As we begin the new millennium, the need for the application of our best wisdom and vision to the often seemingly tawdry and intractable world of politics appears large yet ever elusive. This split between wisdom and vision, on the one hand, and practical politics, on the other, has been very evident for at least the last 2,500 years of Western culture. Plato wrote that “cities will have no respite from evil . . . nor will the human race, I think, unless lovers of wisdom rule as kings in the cities.”
In Asian Buddhist cultures, we can find a similar long-standing distinction between the world of kings and power and the spiritual life of the monk or nun. Indeed, “danger from kings” was taken as far more significant for monks and nuns than danger from robbers, fire, water, lions and tigers. Other societies around the world have also long been structured by a deep tension between basing a spiritual life on withdrawal from worldly affairs and basing it on social engagement.
If there were a politician who might overcome the dichotomy between withdrawal and engagement in the contemporary North American context, it might well be Jerry Brown, mayor of Oakland, California. Drawn as a young man to classical Western philosophical and spiritual traditions, Brown studied for the Catholic priesthood at a Jesuit seminary before graduating from the University of California with a degree in Latin and Greek, and then from Yale University with a law degree. Following in the footsteps of his father, Governor Edmund Brown, Jerry Brown was elected governor of California in 1974 at the age of 36 and served two four-year terms. He considers some of his most important accomplishments as governor to have been in the areas of agricultural labor relations, environmental protection, women and minority involvement in government, alternative health care, gay and lesbian rights and the arts.
In 1982, Brown began a more introspective period, following his caricaturization as “Governor Moonbeam” and his defeat in the election for the U.S. Senate. Throughout the 1980s, he lived in Japan for six months, intensified his study of Zen Buddhism and meditation, and worked with Mother Teresa in Calcutta.
Eventually, Brown returned to politics. Citing his dissatisfaction with the influence of money in politics, he sought the 1992 Democratic presidential nomination, becoming well known especially for refusing any contribution over $100 and using an “800” number to raise funds. Unsuccessful in his bid to become president, Brown moved to Oakland in 1994 and established a new organization, We The People, on the site of an old warehouse downtown. We The People sponsored talks, workshops and meditation groups, and gathered around Brown a number of young visionaries concerned about local issues and their relationship to national and global concerns. Out of his office, Brown also began broadcasting a nationally-syndicated radio show, on which he welcomed some of the leading visionaries and activists of our time, including: Ivan Illich, Alice Walker, Thich Nhat Hanh, the Dalai Lama, Sister Helen Prejean, Noam Chomsky, Gary Snyder, Earthfirst! activist Judi Bari, Paolo Soleri, Robert Aitkin Roshi, and Helena Norberg-Hodge, among many others.
In the fall of 1997, Brown entered the political ring once again, announcing his candidacy for the upcoming Oakland mayor’s race. He later reflected: “After ranging over many ideas and probing their implications, I felt it was time to engage in action. It is one thing to conceptualize. It is quite another to take responsibility for where you live and for what lies within your grasp.” Brown had come to believe that working primarily on the local level, if done successfully, could provide inspiring examples for other locales. His candidacy drew tremendous support from a wide range of Oaklanders, and he won overwhelmingly in the primary election, drawing some 59 percent of the votes despite the presence of ten other candidates.
Donald Rothberg and Wes Nisker conducted the following conversation with Jerry Brown at his office in Oakland City Hall in July 1999.
Inquiring Mind: A few years ago you proposed a spiritual basis for social and political transformation, putting it this way:
Unless you totally yank up the system and create a better one, unless the spirit changes, unless the heart opens, unless we confront power with the truth of our own unarmed but absolute fearless truth, we’re not going to overcome it. Evil is too embedded to be overcome by anything other than a spiritual challenge.
Jerry Brown: That sounds pretty good. [laughter] It will take a lot of character. What are needed are groups of people who reinforce our better instincts, our better inclinations.
Our society is driven by the market, by greed and desire, by novelty, by the desire for more control—without any corresponding moral or spiritual restraints, without forming character. Our primary challenge is to find, recognize and develop character. We need to honor virtue and somehow embed character in our communities and the larger society in order to help us keep our bearings despite the totally meretricious flow of information sold to us twenty-four hours a day.
Meanwhile, on a practical level, one thing that I learned from my various teachers is that legislating character doesn’t work. It’s already too late if we need to legislate. Character is formed. I know that from my days of studying to be a Jesuit priest. The period of training was spoken of as “spiritual formation,” and there were a series of practices: silence, prayer, meditation, mortification, picking grapes, studying Latin, reading the Bible, reading Thomas à Kempis. This training is a process of character formation.
What we have in the political world instead are thousands, tens of thousands, proliferations of proliferations of laws and regulations on everything from antidiscrimination to honesty to safety to health to environmental protection to historic preservation—a great pile of orders embodied in written commands guarded and enforced by bureaucracies. Of course, the orders never quite do what they’re supposed to do. If people don’t respect the soil and the forests, all the laws in the world are not going to stop the society from destroying them. If people don’t feel affection for their children, then more laws on child protection will always fall short.
IM: You have emphasized the development of institutions that will actually help build character. How would you go about doing that?
JB: Let me give some examples. I have been told that we have in Oakland 150 different job training programs but thousands of people who can’t qualify for the jobs that are actually here. So what do I do about that? Well, I talked to the Delancey Street Foundation. They train people who have been in prison, and they do it well. Delancey Street is an institution that represents a relatively small group of people who respect individuals but understand the fallibility and flaws of human beings. They have created a very disciplined context that demands of people that they rise, so to speak, to their higher selves. That’s one example. I’m also proposing the creation of a military academy.
IM: That idea has pushed a lot of buttons!
JB: Yes, such an idea might appear highly questionable to readers of your journal. But we’ve seen so many young people getting involved with street-level drug dealing and violence, going off to prison, and basically ruining their lives. There can be a way to channel that aggressive energy. Marching in a uniform in an environment in which there’s both respect and discipline can build character and encourage those traits that build character.
I’m also exploring the possibility of an arts academy. Basically, I’m trying to help create situations in which people can learn to focus on something in which they’re really interested and be supported by the discipline that helps them attain their higher potentials. For me, our ordinary schools are actually hard and rather odd places to be, because they make the students study so many subjects in which they aren’t really interested.
IM: What is the key to getting these ideas up and running?
JB: The key is always finding people with talent who can initiate projects. At this point in my life, after coming through the sixties and seventies, the antiwar movement, having been governor of California and signed ten thousand bills into law, I’m really convinced that it’s basically individuals who make things happen. For example, Suzuki Roshi started something: the San Francisco Zen Center. Other people carry his work forward, but the institution is very much in his shadow. We are very dependent on teachers and people who exemplify what human beings can be, and that’s why we have to be on the lookout for these people.
IM: It seems that you are focusing on future generations, saying that we really have to start early in this building of character. You are working on programs that offer long-term solutions.
JB: The vision is of long-term changes, but we also need short-term, visible results . . .
IM: . . . or else you’re out of office . . .
JB: . . . in order to keep the momentum going. I definitely want to see many more charter schools up and running. I want to see an arts council that’s vibrant. I’m now looking for a new librarian who will both exemplify the intellectual life of Oakland and be able to bring the excitement of books to the many different neighborhoods. We have all these resources—parks, recreation centers, fifteen libraries, and some eighty-plus schools—yet there’s somehow a heavy weight that holds back creativity.
IM: You have made enhancement of the arts and celebration one of the four key initiatives for your administration, along with reducing crime, developing charter schools, and attracting 10,000 new residents to the downtown area. It’s rather unusual for a politician to make the arts and celebration anything other than window dressing.
JB: The question is basically about who we are. I’m reminded of a letter that John Adams wrote to his wife, Abigail:
I must study politics and war, that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.
Two hundred years ago, a president was telling us that by the third generation our lives should be focused on art. Here we are at the seventh generation or so, and we haven’t arrived there yet. So it is in the spirit of John Adams that I’ve made furthering the arts and celebration the fourth goal for the city.
A few years ago, I thought that the basic work of the We The People foundation should be litigation in the public interest. Now I’m thinking of other things, including an art gallery to showcase the works of people in Oakland so that they can get their work displayed. So I’m looking for ways to encourage and recognize the talents of people from our communities.
Or take the example of the music we have on our City Hall plaza here at noontime. Recently, the fire chief came up the stairs perspiring profusely because he’d been dancing out on the plaza! [laughter] I think that it’s very important to enhance this kind of aliveness to counteract the stultifying weight of bureaucracy or of endless shopping—which are both pretty deadening.
IM: How do you keep your visions alive on a daily basis, personally as well as with your staff?
JB: First of all by defining the vision, and then regularly reviewing where we are and what we are doing. For myself, it is also important to meet with people who have different ideas: talking to you, for example, or listening to people at Green Gulch Zen Center, or inviting thoughtful people to come into the city and engage in discussion. I also go out to gatherings in private homes in Oakland to listen to what people are saying.
IM: How does your own spiritual practice help you in your everyday working life with what must be a flood of details and people?
JB: Well, I think of [Richard] Baker Roshi’s story of picking up a cup with both hands and presenting oneself with it. There is also a Jesuit saying, age quod agis. It means, “Do what you are doing.” That’s a very difficult but important practice, to do what you are doing. It’s very easy to get into five things at once.
IM: Do you do anything at the level of your staff in terms of spiritual practices?
JB: No, not with my staff. That doesn’t usually happen in government. Some of Reagan’s staff used to get down on their knees and pray, but this kind of thing is generally not associated with liberal politics! It may be a good idea to bring some spiritual practices into politics, but generally secularism has penetrated our government deeply and pervasively.
Public offices, whether those of a governor or a mayor, are composed of people whose private lives are very different from each other and fairly separate from the work environment. To have silence or meditation or some other spiritual practice in a public office seems close to starting to establish a type of church. I suspect that it would create serious opposition. That may be a weakness of government, although the only way you can have a government of all the people is to make its practices and appeal fairly broad.
IM: The underlying question, though, is more about how best to bring some of the spiritual qualities of presence, mindfulness, compassion, and so on, into the practice of government in somewhat nondenominational ways.
JB: I think that’s a good question, but I’m not sure how to answer it. Certainly we can cultivate listening and being present to other people. Yet if people develop these qualities from the bottom up, there’s more credibility. Coming from the top down is problematic. There has to be sensitivity to individual autonomy and to individual differences. That’s precisely why there is that separation of government and religious practice.
IM: Do we have any great contemporary political visions in America?
JB: There have been many historical visions that are no longer very alive or tenable. There was the socialist vision that was going to cure the ravages of capitalism, which then evolved into Marxism, then Leninism, then Stalinism, and then Maoism. Similarly, the liberal democratic visions—whether those of Roosevelt and the New Deal or Kennedy and then Johnson and the Great Society—have gone away. Then we had Jimmy Carter saying, “I’m not gonna tell a lie.” Finally, Bill Clinton is supposed to represent the Third Way. We obviously have a crisis of vision in our current political thinking and action. It’s a rather sterile situation.
A few years ago, I read Martin Buber’s book Paths in Utopia very carefully. Buber sees the perfect community as the kibbutz, a full village cooperative, not just a consumer cooperative or a producer cooperative, but a cooperative community that forms the basis of a community of communities. I am very attracted to that vision.
IM: Throughout your life you have studied and spoken with many other visionaries as well, both spiritual and political. Now that you’re in charge of a large American city, do you find a conflict between your visionary ideas and the gritty realities of being a big-city mayor?
JB: No. Being a mayor or a lawyer or running a restaurant is part of our social reality, and any spiritual approach has to recognize this reality. My Zen teacher, Yamada Roshi, used to hold up his hand and tell us that there is both the palm and the back of the hand—that is, the “essential” world and the phenomenal world. Put in traditional Buddhist terms, “form is emptiness, and emptiness is form.” So I don’t think that there’s a contradiction between vision and reality.
IM: Maybe the vision has to start on a local level.
JB: Yes, but I also have to be modest here in Oakland. Even an urban garden is extremely difficult to start and maintain. Or to have a few people living in co-housing requires an enormous amount of effort. We are bred to be hyperindividualistic hyperconsumers addicted to hyperprivacy. We are not like our Native American predecessors who lived in harmony with nature in villages of about forty or fifty people clustered every few miles. We are eating up nature as we know it with ever more powerful technology. Where politics fits into all that—other than as entertainment, and not good entertainment at that, but as a kind of filler between the music shows, dramas and advertising—is not as clear as I would like it to be.
IM: In the meantime, most of your work is probably about very concrete issues rather than any political visions.
JB: Yes, indeed. Most politics on the city level is very concrete: someone calls to tell me that his jewelry store was robbed, and he wants to know if the robbers live in some of the halfway houses in the neighborhood. Can I do something about these houses? Meanwhile, what about the schools? And when I say schools, I am referring to this particular high school on this particular street. These are very different issues than those facing politicians in the California state capital or in Washington, D.C., who say that we can fix education by establishing certain laws, and then certain bureaucracies to send a flow of money into certain programs. That’s all so abstract. They have no immediate encounter with the consequences of whether a given program works or not. That is why working at the level of a city has real potential.
I realize that cities themselves are but nodes in the global information loop, and that it’s hard for a node to influence the loop. But I can tell you that this node in Oakland is sure going to try!