To some it may seem strange to associate Zen Buddhism with political resistance. The typical image evoked of Zen is a monk silently sitting and meditating in a monastery. The picture is one of detachment and removing oneself from the practical affairs of daily life to attain spiritual enlightenment. While there is some truth to this depiction, it also contains some inaccuracies. Zen Buddhism is not utterly unworldly; nor are other spiritual traditions. It is an unfortunate and common misconception to characterize spiritual practice as having little to do with the active pursuit of social justice. However, that topic is one I will reserve for another time.

The facet of Zen that I want to focus on is a method used by Zen teachers called the koan. A koan can take the form of a statement, question or story. An essential element of the koan is that it poses a paradox or contradiction that the student is instructed to meditate on. A well-known example is “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” The paradox being posed is one that defies any logical or rational answer or resolution — and that is precisely what it is intended to do. Try as they might, students are repeatedly thwarted at wrapping their heads around it. Eventually they come to realize that the concepts that they take as truth are actually distortions that prevent them from experiencing things directly as they truly are. The koan opens them up to doubt so as to lay bare the fictions and illusions that imprison their minds. The ultimate purpose is to enable students to achieve satori or spiritual enlightenment.

How can this form of Zen teaching help to facilitate political liberation? To answer this, I will first look to the work of the Italian Marxist philosopher, Antonio Gramsci. Gramsci advanced the idea of hegemony. By this he meant the reigning paradigm in a society. It consists of the core beliefs, values, accepted wisdom, and stereotypes inculcated in all members of society by means of various forms of propaganda and indoctrination by major cultural institutions. As a result, the hegemonic ideology is absorbed and accepted uncritically. The assumptions that make up the ideology are regarded as “common sense” and “the way things are”. The primary function of hegemony is political. It functions to support the status quo and enable the dominant class to maintain its power by means of various forms of ideological control. The most powerful of these is mystification in which a plausible misinterpretation of events is used to justify the status quo. Such mystification is particularly effective when it allays the fear or anxiety that comes with doubt or uncertainty. By presenting the status quo as natural and inevitable, hegemony first stifles any efforts made to question or criticize it. It also creates a sense of passivity and fatalism by duping those oppressed by the hegemony into believing that is incapable of being changed. As a result, when hegemony is most effective it leads the oppressed to consent to their exploitation.

This would be a grim state of affairs if the dominant ideology was indeed beyond criticism and unassailable. Fortunately, Gramsci believed that no hegemony is fixed or final. All ideologies contain within them contradictions and inconsistencies that the ruling class is unable to veil or deny. Further the ruling ideology cannot completely stifle dissent. Nor can it avoid being challenged in the face of ever-changing historical conditions. There exists among all members of a society an ever-present underlying ambivalence and nagging sense of uncertainty. This ambivalence becomes particularly incited when inevitable contradictions are exposed in the daily reality of people who suffer under its oppression. Gramsci asserts that different philosophies and views of the world always exist and individuals must make a choice about which to accept. In other words, a counter-hegemony is always present which offers the possibility of not only questioning the dominant ideology, but opposing and changing it.

The role which the koan can play in political liberation is further expanded on by Erich Fromm in his chapter in the book Zen Buddhism and Psychoanalysis. Fromm was a social psychologist and psychoanalyst who was a member of the Frankfurt School. He was a powerful and eloquent critic of capitalism and in many ways was prescient in his raising the alarm about the destructive impact of what is currently the prevailing hegemonic ideology of our times — neoliberalism. In his chapter, Fromm discusses the parallels he saw between Zen Buddhism and psychoanalysis. Like Gramsci, Fromm believed that most of what we consciously think and believe is fiction and delusion. This is again due to the ruling class cultivating a false consciousness based on a world-view that functions as a socially conditioned filter that determines what experiences one can or cannot be aware of. This world-view employs certain socially approved categories that determine what thoughts, feelings and actions are permissible. Language is used to veil or distort experiences and make them conform to the dominant world-view (e.g. calling the estate tax the “death tax” or calling the killing of innocent civilians “collateral damage”). Finally the world-view employs a conventional form of logic that categorizes experiences in either-or terms.

As Fromm observes, in order to break through such illusions or distortions and cultivate insight, those who are half-asleep must be driven into a corner and somehow made to confront their doubts and uncertainties along with the anxiety that accompany them. Their accustomed forms of defending against this are relying upon socially approved categories, conventional wisdom and language that obfuscates and distorts. These must all be immobilized by posing a paradox or dilemma that renders them utterly ineffectual. Instead the person must come to a direct and immediate encounter with his or her experience in its totality as it is being lived in the moment. This is precisely what the koan is intended to do.

Such contradictions and self-defeating assertions abound in our current neoliberal ideology. To name just a few, people are told that the key to success is to work hard and attain the American dream. But for most of these individuals hard work has not brought them economic prosperity. Instead they are exploited even more egregiously and find to their disappointment and confusion that their standard of life grows worse by the year. Our young people were told that getting a college education or a graduate degree was the key to self-advancement and success. But many instead have found that it has saddled them with crippling debt and landed them in jobs that make little use of the knowledge and skills they worked so hard to acquire. These and numerous other cracks in the fictions and delusions that afflict us cannot help but lead to a growing sense of anxiety, anger and disillusionment.

Evidence for this can be found in the results of an annual Stress in America survey done by the American Psychology Association in conjunction with Harris Poll. The survey revealed a common new source of significant stress. It is the future of our nation which at 63% was the highest source followed by money (62%), work (61%), current political climate (57%), and violence and crime (51%). Also of note is stress about health care (43%), the economy (35%), and trust in the government (32%). Another notable finding is that no matter what their age (older adults, baby boomers, gen xers, and millennials), more than half of the respondents felt that this is the lowest point in our nation’s history that they can remember. A significant majority of individuals across political parties report significant stress about the future of our nation (Democrats-73%, Republicans-56%, Independents-59%). Respondents also reported that they were feeling the effects of stress in ways such as lying awake at night in the past month (45%), nervousness or anxiety (36%), irritability or anger (35%), and fatigue (34%).

While these findings can be regarded as troubling and alarming, I also believe they represent an emerging opportunity for those who see the destruction being wreaked by the unbridled greed, reckless disregard for human dignity and the environment, and glorification of selfishness extolled by neoliberalism. Behind the stress experienced by so many of our fellow citizens, amid their realization that the future of our country is in question, are glimmers of the contradictions and false promises of neoliberalism. The way forward will not be simple or painless. Just as those students who wrestle with the koan are driven into a corner and made to confront their fears and doubts, so too must these contradictions awaken those being poisoned by neoliberalism. However, this is the path necessary to the raising of consciousness and critical reflection that makes embracing a counter-hegemony possible.

What then is our mission? Whenever the opportunity presents itself, seize it as a teachable moment. Find every opportunity you can to listen for when another person is conveying an experience that indicates that he or she is feeling troubled by just such a contradiction. Validate that experience. Offer similar experiences of your own or others. Tap into the righteous indignation they are feeling and use that to propel them to take action. And then join with them to do one thing that can make a difference. Revolution is not only possible, it is essential. Together we can and will make it happen.

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