Today, Donald Trump will be inaugurated as our 45th president. This is an unprecedented event: Trump’s lack of previous political experience and his unusual style of rhetoric is completely different from anything we’ve seen before in a victorious presidential candidacy. No one quite knows what to expect from his tenure, although it’s perhaps an understatement to say that many expect very bad things. He did, after all, lose the popular vote by some three million votes. So he rises to power in a very divided and politically disturbing moment.
Dealing with uncertainty in the face of potential catastrophe (like illness, old age, and death) is basic to dharma practice. In Zen especially we have the koan phrase “not knowing is most intimate.” This means what it sounds like it means. We don’t know what will happen, and we don’t even know what is happening now. We never know; even when we think we know, we don’t know. Not knowing can make us nervous, even panicky. But when, with our practice, we settle into not knowing, with some wisdom and courage, we see that not knowing is intimate. Not knowing, we have no choice but to plunge into reality as it is.
In Soto Zen we take the practice of not knowing to mean that no matter what happens we will continue our practice with strength and devotion. We know what to do. Practice means not only the formal practices of zazen, study, and retreat, but also responding moment by moment, all day and every day, to conditions as we find them, with the values and attitudes we have long cultivated in our practice: compassion for all, generosity, kindness, respect, patience, and courage. We may well be in for rocky times. But dharma practitioners know how to maintain stability in such times. We know what it feels like to fall into the emotional maelstrom created by self-centeredness, and we know how to avoid such a fall, or cope when we have fallen.
For many decades American politics has been becoming increasingly spectacular in the literal sense of that word: like a spectacle, a show. Maybe Trump’s expertise as a reality TV star, and the consequences of his style, will finally inspire us to stop being spectators and begin being citizens. This is my hope. As citizens we will have to pay less attention to political hype and more attention to actual political details. We will have to be better informed and more critical. We will have to determine when it is effective and crucial to respond to events by writing, posting, agitating, and organizing. We will have to call local and state representatives, registering protests as necessary in the spirit of dharma: consistently, patiently, peacefully, and with respect for all. There will be many opportunities for creativity in our political expression. Staying close to our practice will help us to seize these possibilities.
All this amounts to simple mindfulness. Usually we think of mindfulness as awareness of our thoughts, feelings, and sensations. Yes, mindfulness begins there. But true mindfulness, from a Zen perspective, involves mindfulness of who we really are, our true selves—which includes all others and the world. Paying attention to the world with wisdom, caring for the world as ourselves, and acting compassionately for the benefit of others will be our practice now more than ever.
While many of us may well have a sense of great urgency in this political moment, we simply can’t allow ourselves to spend the next four years in a state of dismay and psychological teetering—even despair. With our sitting practice, our dharma study, our strong attention to friendship, and all the wholesome social and personal associations we participate in, we will build an alternative world. I am not talking about withdrawing from society; quite the contrary. But socially, spiritually, we can’t be drawn into the craziness. It is our duty to maintain and express a sane view. Our dharma communities will also be more important than ever, as it is from these communities that we will reach out to other dharma groups, to other spiritual and religious groups, and beyond.
The most terrible possibility of the post-inaugural world—the one most feared by many people I know—is a serious increase in hatred, violence, misogyny, homophobia, racism, and xenophobia, the usual forces that lie sleeping in any mass society, and when stirred up, can give rise to forms of fascism. I realize that fascism does happen. But I refuse to assume, absent hard evidence, that that’s where we are headed. My guess is—and my hope and faith is—that the quotient of blind hatred in America will remain more or less the same, and that in the end basic human decency will rule the day.
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