Jan 302015
 

Helen Grosvenor: “Save me from that mummy! It’s dead!”
- Universal Pictures’ The Mummy (1932)

mummy1b2Shades of Karloff! The mummified remains of a man, estimated to be at least 200 years old, have been found in Mongolia. Since the man appears to be sitting in the lotus position, it has been suggested that he was a Buddhist monk and that he was meditating. It has not been revealed how the mummified remains was discovered, but evidently it was covered in cattle skin and found at an undisclosed location in the Songinokhairkhan province of Mongolia. It has since been taken to the Ulaanbataar National Center of Forensic Expertise for further study.

It’s also been suggested that the man was a teacher of the famous Lama Dashi-Dorzho Itigilov whose body is well preserved, and also seated in the lotus position, since his death in 1927.

Lama Dashi-Dorzho Itigilov before he was a mummy.

Lama Dashi-Dorzho Itigilov before he was a mummy.

Itigilov was a lama in the Buryat sect (the Mongolian branch of the Tibetan Gelugpa tradition), who in 1911 became the 12th Pandido Khambo Lama, the head of Russian Buddhism at that time. Buddhism did not fare too well in Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution, and in 1926 at the height of persecution Lama Itigilov advised his fellow Buddhist monks to leave Russia because “the red teaching was coming to land.” A year later, at age 75, he announced that he was about to die and requested lamas to begin meditation ceremonies and funeral rites. However, since he was still alive the other lamas were reluctant to perform these rites. Itigilov was forced to meditate alone until the others eventually joined him, and soon thereafter he passed away.

Itigilov left instructions that he should be buried just the way he was when he died, sitting in the lotus position. His body was placed into a pine box per his wishes and interred at a bum-khan (graveyard for lamas). Itigilov also requested that his body should be exhumed by other lamas within several years.

Itigelov_preservedItigilov’s body was examined in 1955 and in 1973, but still under the iron heel of the Soviets, the lamas kept their findings to themselves. In 2002 the body was exhumed in the presence of the leaders of the Buddhist Traditional Sangha of Russia. A picture being worth a thousand words, the photo on the left tells you how they found Lama Itigilov.

Now, just how and why the people involved in this most recent discovery make a link between it and Itigilov is not explained in any of the reports I saw. They are also connecting this with Sokushinbutsu, “a practice of Buddhist monks observing austerity to the point of death and mummification.” I must confess, I’ve not heard of this until now. I am very familiar with sokushin jobutsu or “Buddhahood in this very lifetime” (read my post about that concept here). From what I have read, this self-mummification practice was limited to Japan, so it seems a bit of a stretch to me.

Say, what about the curse? you ask. The curse of the mummy in the lotus? Sorry, folks, no curse, just a good mummy movie kind of post title.

Finally, I ask you to always remember what Imhotep (Boris Karloff) said to Helen Grosvenor, dressed as his beloved Princess Anck-es-en-Amon:

1932mummy2It was not only this body I loved, it was thy soul. I destroy this lifeless thing! Thou shall take its place but for a few moments and then… RISE again, even as I have risen!”

Jan 272015
 

Most of you will read this tomorrow, but as I write, it is still January 27, the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp. In actuality, Auschwitz was a network of camps – concentration camps built to hold and torture political prisoners, trade unionists, others whom the Nazi’s had no use for, mostly Jews, and extermination camps designed and constructed to kill, Jews mostly.

Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

As we now live in an time where we are witness to crimes shockingly reminiscent of those atrocities from the World War II era, it is important that we do not forget Auschwitz, that we remember the Holocaust.

One of the most powerful, electric literary works created by a Holocaust survivor to help us remember is a poem by Paul Celan titled Deathfugue. I posted this poem once before and included some background information with that entry, so I will not repeat myself. Instead, today, the lines are accompanied by a poster I made based on the poem.

black_milk

Paul Celan’s Todesfuge or “Deathfugue”:

Black milk of daybreak we drink it at sundown
we drink it at noon in the morning we drink it at night
we drink it and drink it
we dig a grave in the breezes there one lies unconfined
A man lives in the house he plays with the serpents he writes
he writes when dusk falls to Germany your golden hair Margarete
he writes it and steps out of doors and the stars are flashing he whistles his pack out
he whistles his Jews out in earth has them dig for a grave
he commands us strike up for the dance

Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night
we drink you in the morning at noon we drink you at sundown
we drink and we drink you
A man lives in the house he plays with the serpents he writes
he writes when dusk falls to Germany your golden hair Margarete
your ashen hair Sulamith we dig a grave in the breezes there one lies unconfined

He calls out jab deeper into the earth you lot you others sing now and play
he grabs at the iron in his belt he waves it his eyes are blue
jab deeper you lot with your spades you others play on for the dance

Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night
we drink you at at noon in the morning we drink you at sundown
we drink and we drink you
a man lives in the house your golden hair Margarete
your ashen hair Sulamith he plays with the serpents
He calls out more sweetly play death death is a master from Germany
he calls out more darkly now stroke your strings then as smoke you will rise into air
then a grave you will have in the clouds there one lies unconfined

Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night
we drink you at noon death is a master from Germany
we drink you at sundown and in the morning we drink and we drink you
death is a master from Germany his eyes are blue
he strikes you with leaden bullets his aim is true
a man lives in the house your golden hair Margarete
he sets his pack on to us he grants us a grave in the air
He plays with the serpents and daydreams death is a master from Germany

your golden hair Margarete
your ashen hair Shulamith

Translated from German by Michael Hamburger

Jan 262015
 

Later this week (Jan. 31) we can celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Thomas Merton. I wrote about Merton last year at this time, and I began that post by explaining that he was a “Trappist monk considered a major spiritual thinker of the 20th century. Author of more than 60 books, he was an influential Catholic writer. He also had an impact on the religious culture of America through his embrace of Buddhism and other Eastern philosophies. He pioneered inter-faith dialogue, engaging with such people as D.T. Suzuki, the Dalai Lama, and Thich Nhat Hanh.”

So if you didn’t know why folks interested in Buddhism should be aware of Merton, now you do.

merton-800b2As noted above, he was a prolific writer. I’ve read the biography by Michael Mott, The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton, but only a handful of Merton’s own writings, those that deal with Buddhism. He explored other spiritual philosophies, yet he never lost his Christian perspective and that’s why I am not in agreement with everything he had to say about Eastern thought. But one of his works I can find little to complain about is his interpretation of Chuang Tzu, the classic Chinese writings attributed to an early Taoist philosopher.

I’ve presented selections from Chuang Tzu in previous posts, and in one from 2011 I included part of Merton’s interpretation of a passage from the “Mountain Tree” chapter. I assume, since the best known translations (by Arthur Waley, Lin Yutang, and Burton Watson) are in prose form, that was how the text was originally composed. But I could be entirely wrong about it. For me, part of what makes The Way of Chuang Tzu unique and interesting is the way in which Merton interprets much of the text as poetry. It also makes for a great introduction to the Chuang Tzu’s somewhat abstruse writings, heavily invested with satire and paradox.

Here are a couple of selections:

The Need to Win

When an archer is shooting for nothing, he has all his skill.
If he shoots for a brass buckle, he is already nervous.
If he shoots for a prize of gold, he goes blind or sees two targets –
He is out of his mind!
His skill has not changed. But the prize divides him.
He cares. He thinks more of winning than of shooting–
And the need to win drains him of power.

Flight from Shadow

There was a man who was so disturbed by the sight of his own shadow and so displeased with his own footsteps that he determined to get rid of both. The method he hit upon was to run away from them.

So he got up and ran. But every time he put his foot down there was another step, while his shadow kept up with him without the slightest difficulty.

He attributed his failure to the fact that he was not running fast enough. So he ran faster and faster, without stopping until he finally dropped dead.

He failed to realize that if he merely stepped into the shade, his shadow would vanish, and if he sat down and stayed still, there would be no more footsteps.

The Way of Chuang Tzu by Thomas Merton, New Directions, 1969

Jan 222015
 

You can’t make up anything anymore. The world itself is a satire. All you’re doing is recording it.
– Art Buchwald

I’ve been laid up all week with a sore knee – actually, sore is not the word for it, more like pain to the nth degree – and as a result, haven’t done much other than read and watch TV. And think.

I keep mulling over the questions about free speech and censorship raised by the tragic Charlie Hebdo incident. And this will probably be my last word on that subject for a while. I think the bottom line on this issue was stated succinctly the other day by none other than Riss, head of publication for Charlie Hebdo, who was injured during the attack. He said, “If you don’t like the magazine, you don’t read it, you push it aside.”

This echoes the approach laid out by the Tao Te Ching in the 6th century BCE: “If you do not wish to have your heart disturbed by desire, then do not look at objects of desire.” So, if you do not wish to be offended, do not look at things you find offensive. Don’t like that a certain film has nudity, don’t watch the film. Don’t like what someone is saying on TV, change the channel.

At the same time, there can be a fine line between what is satirical and what is offensive. The legendary comedian Lenny Bruce once used the N-word 22 times in short piece of shtick that lasted about 30 seconds. He said at the end of the routine, “Well, I was just trying to make a point, and that is that it’s the suppression of the word that gives it the power, the violence, the viciousness.” He went on to say that if you used the word repeatedly until it “didn’t mean anything anymore, then you could never make some six-year-old black kid cry because somebody called him a nigger at school.” I’m not sure Lenny was right about that, but nonetheless, he was hailed as a genius.

Decades later when Michael Richards (Kramer on Seinfeld) repeatedly used the N-word at the Laugh Factory, it didn’t work and he was labeled a racist. What was the difference? Simply that Richard, whom I don’t believe intended to be racist, didn’t have a point. He was merely trying to shock, entertain. And he ended up being offensive.

Still, making fun of things just for the fun of it is, well, fun. I guess it comes down to how it’s done . . .

I’ve also been thinking about how Islam is not the only religion that is sensitive about images of its founder. During Buddhism’s first six centuries, no images of Buddha were ever made. Instead, he was represented by a footprint, an empty seat, the Wheel of Dharma, or a Bodhi leaf. We have long passed that era but today in certain Asian countries where the more fundamentalist branch of Theravada is the predominate form of Buddhism, folks can be touchy about how Buddha is portrayed.

The offending image posted and then later removed from Facebook.

The offending image posted and then later removed from Facebook.

In Burma, also known as Myanmar, a bar manager from New Zealand and two Burmese nationals are facing four years in prison for “insulting Buddhism” with a promotional ad they posted on the bar’s Facebook page showing the Buddha wearing headphones. In August, a Canadian tourist was expelled for having a Buddha tattoo and a Spanish tourist was expelled in September for his Buddhist tattoo.

Last April, A British tourist was arrested as she arrived at the airport in the Sri Lankan capital Colombo after authorities spotted a traditional, non-satiric tattoo of Buddha sitting atop a Lotus flower on her right arm.

It’s a fine line, all right. You can err by being offensive, you can also be overly sensitive. I don’t find the Buddha with headphones image offensive, but then I’ve been guilty of creating some less than traditional images of Buddha myself . . . just for the fun of it . . .

From a 2010 post, here is a scene from the Dairyvatara or “Sutra of the Decent to Dairy Queen”:

buddha-dq

In 2011, I wondered what the stereotypical American Buddhist looked like . . .

Not content to insult the original Buddha, I’ve also lampooned the “Second Buddha”:

badass-nagarjuna2

I’ve even had to audacity to depict The Marx Brothers as iconic Bodhisattvas – here’s their statues in Guru Hall at Whyaduck Temple:

Guru-Hall

Well, whaddya expect from a guy who doesn’t even take himself very seriously?

I’m a satirist, so I’ve got boxing gloves on if the person is worthy of satire. But I’m not an assassin.
– Stephen Colbert

Jan 192015
 

It has been a while since I have passed on any updates about Thich Nhat Hanh’s condition. The latest from Plum Village, is a message dated January 3rd: “In the last three weeks Thay has gradually emerged into wakefulness, and has his eyes open for much of the day, to the point where the doctors can now say that he is no longer in a coma.”

Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and you may be aware of the connection between Dr. King and Thich Nhat Hanh. It was partly through his interaction with the Vietnamese Zen teacher, that Dr. King was persuaded to take a public stand in opposition to the war in Vietnam.

MLK-TNHIn June 1965, Thich Nhat Hanh sent King a letter to explain why monks in Vietnam were self-immolating in opposition to the war and to urge King to add his voice in protest against the widening conflict. He wrote in part,

I am sure that since you have been engaged in one of the hardest struggles for equality and human rights, you are among those who understand fully, and who share with all their hearts, the indescribable suffering of the Vietnamese people. The world’s greatest humanists would not remain silent. You yourself can not remain silent . . . You cannot be silent since you have already been in action and you are in action because, in you, God is in action, too — to use Karl Barth’s expression. And Albert Schweitzer, with his stress on the reverence for life and Paul Tillich with his courage to be, and thus, to love. And Niebuhr. And Mackay. And Fletcher. And Donald Harrington. All these religious humanists, and many more, are not going to favour the existence of a shame such as the one mankind has to endure in Vietnam.”

Dr. King and Thay first met during the latter’s visit to the United States in 1966. On January 25, 1967 King wrote a letter to The Nobel Institute in Norway, nominating “this gentle Buddhist monk from Vietnam” for the Nobel Peace Prize. Less than four months later, on April 4th, 1967 – exactly one year before he was assassinated – Dr. King, speaking at Riverside Church in New York City to the group Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam, delivered one of his greatest speeches titled “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence”, his first public denouncement of U.S. involvement in Vietnam:

The recent statements of your executive committee are the sentiments of my own heart, and I found myself in full accord when I read its opening lines: ‘A time comes when silence is betrayal.’ That time has come for us in relation to Vietnam.

Over the past two years, as I have moved to break the betrayal of my own silences and to speak from the burnings of my own heart, as I have called for radical departures from the destruction of Vietnam, many persons have questioned me about the wisdom of my path.

And when I hear them, though I often understand the source of their concern, I am nevertheless greatly saddened, for such questions mean that the inquirers have not really known me, my commitment, or my calling. Indeed, their questions suggest that they do not know the world in which they live.”

That was a crucial moment in Dr. King’s crusade, and some historians believe it may have the action that sealed his fate.  Without a doubt, opossing the war cost him many political allies, including President Johnson.

At the end of his letter to King, Thich Nhat Hanh says that he was writing as a person in communion with the great humanists of the world “whose thoughts and attitude should be the guide for all human kind in finding who is the real enemy of Man.”

That enemy is ignorance (advidya), which Buddhism describes as a state of mis-knowing, a fundamentally flawed way of viewing the world. Shantideva in the Bodicaryavatara (“Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life”) tells us that the power and the degree of damage this internal enemy can exact upon us is what makes it our foremost adversary.

Awakening is the counter-agent that removes the infection of ignorance from our minds. Even someone as socially conscious as Martin Luther King, Jr. had to “wake up” to the horror of the Vietnam War. Likewise we must continually awaken, and continually remember, as the great humanists of the world have, what was phrased so well by Dr. King himself, that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Jan 162015
 

Some 13 years ago, shortly after President George W. Bush declared a war on terror, Monty Python’s Terry Jones asked: “How do you wage war on an abstract noun?” War on terror is an oxymoron. This war on terror was supposed to be a response to a barbaric act, but the first action taken was to invade a country that had nothing to do with it. The war began falsely and has been a fallacy ever since.

safe_state2On Tuesday, France’s prime minister declared war against terrorism.  The French people took to the streets in solidaires and bought up the new issue of Charlie Hebdo to exercise their right of free speech, and now they are poised to lose many of their other rights as the country transitions into another surveillance state.

What irony – the more we defend our rights, the more rights we lose. It might not be so bad if the people who make these declarations and defend our freedom just gave us some truth. But that gets lost in the shuffle, too.

Pope Francis says you should not “kill in the name of one’s own religion.” Well, that is precisely what folks have been doing ever since we invented God. But in this case, the war is only partly about religion. Maybe that’s always the case.

In the U.S., we are constantly going on about the troops, praising, thanking and honoring them for their service – but it’s not service, not really. I mean not like when people were drafted into the military. The truth is, it’s a job. Military employees are paid to do this work, which often puts them in harm’s way.

I don’t mean to suggest that our troops are not deserving of our praise and thanks. I just believe we need to see things as they truly are and have truthful discussions about it.

From day one we’ve been sold this war, and eager consumers that we are, we’ve bought it lock, stock and barrel. The patriotism the war on terror comes wrapped in is just a sales technique. So is the fear.

The war on terror is a business run by the terrorism industry and they are not above using fear tactics, which is just a form of terrorism, to keep it going by inflating national security threats, hinting that 9/11 type attacks are imminent. We have seen small attacks on this continent, such as the recent Canadian incident a few months back (that led to surveillance-expanding legislation and anti-terror laws), but what about 9/11 scale attacks? If the terrorists are “so demonically competent, why have they not done it?” asks John Mueller* in Foreign Affairs. He suggests that

One reasonable explanation is that almost no terrorists exist in the United States and few have the means or the inclination to strike from abroad. But this explanation is rarely offered.”

“Almost no terrorists” means few terrorists, mostly lone terrorists, and though their plots can be small, they can still be deadly.  But we’re talking about big 9/11 scale plots, the kind the Bush Administration and the CIA lied about to justify torture.

The worst thing about truth is that it is so damn inconvenient at times, and complex.

In our public sphere discussions, we need to talk about this as a culture war. A revolt against modernity. Or, we need to talk about it more.  Like climate change, too many people are in denial about the causes. I condemn terrorism, but I try to resist the temptation to paint terrorists simply as black clad evildoers with no reverence for human life. That may be true, but it is also true that most terrorists are disenfranchised young men, for whom Jihadist training in Iran or Syria somehow fills the emptiness in their lives and give them a sense of purpose no matter how warped. It’s something that needs to be addressed.

I’ve rambled. Probably have not articulated my thoughts very well. I wanted to make a point about how we have lost rights while defending them. I guess we didn’t notice we lost them. We were too busy with our eyes glued to our smartphones.

My biggest disappointment with Obama is he didn’t try to repeal the Patriot Act.

I am not saying we shouldn’t try to stop terrorists . . .

Just saying, to borrow from John Lennon, gimme some truth.

And gimme some rights back.

Speaking of rights . . . when will Israel give Palestinians the right to free movement? When will the Muslim world finally acknowledge Israel’s right to exist?

I feel that I should have written something positive, uplifting, possibly inspiring. I just don’t feel it today. I am pessimistic about the current state of affairs. I don’t have a good feeling for the future either.

We live in a cellphone world, and a surveillance state. Huxley and Orwell predicted this outcome.

BNW2One believes things because one has been conditioned to believe them.
– Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.
– George Orwell, 1984

– – – – – – – – – –

* John Mueller is Professor of Political Science at Ohio State University and the author of Overblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats, and Why We Believe Them. His article in Foreign Affairs can be found here.

Jan 142015
 

He may not be so well known today, but at one time in the not too distant past, Albert Schweitzer was one of the most famous individuals in the world and his name was practically synonymous with the word “humanitarian.” He was a German-born theologian, philosopher, physician, musician, and medical missionary in Africa, who is also remembered for his work that challenged both the secular and traditional Christian views of the historical Jesus. He received the 1952 Nobel Peace Prize for the philosophy of ethics he called “reverence for life, and he was born on this day in 1875.

According to Dr. David L. Dungan, who teaches in the department of religious studies at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, “Schweitzer read the great Asian religious texts not as a historian only, but as one whose profound sense of the failure of Christianity led him into a genuine religious quest. In fact, the concept of “reverence for life” occurred to him at a moment when, as he later told a friend, he was meditating not upon Jesus Christ but upon the Buddha.”

Regarding Buddha, Schweitzer is rather famously quoted as saying,

He gave expression to truths of everlasting value and advanced the ethics not of India alone but of humanity. Buddha was one of the greatest ethical men of genius ever bestowed upon the world.”

Yousuf Karsh portrait of Schweitzer

Yousuf Karsh portrait of Schweitzer

When I was very young and Schweitzer was still alive, he was perhaps best known for his role as a medical missionary. But early in his life, Schweitzer enjoyed a somewhat distinguished musical career and also studied theology, planning to become a pastor. In 1905, at age thirty, he changed his mind and decided to go to Africa instead. He began to study medicine at the University of Strasbourg, and in 1913, obtained his M.D. degree. Soon afterward, he founded his hospital at Lambaréné in French Equatorial Africa. In 1917 he and his wife became prisoners of war and spent a year in a French internment camp. In 1918, Schweitzer returned to Europe where he spent the next six years, preaching, giving lectures, musical concerts, and writing essays. He did not return to Lambaréné until 1924, and except for a few short periods of time, spent the remainder of his life there. Schweitzer died in 1965.

In a 1936 article, The Ethics of Reverence for Life, Schweitzer wrote,

If I am a thinking being, I must regard other life than my own with equal reverence. For I shall know that it longs for fulness and development as deeply as I do myself. Therefore, I see that evil is what annihilates, hampers, or hinders life. And this holds good whether I regard it physically or spiritually. Goodness, by the same token, is the saving or helping of life, the enabling of whatever life I can to attain its highest development.”

The idea of “reverence for life” had occurred to Schweitzer as early as 1915. The basic thrust of his philosophy can be summed in a few words that are often used in Buddhism, “do no harm.” Schweitzer was deeply influenced by Indian philosophy and in particular the concept of ahimsa or non-violence, which he acknowledged in his book Indian Thought and Its Development. In the chapter of that book devoted to the teaching of Buddha, he demonstrates that he had grasped the spirit of Buddha’s teachings, commenting on an aspect often misunderstood:

Thus in the world and life negation to which he was devoted, the Buddha kept some measure of naturalness. This is what was great in him. Whilst he mitigated the severity of world renunciation, he made a fresh and great concession to world and life affirmation.”

Although today is the 140th anniversary of Albert Schweitzer’s birth, any day is a good day to recall the lives of those who have contributed to the greater good of humankind by demonstrating a profound reverence for life.

Learn more about Albert Schweitzer at Schweitzerfellowship.org

Jan 122015
 

In his Treatise on the Maha-Prajna-Paramita Sutra, Nagarjuna writes,

Emptiness demolishes all dharmas (concepts) so that the only thing that abides is emptiness (sunyata). After emptiness has already demolished all dharmas, emptiness itself should also be set aside. It is because of this that we require the ‘emptiness of emptiness’ (sunyata-sunyata). Whereas emptiness conditions all dharmas, the emptiness of emptiness conditions only emptiness.”

This explains once again why emptiness is not the ultimate truth. We can say the same about nonduality. Some folks find this confusing, especially when we say that from the Madhyamaka or Middle Way point of view ‘neither-emptiness-nor-non-emptiness’ and ‘neither-duality-nor-non-duality’ is the ultimate truth. These two phrases represent a middle path, as close as we can come to expressing the ultimate, as it is ultimately ineffable. Although Nagarjuna equated the ultimate with the Middle Way, he taught that actually “The ultimate truth is not any view. Silence is the ultimate truth for the wise.”

In his book Essence of the Heart Sutra, the Dalai Lama explains what Nagarjuna means when he says that emptiness conditions dharmas:

For example, when we speak of the emptiness of a form, we are talking about the ultimate reality of that form, the fact that it is devoid of intrinsic existence. That emptiness is the ultimate nature of that form. Emptiness exists only a quality of a particular phenomena; emptiness does not exist separately and independently of particular phenomena.”

In the passage from his Treatise, Nagarjuna also compares emptiness to medicine – the “antidote” to the disease that comes from delusions originating from the attachments to self-being and dharmas. However, once the disease has been cured, there is no further need for the medicine. Again, why we require the ‘emptiness of emptiness’.

Nagarjuna cautions us about clinging to the idea of emptiness, for when emptiness is seized there is always the temptation to misuse it, to fling it about as another view. Emptiness does not ‘exist’ for its own sake as a concept or a kind of dogma; all things are empty, even emptiness.  And so, emptiness is a tool that must be employed skillfully, and Nagarjuna warns,

Emptiness wrongly grasped is like picking up a poisonous snake by the wrong end.”

Nothing terribly bad will happen if we misunderstand or misuse emptiness, no punishments will befall us, but it does tend to push us further from the liberation from suffering, the peace and joy, we seek.

Jan 082015
 

I support the principle of free speech and stand in solidarity with the French in the aftermath of yesterday’s terror attack. I am sure most all of you do as well. But today I am not inclined to give myself over to expressions of outrage and defiance, which seem to me right now as little more than mere emotionalism and sloganeering. I have seen too many news reports of terror attacks in my years to be outraged. I am too weary to be very defiant. Instead, I have questions.

UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights Flavia Pansieri articulated the questions in my mind rather well at the opening of the 83rd session of The U. N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination last year in Geneva:

Where does the right of expression, which we all want to respect, stop and the need to sanction and prevent hate speech begin? What is the point in time when one right has to recognize that it cannot be exercised if it implies the violation of another one?”

Does free speech go too far if it is harmful to others? It’s a rather old question, actually. It was debated by the U.S. Supreme Court nearly a hundred years ago in Schenck v. United States, (1919), a case that revolved around free speech during World War I. The court concluded that the defendant (Schenck) had no First Amendment right to express freedom of speech against the draft during the war. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. wrote the unanimous opinion that included this line, “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic . . .”

Oliver Wendell Holmes (1841-1935)

Oliver Wendell Holmes (1841-1935)

Thus, it was Holmes who gave us the famous metaphor of “Shouting fire in a crowded theater.” I don’t get how he reasoned that to express one’s opinion on the morality of a wartime draft presented a “clear and present danger,” but that is another discussion.

In a free society, everyone should have a right to hold and express any opinion. Justice Holmes qualified his decision with the word “falsely.” So, one of the first questions we should ask ourselves is, does opinion need to have a factual basis? Usually, no. But that does not mean it is wise to offer opinions that are based solely on supposition, assuming facts not verified.

The second question might be does the right to free speech include a right to offend? In this most recent case, the alleged offense is against religious sensibilities and beliefs. What we see in the West as relatively harmless satire is to many Muslims, even moderate ones, hate speech.

Yesterday’s attack was against Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical weekly newspaper. The cover of a 2011 issue depicted a cartoon of the Islamic prophet Muhammed and teachings based upon the Quran forbid the creation of visual images of Muhammad. This religious dictum does not justify the savage murder of 12 people. But it does provoke questions about whether journalists, even those engaged in the business of satire, should be more sensitive to religious beliefs. In the global public sphere, does the sacred dictum of the West that “nothing is sacred” trump Islam’s sacred dictum regarding images of the Prophet? Just because we have the right to free speech, is it always wise and/or proper to exercise it?

Religion was often the target of Charlie Hebdo’s satire.  Religion isn’t as popular these days as it once was. Even those of us who are “spiritual” may have little use for “religion.”  In being dismissive, need we be disrespectful?

As a Buddhist, I can’t help but wonder how we might strike a balance between free speech and “right speech,” an ideal found in the Buddha’s Eightfold Path: “And what is right speech? Abstaining from lying, from divisive speech, from abusive speech, and from idle chatter: This is called right speech.”

The Dasabhumaka Sutra says,

“Whatever speech is unpleasant, whatever hurts one’s own nature or others, that is speech the bodhisattva avoids . . .”

What hurts one’s own nature or others can take many forms, and can be born from misunderstanding and thoughtlessness as well as hate and prejudice. When I was younger, I would have been tempted to simply dismiss Muslims as thin-skinned, denounce their violence, and leave it at that.  Nowadays, disgusted as I am, having been a witness to these unrelenting cycles of violence for so long, I am more interested in how concepts such as right speech and deep listening might be pathways to solutions. I am more interested in trying to understand the other side than I am in placing blame and demanding accountability.

Writing now, something else occurs to me, about to what extent religious sensibilities are used as political weapons. Muslims seem to be a devout people; yet many of them have no problem using their religion a propaganda tool. Arab Nations like to cast themselves as spiritual warriors righteously fighting a religious war against “infidels”, and they use this same ideology to agitate believers against the West. We do much the same thing, only we are the champions of democracy and free speech.

Where do we go from here? Do we encourage journalists to censor themselves? And if so, is it an act of tolerance, or is it just doing what the terrorists want us to do? Or, perhaps, the outrage, the defiance, the condemnation is exactly they want to see. Are we only displaying our wounds for their pleasure?

Why do we never get an answer when we’re knocking at the door
With a thousand million questions about hate and death and war?

– The Moody Blues

I don’t have the answers. Just suggestions, what ifs.

Je suis Charlie. I, you, we are all Charlie but if the world is ever going to change at some point we must also be Abdul and Fareed and Rabiya. I wrote above that I wanted to avoid sloganeering. But here I go. Not afraid. Without a doubt, we should not be afraid in the face of terrorism, never forsake our liberty of expression. Fear, though, can be a double-edge sword. Not afraid should also mean not fearing to use our liberty to express right speech, kind speech, and to open our hearts to the concerns of others. Why is it that when responsible leaders suggest offering an olive branch of understanding to Islam and the Middle East they are vilified for it and labeled as weak? It seems to me that kindness and understanding and empathy are strategies that have not yet been employed in this long, long war between our two cultures. Not afraid? I wonder  . . .

Protestors in Place De La Republique in the centre of Paris (Photo: Heathcliff O'Malley/The Telegraph)

Protestors in Place De La Republique in the centre of Paris (Photo: Heathcliff O’Malley/The Telegraph)

Jan 052015
 

At a recent conference in India, the Dalai Lama said, “Don’t follow leaders, watch the parkin’ meters.”

leaders3bNo, wait. Bob Dylan said that, or wrote it rather, in Subterranean Homesick Blues. But what the Dalai Lama did say at the International Conference on Secular Ethics in Nashik, India on Saturday was very similar. According to reports he urged those attending the conference, not to follow any religious leader blindly. “Question,” he said,

Buddha said investigate a thought thoroughly. Study the qualifications of a guru or a leader, meet them, observe till you develop a conviction that what the leader says can be followed.

Know the qualities of a disciple, and as a disciple conduct unbiased investigation; use your intellect and develop enthusiasm to practice what you have accepted and believed. This is the Nalanda tradition and time has come to follow it.”

This is consistent with what the Dalai Lama has been advising for a long time. In my transcript of his teachings on Nagarjuna’s Precious Garland at UCLA in 1997, he told students that when choosing a teacher you should “sniff around so that you can see from both the front and the back,” adding

Then the question is how do we determine what is being taught by a particular teacher is valid of not? And you can only do so by comparing it and relating it to your own understanding of the overview of Buddhist teachings.

It is vitally important for the practitioner to always examine whether what is being taught really accords with the cardinal line set in the basic teachings of Buddhism. If it does not accord with that cardinal line, then it is something to be rejected. This is always the bottom line to be constantly checked against the fundamental tenets of Buddhism.”

Seems like a common sense approach, and yet many people in this world routinely follow leaders blindly. They do and think what they are told without question, without reason, without using any sense at all. I know something about this. I was in a Buddhist organization where unwavering allegiance to and near fanatical devotion for the fearless leader, the President of the organization, was expected on the part of all followers. To question the President’s words or actions was, in my experience, to invite questions about your motives and provoke doubts about your understanding of Buddhism and the quality of your practice.

Once when I did question, I was told by a higher up that I should regard myself as a “disciple of a master, a cub of a lion.” Often the President referred to himself “our father.” But I already have a father.  That wasn’t what I was looking for. To be fair, this organization was attached to a Buddhist sect that maintained that if a person even though the High Priest (of the sect) “is capable of making an error, that person is committing heresy.”

One of the aims of Buddhist practice is the death of the ego, but not in the degree that one becomes so depersonalized, they will give themselves over to a spiritual leader or authority figure and cease thinking for themselves. That stems from looking for something or someone outside our own lives as a source for happiness or enlightenment.

Actually, it is good to have leaders and to follow them, however, in doing so we need to exercise critical judgment, as we have already noted. Good leaders are to be valued highly, for leadership is a crucial function in our society; only we should not put them on too high a pedestal. Now, although we are primarily discussing spiritual leadership here, I feel the guiding principles for all leaders are essentially the same.

Some years ago, I shared some guidelines for leaders taken from the Tao Te Ching and perhaps it would be useful, and of interest, to repost:

Lao Tzu’s Principles for Leadership

The best leaders are those whose presence is barely known by others.

Leaders value their words highly and use them sparingly.

Because a leader has faith in others, then others have faith in his or her leadership.

When a leader’s work is done, others will say: we did it ourselves.

Govern a great nation as you would cook a small fish. Do not overdo it.

To lead people, walk beside them.

Love people and lead without cunning or manipulation.

The ancient leaders who followed the Tao did not give people elaborate strategies, but held to a simple practice. It is hard to lead while trying to be clever. Too much cleverness undermines the people’s harmony. Those who lead without such strategies bring benefit to all.

By being lower, rivers and seas are able to receive the homage and tribute of all the valley streams, thus they rule over them all. Therefore, it is a wise leader, wishing to be above the people, who by his words puts himself below them, and, wishing to be before them, follows them.

Leaders go first by putting themselves last. It is from their selflessness that they are able to fulfill themselves.

It is good to empower people, so that no one is wasted.

The best leaders are effective because they do not try to seize power. They are effective because they are not conceited, proud or arrogant.

And, don’t forget: watch the pawking metaws.

The video from D.A. Pennebaker’s 1965 Dylan documentary Don’t Look Back. That’s poet Allen Ginsberg in the background chatting animatedly with Dylan road manager Bob Neuwirth.