Politics and Prayer

Jerry Brown talks with Les Levine

Jerry Brown

Jerry Brown, the former governor of California, was a candidate for the 1992 Democratic Presidential nomination. He was interviewed for Tricycle by Les Levine, an internationally known media artist and longtime Buddhist practitioner. The interview took place in September at Les Levine's studio in New York City. The art is by Les Levine, the photographs by Jeri Coppola.


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 teishos by 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 to dokusan, 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.

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