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Zen, Busking and Anarchy

Photo of Parke Burgess

When I play the Bach suites for cello on city streets, I am acutely aware of both my freedom and yours.

Music-making becomes my meditation. My spontaneous response to the music flows freely, and I offer that experience to you, the listener.

You have the freedom to respond any way you like. We have no contractual agreement; you can toss a coin into my case or not. And it makes no difference. I make no effort to control you, and you (I hope) make no effort to control me.

This is deeply subversive, even anarchistic. Although I am playing “respectable music,” my intent runs directly counter to the compliant mentality that our culture demands of us and constantly woos us to accept.

Most people think of anarchy as “all hell breaking loose.” But what anarchy really means is “a society without hierarchies of power.” Critics of anarchism argue that these two notions amount to the same thing, and that hierarchies of power, and principally the state, maintain law and order. Anarchy, they say, leads to lawlessness and chaos.

But in fact, power hierarchies themselves have proven to be exceptionally violent over the long course of history. The state is simply the institutionalization of “all hell breaking loose” around a particular arrangement of power.

 

Playing music on the street, even snooty music like the stuff I play, resonates mightily with the subversive tone of Zen anarchism. It calls us to feel what we feel, to express what we are, and to be real to ourselves and to one another.

 

When the use of power is primarily self-centered and largely unexamined, as it is in our society, the logic of “might makes right” prevails, and society becomes formalized around systems and practices that benefit the powerful at the expense of the weak.

The promise of anarchism is that we might rise to the challenge of being transparent about our uses of power, intentional about sharing power in a more just way, and thoughtful about the corresponding organization of systems and structures.

Only when we're deeply honest, with ourselves first of all, can we really discern the subtle and myriad ways we exercise power and try to control the world. Misery arises when we try to control others; Zen and anarchism converge on this point.

The practice of Zen cultivates a freedom and openness of mind that promotes self-honesty and compassion. Anarchism provides a freedom and openness of social forms through which honesty and compassion may infuse our politics and economy, and so become truly lived in the world.

Thus, what we normally call Zen may be described as an anarchism of the mind; and what we normally call anarchism may be understood as a Zen of social relations.

Playing music on the street, even snooty music like the stuff I play, resonates mightily with the subversive tone of Zen anarchism. It calls us to feel what we feel, to express what we are, and to be real to ourselves and to one another.

And that, friends, carries within it the seeds of a radically different, and much greater, society.


Parke Burgess wrote this article as part of Liberate Your Space, the Winter 2008 issue of YES! Magazine. Parke is managing editor of Communities magazine, cellist, and author of a forthcoming book under the working title, The Nonviolent Mind and Society.
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