Thursday, January 20, 2011

Would Hakuin Join The Tea Party?

I have been reading The Religious Art of Zen Master Hakuin by Katsuhiro Yoshizawa and Norman Waddell.  Hakuin Ekaku Zenji (1686 - 1769) pioneered the use of the koan “the sound of one hand” and revived the Rinzai Zen lineages in Japan to the extent that almost all Rinzai Zen masters in Japan today are Dharma Heirs in Hakuin’s lineage. He placed great emphasis on what he called “post-satori practice” and the striving to fulfill the Four Great Vows, which he equated with Bodhi Mind.

The Four Great Vows are:

Beings are numberless, I vow to save them,
Desires are inexhaustible, I vow to put an end to them,
The Dharmas are boundless, I vow to master them,
The Buddha Way is unsurpassable, I vow to attain it.

Hakuin is also known for having many male and female lay students and successors. He travelled widely in his later years to teach and adapted practice to the life of ordinary people. Much of his surviving art and writings were done after he was 70 years old. Some of these works were threatened with or were proscribed by government censors – banned because of the political content. And he may have faced other political sanctions. This was surprising to me, but became quite understandable when I read Hakuin’s many criticisms of onerous tax burdens on the common people.

Hakuin writes that the political leader “can perform no greater act of virtue than to lighten burdensome taxation and maintain peace in their domain.” (p. 46) He is especially critical of the political leaders who live “a life of the greatest luxury…with never a thought of the difficulties of the common people under him. From the blood and sweat he wrings from them he is able to fill his tables with fine sake …As there is never enough money to satisfy such appetites, he ends up dispatching merciless ministers...Not only do officials reckon the tax rate yearly, they also raise the rate two or three times during the same year…” (p.47) In addition to his writings, Hakuin’s drawings and commentaries also criticize unjust tax burdens and governance, as well as the Daimyo’s lifestyle, often in folksy and hilarious ways.

Hakuin’s writings came to mind after a recent 5-day sesshin (Zen intensive/retreat) when  I saw a pile of local newspapers. A front page headline caught my eye, “I’m Just Drowning in Debt: Champaign women one of many worried about income tax increase; average family will see $1,000-plus hike.” The story told that this women, who earns about $30,000 a year, will face an annual $840 state income tax increase. The newly passed tax rate increase will not be progressive but will be the same percentage increase for all residents in the state, rich and poor. How would Zen Master Hakuin view this matter? What would he say about it or to these politicians?

At times, Hakuin almost seems to justify peasant uprisings and tax revolts in the face of harsh government policies, “wicked government ministers and dishonest samurai.”  At other times he appeals to local magistrates and higher officials for compassion towards the populace, especially regarding tax rates.

Here in Illinois, a lame-duck legislature in the final dawn before it was going out of existence, imposed a 67% rate state income tax increase. This was done despite opposition by all minority Republicans and was dependent upon the votes of legislators who had just recently (in November 2010) been voted out of office, some of whom had opposed tax increases during their campaigns. Additionally, a promised property tax relief which was to counterbalance the income tax increase was removed by the politicians from the final tax bill.

In fact, the deciding vote approving the tax in the Illinois House was reportedly given by outgoing State Representative Careen Gordon (who had lost the 2010 election). Gordon had previously indicated that she was opposed to a tax increase. And surprisingly, after the vote and the end of her legislative term, she was appointed by Governor Quinn to the State Prisoner Review Board with an annual salary of nearly $86,000. Governor Quinn was a very strong proponent of the tax increase. Was there a trade between them? We do not know, though journalists speculate. What is quite clear is that leading politicians here in Illinois and nationwide have in recent years given themselves high salaries and benefits while they squeeze the general population.  Even the various lower level Illinois state employees and those who provide services to the state have felt financial pressure, or to paraphrase Hakuin, have had blood and sweat wrung from them. Is the public being served? Where have the past years’ funds gone? What would Hakuin say to our political leaders? 

I continue to slowly read and enjoy this book of Hakuin’s work. It has already given me new perspectives on Hakuin and the wide variety of ways that Hakuin practiced and taught. 

I hope that we are all encouraged to live the Bodhi-Way, to refine and clarify our practice effort, relieving suffering and saving all beings.

(c) 2011 Elihu Genmyo Smith