Political Zen

I worked for Jerry Brown’s Presidential campaign in 1992. I was in the Santa Monica office, the national campaign headquarters. My impression was that he was running it pretty much on a wing and a prayer. But I really wouldn’t know since I was just some guy who came in few nights a week and did whatever they asked me to do, That was just the feeling I had.

Which is not to suggest he wasn’t serious or that he didn’t work hard. I had to tip my hat to him, going out to the Midwest to stand outside the gates of manufacturing plants, virtually alone, extending his hand, saying “Hello, I’m Jerry Brown” to blue collar guys who might never have heard of him or if they did, knew him only as “Gov. Moonbeam.”

In the waning days of the campaign, I was asked to help out with the California regional office, set up in a little building behind Lucy’s El Adobe Cafe. I think the writing was on the wall by then and there wasn’t a lot going on. As a result, I became rather acquainted with Lucy’s Margaritas on the Rocks. Lucy, by the way, is a wonderful woman, but I didn’t end up getting to know her quite as well.

In 1992, Jerry Brown was angry. He sensed, rightly, that the voters were angry, too. The problem is that no matter how angry the voters get, they don’t want to vote for a angry guy. You can feed off the voter’s anger but you can’t feed it back to them. Voters need to be spoon-fed hopeful messages and thoughtful platitudes.

Brown was rail thin that year, almost anorexic. I heard a story, and obviously I don’t know if it’s true or not, but it goes that he had dinner one night with Warren Beatty and Annette Bening at their house in Beverly Hills or wherever they lived, and all through the dinner Beatty didn’t say a word, while Jerry and Annette engaged in a lively conversation. Finally, towards the end of the dinner, Warren Beatty leaned over, wagged a finger at Jerry Brown and said, “Funnier and fatter.”

Apparently, Beatty had seen what Brown had missed.

During his 1980 run, he said he wanted to combine Buckminster Fuller’s visions of the future with E.F. Schumacher’s theory of “Buddhist economics”. After that campaign ran out of steam, he decided not to try for a third term as governor, but to run for US Senate, and lost to Pete Wilson. A few years afterward, Brown studied Zen with Christian/Zen practitioner Hugo Enomiya-Lassalle under Yamada Koun-roshi in Japan.

In 2000,  Brown was interviewed in Shambhala Sun. He told the interviewer that his first encounter with Buddhism was hearing a speech by Aldous Huxley at a symposium on the mind in San Francisco. Brown went up to the writer afterward to ask him a question and Huxley encouraged him to read “Zen Flesh, Zen Bones.”

He also talked about his time in Japan:

I’d say that when I went to Japan it was very serious, because I practiced every day for six months and did four sesshins [traditional one week period of intense zazen]. This was at Kamakura; I did two sesshins under Yamada-roshi and two under Father Lasalle, a Jesuit at a Jesuit retreat house there.

I had visited Tassajara, I knew Richard Baker Roshi and Gary Snyder, and I’d read different things. Then in 1986 I went on a trip to China with a non-profit foundation and we passed through Tokyo. I visited a group of Jesuit priests living there and I asked if any of them knew anything about Zen. There were two people interested in Zen, Fathers Hugo Lasalle and Heinrich Dumoulins, both elderly people. I had a conversation with Father Lasalle and he said, “Philosophy is dead. Theology as we’ve known it is dead. What people want is experience—experiencing God.” He suggested I talk with Yamada-roshi, so I went to see him at the hospital where he worked as an administrator. Yamada-roshi said, “Well, come and practice.”

At that time I had the opportunity to take six months to do something different, so I said, okay, I’ll do it. I found a place to live in Kamakura, and every night I’d go and join the loose community of practitioners under Yamada-roshi. Father Lasalle would come by sometimes, too. In dokusan Yamada-roshi would always say “You yourself are totally empty,” and his saying that had an authority. He was speaking as someone who evidently had had a kensho. He had that clarity.

What interested me was emptiness as a practice, as opposed to an idea. The principal foundation of the Jesuit order—it’s right in The Spiritual Exercises—is detachment, and the evil in Jesuit spirituality is inordinate attachment. Ignatius in his Foundations uses the word “indifference.” Whether your life is long or short, whether you are rich or poor, whether you experience honor or dishonor—it should all be a matter of indifference to you in order that you can follow the will of God.

That’s something I always found difficult. It sounded cold. The Buddhist practice of emptiness seemed to make this non-attachment natural, whereas in the Jesuits we were told to fight the self. Adere contra—go against oneself; immolatio sui—immolate the self. We were supposed to war against the self and all its attachments. Buddhism offered another type of insight.

In 2005, an interviewer for LA Yoga talked with Brown and she asked if he practiced Yoga was what he thought could happen if political leaders meditated:

I’ve done yoga in different places, Forrest Yoga in Santa Monica. I had yoga in my building and I did yoga in San Francisco in the Bikram type studio, although the temperature was only in the low nineties, so it was only a deviant form of Bikram, a more comfortable form, I might add. Of late I’ve been very absorbed in my work. Certainly I could use more at this point.

Certainly if we had some of our more aggressive politicians doing yoga or meditating it would be definitely helpful. I do think we’re in a very distracted world, 24-hour television, very frightening. So anything that contributes to wholeness, integrity or contemplation would be a very good corrective to the novelty obsession that characterizes our culture.

The interviewer also asked what were some basic principles that allow one to make unfettered decisions in pursuit of the good:

Harmony, and proportionality or balance is the heart of wisdom, so that’s what I would say is the driving factor. Although I also am attracted to the political government, campaigns, issues, and that competitive environment, but I do it in the context of wanting to bring about greater understanding and greater alignment with what is right and what is sustainable and what is compassionate.

In a recent interview, Brown was asked what Buddhism teaches that would help him if he’s elected governor again:

Illusions are endless and our job as human beings is to cut them down .  . . All great religious traditions focus on the dangers of vanity and pride and ego and that’s the continuous struggle, particularly in public life where there’s so much adulation and attention . . .  It is crucial that a person see through the emptiness of many of the thoughts and statements that people are given to.

To be connected to spirituality and meditation in this way makes Jerry Brown a rare politician. Since he is running again for Governor of California, I thought  that regardless of political stripe or location, readers might appreciate being exposed to his spiritual side. In recent years, conservative  groups have engaged in quite a bit of Buddhism bashing, so it will be interesting to see if this becomes an issue in the campaign.

If you know of any politicians who seriously practice any Eastern spirituality, please let me know. I would be interested to hear about them.


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