The Zen Master Who Taught That Meditation Is A Political Act

I meditate most days. It brings me badly needed peace, calm and- I like to think- transformation. Since I began meditating twenty-three years ago, I have been haunted by questions about what good it does in the world at large. This is not so much a result of the late capitalist cult of usefulness (though it’s probably tinged with that) as it is of a feeling of responsibility towards the human family.

Some of that time, to be honest, I haven’t cared. I’ve been carried from time to time by a mystical individualism, content to leave the cogs and wheels of the world’s karma to turn by themselves. Again and again, however, the question of the role my spiritual practice plays, not just in surviving “the whole catastrophe,” but in changing it, has reared its head.

What is the relationship between the contemplative and the political?

For Kodo Sawaki (1880-1965), the revered Japanese Zen master known as “Homeless Kodo” because he did not settle down at a temple until very late in his life, correct meditation should free you from what he called “group stupidity” (grupuboku):

When people are alone, they’re not so bad,” Sawaki said. “However, when group forms, paralysis occurs; people become totally foolish and cannot distinguish good from bad. Their minds are numbed by the group…Others work on advertising to attract people and intoxicate them for some political, spiritual, or commercial purpose. I keep some distance from society, not to escape it but to avoid this kind of paralysis. To practice zazen is to become free of this group stupidity.”

These days, we can surely agree, there is a concerning rise in grupuboku all over the world. It may be one of the most urgent times ever for saner heads to prevail. Can meditation protect us from our own tendency to grupuboku, and if so, how?

It might seem obvious that meditation should do this, or it might not. Everyone would surely agree that meditation should free one from toxic emotions (or at least give one a more mature relationship with them), but some have asserted that it may not free you from what we might call “political” or “cultural” ignorance.

Bernie Glassman Roshi, a senior American Zen teacher, once asserted that enlightenment might actually not save you from group stupidity: “If your definition of enlightenment is that there’s no nationalism, or militarism, or bigotry in the state of enlightenment”, he wrote in the Buddhist magazine Tricycle almost 20 years ago in a piece about the fascism and anti-Semitism of his teacher Yasutani Roshi, “you better change your definition of enlightenment.”

Sawaki differed. Meditation, he said, should take you more radically outside the human project, so much so that you are not fooled by institutional or cultural group think.

Zen has long advocated the necessity of “great doubt.” This great doubt is to be directed at your experience and your practice, relentlessly observing and questioning until you break through all ignorance about your true nature and what holds you back from internal freedom. Contrary to stereotypes, Buddhist meditation, in general, has never been primarily about calming down, releasing stress, or bliss. It has always balanced tranquility with discernment, with the latter being the real purpose. In Zen, discernment takes the shape of “great doubt.”

For Sawaki, however, the “great doubt” necessary in Zen practice was not just directed at existential questions about self and world, subject and object, but also outwards at society and culture.

“Zazen” is the seated meditation practiced in Zen. Sawaki was famous for a radical, uncompromising zazen where one just sat and “opened the hand of thought,” letting every thought and impulse pass by. When asked what zazen was good for, he notoriously said, “Nothing!”

This is not because Sawaki was a nihilist; rather because he taught that the whole point of zazen is to take you outside of the machinery of desire. It is for finding a place outside of the whole game, a place where one can, he believed, clearly see our human stupidities as they are: “Our practice of zazen is looking at the world afresh after being in hibernation.”

That last quote is the key to how Sawaki’s meditation frees us from grupuboku. It doesn’t end in “just sitting,” but rather lies in applying the freedom of the mind of meditation to a critical engagement with oneself and the world.

Sawaki’s Transformation

The most substantial English language collection of Sawaki’s teaching is The Zen Teachings of Homeless Kodo, which was compiled and commented on by his primary disciple, Kosho Uchiyama, and recently translated into English by Shohaku Okumura. It is not filled with recondite expositions of koans, poetic ramblings, or long explanations of Zen teachings. Pithy descriptions of meditation and Zen can be found in it, but the collection is more likely to poke fun at human pretensions or discuss marriage, politics, education or consumerism.

Sawaki and Uchiyama both thought that meditative practice was an antidote to the damage of politics. As Uchiyama wrote, “To clarify the warped and deadly situation in Japanese politics, each and every one of us must open our eyes and criticize current conditions. Buddhism in its true meaning must be a living teaching in these times.” Substitute your own nationality for “Japanese” and we have a Zen manifesto for our historical moment.

Sawaki’s own life story is an inspiring demonstration of the passage to freedom through zazen that he taught about. Sawaki knew group stupidity from the inside out. In the Russo-Japanese war, he was a dedicated soldier, passionate about the war and the Japanese cause. Later in life, after years of Zen practice, he repudiated his militarism. “As a daredevil, I was second to none,” Sawaki Roshi wryly noted, but added, “This is only the greatness of Mori no Ishimatsu.”

Moro no Ishimatsu was a famously reckless gambler, ┬ásomething Sawaki knew about. His adoptive father was one, and Sawaki suffered severe trauma and abuse at his hands growing up. To compare his own recklessness in the war to that of his adoptive father’s was a severely self-deprecating remark.

In The Zen Teachings of Homeless Kodo Sawaki says,

“People often talk about loyalty, but I wonder if they know the direction of their loyalty and their actions. I myself was a soldier during the Russo-Japanese War and fought hard on the battlefield. But since we lost what we had gained, I can see that what we did was useless. There is absolutely no need to wage war.”

Why did Sawaki awake from militant nationalism and Yasutani not? Well, in fact, we don’t know what Yasutani Roshi thought in his later years. In the years after World War II, his fascist, bigoted rhetoric disappeared, and it is of course quite possible that he evolved beyond it.

I would not try to ascertain from a distance what might have been different about the two men’s spiritual practice, but what we can learn from Sawaki is a test of our meditation. Are we transcending our prejudices, our habitual patterns of thinking, our blind spots and our thoughtless conformity? According to Sawaki, the fresh mind of meditation should work as a spotlight in which our un-examined habits of mind and action appear to us, shocking us out of our slumber.

Many people associate meditation with a non-judgemental attitude, or perhaps even tolerance to the point of gullibility and anti-intellectualism. Truth be told, these attitudes can be found in some meditation- embracing “spiritual” communities. Sawaki offers another way: meditation as springboard to critical engagement with self and world. As counter-intuitive as it might seem, sitting down for a few moments a day to “open the hand of thought” can keep the knife of the mind sharp and the renew the expansiveness of the heart, both clearing out our enervating self-obsession and brightening our mind’s ability to see through the grupuboku which may have settled around us like a familiar and unseen set of chains.

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