the zen capitalist: a model for living

an essay in ten parts: introduction


I wrote this text as a tribute to my grandfather, John Donald Mattern, known to those close to him as Don, who passed away on January 20th, 2019 a little over a week after celebrating his 94th birthday.  My sister and I looked up at the full moon that night.  The dark sky held the eerie glow of a super blood moon eclipse; we were sure it shined red because his soul had been sucked back into the universe that day.  

I realized after he was gone that he was something like a zen master.  He was so zen he never uttered a word about it while he was alive.  He never promoted zen, nor did he recommend to me or anyone I knew to follow in his ways.  I never saw him meditate.   He left no traces: no writings, no strong opinions—a few aphorisms.  He burned away completely.  We spread his ashes at his residence.   Soon after he passed away I started writing this little book.  I believe he was a forerunner in many ways, a beacon of the future—a new man for the new earth. 

I thus began to write these pages in the city of San Francisco while working as a barista at a cafe for minimum wage in a city and nation where some say capitalism has run amuck.  I dropped a university teaching gig having suffered two serious losses (the death of my grandfather and contact with my son) and I just wanted not to think.  I decided to learn how to steam milk.  I would wash dishes and serve coffee and not allow my mid-career ego to get the least bit upset about it.  

If you had asked my grandfather what his occupation was he would have told you that he was a carpenter.  And he did run a small construction company and work as a carpenter.  But going through his papers—the stock certificates of newly founded California companies not yet publicly listed, the printed out emails checking up on his investments, the dodgy and vague answer from the CEO with my grandfather’s pencil script scrawled below: “write off as loss”—he was an investor through and through and signed his emails as such: don mattern, investor (lower case “i”).  

He and I used to talk often about capitalism, of which I was skeptical.  How could a system that treated human beings as capital be any good?  “Asmara,” my grandfather once said to me, “you can be against capitalism but not capital.”  Capitalists today fear the collapse of capitalism as voices throughout the globe rise to condemn the brutal inequities of our times.  I wonder where we would be without capital?  Is capital so awful?  Hasn’t it freed up possibilities to create?  Does capitalism always lead to massive inequality?  Is capitalism responsible for slavery?  Did capitalism cause colonialism?  Is conscious capitalism an oxymoron?  Is capitalism irredeemable?

My grandfather was an avid and thoughtful reader.  He pored over the texts of Edward O. Wilson, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hutchinson, Martha Nussbaum, Thomas Piketty and classics like Proust, T.S. Elliot and others; he underlined passages that spoke to him in pencil and wrote comments in the margins.   We often discussed ideas in an exploratory and pleasant fashion.  I once tried to provoke him and having failed never bothered to again—his emotions were as steady as a ship in calm waters.

While an undergraduate reading Isiah Berlin, John Stuart Mill, Locke, and the entire oeuvre of Franz Fanon, I thought I would challenge my grandfather’s ideas with a book condemning the barbarism of liberal capitalism, a book called How Europe Underdeveloped Africa.  I expected him to dismiss the ideas.  Instead he pored over the book, underlined it, and wrote comments in the margins as usual.  He approached the text, as he did his life, with an open mind—a beginner’s mind.  We discussed his thoughts about it and the concepts therein.  My respect for him only increased.

About half a year before he passed away he turned to me standing next to his book shelf and pulled down three texts which he said summed up his life philosophy.  I had been prompting him with questions about his perspective on life sensing he was not long for this world.  Two of these texts were zen texts and one was a history of time, work and leisure.  Later, I chose excerpts from these texts for my sister, cousin and I to read at his memorial.  On his last birthday we—his two children and three grandchildren around him—asked him which book out of all his books was the one that he would recommend above all others.  He said, Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.

Perhaps he did leave some traces.  Perhaps he did not burn away completely.  He left two things of significance to his two offspring: a few acres of pristine land and a trim stock portfolio hefty enough so that each could probably safely file away any financial concerns for the future.  The following are some of the ways he lived his humble, decent, and enriching life.  

I am sharing them not to glorify his singular ways, but simply to propose them as one possible model for living—a model not just for elites, but a model to broaden for all of humanity.  Perhaps the issue with capitalism is that we’ve never made it work for all; perhaps we’re at the beginning of capitalism, not the end.  Perhaps we’ve tried to have political democracy but it hasn’t worked because we’ve never had economic democracy.  We strive in this country for the pursuit of happiness not the pursuit of barely making it.  We need lofty ideals, the farther the better: the word more in “a more perfect union” allows for changing the goalpost: new dreams, new targets, new and better systems to imagine and create.

After he passed away, I stopped by the local museum in the town nearest his place.  Above all my grandfather cherished his leisure time.  And wouldn’t you know it, so did the Pomo people who lived and still live in the area.  An exhibit there read:  

The average work day for the Coast Miwuk and Southern Pomo back then, stretched out over a year: 45 minutes.  “When the acorns fell or we had to get fish, we worked long hours.”  I asked Mabel McKay, a Pomo from Lake County, “well what did the people do?”  I loved her answer.  “We wove baskets and thought about God.”  Art and philosophy.  Sounds good to me.

Isn’t that a good model for living?  Isn’t having the time to contemplate and make things necessary to a good human life?  

Perhaps the Pomo and Miwuk understood something vital about capital and living a good life enriched with leisure time much more than the people who slaughtered the buffalo, created the Federal Reserve, and promoted the nine to five workday.  Until we throughly discredit the archaic and incorrect idea that one person’s prosperity has to be tied to another’s slavery we will never move forward as a human species, ever.  That idea has got to be abolished (like, yesterday).

And so begins, the zen capitalist: a model for living, an essay in ten parts.