mean that it is sufficient to make a difference in the public arena, of course, where our voices, like all voices of reason, are likely to be drowned out in the daily hubbub.
Look at what happened in the press with the women’s march in Washington, in which many leaders of the larger Zen community participated. The next week it was countered by a march, or protest, of anti-abortion women. The hubbub over how many attended the inauguration of your choice countered any comparison of crowds to prove a point about which group protest was the more meaningful.
Please do not take my meaning to be that we promoters of Zen should not engage in right-minded protest, or that we should mount a campaign or crusade to push Zen philosophy to other engaged groups, such as the Dakota pipeline resisters, as a prescribed practice to help guide their decisions, or as an alternative to their missions. The former would amount to ostrich-head-in-the-sand-Zen; the latter would be hopelessly misguided and arrogant. Whether or not we support a given protest is a matter of individual choice and conscience, hopefully informed by the wisdom of buddhadharma.
But this does not mean that our efforts within our sanghas are not without consequence and, yes, even in the political arena (in the long term). I believe that Zen can be transformative, and may be the only route to world peace. The propagation of Zen, as I understand it, works like a ripple effect, starting with transformation of the individual, and progressively influencing others around us, by our example. Then the multiplier effect: they begin to influence those around them, in a geometrically expanding sphere of influence. In this way Zen encourages others to find the middle way, in politics as well as in all the other, more determinative, aspects of their lives. This is my hope, anyway.
I fear that if we in Zen become distracted from this primary mission — as articulated by Master Dogen so many thousands of changes of political administrations ago — we may lose sight of the mani-jewel that Zen Buddhism has to offer suffering beings. I believe, truly and wholeheartedly, that what we are already doing in Zen is not at all passive; is highly effective; and is not apolitical in its consequences.
This is a nation that promotes freedom, or at least pays lip service to the concept. But in Zen, we recognize that true freedom consists in personally confronting our limitations. We do not turn to government to provide our happiness, but expect it to support all citizens in our pursuit of it.
If the people are happy and prosperous, any form of government will work. If the dictator is not benevolent, however, and the people are not happy, no form of government will work for long or for all.
In this political context, democracy or republic, it is possible to practice Zen, and even to form a not-for-profit corporation to help fund its propagation. There is really no conflict between Zen and the prevalent form of governance, whether a benevolent dictatorship or democracy. In the history of Zen, we see it surviving whole governments, wars and natural disasters, reappearing after apparently being suppressed, or disappearing altogether. I believe we will see Zen survive this present calamity, and if the species survives, Zen will resurface in “the whole catastrophe” of life as it unfolds in the future. “Don’t give up!”