May 11, 2009

Buddhism and Democracy

A New Democracy

By Roshi Joan Halifax

"My continuing passion is to part a curtain that invisible veil of indifference that falls between us and that blinds us to each other's presence, each other's wonder, each other's human plight." -- Eudora Welty

About a thousand years ago in China, the interactions between Zen teachers and students began to be collected. These interactions were called koans which means ‘public case.’ As koans were being collected in China, Chaco Canyon was being constructed. It is interesting to be in a place where the structure of the buildings and the orientation of the buildings were an endeavor to create clarity and coherence in a universe that was perceived as being fundamentally indeterminate. Koans are very much in that same spirit. They are a means wherein people can contemplate an interaction from a thousand years ago that points to a quality within the human psyche, which has the capacity for deep discernment, for clarity. We’re in an indeterminate time when discernment and clarity are useful.

I think many of us yesterday morning sat in front of our television sets and our computers watching the historical inauguration, and here at Upaya were many people in the zendo sitting in front of a huge screen watching the inauguration of Barack Hussein Obama. I was reminded that many of my friends on Facebook gave themselves the middle name of Hussein as a way of using an identity marker to peel away the associations with an identity that turns us against half of the world and thus ourselves. I thought it a wonderful joke and a skillful means.

The koan that I’d like to present this afternoon as we touch into this exploration of Buddhism, democracy and Obama is a simple one. It is from Basho, a 17th century monk-poet and teacher who ended up eschewing the so-called social life. He walked around the countryside in Northern Japan and composed many wonderful haiku that we continue to appreciate many years later.

A Monk once asked Basho: “What is the essence of your practice?”
Basho replied: “Whatever is needed.”

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