The musician and poet Gil Scott-Heron recently passed away.  For those who are unfamiliar with his work, he wrote socially aware poems and songs back in the early 1970s that focused especially on racial injustice in the United States.  He is probably best known for his early rap poem ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’, which paints a picture of Americans as a people who are so enamored with television and shallow commercialism that they are completely out of touch with what’s really important, with what’s really going on.  I heard this song recently during a radio segment about his death, and it made me think of our practice.  I wanted to read it for you tonight and talk about how it relates to our Soto Zen practice.

You will not be able to stay home, brother.
You will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out.
You will not be able to lose yourself on skag
And skip out for beer during commercials,
Because the revolution will not be televised.

The revolution will not be televised.
The revolution will not be brought to you by Xerox
In 4 parts without commercial interruptions.
The revolution will not show you pictures of Nixon
blowing a bugle and leading a charge by John
Mitchell, General Abrams and Spiro Agnew to eat
hog maws confiscated from a Harlem sanctuary.
The revolution will not be televised.

The revolution will not be brought to you by the
Schaefer Award Theatre and will not star Natalie
Woods and Steve McQueen or Bullwinkle and Julia.
The revolution will not give your mouth sex appeal.
The revolution will not get rid of the nubs.
The revolution will not make you look five pounds
thinner, because the revolution will not be televised, Brother.

There will be no pictures of you and Willie May
pushing that shopping cart down the block on the dead run,
or trying to slide that color television into a stolen ambulance.
NBC will not be able predict the winner at 8:32
or report from 29 districts.
The revolution will not be televised.

There will be no pictures of pigs shooting down
brothers in the instant replay.
There will be no pictures of pigs shooting down
brothers in the instant replay.
There will be no pictures of Whitney Young being
run out of Harlem on a rail with a brand new process.
There will be no slow motion or still life of Roy
Wilkens strolling through Watts in a Red, Black and
Green liberation jumpsuit that he had been saving
For just the proper occasion.

Green Acres, The Beverly Hillbillies, and Hooterville
Junction will no longer be so damned relevant, and
women will not care if Dick finally gets down with
Jane on Search for Tomorrow because Black people
will be in the street looking for a brighter day.
The revolution will not be televised.

There will be no highlights on the eleven o’clock
news and no pictures of hairy armed women
liberationists and Jackie Onassis blowing her nose.
The theme song will not be written by Jim Webb,
Francis Scott Key, nor sung by Glen Campbell, Tom
Jones, Johnny Cash, Englebert Humperdink, or the Rare Earth.
The revolution will not be televised.

The revolution will not be right back after a message
about a white tornado, white lightning, or white people.
You will not have to worry about a dove in your
bedroom, a tiger in your tank, or the giant in your toilet bowl.
The revolution will not go better with Coke.
The revolution will not fight the germs that may cause bad breath.
The revolution will put you in the driver’s seat.

The revolution will not be televised, will not be televised,
will not be televised, will not be televised.
The revolution will be no re-run brothers;
The revolution will be live.

So I think the meaning of this is pretty clear, even if you don’t catch all of the 1970 pop-cultural references:   Scott-Heron is talking about the urgent need for real societal transformation in a society that is held completely in thrall to television and shallow commercialism.  The revolution that is needed can only happen outside of the limited, controlled confines of popular culture.  Unlike our everyday life, the Revolution, whatever that is supposed to be, will be real and unmediated.  And because it’s real, it won’t be on television.

This reminds me of an old Zen saying that says  “A painting of a rice cake cannot satisfy hunger”.  Of course, if you are hungry and need food, then a picture of food, no matter how realistic can’t satisfy your hunger.  What this means is that you can’t just read books about Buddhism, or talk about it, or think about it.  Such activities may be OK, but they won’t address your deepest needs.  You have to actually go to the Zendo, put your body into the meditation posture, and do the practice.  And you can’t just do it once and be done with it – you have to practice continually for the rest of your life, just like you can’t just eat once and then be done with it.  The revolution you seek in your own life, the revolution that will end suffering for yourself and for all beings, will not be televised.  It won’t be in a book, or on a podcast.  It will only be realized through practice.

This is similar to an idea I heard once from Shohaku Okumura, the great contemporary Japanese Zen teacher who now leads the Sanshin Zen Community in Indiana.  He once made the analogy that when we experience the Earth through a map, there is always some distortion because of the map projection.  Our practice, he said, is not to make better maps or to throw away the map, but simply to sit directly on the earth.  When we sit directly on the earth, we may not even completely understand what the earth is because we can only experience it with our minds through the distortions of the map projections.  The real earth, the real revolution, may be outside of our consciousness.  In this context, we see that because the revolution will not be televised, we may not even know that it’s happening!

In Genjo Koan, Dogen Zenji says:

The boundary of realization is not distinct, for the realization comes forth simultaneously with the mastery of buddha-dharma. Do not suppose that what you realize becomes your knowledge and is grasped by your intellect. Although actualized immediately, the inconceivable may not be apparent. Its appearance is beyond your knowledge.

In other words, we expect that the revolution will, in fact, be televised, but Dogen is telling us that the fact that it’s not on television doesn’t mean that there isn’t a revolution going on!

In his fascicle Gabyo, Dogen takes this idea further:

You should understand that a painting is all-inclusive, a rice cake is all-inclusive, the dharma is all-inclusive.  In this way, all rice cakes actualized right now are nothing but a painted rice-cake.  If you look for some other kind of painted rice-cake, you will never find it, you will never grasp it. . . since this is so, there is no remedy for satisfying hunger other than a painted rice-cake.  Without painted hunger, you never become a true person.  There is no understanding other than painted satisfaction.

Anything we experience is limited and distorted by our minds, our karma, our sense organs.  Any rice-cake we encounter is, in this sense, a painted rice cake; all revolutions are televised.  We are only kidding ourselves if we think that we can encounter anything other than painted rice cakes or a televised revolutions.

This is not an abstract philosophical point.  It’s really very practical and helpful.  We can easily get stuck thinking that the experience we are currently having is somehow not real or that it’s not good enough or pure enough.  A thought arises during zazen and we think that this is taking us away from practice, that our practice is somewhere else that is really real, that it’s not just what’s happening here right now.  We can get stuck thinking that we have to find the real rice cake or the untelevised revolution, the pure untainted experience.

Dogen is telling us to start where we are.  This very moment, this deluded, cranky, irritated body and mind, this painted rice cake, is the only gateway to realization.  Start here, now.  Don’t seek for what you think is a real rice cake.  Real revolutions are only televised.  Don’t think that the real revolution is somehow pure and will be untainted by the distortions of our society.  Precisely because the revolution is live and real, it is televised.

–Joe