August 23, 2013
An Interview with Hozan Alan Senauke
Hozan Alan Senauke is a Soto Zen priest, activist, and the former director of Buddhist Peace Fellowship. He is an advisor to the International Network of Engaged Buddhists and founder of the Clear View Project, which focuses on social change and relief efforts in Asia. He also happens to be an accomplished folk musician.
In March, Radio host John Malkin interviewed Senauke on his show “The Great Leap Forward” on Free Radio Santa Cruz. The two spoke about the confluence of Buddhism and social justice, Buddhist Anarchism, and where Engaged Buddhism stands today.
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.” I’ve studied anarchist literature to an extent. Robert Aitken really studied it very thoroughly and in fact gave his library of anarchist books to the Buddhist Peace Fellowship when I was there in the late 90s. He drew the idea of “building the new within the shell of the old” from the Wobblies [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. It is true that all Buddhism is engaged because the precepts and teachings are all 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 could be seen as a kind of radical individualism. He taught that your actual position in the world and your value in it was not to be based on your birth but on your actions, and that you had to take responsibility as an individual for your actions. Fast-forward to what we have today in the West, a terribly individualist ideology. The greatest threat to Buddhism, or any progressive movement, is that it can be turned into a commodity that is sold back to you. We are constantly being sold this commodity of individualism. I believe 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 and that the suffering is not just about individuals experiencing racism, sexism, and various kinds of oppression; what we have are structures of suffering that also have to be addressed. Engaged Buddhism addresses exactly that intersection of our individual responsibility and individual involvement in the creation of systems of suffering.
The problem that you point out about mindfulness is important. I feel there is a risk of mindfulness being seen as a technology, presented as a technique, which is sold back to us. What I’m concerned about in terms of this increasingly popular approach is that it’s being psychologized and marketed.
Certainly a lot of it is very good. Mindfulness is now happening in schools and prisons, in settings where it is truly useful. But I worry about it being brought into a corporate context and a military context. In those contexts people are being helped to find ease and suffer less within systems that are causing suffering. Right Mindfulness would be looking at the actual function of that system as well as the freedom that an individual within that system feels. I don’t wish ill to people working in corporations or people in the military; everyone has the right to be at ease and to live without oppression. On the other hand, I think that an Engaged Buddhist perspective looks at the function of that system. That’s the larger, often neglected view of mindfulness.
When you look around at systems of suffering, what is most grabbing your attention for change? On the widest scale, we can 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.
When I think of the Buddhist precepts, which are ethical precepts, they are all about relationships. I’ve boiled them down to one: vowing to live in a way that is not at the expense of other beings. In a sense it’s very grand and impossible, but it’s also a really powerful motivation.
John Malkin is the editor of Sounds of Freedom, a collection of interviews with musicians on social change and spirituality.