“Wings of a Windmill” or It Happened Here

A demagogue becomes president of the United States by exploiting fear politics and promising to return the country to greatness!

No, not the President-elect.  Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip, who becomes President after running a populist-fueled campaign in It Can’t Happen Here, a 1935 novel by Sinclair Lewis.  After Windrip, a Democratic Senator from a Western state, takes office he proceeds to take over the government.  He cancels Congress, takes control of the Supreme Court, and purges power from the states, establishing a fascist regime over which he has absolute power.

Lewis’ model for Windrip was Louisiana Senator Huey Long (1893-1935), who had also been Governor of the Pelican State and ruled it like a czar.  But Mussolini and Hitler’s rise to power was what motivated Lewis to write the book.  His wife, Dorothy Thompson, foreign correspondent for the New York Evening Post, interviewed Hitler in 1931 and wrote a book about it, I Saw Hitler.

Evidently, the hero of It Can’t Happen Here is a a small-town newspaper owner named Doremus Jessup, whose opposition to Windrip lands him in a concentration camp.  I say evidently because I have not read the book.

However, many people are reading it right now.  Suddenly there’s been a proliferation of articles on the internet calling it “the novel that predicted the rise of Donald Trump,” and since the election, It Can’t Happen Here “has sold out on some major online book retailers, including Amazon and Books-a-Million.”

Years ago I did try to read Lewis’ earlier novel The Jungle (1906) but as I recall his description of the deplorable working conditions in the meat-packing industry was more than I could stomach.  Readers at the time were shocked, nonetheless the novel became a best seller and its popularity helped President Theodore Roosevelt (who disliked Lewis) push through the Meat Inspection Act of 1906.

Sinclair Lewis was a muckraker.  That sounds derogatory but a muckrakers are people who expose misconduct in politics and public life.  So, being a muckraker can be a good thing.  Lewis’ 1922 satire of American culture and society, Babbit, was the work that was largely responsible for Lewis becoming the first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature 1930.   Before he died of alcoholism in 1951 at age 65, he authored a a few other once well-known books, including Main Street, Elmer Gantry, Arrowsmith and Dodsworth.

Well, it did happen here, or maybe we should say it might be happening here.  And not just America.  Fareed Zakaria in an article at Foreign Affairs writes that “Right-wing populist parties, on the other hand, are experiencing a new and striking rise in country after country across Europe.”  This new populism is different from the traditional brand associated with left-wing politics.  The trumpets of nationalism are beginning to blare, too.  I don’t know if it will lead to fascism taking root around the world or no.  I have a feeling, though, that whatever it leads to in America the next four years is not going to be much fun.

I put It Can’t Happen Here on my TBR list.  It’s already pretty long.  And it’s not only the list, there’s the pile . . .

Here is a short passage from the book I found online.  The subject is Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip:

it-cant-happen-hereThe Senator was vulgar, almost illiterate, a public liar easily detected, and in his ‘ideas’ almost idiotic, while his celebrated piety was that of a traveling salesman for church furniture, and his yet more celebrated humor the sly cynicism of a country store.

Certainly there was nothing exhilarating in the actual words of his speeches, nor anything convincing in his philosophy. His political platforms were only wings of a windmill.”

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The Five Hundred Monkeys

monkeys3bThen there were these five hundred monkeys hanging out in some trees next to a large pool of water.  After night came down, the chief monkey saw the moon reflected in the water below him.  He asked all the others come over to his tree and join hands and tails to form a chain, so that he’d be able to lean out over the pool and grab the moon.  Well, that many monkeys in one tree was just too much and the branches broke and all five hundred of the primates fell into the water and drowned.

The point of the story you can plainly see.  As long as you are blinded by illusion, all that waits for you is suffering.  So don’t go mistaking a reflection for the real moon.

In Genjo-koan (“Realizing the Prime Point’), Dogen wrote, “Awakening is like the moon reflected on water.”

One meaning of this statement is that awakening or Buddhahood is not a destination to be reached in the remote future but a potential already inherent in life.  If we see it as something outside of ourselves, it’s an illusion.

Earlier in the essay Dogen says, “Those who greatly awaken to illusion are Buddhas.  Those greatly deluded amid awakening are sentient beings. Some people continue to awaken beyond awakening.  Some continue amid their illusion deeper into further illusion.”

Another Dogen work, Bussho (“Buddha Nature”), begins with a quote from the Nirvana Sutra: “All sentient beings have buddha nature.”  Some paragraphs later, he takes exception to this statement, asserting that it is incorrect to say that sentient beings “have” or “possess” buddha nature because sentient beings are buddha nature, indeed all reality is buddha nature.

Conventionally speaking, it is not wrong to say that all sentient beings have buddha nature because we can access it.  If we could not access it then we would not have it.  Accessing buddha nature means to develop this potential, nurture it.

Furthermore, we have something, what Buddhism provides, the means to actualize awakening, to make it a common experience, not an extraordinary event.

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Women Don’t Shoot

Friday night I watched “Michael Moore in Trumpland.”  The title is a bit deceptive.  It has very little to do with Trump, and a lot to do with feminism.  It’s funny, educational, moving, and it is a spirited discussion of the struggles of Hillary Clinton, through which, it touches upon the struggle of all women and extols their power.

trumplandMichael Moore’s film is a record of a one-man show he performed in October at the Murphy Theatre in Wilmington, Ohio.  Over the course of sixty minutes, Moore spends a considerable amount of time going over the attacks, the abuse Hillary Clinton has endured over the years, most all of it, of course, coming from men.  I remember how she was humiliated for heading the Task Force on National Health Care Reform in the 1990s.  But I had forgotten how nasty it was, and perhaps dulled to how nasty it has been ever since.

In 1994, at a rally in support of the health care campaign, as the First Lady spoke, protestors held up signs that read “Heil Hillary” and nearly booed her down.  For the first time, the Secret Service was successful in persuading Hillary Clinton to wear a bulletproof vest.

It is obvious that Michael Moore likes Hillary, he admires her because she has character, that is, good character, one thing many voters doubted.  She took all the abuse heaped on her, never complained (at least not in pubic) and kept moving forward.

About halfway through the performance, Moore looks into the camera and says,

hillary-clinton-019bMy hope, my optimism for this . . .  Hillary, if you’re watching this right now (I have a feeling that someone is going to slip you a tape of this), I just want to tell you something, I know you’ve been waiting . . . but you’re not alone, a whole  bunch of the rest of us have been waiting for that one glorious moment when the other gender, the majority gender, has a chance to run this world, have some real power and kick some righteous ass.”

We men have been in charge far too long, and as a result, our world is out of balance.  We need to adjust the axis in favor of gender equality.

Now, it’s amazing how certain things fall in place . . . Just Friday morning I was reading these words by Barbara E. Reed: “The Tao Te Ching uses feminine imagery and traditional views of female roles to counter destructive male behavior.” *

Tao is a complex principle.  Tao means “road or “path”.  Philosophically, it is the “Way”, and for now, let us just say that it is about the way of living.  The classic Chinese text, Tao Te Ching, can be translated as “The Way and its Virtue.”

According to one scholar, the origins of the Tao Te Ching were “ideas from anonymous people (not intellectuals) of the 6th – 4th centuries BCE, probably including local elders (“lao-tsu”), possibly including women . . .” He mentions also that the early layers of the teachings emphasized “natural simplicity, harmony, ‘feminine’ behaviors”.  **

I am intrigued by the notion that women may have influenced the formation of these teachings.  The doctrine of Taoism has always showed a preference for feminine “behaviors”, and at times, it seems the Tao Te Ching is saying that the feminine is the purest form of life.

In ancient China, women were largely illiterate and subjugated.  Yet, there were periods in China’s history when Buddhist and Taoists movements welcomed women as both practitioners and leaders, and there were teachings (“Inner Alchemy”) specifically for women.

One modern woman, Ursula K. Le Guin, an American author known for her works in the genres of fantasy and science fiction, published a translation of the Tao Te Ching in 1998.  In an interview some years later, she said,

Lao Tzu feminized mysteries in a different way from anybody else.  These are not “feminine mysteries,” but he makes mystery itself a woman.  This is profound, this goes deep.  And the most mystical passages in the book are the most feminine.  This is something women need, I think, and long for, often without knowing it.  That’s undoubtedly one reason why all my life I’ve found the Tao de Ching so refreshing and empowering.”

This is something that everyone needs, and that everyone has.  Feminine energy (yin) is not separate from masculine energy (yang).  The feminine and the masculine give rise to each other; they are interdependent and universal.  Water and the earth symbolize feminine energy.  The feminine is soft, yielding, receptive, fluid, creative, intuitive, transformative, and nurturing.

The masculine is associated with activity, creativity, hardness, logic, and control.

tai-ji-symbol3As we seen in the tai ji symbol, yin and yang are enfolded within one another.  Every person has yin and yang energies.  For instance, I’d say Hillary Clinton has some significant yang energy, while her former opponent has too much.

In chapter 42, the Tao Te Ching says, “All things carry yin and embrace yang. They achieve harmony by balancing these energies.”  The best way of living is living in harmony with nature and each other, and the more we can harmonize the feminine and masculine within ourselves, the more effectively we can check compulsive and extreme behavior, the more we can counteract negative forces within the mind and even the body.

Gentleness is another quality of feminine energy, and in the film, Michael Moore points out that women are mostly non-violent.

“Women generally don’t shoot you,” he says.  “Unless you deserve it.”

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* Barbara E. Reed, “Taoism”, Women in World Religions, Ed. Arvind Sharma,  SUNY Press, 1987 162

** Russell Kirkland, Taoism: The Enduring Tradition, Psychology Press, 2004

Hillary Clinton photo: Wellesley College Archives

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The Wisdom of Anger

A wise person does not neglect the way of propriety.  Democracy means freedom and equality, and mutual respect.  Authoritarians and demagogues use people as a tool.  The American way was always supposed to be about appreciating people as an end in themselves . . .

Trying to gather my thoughts about this election has been difficult.  I was so angry.  I still am.  Problem is, Buddhists are not supposed to get angry.  We have this notion that we always have to avoid any display of emotion, that there is never justification for anger, and our words must always be kind and healing.

I don’t believe that every moment has to be a kumbaya moment.  Now and again, there is justification for anger and rather than be afraid of the anger, or be ashamed for feeling anger, we can use it.

If you are a Mahayanist, then you realize that Buddha taught a certain use for the energy of anger . . . the bodhisattva, like the peacock who can use poison to be beautiful, can use the heat, the fire of anger . . .”

So says Robert Thurman in a video “The Wisdom of Anger” (see below).  Japanese Buddhists have a term for what he is talking about:  hendoku iyaku – change poison into medicine.

The purpose of the Buddha’s teaching is to transform negative aspects of the mind.  I suspect that many Buddhists practice suppression rather than transformation.  There are situations when negativity has to come out in order to be an object for transformation.  Furthermore, we should keep in mind that there are two truths and they are not separate, except when they are.  Conventionally speaking then, anger directed toward injustice or the infliction of harm can be positive.

T’ien-t’ai founder Chih-i was one of the first Buddhist teachers to explain how good and evil are non-dual.  Ng Yu Kwan* tells us that Chih-i taught “good and evil do not make terms with each other, but are constantly in a struggle.  Good must overturn evil in order to prevail, and good can prevail only by the overturning of evil.  It follows that overturning evil is a necessary and sufficient condition for the prevalence of good.  But the overturning of evil does not imply extirpation of evil.”

Why not?  Because ultimately, good and evil are non-dual.  They are “different states of the same thing under different conditions.”  The keyword here is ultimately.  This is the view from ultimate truth and it is important for us to remember that even though the ultimate and conventional are mutually inclusive, there are times in the conventional world when it is necessary to use conventional means.

The fact is that in the Mahayana Buddhist way of expressing non-duality, things are dual sometimes.  There are situations when it truly is a matter of good vs. evil, us vs. them.

This post-election period is one of those times.  It is not wrong to identify the President-elect with evil, for what he represents – hate, misogyny, racism – are identified as evil states of mind.  We do not have to support the President-elect or unite behind him.  To do so would be like saying hate speech is acceptable, that using hate speech to win an election is something we can tolerate.  It’s isn’t.  Not in the America I was taught to believe in.  Freedom of speech and accountability for your words are not mutually exclusive.

Understanding inter-dependency (dependent origination) means taking responsibility for being infinitely connected to each other, so we want to avoid creating animosity with people whose views are different from ours and do out best to follow the ways of propriety and mutual respect.  Yet, we should not become enablers of their delusions, sold to them by demagogues and hate-mongers.

If we’re angry, we need not be ashamed of it or feel that it must be suppressed.  We can take the anger, temper it with wisdom, and then speak out, raise an objection.  Our country is in a fog.  Our protests can be the sunlight that burns off the fog.

 

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* NG Yu Kwan, T’ien-t’ai Buddhism and Early Madhyamika, University of Hawaii Press, 1993, 171

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Leonard Cohen: It’s Darker Now

A few weeks ago, in an interview for the release of his latest album, You Want It Darker, he said , “I am ready to die. I hope it’s not too uncomfortable. That’s about it for me.”

But I don’t want it darker, it is dark enough, and that’s no way to say goodbye . . .

Most of us first heard about this songwriter-poet from Canada, Leonard Cohen, from Judy Collins.  She had hit with his song Suzanne, originally a poem, Suzanne Takes You Down, from his collection Parasites of Heaven.  

cohen-sel-poemsMy parents gave me his Selected Poems 1956-1968 for my 17th birthday.  That was cool.  They could have given me a book by someone lame, like Rod McKuen.  I’ve had that book 47 years.  It’s been to New Orleans a couple of times, Nebraska, California, and it’s still in good condition.

Born Jewish, you know in the late 70s he began an involvement with Buddhism.  He became an ordained Zen priest in 1998 and lived at the Mount Baldy Zen Monastery for some years.

I loved that voice.  Deep, dark, haunting.  Instantly recognizable.  Beautiful and disturbing.

I’m glad he passed through this way and touched our perfect bodies with his mind.

Here is a poem from Selected Poems, and after that, a video of Tower of Song.  The poem was published in 1966 and the song written in the 80s.

I’ve Seen Some Lonely History

I’ve seen some lonely history
The heart cannot ignore
I’ve scratched some empty blackboards
They have no teachers for

I trailed my meager demons
From Jerusalem to Rome
I had an invitation
But the host was not at home

There were contagious armies
That spread their uniform
To all parts of my body
Except where I was warm

And so I wore a helmet
With a secret neon sign
That lit up all the boundaries
So I could toe the line

My boots got very tired
Like a sentry’s never should
I was walking on a tightrope
That was buried in the mud

Standing at the drugstore
It was very hard to learn
Though my name was everywhere
I had to wait my turn

I’m standing here before you
I don’t know what I bring
If you can hear the music
why don’t you help me sing?

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