Sunday, March 4, 2012
And End to War and Poverty / Make Capitalism History, Helsinki, 2005
If there's one major development in 2011, it's got to be the rebirth of civil society. From the Arab Spring to the Occupy movements, people have been getting together to get stuff done in a way that hasn't been seen since, well, the 1960's, perhaps. This has been messy, and not all of the communities being built have been exactly nice—for example, I'm not too thrilled about the emergence of reactionary populist movements in Europe, even in Finland. But you gotta take the bad with the good. It's all part of the same ferment.
The emergence of communities is a fascinating process. There's an illusion of making something new; then an illusion of participating in something stable and persistent; perhaps eventually an illusion of something that seemed to be stable and persistent suddenly disintegrating. Communities are like onions, or like stews; there are layers within layers, chunks among chunks. There are strictly orthodox revolutionary vanguards; there are big-tent mass movements; there are communities of communities. There are cliques, hegemonies, orthodoxies, disputes, overt and covert infighting, competition for status, respect, power. We humans are really all about community. Without it, we're nothing, or almost nothing.
Community is always, from the beginning, a process. As stable as it may appear, a community is constantly reinventing itself, or else it is stagnating, calcifying, and eventually collapsing under its own weight. Healthy communities embrace and manage this change while finding a sense of continuity within it. Unhealthy ones tear themselves apart, or try to cling to some imagined status quo, and die.
To be born, a community needs a shared sense of purpose. In the beginning, this sense is loud and clear, and the people creating it are of like mind about it. These are heady times; a morning of opportunity when the world seems wide open. Over time, as the community picks up speed and strength, this sense of purpose will change. Bonds form. An identity is created. More people jump on board. With them comes diversity of views, wants, needs, ideas. Compromises and accommodations will have to be made.
Sometimes the original idea gets displaced completely, but the community will go on regardless. "Social democracy" once stood for the blood-red banner of violent revolution; now it brings up the idea of the staid, conservative, well-ordered Swedish welfare state.
Sometimes the original idea, or something very like it is maintained, but that usually precludes growth into mass movements, as the community sheds people who, it turns out, don't sufficiently share in the movement's reason for being after all. A lot depends on what the community values. The Leninist revolutionary vanguard is at one extreme; it values the revolution over all else, and unsentimentally purges anyone who would water it down. Loose communities of communities—the Republic of Finland, say—lie at the other extreme; they only require acceptance of certain minimum rules of conduct to participate, and have room for quite radically different ideas on how to run a country. Not everything, though: democracies cannot tolerate those who would replace them with tyrannies.
I don't believe the "Occupy" movements can have staying power. Nor the various Arab Spring movements taking their names from calendar days. There isn't enough common ground for building a community, even if there are shared experiences. However, I believe that the city squares from Beirut to Oakland, Cairo to New York, Homs to Benghazi can beget many, diverse communities, and it's even possible that these communities will, eventually, find enough common ground to build some tenuous community-of-communities that will keep alive the hope for a better future.
Helsinki Zen Center is a community in movement. By the time I hopped on the boat a couple of years ago, it was already well established, with stable institutions, roles, and practices. By now, I have seen it reinvent itself for a while. There's a gradual turnover of people; there are changes to process, to organizational structure, even to rituals. We recently changed the wording on some of our chants; we've experimented with variations on the forms of practice; we've dropped the recorded teishos for Thursday's zazen, and introduced dharma talks on zazenkais. We've experimented with dharma discussions, more or less regimented retreats. We've had different recommendations about when to wear robes and when not.
This process has sometimes been difficult. Not too long after I had joined, we had a full-blown crisis. The sangha leader and a few of his friends left the group rather dramatically. I didn't know many of the people concerned well at all, but I was already involved enough that it was a shock. I don't know all of the gory details; I only have a part of the story, or some parts of it, from both sides involved in the split. I'm sure your usual personal and interpersonal drama was a part of it. People said and did hurtful things. That's not all it was, however. I'm pretty sure a part of it was more structural than that: deeper disagreements about the purpose and, if you will, mission of the community.
One reason I chose to stay with this group was the way this crisis was handled. It was an open process. The interpersonal stuff, hurt feelings, hurtful actions and what not—was brought out into the open. So were the disagreements about the purpose and direction of the community. I was impressed. It's never pretty, but I've been involved—or a witness to—similar drama elsewhere, and usually this part of the process has been much worse. I felt a real willingness to confront the issues rather than suppress them or sweep them under the rug. That's difficult, and rare.
The vibe in the community has been noticeably better since the crisis. Perhaps those tensions that were simmering under the surface had to be brought out into the open, regardless of the hurt involved. Perhaps the people who left, had to leave. Be as it may, I have had a sense of greater clarity and purpose in the community.
Helsinki Zen Center is an overtly Buddhist group. A religious one, even. We offer pretty much the whole Zen menu, of which I've only tasted a few entrées at this point. Even our regular weekday zazen has a good bit of ritual involved. Our tradition is rich and has a great deal more than just sitting, for those who want to take part. We had a two-day zazenkai just this weekend, which finished with the opportunity to formally take the precepts—jukai. We have people who can officiate in weddings and funerals; the training temple in Sweden offers an opportunity for intensive retreats or full-time practice. The teachers do a kind of "confirmation school" for Buddhist teenagers. The Zenbuddhistiska Samfundet is a religious organization, overtly and explicitly, and pretty much all the services you'd expect a religious organization to provide are provided.
And, naturally, Buddhisty stuff comes up in teishos all the time. There is a point to the exercise, and there is stuff built in to remind us of it.
I did not participate in jukai today. My proximate reason is that my wife is sick at home and out of food, and it would have been slightly ironic to sit there vowing to do good and abstain from doing evil while she needs someone to go to the shop and cook her something to eat. However, I had other reasons besides that. I did not really know what jukai means in our tradition; I do now, thanks to an excellent talk by Kanja sensei about it. I also have some knots I need to untie specifically about the religious identity aspect of jukai—one facet of it is that it does, sort of, officially signify becoming a Buddhist. I need some time to get comfortable with that idea. Or perhaps I won't, in which case I won't. Just because it's on the menu doesn't mean you have to order it. So perhaps next time; or perhaps not. We will see.
This religious approach to Zen clearly limits its appeal. Finland is a highly secularized country with a milquetoast Protestant culture. Religious stuff scares people off. My wife—who is Christian—attended our introductory course. She does not feel comfortable with the ritual language of Zen. Prostrating yourself to the Buddha is a bit... difficult for someone who has internalized the "no other gods before me" thing, at any level. Fortunately for me, she has no objection to my participation in these kinds of rituals. She doesn't even object to my taking jukai, should I feel like it. I just asked.
There is a temptation to water things down. Zazen is great, and there's nothing in it that obviously requires religion or philosophy or ritual. So why not get rid of all that stuff that turns people off, and just do zazen?
Why not? I really don't have an answer. I do think, though, that I wouldn't have stuck with it even this far if Thursday zazen didn't have the big bell and the hân and the inkin bell, the incense and the fresh flowers on the altar; the vows and the bows. Why? Don't know. Don't really know. I just find I like dressing up as a Jedi and ringing bells.
Be as it may, I am happy that we have chosen to be explicitly and overtly Buddhist. We do not try to hide it, sneak it in through the back door, or throw it out. For reasons not entirely clear to me, I like that ritual. It is meaningful to me, on a level that goes beyond words. Someone may see a Buddhist bubble in it; I see a variety of sharp instruments useful for pricking all kinds of bubbles, and a safe space in which to face stuff that really isn't easy to face.
It is an unusual kind of religiosity, too, if you understand religion in the Abrahamic sense. There is no call for belief in just about anything, let alone blind belief; the ritual is there, and the teaching is there, and if you find it helpful, great. This has attracted a quite an interesting variety of people, too—we even have one regular who usually shows up in a Gnu Atheist T-shirt with an evil wolf dressed up as a cardinal leading sheep to a slaughterhouse that looks a lot like a church. He even mentioned once how delighted he was to come across a group that explores this dimension of human experience "without any god-cackling."
There may be some lessons for community-building in there. It's a difficult path to tread, between enforced conformity and orthodoxy on the one hand, and compromise to the point of dilution on the other. There are bound to be difficulties. The strength of a community is measured by how it deals with these difficulties.
This weekend's zazenkai was great. I took dokusan with Kanja sensei. She didn't really tell me anything I didn't already know, but however it happened, I found my practice again. There really is no substitute for dokusan, even if it's only once or twice every year.