Opening the Hand of Thought

A few times this year I have been asked how to bring practice into the realm of politics, especially the kind of fractious debate that seems prevalent these days. If we are supposed to be at one with everything, how can we have preferences for candidates or issues?
Katagiri Roshi’s phrase can be a useful starting point. There is no liberation in holding tightly to opinions. Any time we can open the hand of thought, there is the possibility of liberation. This does not mean that we have to relinquish opinions entirely, but that we hold them loosely, prepared to adapt to new realities, and, in the face of them, investigate further, study more deeply, as Dogen never tired of advocating to his monks.
Living in a residential community also offered constant and close reminders that things don’t always go the way you want them to, and that other people invariably have different opinions about how things should best be done – even when there is a common purpose, and there are clear sets of guidelines about many things – and that you have to abide by what is decided, or choose your battles wisely.

Personally I didn’t think that the United Kingdom voting to leave the European Union was a good idea, though I would readily concede that there are many imperfections in the structure of the EU, and I understand there has been a significant shift in how people relate to it in the years since I lived in London (I have often characterised this as the equivalent of how many Republicans view the federal government in the US). Now, we have to accept that the new reality is that the vote to leave prevailed, and we have to figure out what that means going forward. It seems clear, at time of writing, that most people, including those in charge of the campaign to leave, don’t know what this is going to entail. Having fixed ideas about what the best way to vote was is of no use now; what is going to help is being flexible around what might be the best scenarios depending on how things unfold in the next weeks, months, and years. I have felt in the last ten days that it might take a decade before we can see clearly what the upshot of this is. It might not be pretty, but who really knows?

Similarly, I have opinions about the presidential candidates. When discussing this at the workshop in Santa Cruz on the brahmaviharas a couple of months ago, I took as a starting point the line we had just read from the Lovingkindness Meditation: ‘Let one do nothing that is mean or that the wise would reprove.’
Wisdom seems in short supply in the political realm these days, but if we can step back, opening up around our own certainties, the wiser course can be more visible. Along with that admonition, I highlighted the three Pure Precepts (another translation is here). When we can look at our own ideas, opinions and actions through that lens, and – to the best of our ability – the ideas, opinions and actions of others as well, then we can have some clarity as to which ideas and actions are going to lead to more wholesome results, and which are going to lead to more harmful results. I proposed at the time that it is okay to call people out if they are promoting harmful or toxic ideas, and indeed our bodhisattva vow of saving all beings asks this of us. There is no pre-requisite of being dispassionate in our practice, and there are many examples of how to engage passionately through practice (the BPF came to mind most immediately, and current posts drawn from Radical Dharma of course; I also read this stirring article the other day). May we all live and be lived for the benefit of all beings.

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