Levine: How did you come to be in a Zen meditation center?
Brown: I was visiting Japan some years ago, and I went over to Sophia, the Jesuit university in Tokyo. Through the Jesuits I contacted Koun Yamada Roshi. He was an administrator of a medical clinic, and he invited me to come and practice with him. He had a zendo next to his house and was the roshi for a lay community there. I then came back in the fall of 1986, and I stayed there until March of 1987.
Levine: What had led you in this direction?
Brown: I’ve always had an interest in Zen stories. I once went to a symposium on the mind at the University of California Medical School. The speaker was Aldous Huxley. He kept saying that our educational system is out of whack, there’s something wrong with it, we’re not educating a very important aspect of the human being—the mind. I couldn’t quite follow what he was talking about. Afterward I asked how I could find out more. He told me to read Paul Reps’ Zen Flesh, Zen Bones. The purity and simplicity of the stories, the paradox, fascinated me. In 1975, when I was governor, I visited Tassajara, a Zen center near Carmel. I met Richard Baker, the roshi, and through that friendship I got to know a number of people, and made many visits to the Zen center in San Francisco.
Levine: Can you describe what you learned from being in a Japanese zendo for almost six months?
Brown: Well, for Yamada Roshi’s teachings people had to find their own accommodations; you could not live in the monastery. We went to the monastery for two hours every day. But it was completely optional—it was a lay practice. Usually there were anywhere from five to thirty people at the zendo every night from 7:00 to 9:00, and there would be a Zen intensive every month.
Levine: What was the experience like for you?
Brown: I was writing, and practicing meditation, and being with other people who were there for the same purpose. I lived with a few people in a prewar Japanese house. There was a garden; it was very big; it was run down. There was no central heating—the weather outside was the weather inside, unless you lit your gas lantern. I wasn’t involved in any kind of politics or business; basically I was writing and reading and meditating each night. I read a lot about Zen Buddhists of the past, and various authors, as well as teishosby Yamada Roshi, and tried to integrate those things into the whole day.
Levine: What was going on in your mind at that time?
Brown: It definitely was a time of putting off distractions. The focus was on meditation—aside from writing, which I did a great deal of. It reminded me of the four years when I was studying to be a Jesuit priest—we were silent most of the time, and meditated, and there was bowing and candles and incense. It had the same feeling to me, the feeling of quest, trying to understand what this practice is. At this zendo, the roshi wanted people to get kensho (an experience of enlightenment). It was a sort of kensho machine. The main purpose was the two-hour meditation. It was pretty practical stuff: how to make it work, how to hold your body, and asking why I was sitting on a cushion and what was going on there.
Levine: What did you think was going on there?
Brown: I was following my breathing. And working on the koan mu: “Does a dog have Buddha-nature?” I was doing muji every day.
Levine: Was anything about Jerry Brown revealed to Jerry Brown in that process?
Brown: I experienced that there are certain patterns in how one lives and interprets reality. When you lay aside the busyness of things, you see those patterns more clearly.
Levine: You had been involved with the Jesuit system, and now you were involved with this system—what were some of the differences?
Brown: I’m sure that at some level they’re aiming at the exact same thing. But, on the superficial level, the Jesuit approach to prayer and meditation is to visualize—a scene from the life of Christ or the horrors of Hell or the splendors of Paradise—to imagine yourself there, and then derive some conclusion from that. It requires visualizing. In Zen practice there’s nothing there; it’s just following your breath. When one went todokusan, Yamada Roshi would say, “You yourself are completely empty.” Every day he hammered that idea out.
Levine: From being a Jesuit to this experience, you must have some deeply involved spiritual concerns.
Brown: That’s why I was there. That was the point.
Levine: Often when you interview people who are in some way spiritual and you say to them, “Are you a Buddhist?” for example, they reply, “No.” Because even though they have great curiosity about spiritual matters, they don’t feel comfortable being identified with them. Do you ever have that sensation in talking to people?
Brown: Spirituality is not something you generally talk about. There are many gaps between who we are and who we want to be, between conception and experience, intention and action.
Levine: In a previous issue of Tricycle we asked you what it means to be a Buddhist, and you said, “To live a life in freedom from illusion.” I wonder what, in practical terms, that could mean in our society?
Brown: It would mean knowing yourself, being willing to open yourself to the constructions of reality that are the comfortable bases of your life, and thinking about what’s going on. When someone challenges or refutes them, taking the opportunity to to look at the distortions that are there just by the very nature of being a human being. Illusions are the stuff of life. Being willing to look at them constantly, and see what we’re doing more clearly.
Levine: We have this mass illusion machine, the mass media, which is continually conjuring up one illusion after another.
Brown: We have an analogous illusion machine—our mind. When meditating you become very aware that your mind is jumping around. In Zen, your mind is described as a monkey in a cage, chattering—when your thoughts are thinking you. That was something that I hadn’t noticed before—this incredibly dizzy story that’s going on all the time, and determining how you live and who you are.
Levine: I was thinking about the practicality of living without illusion. Apart from the fact that your mind makes a lot of illusion, there are a lot of artificial machines around you all the time—audio, video—that produce images.
Brown: So “living without illusion” is rather an illusory statement. We live in an illusory state. Just to look at you, you’re really upside down, except the retina and the brain turn the image right side up. We start with illusion from the beginning, and it’s a continuing process. So “living without illusion” is a rather simplistic way of putting it.
Levine: I think it’s a good way of putting it. I wish I could do it.
Brown: Well, there are moments when you can see our illusions clearly, and there are other moments, when we’re swimming happily in them which is probably most of the time. Society has these illusions too, and as a matter of fact, the little that I understand about postmodernist thinking is the idea that what we share together—our image of the body, of ourselves, of society, of what’s good and what will make us happy, healthy, and successful—is also determined by social construction. To live without illusion would be to deconstruct that, not on the premise that somehow everything is empty and meaningless, but in the Buddhist sense—that there is a ground of emptiness that is totally complete.
Levine: Taking it apart and seeing what it is.
Brown: Not taking it apart but seeing the contingent nature of ideas and experiences that we think are real, and seeing the unreality of what constitutes reality for us. Of course, I relate this to my Catholic training. One of the rules of the Jesuits is to seek continual mortification and abnegation in all things. Another is “let him abhor wholly and not in part, whatsoever the world loves and embraces.” These are definitely aimed at creating a critical stance vis-à-vis the world, or the set of illusions that you get by turning on the television, or picking up the newspaper, or even walking down the street and talking to somebody. What we were taught—and I always had some trouble with it—is Ignatian indifference. The point of the exercises was to detach your mind in such a way that you could perceive and understand the word of God because you had freed yourself from inordinate attachment. That was viewed as a precondition for seeing and then responding to the word of God. We were told to go against ourselves, to practice mortification, which is killing the self.
Levine: You’re aware of the Buddhist concept of nonattachment, non-grasping?
Brown: Yes. Buddhism seems to be dealing with the same reality from a similar perspective with attachment—the self—still being the problem. The built-up set of imagery, ideas, and reactions, that we think of as our self. When Buddhism says, “It’s an illusion, it’s empty,” I think back to when Ignatius said, “Your self—that’s your problem. You have to conquer self, kill the self.” It’s that tradition, both in Christianity and in Buddhism, in which we are challenged to let go of what is so comfortable and what we cling to as who we are, if we’re going to open ourselves to reality and truth.
Levine: Aren’t a lot of so-called postmodernist notions about society in general based on the fact that certain people have gone through consciousness-raising processes? A common mistake could be in thinking that consciousness-raising, by itself, is some form of spiritual endeavor—unlike the zendo, or the Jesuit thing, where you actually are involved in some kind of more pure spiritual activity.
Brown: Spiritual practice demands a total involvement, a full commitment, whereas consciousness sounds like a partial experience—like a . . . . consciousness-raising session.
Levine: It sounds functional at some level.
Brown: I think that this kind of consciousness is a piece of enlightenment, but if it’s also about grasping—then it’s not the same thing as what spiritual teachers are pointing you toward.
Levine: I’d like to ask you about your experience with Mother Theresa, and how you came to that, because I think that most spiritual practice has some kind of altruism involved. Do you agree?
Brown: Yes, completely. The Supreme Way, embodying nonduality, is coincidental with compassion. In watching the film on Mother Theresa and reading about her, it struck me that she was actually embodying the Supreme Way more fully than anybody else I had ever heard about.
Levine: How long were you in India?
Brown: A little more than three weeks. I worked in Mother Theresa’s home for the dying and the destitute, and had a chance to speak with her, and go to mass in the morning, and to say the rosary in the afternoon and evening. That was a practice I wanted to experience directly—how in the face of all this poverty there was all this joy.
Levine: Amongst whom?
Brown: The volunteers and the workers, the missionaries. In the work that I do, there’s a great deal of cynicism—things don’t seem to be working very well. When anyone can demonstrate how, in the face of what appears to be empty and meaningless or full of suffering, you can shine some light on it, I want to understand it.
Levine: Do you have any insight as to what that was about?
Brown: It’s about complete giving. Mother Theresa always talks about Jesus. She takes your hand and says, “What He did for me and what He does with me, He does to you. What you do to the person in front of you, that’s what you do to Jesus.” There’s a oneness, a nonseparation among all people—that’s God. That’s the ultimate reality right there—that’s the practice.
Levine: A Buddhist could say that what you do to the person in front of you is what you do to your mind. You could take that position, because you become your action.
Brown: I think at the level of practice, there shouldn’t really be any differences. Buddhism became a lens for me to look at what Christianity was saying. There are just different ways of approaching the same essential way of being in the world. Religion at its best always brings out not just enlightenment, but service in the community—both understanding and giving.
Levine: And in Mother Theresa, you have someone who’s giving all the time.
Brown: Yes, and that’s the basis of what her organization is doing. It’s aimed at helping the poorest of the poor.
Levine: She has a quality of extraordinary brightness, like a bodhisattva.
Brown: I’ve heard her speak many times and it’s quite powerful. Most people I hear sound like a presentation; with Mother Theresa, it is much more basic and authentic.
Levine: We seem more interested in the artificial in America than in the authentic. We seem to be good at images.
Brown: Of course there’s celebrityhood—you do something, and soon it becomes a story, and then you’re reenacting the story about what it was that you did. You become a commodity. Unless you forswear all these accoutrements of power, you can’t tell whether someone’s sincere or not. So I guess there’s a real genius in this vow of poverty and chastity and obedience. Without possessions, there’s no doubt—from all visible signs—that there’s no racket going on. You can’t say that about too many things. There seems to be a lot of secondary gain, even in religious institutions, both Buddhist and Christian.
Levine: When you were governor, you lived in an apartment and drove a used car. Were you making an image? Why did you do that?
Brown: You see, my father lived in the old Victorian governor’s mansion that all the other governors of this century lived in, and when the Reagans came along, they didn’t like it. Nancy convinced them to build a new governor’s mansion, which Joan Didion described as “Safeway Modern.” I brought a lawsuit to stop it. Among other things, it was built on an Indian burial ground. The lawsuit was lost, the unfinished mansion was ready, and I calculated it would cost about $500,000 a year to operate. So I said we don’t need that, and I’m going to get an apartment just across the street. This was the time of the energy crisis and I said we ought to get something simpler to drive. The first car out of the state car pool was a ’74 Plymouth. It seemed appropriate. But I think it’s hard to be totally artless as a politician—image is so important. The whole business is the contrivance and manipulation of imagery.
Levine: The job of a politician is to make images with words.
Brown: Or with images. “There’s a bear out there”—that was the Reagan thing with the Russians.
Levine: So a ’74 Plymouth becomes imagery to somebody?
Brown: It sure does. It’s a statement—you don’t find many governors driving Plymouths.
Levine: And what statement does it make?
Brown: For one thing, that you don’t need a bigger car. Without driving the Cadillac, you can get to the same place. That was the point that was being made. It was the time of Watergate and the perception of politicians as living on the gravy train. I wanted to move off the gravy train—which we did. Not completely, by any means, but we were moving in the right direction. In my campaign this year, we’re asking Congress to roll back its pay, to enact term limits, to put a binding “none of the above” on the ballot so people can vote against them. All these things are aimed at cutting down to size what has become a bloated and excessive political institution.
Levine: Do you think that imagery in itself actually has much of an effect?
Brown: If it’s just imagery it doesn’t have much of an effect. You would have to live completely according to it—a totally simple life—and I don’t think I did that. I had a very simple apartment, but I also had a house in L.A. Being in the business of politics, you have to spend a fair amount of time with rich people. Whenever I would drive up to these expensive homes in my blue Plymouth, I would feel odd, in a line of Mercedes-Benzes and Rolls Royces. It definitely seemed out of place. And I think the people in those homes viewed it as an insult. In effect, it would be much better to have the appropriate vehicle, otherwise it’s like pointing the finger, and that causes a lot of bad feelings.
Levine: Do you think that if a politician really expressed a strong religious practice that it would frighten people?
Brown: I’m sure it does. Some people are frightened by religion. How do you mean “religious practice”?
Levine: Every president gets up there and says, “God bless America,” but then you wonder what they mean by that. What do they think they mean?
Brown: I don’t know.
Levine: It seems to me that they can use the notion that they have a religious view of things when they want to. They seem to be anxious to use that, even if it’s not so.
Brown: When politicians are talking about religion, if they really had that as the doctrine of their life, they would have to get rid of homelessness and housing projects. And get rid of the fact that we’re caging many Americans, particularly blacks, in isolated areas where there’s no work or hope, and it’s destroying lives. And Native Americans too. If there were a true religious spirit, we would have to radically change the way politics is conducted.
Levine: But much of our nature is already involved in duality anyway, isn’t it? You not only have to have a program, but you have to say that the other guy’s program is no good.
Brown: There is a lot of duality. There are a lot of epistemological distortions in politics too—people promising things that aren’t even things, but metaphors.
Levine: How does all that duality gel with a person like yourself, who has spiritual values?
Brown: Not without great difficulty. I think to link spirituality and political action together we have to start with what I do each day, and how that will flow—whatever unity can emerge.
Levine: What do you think of the Buddhist idea that imposing your views on others causes them to suffer?
Brown: What would be an example of that?
Levine: One should have prayer in school; or that Buddhists who are generally against abortion, because they have the view that one shouldn’t impose one’s views on others, would oppose making abortion against the law.
Brown: We do have certain protections—such as the First Amendment. Even if you win an election, there’s still the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the Supreme Court, to protect the minority against the majority. That is based on a recognition and an honoring of difference. Democracy must entail that kind of acknowledgment.
Levine: Yet there are aspects of our society where people are trying to impose their views on one another all the time.
Brown: Sure—there are people who want to create a theocratic state. But I think we can protect diversity by appealing to our tradition. Patrick Henry and Jefferson were sophisticated people, and Adams—they were not fanatics.
Levine: But do we have to find a culprit in order to make progress? It seems that “culpritizing” generates duality and hatred, and therefore suffering.
Brown: You can’t change anything unless you can point out the evil—what is not right or fair.
Levine: But you may be changing more than you think.
Brown: You do have people who rob and murder, loot the savings and loans, pollute the environment—those people are culprits, doing things which we want to correct and stop.
Levine: So you see compassion as something that would be very active.
Brown: We have to take action—even if it’s only in our own households. But I would say that the communities have deteriorated; the competition of the marketplace has become paramount in the collective mind. The best example is in education. We don’t justify education by saying we want people to be able to learn and fully develop their skills, and powers of mind and heart—we say we want to be more competitive with Japan. This is a very shriveled notion of what learning is. We can’t just drift along, we have to go against the drift.
Levine: To what degree can we blame that on those who are leading us? Do we participate in a lack of vision ourselves?
Brown: Of course, everyone does. But when you’re at the top, you have to accept responsibility. Citizens are also contributing—certainly in a democracy where we are self-governing—and must take responsibility. But that shouldn’t exculpate the president or the governor, or those with some power. There are some with more political and economic power than others, and they have a greater responsibility to take right action.
Levine: To what degree do you think mass media has replaced religion?
Brown: The zone of religious authority has shrunk. I think the media has a large role in value-setting. Is the media the market and corporations or is it just a circle of desire which is pushing people toward consumption and acquisition and grasping? There are some stories about people doing good work, but in general, the advertising game, and a lot of its values, are not interested in the least in building a compassionate and mutually self-supporting society. It’s frightening.
Levine: In many cases, what you have in mass media is the continual repetition of certain ideas, not unlike what one is involved in with prayer and the repetition that goes on there.
Brown: We’re in a market system—people celebrate it. The market is what has triumphed. Communism and socialism have failed, the corporate purpose is to maximize the return on investment, and the way that occurs on TV is through advertising. That does not take into account art and religion and compassion and community. There has to be a challenge to the way the media is constructed and functioning—which is really a challenge to the way society is functioning. People in Buddhism and Christianity, at their best moments, have stood in a critical position in relationship to power, to those in authority, to culture as it impairs the human consciousness and sensibility.
Levine: I often get a sense from watching television that “Belief can kill”: that it’s dangerous to believe in things, it’s foolish, it shows weakness. You get this on television all the time: “Don’t believe in anything except us.”
Brown: The commercials have much more authority than the politicians. Marshall McLuhan once told me that “The bad news of reality sells the good news of advertising.” So that you watch three killings, a couple of wars and a famine, and then you switch to a beer commercial—you feel like you need one at that point, or some item of consumption.
Levine: Do you think that prayer helps in this day and age? Individual prayer?
Brown: Yes. There are different kinds of prayer: there’s the Jesus prayer, there’s contemplation and meditation, the Buddhist prayer of the heart, there’s discursive prayer, verbal prayer, and prayer in the generic sense—opening your mind and heart to God, or just following your breathing. It’s about getting in touch with what you should be getting in touch with. In a very concrete way, one is more open and sensitive to words and symbols.
Levine: Why do you think there’s been such an onslaught of people running for office saying, “I’m religious”?
Brown: To get votes, pure and simple. You have to identify with your audience. There are a lot of people who are good Christians, who respond to that kind of language. I think there’s a feeling that if you invoke religious symbolism and authority, you overcome the inherent cynicism which greets most politicians. And maybe some of them are actually involved—Jimmy Carter is out there now building houses, carrying on his work.
Levine: Do you think that we could ever see a Buddhist president in America?
Brown: It would be good just to have a president who was fully present to him or herself and to the task at hand, and was able to speak out of that presence of mind. I wouldn’t want to be so dualistic as to say that if we get a Buddhist president, something will happen. Labels are not really to the point.
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