National Crisis, National Opportunity
9:09PM Aug 4, 2021
Roshi Bodhin Kjolhede
This is January 3 2021. And I'm going to read from an article I ran across in Atlantic Magazine, The Atlantic - last October, by George Packer - George Packer is a staff writer for The Atlantic. It is sort of, in it this this terrific writer, takes stock of where we are, where we've been, and what that might mean in terms of the coming year or the coming few years.
And I'm going to use this article to, we're going to interpret it, it's at certain times, I'm going to interpret it as the journey of an individual journey of any one of us. But I'll just dive into it here. This is, he starts off by quoting a philosopher by the name of Gershom sholem. And here it is, there are in history, what you could call plastic hours, namely, crucial moments where when it is possible to act, if you move then something happens and then Packer takes it from there. In such moments, an ossified social order suddenly turns pliable, prolong the spaces gives way to motion, and people dare to hope. Plastic hours are rare. They require the right alignment of public opinion, political power, and events, usually a crisis. They depend on social mobilization and leadership. They can come and go unnoticed or wasted. Nothing happens unless you move. Are we living in a plastic hour? It feels that way. He says. And it does. And I couldn't help but think of the critical point in the life of spiritual practice, where we recognize that what we've been the way we've been living, isn't working, it's not going to work. And we have to do something about it, do something we can't abide in this dysfunction that we I as an individual have lived in. This is the what is it the Oscar Wilde Oscar Wilde said
discontent is the first step in the progress of a man or nation or woman a nation discontent and how many how many of us can testify that how many of us who now have come to practice can understand what it takes to get set up and realize that some you have to make something change you have to something has to give?
I remember in sesshin back in the in the 1970s Roshi would quote. And now I forget who it was.
Faulkner or Hemingway, there is a tide in the affairs of men, which when taken at the crest leads to fame and fortune. taken at the crest. It really galvanized me in those days. Because it it spoke to what I sense what just about any of us consensus, there's a there's a critical point a point of maximum density that really can prove to be a great beginning. The great Taoist Sage loubser said when darkness is at its darkest, there is the gateway to all spiritual insights. That's another one that Roshi Kapleau would quote in sesshin, these were things that filled me with, with hope and, and faith. Because, like just about everyone, I would reach points of darkness and sesshin. And it kept me going, kept many of us going. I think what George Packer is doing in his own level of political social change is is is noticing that this is it. This is our chance. And, and so this, this article, serve, especially if it's especially landed with me, now that we're we're starting a new year, and we're just a couple of weeks away from a new president. So let me continue with his his article. Beneath the dreary, fewer of the partisan wars, most americans agree on fundamental issues facing the country, most Americans he says, large majorities say the government should ensure some form of universal health care, that it should do more to mitigate global warming, that the rich should pay higher taxes. That racial inequality is a significant problem. That workers should have the right to join unions, that immigrants are a good thing for American life, that the federal government is plagued by corruption. These majorities have remained strong for years, the readiness, the demand for action is new. What explains it. He continues nearly four years of a corrupt, bigoted, and inept president who betrayed his promise to champion ordinary Americans. The arrival of an influential new generation, the millennials, who grew up with failed wars, weakened institutions, and blighted economic prospects, making them both more cynical and more utopian than their parents. Collective ills that go untreated year after year. So bone deep and chronic that we assume they're permanent from income inequality, feckless government and police abuse, to a shredded social fabric, and a poisonous public discourse that verges on national cognitive decline. Then, this year, a series of crises that seemed to come out of nowhere, like a flurry of sucker punches, but that arose straight from those ills, and expose the failures of American society to the world. I'm going to read more here now, it's a long article, I'm just going to read about, I don't know a fifth of it or less. The year 2020 began with an impeachment trial that led to an acquittal, despite the President's obvious guilt. Then came the pandemic, chaotic hospital wards, Ghost cities, lies and conspiracy theories from the White House. Mass death, mass unemployment, police killings, nationwide protests, more sickness, more death, more economic despair, the disruption of normal life without end
and then the comparison as others have to make He's 68. This for he says for concentrated drama 1968. But he the distinction is, he suggests is that 1968, the core phenomenon was the collapse of order. In 2020, it's the absence of solidarity. Even with majorities agreeing on central issues, there's little sense of being in this together. The United States, his world, famously individualistic. And the past half century has seen the expansion of freedom in every direction, personal, social, financial, technological. But the pandemic demonstrates almost scientifically, the limits of individualism, everyone is vulnerable. Everyone's health depends on the health of others. No one is safe unless everyone takes responsibility for the welfare of others. No person, community or state can withstand the plague, without a competent and active national government.
I've often spoken from the seat about the extreme individualism that is so worshipped in the United States compared to other countries. Anyone who's practice very long at all, can see the limits of individualism that that despite the the strengths of it, and one of those strengths is being able to, to dissent from what one perceives as groupthink or collective delusion which stands in contrast to the East Asian cultures that got so wrapped up on picking up Japan, where the whole country was in in Thrall to the Emperor's This is in the 1930s The Emperor is call for war, and how few people felt they could speak out. In other words, in East Asia, the the pressure to identify with the collective with the group the nation, the family is so much stronger than here here. It's the other extreme individualism what my opinion my preference what I want, I mean, my I mean my this is, this is has just become absolutely florid in this country, I always had strong individualistic bent this country, but now it is, it is just to the point of, I think, to have pathology and, and as he says the pandemic in the most most severe or the most dramatic way is demonstrating the cost of this, this kind of maniacal individualism. I don't want to wear a mask. I have my rights. Well, I don't think I need to belabor this this point. We've just gotten so far out, and it is in one direction. You can even see the pandemic as, as having is being a just a massive corrective to wake us up to the real kind of pathology of excessive individualism.
He continues the story of a Coronavirus in this country is a sequence of moments when this lesson broke down. That is the lesson of excessive individualism when politicians spurned experts, governors reopen their states too soon, crowds liberating themselves in rallies and bars. The graph that shows the course of new infections in the United States, gradually falling in late spring and rising sharply in summer is an illustration of both ineffectual leadership and a failed ideology. Shame is not an emotion that Americans readily indulge, but the spectacle of the National Coronavirus case rate surging ahead of India's in Brazil's, while it declined in most rich countries has produced a wave of self disgust here, and pity and contempt abroad. Shame. He said, shame is not an emotion that Americans readily end up. You could even say that shamelessness is shamelessness itself is of this year has been shown to be a key trait of national political leaders.
Again, I can't resist comparing because in Zen, we are practicing a tradition from East Asia. I can't resist but comparing contrasting our ethos in the United States with that of the East Asian countries where shame is such a motivating force, the the the fear of shame, bringing shame to one's family or one's country. But here, not so much.
He continues. We're at this he quotes a Maurice Mitchell, who's the director of the left wing working families party. We're at this moment where because of COVID-19, it is there for anybody who has eyes to see that the systems we are committed to are inadequate, or have collapsed. Again, if you can see this as an echo, kind of macro cosmic echo of the a microcosm on the individual level, what we go through, I don't know many of us, all of us, I don't know that, that motivates us to to start spiritual practice. That the systems we are committed to are inadequate or have collapsed, he continues. So now almost all 300 plus million of us are in this moment of despair, asking ourselves questions that are usually the province of the Academy. philosophical questions. Who am I in relation to my society? What is the role of government? What does any economy do?
Well, that first one who am I in relation to my society is something that we can we can grapple with on our on our way to spiritual practice, meditation. What How do I balance my own needs with the needs of others.
He continues the brutal statistics that count the jobless, hungry, evicted, sick and dead have forced a rethinking of our political and social arrangements. The numbers are a daily provocation for change, radical change. And then he quotes Michael Bennet of Colorado. The senator from Colorado was one of he's running for nomination democratic nomination for president for a relatively short time. He said, I think we are at a hinge moment in history. It's one of those moments that arises every 50 years or so we have the opportunity to set the stage for decades of progressive work that can improve the lives of 10s of millions of Americans. And then Packer sums it up the crises of 2020 could become the catalytic agent of a national transformation. You know, a couple months to three months ago, I gave a teisho. about where how.
It's it's understandable that many people today are in some kind of depression. discouraged given that, well, I spoke of, of all of the signs that this to be overly dramatic, the world's coming to an end, our country's coming to an end, our country's in such severe decline, that it's, it's just going to from here on, become just a shadow of what it used to be, but even the world itself, and you could be consider, besides the pandemic, consider climate change. And all of these same issues, many of the same issues that we're struggling with in our own country, popping up all over the world. And and I made the point, then, that, yes, that this is the nature of reality that that exists. There. There's, there's, there's the initial stage, then there's the growth is a birth, there's growth, there's decline, and there's death, okay, that is the nature of this samsaric world. But it's so it is with the individual, that we're born, we grow and mature, we decline in age, as we age, and then we die. And, and we can, we can come to terms with that we all know, we all know we're going to, we all know about sickness, old age and death, we all know we're going to decline physically and mentally, as we age, and that we will die. But it doesn't mean we have to fall into despair about it. We can, we can just attend to what we need to right now, without dwelling in morbid thoughts of the future. This article, this article is sort of leaving that aside, and looking at more at the at the hope that we might find in all this. The hope that when things get bad enough, then they have to change.
And now I'm going to skip most of the rest of the article. just pluck out a few things here. He says that for any kind member, this was written in October, or it was published in October, he says for any kind of national renewal to take place, the republicans must first suffer a crushing defeat in November. Well, we know what he didn't know when he wrote this article is that they didn't suffer a crushing defeat. The President suffered a decisive defeat. But we still have this runoff vote for the US Senate in Georgia. That can determine a lot. But I'm going to steer clear of politics mostly. And I'm turning pages here in this article. Yeah, he looks back and and says that there were three eras of reform in the United States in the 20th century. And then he says he lists the Progressive Era, the beginning of the 20th century. The new deal of Roosevelt, Jeff, Franklin Roosevelt, and then the third being the Great Society. And later in the article, he says he looks at certain Harvard political scientists Robert Putnam publishing a book called the upswing how America came together a century ago. And how we can do it again. Packer says, using statistical data, it's always important, not just opinion but data. Putnam graphs the years since 1890, as four lines that travel steeply upward for seven decades, and then plunge just as steeply downward. The lines represent economic equality, political cooperation, social cohesion, and a culture of solidarity. They all begin at the bottom in the squalid swamp of the Gilded Age. And then they rise together through the Progressive Era, the New Deal, and the civil rights movement to an apex of egalitarianism, compromise, cohesion and altruism. Around 1965. The year of the Selma March, the Voting Rights Act, and the enactment of Medicare before descending for another half century to the present to our second Gilded Age of Twitter wars, and refrigerated trucks filled with the COVID dead. Putnam calls this highly schematic arc I, we I he wants to get to we again. And for inspiration, he looks back to the start of the previous upswing around 1900. The Progressive Era, Putnam writes was the result of countless citizens engaging in their own spheres of influence, and coming together to create a vast ferment of criticism and change, a genuine shift from I do we
it's hard not to read this article and make the case that it's enough to just sit. I mean, you can't. He can't deny that sitting in its purest sense, that is without thoughts, that this is a great force for change. And for well being in to others, not just oneself, of course oneself. But if ever there's a time that called for meditators to engage the world in MIT to extend the meditation, into the wider world of social movements, and activism, this is it. If ever there was this is it.
He says we don't. This is Packer, again, the author of the article, we don't lack for political agendas, policy ideas, or protest movements. What we lack is the ability to come together as free and equal citizens of a democracy. We lack a sense of national identity and civic faith that could energize renewal.
He cites a potential way we could sabotage sabotage ourselves in this potential rebirth of progressive movement. He first he says under a Biden administration, the streets are likely to keep roiling, maybe more tumultuously than ever, as raised hopes lead to greater demands and disappointments. Most younger Americans have seen no viable kind of politics other than protest. I think he's making an important point here. And then he quotes a a historian Michael Kazan, who has written many books about the American left. He said Kaizen a veteran of the 60s who watched the new left Doom itself with its own illusions, said, I fear the left will expect too much, or be too damning too quickly. With a Biden administration. That can always happen.
There's, there's a kind of shark in the water, of positive change. He spells it out the author. Packer says the identity politics that more and more defines the left has a built in political flaw. It divides into groups, rather than uniting across groups. It offers a cogent attack on the injustice is in lies of the past and present, rather than an inspiring vision of an America that will be
Yeah, so yeah, this isn't, can't be a new thought to people who follow political change that we on the left have a reputation for self sabotage of, of splitting fracturing. I've always felt that the great strength of the Republican Party is the unity is so much more unified, there's so much more pressure to act as one to not to not break off well. They go too far, maybe. But then we also have to be aware of the opposite danger of getting into this fragmentation.
You know, maybe I'm pushing this too far the seeing the individual individual change, a sort of a, an analogy of individual change and echoing or reflecting what Packer is talking about the societal change, political change. But I'm gonna dive in anyway. The one of the ways we sabotage ourselves in Zen practice, is finding fault with ourself. Finding far away is Zen practice, exposes exposes our our faults, it fights exposes our, our limitations, our blind spots. And then, and that's good, we want to see those things we need to become aware of our whole, our whole self and the end and including the shadows. But then, the danger is that we dwell on what we see the negative things is this is a huge threat to spiritual practice, is we once we start waking up and seeing or once we become more woke, to use that word, in our practice, and start seeing all the ways we deceive ourselves all of the forms of, of greed and, and hostility, and delusion. Once we start to wake up to these things, there is there is the danger of fastening on them and giving them too much of our attention. It doesn't help. It doesn't help. It's enough to see them. But not to get bogged down in them not to fracture with our goods between our good self and our bad self. Now it's all a matter of degree, isn't it? Now back to the in the realm of social and political change. And how far left or how far right? We can we can go is still get make change. happen. It's all a matter of degree.
Little more from our author here, the experience of a competent active government bringing opportunity and justice to American to Americans left behind by globalization would inject an anti venom into the country's bloodstream.
Okay, I'm going to take one more swipe. One more swing at this. What he describes as the the wonderful ideal of a competent active government bring opportunity justice, we can see on an individual level in our practice, as the method, the practical method of sitting, sitting in the proper alignment, sitting enough, sitting every day, maybe going to sesshin. This itself injects an anti venom into what could otherwise become a kind of self loathing where we split apart individually. But all right to continue, the body would continue to converse Harry's. Again, he's talking about if we could do big things to make our government more responsive and competent. The body would continue to convulse, but the level of toxicity would be reduced enough to allow for an interval of healing. And then he says very realistically, no one would abandon their most cherished most irrational beliefs. But the national temperature would go down a bit, we would have a chance to repair the social contract, rather than tear it into ever smaller pieces. And then he says, but an ambitious legislative agenda isn't enough, because the problem extends far beyond Washington, deep into the Republic. Americans have lost faith in institutions in one another in democracy itself. Everything conspires against our role as citizens, big money in different officials, Byzantine election rules, mutual hatred, mutual ignorance, the Constitution itself. Yeah, the Constitution itself. I'm just astonished that those who believe that the Constitution, in its every word is perfect and unassailable, and can't be challenged and can't be changed. But we know it can be changed because of the Bill of Rights. But the the adoration The, the the right let's call this the attachment to the word of the document, in every sense, just astonishes me to think that a document written in but is it 18 No, say some 1797 or something anyway, late 18th century, let's call it that late 18th century, excuse me, that this could be perfect and not need to adapt at all, to changing times. He goes on there is no remedy except the exercise of muscles that have atrophied not just by voting my bat by imagining what kind of country we can live in together. We have to act like citizens again. Again, here. This is what I was trying to say is the need to step up and Eldridge Cleaver if you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem.
Use the word faith. That's, that's getting into the realm of religion or spiritual practice, faith faith. It starts with faith in the true nature of everyone and And what that means, remember not just doesn't mean the goodness of everyone our true nature means it is our nature, to be able to change, to adapt. It can be hard to cling to that faith, given everything we've seen in the last few decades. But to, to confirm it through awakening is a huge thing. It means we know against all evidence, we know that they're, no no one is stuck in there with the self that they have, that all of us equally are able to change, to listen, to respond to at least save ourselves.
I scan some of the Enlightenment accounts in the three pillars of Zen. There were a few there, especially Roshi Kapleau Rose, where he talks about how terrible things God for him, had had to get for him. In order for him to give up everything here and head for Japan. That's a radical, that's a radical change.
She equals someone here saying democracy works only if enough people believe democracy works. We need to to find trust again, faith.
That's what will motivate us to get involved.
All right, our time is up. Now we'll stop and recite four vows.