View Electronic Edition

SF Zendog@politics.heart

Asking "What would make a difference?" is like taking an ethical snapshot of my life. First comes the question and the formulation of an answer and then, more importantly, the implied second question—"Am I doing or contributing to it?"

I published a book this year called Sleeping Where I Fall —my ten-year rumination on fifteen years in the counterculture. Those years were spent actively pursuing "making a difference," or at least my understanding of it at the time. Looking back, counting the dead, enumerating the losses as well as the very real gains of the eighties and nineties, it all boils down to a rather simple dictum: "If you're not working on your self, you can be sure the world is eroding it."

I say this not to support the contingent of cappuccino-quaffing ESTers and New Agers I stumble across in my sojourns into Whole Foods, who are as greedy for "the best of everything" as they were for stockmarket returns in the eighties. The "self" I'm thinking about these days is the vague and shadowy presence I began to hunt in Zen practice twenty-something years ago. Because in practice, the problems I have spent my life addressing emanate from the fixed (but wrong) conviction of that self as an isolated entity in a hostile and dangerous universe.

That is the root of the problem for me, and addressing the greed, hatred, and confusion which are rooted in the human breast, investigating the fear and loathing of self which is disguised as fear and loathing of the other, is the most important single thing that I can think of to do. Cut the damn problem off at the roots; strike to the heart of that which recapitulates and recombinates itself eon by eon, generation by generation, creating discord, violence, folly, and pain endlessly.

This is not to say that there is not specific work in the world to do (right livelihood, issue-oriented politics), but that unless these projects are pursued in a truly "selfless," inclusive manner, we are, like Penelope, wife of Odysseus, unwinding daily what we weave. Unlike Penelope, we are usually unaware of it.

The second question, "Am I doing it?" is trickier to answer. I sit zazen (Zen meditation) daily, though I'm about a year overdue on sitting a sesshin (the week-long intensive meditation session that offers enough meditating to facilitate breakthroughs of insight). I try to make meditation an ongoing, daily practice, even down to the simplest act of taking a breath and letting it out slowly and consciously before I answer the phone.

I work in politics, particularly environmental and Buddhist issues, and have come to think that in the political sector absolutely nothing will change without radical campaign finance reform that will force the political class to once again work for the people. There are four changes that I think could radically alter politics in America as we know them:

1) Full funding for all elections and a ban on soft money. (This means overturning the Supreme Court decision that the giving of money is an expression of free speech—a patent absurdity.)

2) Free airtime for all qualified candidates on our public airwaves and on all major TV stations.

3) In return for free airtime, all candidates must pledge to appear in unstructured debates on each network, and answer questions in town-hall-like meetings.

4) Extending to citizens and nonprofit groups the same write-off for disseminating information that private industry takes when it actively subverts the public interest by holding hands-off, dog-and-pony show "informational seminars" designed to influence the public and win votes.

These four steps would go a long way towards redirecting the attention of the political class towards the people.

Does any of this make a difference? Well, you can't pour a quart into a pint pitcher; you cannot ever make the world less than everything, so I am under no illusion that greed, hatred and delusion in all their multiple guises will ever disappear. Having said that, however, I guess I do believe that the proportions and dominance of them in our public life can be altered, will be altered if enough people manifest the intention of enlightenment, the intention of public good will, compassion and generosity. I suppose that I persevere on both fronts, the personal and the public, not because I believe that it will make a difference, but because it is, finally, the way in which I want to live, the way I want to be as a human being, the order of mind I want to make manifest in the world. What else is there to do?