Democracy is Such a Fine Idea

“Without withdrawing into blankness, we can let go of our reliance on words and language, name and form. We can touch the nameless and formless within appearance that makes naming and giving form possible.” Dynamics of Time and Space, page 27.

The compulsion to hold onto power–the hallmark of our present political reality–is connected to how we hold onto words and what they mean to us. Words and their established meanings fix into place a reality that we view as substantial and independent of how we are looking. Along with this unquestioned reality come the familiar limits of living in a concrete world. The instant that we grab a word and use it to label the mystery of appearance, we no long feel the need to look further. We know, and feel no need to know anew. This constructed universe becomes a world we are obliged to live in.

We have recently seen how this conventional reality is subject to the manipulations of the most selfish among us. For anyone who cannot conceive of acting on behalf of others or collaborating to benefit them, a world that is constructed out of concepts, labels, and fixed identities provides a perfect playground. It corresponds to their self-centered view of the world. But some of us–whose hearts muddle things and who ponder the mystery of being human–may find ourselves standing out at the edges, unsure that there is much to say.

I looked up the definition of “democracy” in my “Concise Oxford Dictionary” and found a surprisingly concise entry:

“Democracy is government by the people, direct or representative.”

There is not another word of explication. Apparently Samuel Johnson didn’t feel the need to add that we also need compassion, collaboration, and honest representatives in order for democracy to survive.

Many of us are shocked by the recent election results. But after decades of America acting as the school yard bully among nations, is it so surprising that we now have a bully in our own pulpit?

In a country, where “Freedom Fries” was our official response to French citizens letting us know that they felt our pain after 9/11, but didn’t believe that dropping white phosphorous on people in their living rooms was the best response, is it so surprising that now no other country likes or trusts us.

When our export of democracy took the form of the “shock and awe” bombing campaign–which left hundreds of thousands dead and millions homeless–how surprising is it that the dance card of democracy has turned into retaliation for perceived abuse?

Language is a precious vehicle that allows us to understand, communicate, and transform both ourselves and our world. In Buddhism, speech is viewed as a bridge that joins our visions and our actions. It is a two-way bridge, since it allows our hearts to communicate with our hands, and our experience in ordinary life to report back on the clarity of our dreams. But when speech is sold to the highest bidder, it ceases to be a bridge between what we want and our collaborative attempts to get there. Instead, the trivial, the insincere and the manipulative rise to the surface by default.

As writers, readers, and dreamers, we have a unique opportunity to let go of words and language. When a parent lets go of the need to control and dictate the actions of their children, it’s not from a lack of caring or an abandonment of hope for them. And when we understand that what we care about most is not well served by our unquestioned certainties, perhaps we will be able to stand back for a moment, and marvel at the unformed mystery embracing us, as if a mother were cradling her creative and curious child.

3 comments to “Democracy is Such a Fine Idea”
  1. Not sure Democracy is such a fine idea. The founders were not keen on full democracy and set up a republic with some federal offices being filled by state governments, special electors, or by officers such as the President with the “advice and consent” of the Senate. Full democracy is dependent on an educated electorate which we clearly do not have.

  2. Thanks, Walter, for providing some facts about the early days of the founding of America. (As a Canadian I’m not well versed in US Civics). I think when the entire county goes into a year-long obsession with an upcoming election there is more fear and anger in the air than knowledge and understanding of issues and alternatives. As for an educated electorate, I wonder which came first: deception and lack of caring in high places (so an unsupported system of education), or ordinary people not recognizing their own self-interest.

    For myself, I wanted to write something about the recent election that wasn’t simply angry about it. As Kafka wrote: “Let the visage full of anger fall on it’s own breast”. I wanted to pry loose some sense that we as individuals can work with our own mental regime–and open a space between the first moment of experience and the old reactions that cause us to not see present opportunities or learn anything from the flow of time.

  3. The sentence “But some of us–whose hearts muddle things and who ponder the mystery of being human–may find ourselves standing out at the edges, unsure that there is much to say” is how I felt upon learning about the surprising election results. As a child of the 60’s and the daughter of politically engaged parents I recall listening to stories of friends who felt empowered to work together for good. But that was the 60’s and a lot has happened since then. As you eloquently wrote: “But after decades of America acting as the school yard bully among nations, is it so surprising that we now have a bully in our own pulpit?” I don’t think so. The question for me is “Where do we go from here”? Perhaps the new administration will stir us from our sleep and move us to take action, show greater compassion for each other, work for something greater than ourselves until a path, hopefully, appears.

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