Anti-Patriarchal Politics and Discernment: Discipline as Freedom
Duke Ching of Chi asked Confucius about government. Confucius replied, “Let the ruler be a ruler, minister be a minister, father be a father, son be a son.” The Duke said, “Excellent! Indeed, if the ruler is not a ruler, the ministers not ministers, fathers not fathers and sons not sons, even if I have food, how can I eat it?”
—Confucius, Analects (Book 12, Chapter 11), 500 BCE
Many Buddhists come from Confucian legacies. Even if you are a Buddhist who does not come from that legacy, Buddhism has bubbled in patriarchal cultures for centuries, and some of these cultures are Confucian. The practices and expectations of Confucianism linger in Japanese Zen, for example, in the formalized relationships expected among practitioners and between teacher and student.
In a Confucian environment, each person is expected to know their place in the social order, their role in the scheme of things. This is why Confucius can say that government is letting the ruler be a ruler, and so on. In this way of thinking, each person should know who is above or below them, and how to act towards each accordingly. It is not a democracy. If a person does not act according to their role or station, then government is not possible.
In this context, the heterosexual nuclear family is set up in this way—the children obey the parents, the mother obeys the father, and if the father dies, the mother obeys the eldest son. The father, and therefore the family under him, obeys the government. At best, it is kind of a benevolent dictatorship.
To most people in the US, this type of social order sounds horrible, oppressive, and without a doubt it certainly can be. In the US, many people have a knee-jerk reaction towards any kind of structure or hierarchy, automatically assuming these are always harmful. There are many pieces of this that have been and should be critiqued. It is far from unique to Confucianism, of course.
At the same time, there is also the possibility of freedom or perhaps joy within social structure. When I was much younger, the idea of taking care of my parents as they became elderly sounded awful. As I’ve gotten older and that time approaches, I’ve discovered a kind of pleasure in the idea, in being able to one day step into the role. I no longer find the thought an abominable impingement, but an accepted part of my growing up, a part of life’s cycles.
In the Theravadan tradition I began with, adherence to structure was expected of all students, old or new. In retreat, there was a set schedule and no deviation or alternative interpretation was permitted. You were there to sit, and nothing else. Noble Silence meant no communication whatsoever, verbal, written, or anything else. As a new student, these felt like unwarranted restrictions, and I chaffed under them.
Yet as time went on, I began to appreciate the restrictions because the determined discipline, the focused intensity, actually brought an unexpected freedom in the mind. The rules and limitations on personal freedom no longer felt like impingements. Rather, under these strictures I began to relax and open.
In my limited experience of Soto Zen, I believe there can be a similar experience within all the forms practiced in this lineage—the bowing, chanting, walking, sitting, working, all of it within specific physical forms. At a certain point, bowing is no longer just bowing, but an opening.
So even while Buddhism might have inherited certain oppressive forms of patriarchy, there is room for careful discernment, for maintaining certain kinds of formality. Structure and hierarchy is not automatically evil per se, though it is important to keep an eye out to guard against its patriarchal flavors. How one practices and embodies structure is the contextual question.
In fact, within a more anarchist point of view, certain kinds of social structures and expectations are very important. It doesn’t function as an individualist free for all, but rather a community of individuals who are all responsible to each other as family, though not everyone is equal in experience or skills. So while there may not be a ruler, minister, father, or son as we understand them, peace and stability depend on each person being a person—self-aware and accountable to each other. Even anarchism has a structure, though one based more on ethics than obedience.
Freedom within discipline, liberation within responsibility. Throw in anti-patriarchal politics, and we’ll have a great meditation retreat.