What is the sound of one hand clapping? What was your face before you were born? These Zen koans have seeped into the English vernacular as “riddles.” What characterizes a riddle, however, is to ask a question, then gleefully wait for the (often ridiculous) “right ” answer. These days Washington has produced a veritable glut of riddles. Usually smutty, they are told at a pitch that turns elevators, taxis, and street vendor carts into stand-up comedy clubs,
In Zen, koan practice primes an awakening to a reality that dwarfs the small sense of “me” and renders senseless one’s own socially conditioned, ego-bound habits of linear, logical thinking This environment does not curry favor with hard-edged opinions, condemnation or holy superiority. Yet, oddly enough, for all the humor and irrationality inherent in koans, the right/wrong rhetoric of the beltway—by comparison—looks like kindergarten sophistry; not innocent, but rather too childish to contain contradiction.
Politicians, with an absurdity that transcends the wackiest-sounding koans, continue to defend rigid and tenacious ideas of right and wrong. Yet amidst this national conundrum, their willful attempts at moral precision ring hollow. What sounds genuine are the comments from—as mainstream media call us—“the average citizen.” The professional politicos continue losing moral ground to the very real, gritty, troubling, agonizing, intimate and unavoidable truth of being caught between no right, no wrong: “…the president’s a sleaze but…nobody deserves that kind of public humiliation, but he lied, but …who cares, but you can’t explain to kids that everyone lies about sex, but, it’s not about sex, how dare that porno Starr invade my house but…Clinton is such a jerk…I wish he would resign but…then the country will be run by right wing fundamentalists who hate women, gays, and blacks and whose commitment to privacy covers handguns but not sex.”
The next day you are there again—at work, on the phone, in the bank—having the same conversation until the inside of your brain feels like it’s lined with a blistering case of rampant poison ivy.
But…but, but being confused, wrestling with contradiction, accommodating paradox—that looks true. Suddenly, “the average citizen” appears to be aching under the burden of a new kind of moral dignity, one that refuses to seek refuge in the simplistic convention of seeing things in black or white, right or wrong, good or bad. Safe, dualistic dichotomies have blessedly fallen apart. At least for a few minutes.
With koans, getting tangled up inside an enigma is both method and process. I do not mean to suggest that the country is now about to take a collective leap of true faith into the unknown and the unknowable. But uncertainty offers fresh possibilities. I have found this aspect of the current situation surprising and kind of heartbreaking. No matter what the future has in store for Clinton’s presidency, at this moment the “average citizen” is bravely, even heroically, hanging in with the supreme discomfort of not thinking in absolute terms. In response, I find myself inclined toward that elusive peak of patriotism called national pride.
I do not share the view that without money in our pockets, we the people would have joined the lynch mob. Culturally, we are the heirs of Salem and the scarlet “A” reflecting not only a prudishness about sex, but, as well, the legacy of the Puritan imperative to impose moral judgment. But…sometimes, uncertainty may be the most moral position.
Once a dharma teacher explained: “If someone says ‘Coffee is better than tea,’ we have nothing to talk about. If someone says ‘Tea is better than coffee,’ we have nothing to talk about it. If someone says, ‘I don’t know which is better, coffee or tea,’ then we have something to talk to about.”
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