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Hozan Alan Senauke

You Dont Wake Up Alone


Alan Senauke
: In the run up to the Burma elections Jack Kornfield and I worked on a letter to Obama and Clinton. It was signed by around 150 Buddhist teachers.  Of course, it didn’t cost them anything, but at least we had taken a small symbolic action. We said where we stood. Basically we were asking them not to see these as legitimate elections and, as they did, to call for the release of all political prisoners.  It was astonishing to me how immediately people responded.

Climate change, of course, is not a typical issue. To take a proper position on state repression in Burma, you are not really risking anything. To take a position on climate change—if you really think it through—means giving up certain kinds of privileges you might well identify as quality of life. That could involve hard choices.

Ecobuddhism: Many Europeans consider America retrogressive on climate. Unlike the EU, it has made no legal commitment to remedies, and its per capita emissions are the highest in the world. And this stance isn’t so much a quality of life issue, as the maintenance of institutionalized gas-guzzling and the throwaway society. Fossil fuel corporations like Exxon Mobil are as wealthy as some European countries, and have enormous political influence.

AS: Industrialized power is completely interwoven with militarism. It’s no longer solely a question of oil. America is the dominant military force, and it is through that force that we guarantee our oil flow. Most of it is no longer produced here—it comes from the Middle East, Nigeria, Mexico, Canada. Has our military become an oil industry protection force? Well, it’s always been seen as the protector of our way of life. If our way of life hinges on petroleum products, then that’s the interest it is serving.

EB: The U.S. midterms (November 2010) seemed like “the best elections money could buy”, bringing about 50 climate-change deniers into the House of Representatives. And this resulted from a wave of corporate funding authorized by a new decision of the U.S. Supreme Court. Why was there no substantive response to that judgement?

AS: It was one of the more stunning things that happened here. And there was no response.

EB: What does one do, as a Buddhist meditator, seeing these power structures and extravagant manipulation—media lock-down, absence of real public discourse? Are we looking at powerlessness?

AS: Well we are. That’s right. Of course, there are a number of piecemeal responses that I could have, or had. That’s what many people have tried to do. At the same time, I have no surprise when things fall apart. That’s one of the things meditation prepares you for. One can bear the unbearable. Not accept it, but be able to bear it. One is able to understand that things fall apart—there are causes and conditions that evolve according to their own dynamic—and one has responsibility to that. Each of us has our own responsibility to live as we think is appropriate.

What is most difficult in America is to organize any movement starting from that sense of responsibility. The degree of media control, educational control, social control and flat-out police and military control, does define our lives. With some exceptions, we in America have a pathetic history of building social movements. The civil rights movement was transformative in so many ways, yet it fell apart in the face of repression. The women’s movement had a powerful gender analysis, but it lacked a resilient political analysis. It was co-opted, compartmentalized and even acquired a certain flavour of white supremacy. The techniques of controlling opinion are very sophisticated now. We are looking at high tech manipulation that didn’t even exist 30 or 40 years ago.

EB: Advertising directly by-passes conscious filters and moves imagery straight into the unconscious mind, where it becomes a compulsion. These techniques were developed after the second world war by Freud’s nephew Bernays and his followers. And now we are living with a hugely increased social engineering capacity of the major corporations. It’s quite a task just to be mindful of it.

: The tensions mitigating against the building of coherent progressive movements in the U.S. have been there since De Tocqueville’s time, the 1840’s. I don’t see any. So the question is not “what does a Buddhist meditator do”, rather “what does somebody in this country do?”

In a lot of ways what passes as “the American left” is just powerless. I have seen this coming for some time. There was a movement, it really de-stabilized this country, but it was co-opted by a combination of opinion-making and consumerism in the wider society.


In Democracy in America (1835), De Tocqueville (above)
examined why America was so different from aristocratic
Europe. America was already a society where hard work & 
money-making was the dominant ethic, commoners did not
defer to elites, and what he described as crass individualism
& market capitalism had taken root to an extraordinary degree.

Now it seems that technology is in control and has its own momentum.  Once you have created something, there are imperatives to use it.  As Chekhov said, “if there’s a gun hanging over the mantle in the first act, it’s going to be used by the third act”. We have seen this with ballistic missile programs from the 1950s on. Each new development demanded yet another level of technology: bombs, missiles, delivery systems, surveillance—until they got to a place of mutual assured destruction.

Actually, you can make a case that it “worked”—in a bi-polar world. But we don’t have that world anymore.  We have so many nuclear-armed powers that some are not going to play by the “rules.” The Russians and Americans observed certain “conventions of conflict”, since over-stepping the line would invite retaliation. In the 1980s, they could assert that mutually-assured destruction brought so-called “peace”. But technology does not stay in the box. Other states acquire it--and they don’t or can’t play by rules. 

EB: Such “hyper-developments” seem to reflect, partly, our brain’s neuro-plasticity. The more we develop some behaviour, the more neurological pathways are laid down that amplify it further. Human social evolution becomes both rapid and potentially pathological.

: That makes sense. In many ways, something similar is embedded in the Zen tradition. The entire discussion—going back to Chinese Buddhism—of the relative and absolute is getting at some of the same questions. Certainly the koan literature, again going back to the Chan tradition, plays with those ideas constantly. In a general sense, it promotes the value of Big Mind as the true human expression, while recognizing the force of the left-brain—that the undifferentiated can only be expressed in terms of what is being differentiated. That is the only way: it exists in relationship, but in balance.

: Neurological psychology indicates that our left hemisphere, the source of both language and technology, seems to behave somewhat like an ambitious regional bureaucrat. On the other hand, our right hemisphere is “silent”, though it is essential for intuition, gestalt thinking and empathic relationship. Now at the level of society, some years ago Joel Bakan asked a group of psychiatrists to subject corporate behaviour (“the corporation as a person”) to standard diagnostic criteria. And they found the type profile of a psychopath! Is this a root of our global ecological crisis? We have evidently created the dominant institution of our age in the image of a psychopath. 

AS: That really dovetails with some of my work, and also what David Loy has been writing about the corporation as a mechanism that facilitates ultimate cognitive dissonance and separation. A psychologist would call it a splitting-off of personal morality and work morality. In A Buddhist History of the West, David goes into detail about the development of corporations. Of course, like everything else, we are seeing an accelerating development that outpaces our ability to rein it in.

EB: Naomi Klein points out that where societies have imploded around the world, multi-national corporations have a documented interest and role in it—because they can asset strip the country and use its resources. She called it “disaster capitalism”.

AS: I have absolutely no doubts about that. No question at all.

EBSo isn’t climate change an extreme form of “disaster capitalism”?

AS: I think it is, completely. But I do think that originally our courts here were dealing with pre-industrial America, where they observed industrialisation, but not at the intensity or level we have it now. Although there may be some relevance in the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent discourse, it doesn’t pertain to the situation now. So I don’t agree with them, and I don’t think it’s wise. I mean, are they looking at the rest of the world?

I spoke to one of my teachers, Harada Roshi who is a wonderful Rinzai teacher, about Japanese Buddhism’s attitude to 20th century wars.  One posits those guys as “enlightened Zen masters”--which I am dubious about. What kind of enlightenment allows for the killing of Chinese or Russian prisoners as if they were merely objects?

I don’t think they can claim “there are no beings” as the Diamond Sutra would, because the Sutra continues,“that is why we take care of all beings”. Harada Roshi said to me, “You have to look at the culture in which they were living—it was pre-modern, or just on the crux of modern Japan, and very isolated. So they couldn’t see outside the reality of their own society, and that allowed them to participate in nationalistic militarism.”

In some sense, even though we like to think it’s a big globalized world, the Supreme Court did not see outside the bounds of their own small American culture. But as Buddhists, that is exactly what we have to do. The first step on the Eightfold Path is Right View—the view of interconnection. Sometimes view is narrow and close, like my view of the light on the digital recorder. If my view is a bit larger, I take in the four of us in this room. And it can extend ever more widely. Right View is seeing what is in front of you, sometimes in a focussed way--but if that is our only mode, we don’t experience Right View. 

Bill Devall was an editor of Arne Naess’ work. He was a Zen man who recently passed away—ostensibly my student, though I should have been more his student. He taught sociology at Humboldt State University, and he was an activist. I remember a really charged interaction we had before he died. He said, “The Christians are talking about climate change and the Buddhists aren’t talking about climate change. Why don’t you talk about climate change?” I said, “I would, but I need help. I’m not so educated on it.  Why don’t you do it?” Bill got really mad and walked away.

He was really an inspiration. I think of him often. This beautiful staff of his was given to me after he died. There is a kind of vine wound around the top. Bill had the intellectual and zen chops to do this. You guys have the intellectual and Buddhist chops to work on this. I think it’s really important. But I want to ask you a question. What has dropped off the map is the question of population control. It’s gone. It’s completely connected, don’t you think? It was a burning issue 25 years ago.  It’s gone, and in America, it’s become political dynamite.

EB: It’s totally connected. Worldwatch Institute and others are trying to bring it back front and centre. The population problem is acute. One thinks of Rwanda, Egypt, Nigeria, Iran, India, Indonesia…more people, more consumption of fossil fuels, more destruction of habitat, more degradation of ecosystems. In a world of finite resources and climate crisis, we cannot disguise the likely outcome: a massive population crash.

AS: That’s what I meant by “things falling apart”. It could happen. And that is part of the unbearable that we may have to witness. In fact, it is already happening.

EB: Undoubtedly: In 2010 we saw Pakistan, China and Australia  flooded, an unprecedented heatwave in Russia that destroyed 40% of its wheat crop—all in the hottest year since records began. This is not something to do with our children or grandchildren. It’s happening right now.

AS: How is global warming showing up now in local weather where you are?

EB: As everywhere, the amount of moisture in the atmosphere due to higher sea-surface temperatures is generating more rain, more snow, and more powerful windstorms coming in from the ocean.

AS: That is happening in America, but we are in denial.

EB: Well, we would say a policy of cognitive dissonance exists in the media and politics. We have a combination of a psychopathic corporate charter with fossil fuel profits—the biggest in commercial history. It’s lethal. The capacity to change is here: renewable energy is robust, viable, and already overtaking nuclear power. It doesn’t generate either carbon emissions or toxic waste. But it’s a threat Big Carbon won’t tolerate. A rigged energy market allows them billions in taxpayer subsidies. So they socially engineer "the best government money can buy".

AS: Or buy up the technology. They have done that many times in the twentieth century. They bought up the transportation in all the cities of the U.S., including Berkeley. There’s a long street called Key-Route that was a transit route all through Berkeley. The automobile and oil companies bought it out. Same thing happened in Los Angeles. It’s hard to believe now, but LA used to have an extensive system of public transportation.

EB: Where does all this intersect with Buddhism and meditation? Here is an individual practitioner, concerned with waking up. What do you wake up to?

AS: The thing is, nobody wakes up alone. One of our problems is that humans want to cling to any wisdom as an answer. I see this all the time. I’m talking to people all week in sesshin who want you to give them the answer to my suffering.

I’ve been thinking for a long time, that these teachings are medicine. And medicine is not food. If you take too much medicine, it’s poisonous. If you think medicine is food, you are going to have a big problem. Medicine exists to bring you into balance, right?

The Buddha lived in an environment where everything was highly socially determined, as exemplified by the caste system, which still pertains. Your place in society was determined by your birth, and you were bound to it for your entire life. The Buddha’s insight was to provide an antidote to that. The true Brahmin for him was one who acts in an enlightened fashion, not who is born into a high caste. You can bring forth this realization though your actions and intentions. He was injecting an ethos of individuals taking responsibility for their own lives.

We have to ask about our own cultural setting. Here and now, there is an astonishingly individualistic ideology—which is a delusion. We have a mass society, but we are sold a bill of goods about individualism.

I have some concerns about what I call “Burger King Buddhism”.  Burger King’s motto is “Have it your way”. Every customer gets to choose the hamburger they want. Actually they are all pretty much the same. One has ketchup, one has mayonnaise, there’s not a lot of difference. You can’t even get a veggie burger. You can do it your way, unless you choose a way that doesn’t involve killing a cow.

Engaged Buddhism, and socially engaged Buddhism, recognize that the Buddha’s teachings constantly need to be fit to the circumstances of society. He was very tuned to his society and he gave a remedy for the society he saw. Chinese Buddhism did a similar thing. Japanese Buddhism did a similar thing. Now to the extent that those were organized religions, there have almost always been problematical aspects.

So far Engaged Buddhism hasn’t had those problems because it’s really marginal. Fifteen years ago when I was working with the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, our magazine Turning Wheel was the whole ball-game. If you wanted to read about Engaged Buddhism you read Turning Wheel. Now you can read about it in Buddhadharma and other magazines.

There are very few bookstores now with real depth in their selection. There are very few bookstores—you have to go to The old Buddhist bookstores around Berkeley have gone, and there is a lot of good material you can’t get. As happened to the left in the 1980s, radical social thinking has been co-opted. But there are some of us who know each other, and we are not ready to give up.

In Aitkin Roshi’s book Zen Master Raven – Sayings and Doings of a Wise Bird, someone asks “What is the meaning of right view?” And Raven says, “We are all in it together.”  I think that is exactly on the mark. You don’t wake up alone.



Hozan Alan Senauke is vice-abbot of Berkeley Zen Center in California. He lives at BZC with his wife, Laurie, and their two children.  Since 1991 Alan has worked with the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, where he presently serves as Senior Advisor.  He continues to work as a socially engaged Buddhist activist, most recently founding the Clear View Project, developing Buddhist-based resources for relief and social change. In another realm, Alan has been a performer of American traditional music for more than forty years.

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