The Way of Public Leadership

Bill Kaneko
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald

Engaging in the world of politics can be a treacherous endeavor. Personal attacks, self-interest, dirty tricks and political maneuvering detract from the reason why most individuals run for office in the first place — to make a difference in the world. In many respects, the current political arena has become a deterrent for many qualified men and women to pursue careers in politics and government, which, only a generation ago, was considered a noble profession.

A basic and core exercise of Zen training is zazen or seated meditation. (Photos courtesy of Chozen-ji International Zen Dojo of Hawaii)
A basic and core exercise of Zen training is zazen or seated meditation. (Photos courtesy of Chozen-ji International Zen Dojo of Hawaii)

I was therefore intrigued by the invitation from The Hawai‘i Herald to write about a course on Zen and Politics that Michael Kangen, Christina Moon and I taught several months ago. Kangen and Moon are ordained priests at the Chozen-ji International Zen Dojo of Hawaii, a Zen and martial arts dojo nestled in Kalihi Valley ( Over the years, I had managed several gubernatorial and congressional campaigns in Hawai‘i, including working at the Democratic National Committee in Washington, D.C. Together, Kangen, Moon and I designed a highly interactive and experiential course integrating the concepts of Zen, martial arts, politics, public policy and governance.

Zen and Politics: An Oxymoron?

On its face, “Zen and politics” is an oxymoron — two activities that appear unrelated and even counter-intuitive by their very nature. Woven together, however, applying Zen to politics can be a powerful combination which can manifest in skilled leaders, better public decisions and stronger communities.

Sound public policies promote a greater social good that is grounded in fact, data, thorough public discourse, transparency and collaboration amongst key stakeholders. Common solutions are sought, and compromises are made which reflect many voices and opinions.

The reality, however, is the dark side of policy and politics: filled with competing agendas, motives and approaches, they are easily complicated by a myriad of people, personalities and relationships — both good and bad. While engaging in the democratic process can be exciting and uplifting, this full-contact sport can also be cruel and vindictive. Lives, livelihoods and futures are determined by who our public leaders are, and the values, beliefs, policies and people they bring with them.

The practice of Zen, while calm and relaxing, is also a rigorous, intense and highly disciplined activity. The training integrates the cultivation of mind, body and spirit, through mediation, doctrines and teachings and physical activity. Physical activity is manifested through the practice of fine and martial arts — kendö (the way of the sword); kyudö (the way of the bow); hitsuzendö (the way of the brush), kadö (the way of the flower) and chadö (the way of tea). Through countless hours of shugyö (rigorous training), the dedicated Zen practitioner continually strives for a perfection never to be reached.

Chadö (the way of tea) is one of several fine and martial arts practiced at Chozenji Temple.
Chadö (the way of tea) is one of several fine and martial arts practiced at Chozenji Temple.

My Journey in Zen

My journey in Zen began about 20 years ago at Chozen-ji. In the first five years, I trained diligently in kendö, learning the techniques of Japanese sword fighting. Every week, I would dread the thought of going to the döjö to get beat up in kendö class. I would return home physically and emotionally exhausted, because of the rigor and stamina needed to get through class.

But every week, somehow, I completed the class, and came back again, and again, and again. By far, those first few years of Zen and martial arts training were the most difficult and challenging times of my life. However, they were also the most productive and transformative times, setting the foundation for what I do today as a lawyer, advocate and political strategist.

As I refined my craft as a lawyer, the discipline, awareness and intuition gained through Zen provided me with a great depth and understanding of the people, physical environment and political context in which I existed. Over the years, the integration of Zen and politics has given me deeper appreciation and awareness of the refined skills and approaches truly needed to create social and community change.

Meditation and Public Decision-making

A basic and core exercise of Zen training is zazen or seated meditation, a practice at Chozen-ji. Meditation there is focused on breath, posture and concentration, sitting with absolutely no movement for 45 minutes. Meditation helps clear your mind. After a busy day or week, countless thoughts and emotions race through your head and heart, cluttering the here and now. As a result, you’re thinking about what happened at work, what you need to do tomorrow, what you argued about with your spouse or what you felt when you lost a deal. Meanwhile, the beautiful day before you goes unnoticed.

So what does meditation have to do with politics? Making decisions with a clear mind is important. Too often, our choices are colored by biases, perceptions or personal feelings about individuals with whom we associate an issue, rather than addressing the public problem itself. We can also be distracted by other thoughts rather than focused on the task at hand.

Engaging in politics and public policy also can be a highly emotional endeavor. Advocates are passionate about causes, whether food production, energy conservation, ending homelessness or advocating for business and labor issues. In addition to policy differences, human dynamics can be even more complex and unpredictable. More often than not, policies are advanced or killed because of relationships. It is easy to get caught up in the moment based on who’s advocating for what issue, where individual personalities behind the policy debate become the driving force for decision-making.

When our views are distorted by individual biases rather than advancing the public good, public outcomes potentially go awry. Using meditation techniques — such as deep breathing, taking a brief moment to pause to clear your mind and seeing and evaluating issues for what they truly are — can make the difference between a good decision or a bad one.

In many respects, an effective policy practitioner then becomes “dispassionate” about their work. The practitioner becomes less tied to the emotion of an issue, able to respond and resolve concerns with a clear mind and heart.

Dispassion does not mean not caring, however. It is a clear state of mind where the focus and attention is on the issue at hand, rather than delusions and distractions in your head.
Shugyö and Intuition

One of my favorite movies is “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” a documentary of Jiro Ono, a sushi master and owner of Sukiyabashi, a Michelin three-star restaurant in Japan. In one of the scenes, after thousands of attempts of making egg sushi, the sushi apprentice finally gains approval from Jiro for creating an acceptable tamago-yaki. Repetitive efforts to perfect the craft, such as washing rice, slicing fish, or ultimately making sushi, can take years to gain near-perfection.

Whether it’s making sushi, playing baseball or soccer, becoming a professional race-car driver, going to college to become an electrical engineer or running a business, perfecting a craft calls for devotion, dedication and discipline. It may take years or even decades to accomplish this. Practicing shugyö means that, as the years go by, technique gradually becomes less important, to be replaced by kan (intuition). In battle, the master samurai is less concerned about the form and technique of holding the sword to attack. The master engages in battle with ease and intuition, fighting almost mindlessly against the opponent.
As activities, the fine and martial arts pre-sent opportunities to experience the humility of seeking perfection that is Zen. For the student in chadö, perfecting the preparation and serving of tea will be achieved after years of practice, as the ceremony becomes so peaceful, harmonious and pure for the guest, that the server becomes almost non-existent. Like the case of the master swordsman, repetitive training is replaced through years of service by the chadö practitioner with intuition without a plan or thought.

Similarly, for public policy practitioners, whether they be lawyers, lobbyists, elected officials or government bureaucrats, it is fundamental to perfect craft. Learn the legislative timetable, know the players and their interests, understand the issues, communicate clearly and concisely; most of all, work hard. Only then will the basic skills of policymaking be refined through experience and intuition.

In my 20s, I was a public and policy analyst in the Governor’s Office of State Planning. I distinctly recall having a conversation with Harold Matsumoto, at the top of his game at the time as Gov. John Waihe‘e’s main policy advisor as well as in charge of the state’s most powerful planning office. Masumoto remarked to me, “The longer I’m in this [policy] business, the more I realize how important intuition plays.” As a young analyst, I was perplexed at his statement, but now I have come to realize the wisdom of his words.

The Way of Public Leadership

Successful leaders in the public arena inspire and lead individuals and communities, maneuvering through the various sectors and factions of society. Courageous, passionate, compassionate and disciplined, they wield the ability to inspire and work with a wide range of stakeholders and opinion leaders.

There is great responsibility in advancing law and public policy, since decisions and outcomes impact society and potentially millions of people. Public leaders, in particular, have the obligation to ensure that decisions advance the good of society. Hence, refinement of each person is key, since individuals make laws and advance policy. Taking the time and effort to refine leadership skills through Zen or other disciplines can be an important way to elevate the level of public decision-making. Daily techniques like meditation and training can be a useful tool for developing public leaders’ skills in addressing important issues for Hawai‘i and the nation.

Bill Kaneko is a partner in the Honolulu office of a global law firm where he specializes in public policy, government relations and administrative law. Kaneko is also past president of the Japanese American Citizens League of Honolulu.


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