An Interview with Hozan Alan Senauke by John Malkin, March 2013
What is the interaction between practices like meditation and social change?
When I began an activist path I did not see any interaction. I wasn’t practicing Buddhism then and I had pretty much turned away from Judaism, the religion I was born into. Judaism and Christianity have very strong social justice components that have always existed within them. But I was very assertively a secular person; I wasn’t interested in religion.
When I became interested in Buddhism there was not this thing that we would now call “Engaged Buddhism.” In Vietnam, Thich Nhat Hanh was creating something by this name. This was done by taking Buddhism out of the monastic life and temple life into the streets to help people. Related to this, in the United States there was a key essay written by beat poet Gary Snyder that talked about what he was then calling Buddhist Anarchism. A lot of what Gary had to say right from the beginning had to do with a way of looking at Buddhism that remains completely relevant today. At that point I still didn‘t see the connection, but Gary had it really integrated.
In “Buddhist Anarchism” Snyder says, “The mercy of the West has been social revolution. The mercy of the East has been individual insight into the self/void. We need both.” Robert Aitken Roshi was fond of the anarchist vision too.
I’ve studied anarchist literature to a limited extent. Robert Aitken really studied it very thoroughly. In fact he gave his library of anarchist books to the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, when I was there. He drew the idea of “building the new within the shell of the old” from the Wobblies (the IWW, an international industrial labor union). In a sense you can see this idea in the early Buddhist sangha, in the community. The Buddha drew models of self-organization, direct democracy, of collective and consensus decision-making, and he created a community that grew and grew in the course of his lifetime and afterwards. You could say that the early Buddhist sangha was deeply democratic. And it wasn’t a representative body. Each person had to take responsibility for him or herself, and they’d come to decisions collectively and collaboratively. I think there is some parallel there.
When you worked at the Buddhist Peace Fellowship you had a sign with a quote from Thich Nhat Hanh, “Mindfulness must be engaged.” Mindfulness has now been brought into many different realms of our culture, and that seems generally beneficial. But I recently saw an article about mindfulness being used by the US military. This seems like an odd combination.
I think it’s true that all Buddhism is engaged, because the precepts and teachings are about how we are all in relation to everyone and in relation to everything around us. That by definition is “engaged.” When the Buddha was teaching in North India 2500 years ago, the reality of peoples’ lives was almost completely socially determined by gender, caste, occupation, and the tribe they were born into. Basically, where you were born was where you stayed, in a geographic as well as social sense. In that context, what the Buddha taught was something that we might see as a kind of radical individualism. He taught that ones actual position in the world and ones value in it is not based on birth but on ones actions. Each of us has to take responsibility for our actions as an individual.
Fast-forward to the pervasive individualism of today’s so-called developed world. The greatest threat to Buddhism, or any progressive movement, is that it can be turned into a commodity and sold on the “free” market. We are constantly being sold this commodity of individualism. I think that if the Buddha were teaching today he would be teaching a more explicitly social doctrine. He would recognize that we have created systems and structures of suffering while advocating “freedom” — the freedom to chose Product A or Product B, which differ in little more than the color of their packaging. Racism, sexism, and various kinds of oppression certainly affect individuals, but they have to be addressed simultaneously as structures of suffering. Engaged Buddhism arises exactly at the intersection of individual responsibility and individual participation in the creation of systems of suffering.
The problem you raise about mindfulness is important. I feel there is a risk of mindfulness being seen as a technology, presented as a technique, and sold back to us as an up-to-date self-improvement project. I’m concerned that mindfulness is being commodified, branded, and marketed.
Certainly mindfulness is good for society. Mindfulness programs are being seeded in hospitals, schools, and prisons, difficult settings where they are much-needed. Mindfulness is also being mainstreamed as a valuable psychological tool. But I worry about it being brought into corporate and military contexts. If I think about the products of many corporations and the destructive methods of our military, with its modern weaponry and inevitable violence. Is this what the Buddha meant when he spoke of Right Mindfulness?
Right Mindfulness might mean looking at the actual function of a system — a company, a prison, an army — beyond the mental ease that someone within that system feels. Of course everyone in any place has the right to be at ease and to live without overt oppression. But I think that an Engaged Buddhist perspective has to examine the function of any given system. That’s the larger, often neglected, view of the modern mindfulness “movement.”
When you look around at systems of suffering, what calls loudly for change?
Can we recognize that we live in a system that wants to make the world safe for multinational corporations. I don’t know what the most effective way to engage with that system is, but we are right in the middle of it. And we are privileged by it. I spend time in other countries and I’m constantly brought face to face with my own privilege. It’s something I wrestle with. We all need to wrestle with this because it’s not sustainable. Multinational corporations are not creating a system of sustainability. The world is dying.
As I said above, when I consider the Buddha’s ethical precepts, they are all about relationship. I’ve boiled them down to one vow, in its prohibitory and affirmative form: I vow not to live at the expense of other beings, but to cherish life. This might be a grandiose and impossible vow, but it’s surely worth the effort.