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Jerry Brown talks with Les Levine
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 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 environmentthose 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 anythingexcept 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.