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: 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 mind. When meditating you become very aware hat 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 omething that I hadn't noticed before-this incredibly dizzy story that's going on all the time, nd 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, ideo-that produce images. If there were a true religious spirit, we would have to radically change the way politics is conducted.

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 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-a-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.

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