Feb 262015
 

I don’t know if you read Oliver Sacks’ op-ed last Thursday in the New York Times where he revealed that he has terminal liver cancer. The piece was of particular interest to me as someone who survived liver cancer via a liver transplant only 9 months ago and has lost 2 family members to the disease in the past 13 months.

I think it should be of interest to everyone because we are all terminal. To paraphrase the title of a humorous and ironic song by Hank Williams Sr., none of us will get out of this world alive.

Oliver Sacks by Elena Seibert

Oliver Sacks by Elena Seibert

I must confess that before this I was not too familiar with the life and work of Oliver Sacks, who is a professor of neurology at the New York University School of Medicine. I knew that his 1973 memoir Awakenings about his work with patients suffering from the sleeping sickness, encephalitis lethargica, was made into a film with Robert De Niro and Robin Williams, which I enjoyed. And that he wrote another book titled The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, but I have read neither and had to go to Wikipedia to learn more about him.

It’s not necessary to know his life story to be moved by Sacks’ reflections. They are poignant and inspirational. The valuable takeaways for me were the appreciation he expresses for his life and the sense of detachment he has found. Both are indispensable to Buddhist practice, and even though some mistakenly think they are mutually exclusive, they are not.

Buddhism teaches that human life is precious, and that is reason enough to be grateful for the blessing of life. When you face death and survive, appreciation for life seems to blossom naturally. It is a shame to wait until you have a crisis for it to unfold.

In regards to detachment, Sacks writes,

I feel a sudden clear focus and perspective. There is no time for anything inessential. I must focus on myself, my work and my friends. I shall no longer look at “NewsHour” every night. I shall no longer pay any attention to politics or arguments about global warming.

This is not indifference but detachment . . .”

That is the kind of detachment Buddhism encourages us to develop, but again, while there is still time to watch the news, pay attention to the world, to argue, to forgive, love and cry. We form attachments to so many things – desire, material possessions, even our own sufferings – and it is vital that we learn to let go. As Thich Nhat Hanh tells us, “Letting go gives us freedom and freedom is the only condition for happiness.”

There is not much more to say about the piece. It is called “My Own Life.” It could have been titled “Our Own Lives,” as it speaks to and for us all. Please read it. Here is the link:

Oliver Sacks on Learning He Has Terminal Cancer February 19, 2015

Feb 232015
 

Young British actor Eddie Redmayne won an Best Actor Oscar last night for his portrayal of Stephen Hawking in the film The Theory of Everything. I haven’t seen it yet, but I figured that playing a guy with severe ALS required some acting chops, so I was not surprised that Redmayne won, he probably deserved it.

Redmayne with Hawking

Redmayne with Hawking

The Theory of Everything was not the only biopic nominated this year. So was American Sniper, a film about Chris Kyle, an American sniper. Unlike Hawking, I do not have a theory of everything, but I have a theory about everything, (well, nearly everything) and one of my theories is that if you took a poll more Americans could identify who Chris Kyle is than Stephen Hawking. I could be wrong, but as I am living in a country where many folks actually believe the President is a secret Muslim and Communist, I kind of doubt it.

I have not seen American Sniper either but I have certainly heard a lot about it and about Chris Kyle. Some folks regard him as a hero; others see him as a “hate-filled killer.” According to The Guardian:

In his memoir, Kyle reportedly described killing as “fun”, something he “loved”; he was unwavering in his belief that everyone he shot was a ‘bad guy’. ‘I hate the damn savages,’ he wrote. ‘I couldn’t give a flying fuck about the Iraqis.’ He bragged about murdering looters during Hurricane Katrina, though that was never substantiated.”

Real nice guy, huh? American Sniper has been criticized for inaccuracies (like connecting Iraq with 9/11) and painting a distorted picture of Kyle. To be fair, almost all biographical or historical films distort reality, often in order to tell the story in a compressed amount of time, and sometimes for other reasons. Selma, the movie about the famous march led by Dr. Martin Luther King, has also faced some criticism for how it has depicted history (mainly the relationship between King and LBJ).

What I find most interesting, especially considering that Hollywood has such a liberal bias, that a film about an alleged racist received five Academy Award nominations, while the film about a man who gave his life fighting racism received only two. I don’t think it has much to do with the quality of the films, because let’s face it, Clint Eastwood is no Orson Welles. It must be show business . . .

Is there anybody here who thinks that following the orders
Takes away the blame?
Is there anybody here who wouldn’t mind a murder by another name?
Is there anybody here whose pride is on the line?
With the honor of the brave and the courage of the blind?

I wanna see him, I wanna wish him luck
I wanna shake his hand, wanna call his name
Put a medal on the man

Phil Ochs, Is There Anybody Here

Feb 192015
 

Suffering (dukkha) is a core concept in Buddhism that I have blogged about many times, almost always using words from Buddhist teachers past and present to support or amplify my comments. Today, I’ll start out with some words about suffering from a non-Buddhist source.  The following was written by American aid worker Kayla Mueller to her father on his birthday in 2011, some two years before terrorists captured her after leaving a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Syria:

Some people find God in church. Some people find God in nature. Some people find God in love . . . I find God in suffering. I’ve known for some time what my life’s work is, using my hands as tools to relieve suffering.”

This resonated deeply with me, as did her story.  Kayla Mueller’s life was stamped with service to others.  If you visit her Wikipedia page, I think you will be amazed to see all the different organizations she managed to work with as an activist and humanitarian during her short 26 years.

Joseph Campbell, the great mythologist, once said, “God is a metaphor for that which transcends all levels of intellectual thought.” I do not share Mueller’s belief in God, and I don’t necessarily agree with Campbell because I feel the word ‘God’ carries with it too much baggage (superstition, associations, subjective feelings, etc.) to be very useful. However, going with the idea of metaphor here, I am inclined to interpret Mueller’s words as “God is suffering,” or certainly, “Life is suffering,” the Buddha’s famous words, which should not be taken as a negative or pessimistic statement.

In terms of Buddhist practice, suffering has three aspects: understanding and acceptance of suffering, endurance of suffering, relieving suffering.

Shantideva

Shantideva

Suffering is a universal truth of existence and there is relief from suffering but no real end to it. If there were an end of suffering, it would mean an end to life. Shantideva, in Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life, says, “For the Buddha said that all fears and immeasurable sufferings arise from the mind only.” So, what we mean by an end to suffering is actually to transform the negative elements of the mind that produce suffering. These negative mental elements or afflictions have as their cause the three poisons of greed, anger and ignorance. The purpose of the Buddha’s teachings is to change poison into medicine, sufferings into Nirvana.

Once we have acknowledged the truth of suffering and its inevitability (we will face suffering no matter what), we can then prepare for the endurance of suffering, and how we endure suffering determines much about the quality of our life condition.

In Healing Anger, the Dalai Lama writes,

[Shantideva observes] that pain and suffering are natural facts of existence and that denying this truth can cause additional misery. He then goes on to argue that if we could internalize this fundamental truth of our existence, we would derive enormous benefit in our day-to-day life. For one thing, we would see suffering as a catalyst for spiritual growth. Shantideva implies that a person who is capable of responding to suffering in this way can voluntarily accept the pain and hardship involved in seeking a higher purpose.”

This higher purpose is idealized in the form of the bodhisattva who works for the liberation of all beings. These altruistic heroes take on sufferings willingly, they even assume the sufferings of others, and they endure with great courage. The bodhisattva resolves:

I take upon myself the burden of all suffering. I am determined to do so, I will endure it. I do not turn back or run away, I do not tremble . . . I am not afraid . . . nor do I despair.”*

The courage of the bodhisattva may inspire us, but the idea of consenting to suffer is difficult to accept.  However, as the Dalai Lama mentions, suffering has a beneficial side.  When we realize that our existence is conditioned and characterized by suffering, then we see there is a possibility of not only personal but also universal liberation. Suffering stimulates our thoughts and motivates us toward liberation. The mind can change its poison into healing medicine, our negative thoughts can be transformed into wisdom, and what seems unbearable in the beginning, becomes easier to bear.

Even when the wise are suffering, their minds are serene; for when war is waged against mental afflictions, many injuries are inflicted in the battle.”

Shantideva’s Bodhicaryavatara, Chapter Six “The Perfection of Patience,” Verse 19

– – – – – – – – – –

* From the Vajradhvaja Sutra and Aksayamati-nirdesa. Read an expanded excerpt here.

Feb 152015
 

One of the first books I read about Buddhism was The Buddhist Way of Life by Christmas Humphreys. I still have the copy I purchased at a small bookstore in Omaha Nebraska in 1969. The author was an important figure in Western Buddhism at one time and he was born on this day in 1901.

220px-Christmas-humphreysHumphreys (who passed away in 1983) was a British lawyer, writer and poet, and founder of an organization that later became the Buddhist Society of London, one of the oldest Buddhist groups outside Asia. Like many Western Buddhists of that time, he started off with Theosophy. During the 1920s when he attended Cambridge, he joined the Cambridge Lodge of the Theosophical Society, eventually becoming its President. His attention shifted to Buddhism after some interaction with W.T. Rhys Davids, the famous scholar of Pali and founder of the Pali Text Society and attending some lectures by early British Buddhists Allan Bennett (Ananda Metteya) and Francis Payne.

Then, as now, most lay Buddhists need day jobs, and for Humphreys that meant criminal law. He had a long and celebrated career in which he worked primarily as a prosecutor. He handled over 200 murder cases, including a number of landmark cases, and he was involved in the Tokyo war crimes trial and the 1950 trial of a nuclear spy named Klaus Fuchs. Later, Humphreys became a judge at the Old Bailey.

Humphreys with Suzuki and Edward Conze

Humphreys with Suzuki and Edward Conze

Christmas Humphreys knew most of the leading Buddhists of his time; he collaborated on translations with D.T. Suzuki, and Alan Watts was his protégé. He was prolific, he either authored or edited several dozen about Buddhism, and while his particular focus was Zen, the books he produced covered the entire field of Buddha-dharma.

What I was looking for when I bought The Buddhist Way of Life was a good introductory book. For me, it was not very useful in that regard. It is subtitled “An Invitation for Western Readers.” Maybe I was too young (16) to grasp it, or perhaps what I needed (but had not been written yet) was Buddhism for Dummies.  Nonetheless,  several thoughts presented on the first two pages formed impressions about Buddhism that are still with me today.

First is that Buddhism is not a religion per se but “a system of doctrine and practice built up by the followers of the Buddha about what they believed to be his teaching,” and secondly that “We do not know precisely what [the Buddha] taught.” And thirdly:

How do we contact Reality? Not with the intellect. The thinking, rational, daily mind for ever functions in duality, in the relative. By it we learn a great deal about the universe and the ‘matter’ – which has now been found to have, as the Buddha said, no real existence – of which it is composed. But this knowledge is entirely ‘about it and about’; it concerns the forms in which life is expressed, the garments of Reality; the life, the essence, the thing itself it can never know. The scientist, the philosopher, the psychologist, and all who work with the five senses and thought may fill the world with libraries of their invention and discovery; they will not, for they cannot, know.”

This “direct way” of the Buddhist is found in the practice of meditation and it is an intuitive way that cannot be fared by the intellect alone.

Well, here is gassho to another Western Buddhist pioneer, a man who helped many people open and enter the dharma door to Buddhism, and one of those persons was been Van Morrison who mentions Humphreys in this song from his 1982 album Beautiful Vision:

Feb 112015
 

Some people still consider Chogyam Trungpa a great teacher. I have never understood why. Trungpa was a teacher in the Kagyu and Nyingma lineages of Tibetan Buddhism and highly controversial. I’ve always felt that he used (abused) the Tibetan concept of “crazy wisdom” so that he could misbehave. (I blogged about one notorious incident here.)

But recently ran across this Trungpa quote and I liked it:

In order to become Buddha you either have to give up the idea of Buddha or give up the idea of you.”

This is one of those paradoxical statements Buddhism is famous for, and it’s similar to the Zen saying, “If you see the Buddha on the road, kill him.”

I would take it a step further, though, and suggest that in order to become Buddha you must give up both the idea of Buddha and the idea of you. There is no “or” about it.  To surrender both is crucial. What’s more, you probably have to give up the idea of becoming a Buddha, too.

In my opinion, one of the critical first steps on the path is to rid ourselves of the notion that Buddha is someone or something outside of our own lives. The real Buddha is the inner one. We need to “kill” or give up our tendency to form attachments to external objects, and therefore, it is important that we not turn Buddha, awakened beings, or even awakening itself, into opportunities for grasping.

The concept of you is already a prime opportunity for grasping.  Buddhism teaches that the concept of “self” is the root of suffering. You, me, the ego, self-being – all are simply designations for something falsely imagined.

The you that you think you must promote and protect is not the real you, rather the real you is the Buddha within. It’s a bit more complicated, but that’s the gist of it.

And with this understanding, we begin to realize that so many of the Buddhist statements that we may shake our heads at and classify as just some sayings riddled with paradox, actually point to an objective reality that is highly paradoxical.

You must give up you to find the real you. That’s a logic that is sometimes hard to wrap our minds around, but we would do well to put some effort into it.

Dogen put it this way:

To study the Way is to study the Self. To study the Self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be enlightened by all things of the universe. To be enlightened by all things of the universe is to cast off the body and mind of the self as well as those of others. Even the traces of enlightenment are wiped out, and life with traceless enlightenment goes on forever and ever.” *

When I read passages like the one above, I think to myself, “I know this so well.” Then I observe my own behavior and see how I have forgotten the principle so easily. I find that I must keep trying to improve – one thing I can’t afford to give up.

– – – – – – – – – –

* Hee-Jin Kim, Eihei Dogen: Mystical Realist, Simon and Schuster, 2004, 125

Feb 042015
 

I rarely look at the comments section of news articles I read. Yesterday, while looking at an article on the Jordanian pilot, I inadvertently scrolled down too far and came across a comment with the Isis video embedded. I watched it,

The major news organizations and Google will not show these videos because they are disturbing and because of the propaganda value for Isis. I think this is a mistake. It is one thing to hear that a human being was burned alive, it is quite another to watch footage of him placed in a cage, doused with some flammable liquid, and set on fire. It is disturbing, haunting. It will stay with you. But I feel the propaganda value works against these murderers. By viewing the video I don’t feel I am complicit in their terrorism, rather I am seeing for myself the extent of their cruelty, their barbarism, and I am enraged. I sympathize with the anger and the calls for vengeance.

Yet, I understand that is an emotional reaction, and I know violence is not the answer.  This is a very different enemy than the West has ever faced. We are going to have to think differently than we have in the past in order to solve this problem. Aerial bombings, boots on the ground – these are simple and worn-out solutions for a complex situation. We need a long-range strategy that is bold, innovative, and visionary, and the first step in implementing it should be to address the root causes of Arab terrorism.

Simple solutions work best for those who want to ignore the complexity of the problem and cast this as a “war with radical Islam.” But it is not really about Islam or religion. We are not talking about holy crusaders, but thugs – disaffected, frustrated young men, many of whom don’t know much about Islam, but know a lot about poverty, high unemployment, inequality, injustice, and they have idle hands and minds. This is nothing new. Earlier generations of young men and women tried to find meaning for their lives by becoming Marxist revolutionaries. I know from my own experience, radicalism and revolution can seem very romantic, but adopting a radical ideology alone does not satisfy, nor, in most cases, is it real and true and understood in the same way that Lenin or Mao understood their revolutions.

Compassion will also help us find a solution.

A new interview show called Speakeasy recently premiered on PBS. In this program, Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame recipients, Grammy Award winners, and legendary iconic musicians are interviewed by people they themselves select. For instance, Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters chose to be interviewed by newsman Bill Weir, and Carlos Santana chose Harry Belafonte.

pde_118086978_speakeasy-santana-belafonteDuring his interview, Santana called Belafonte and some other men and women whose humanistic spirit he admires, “weapons of mass compassion.” I like that. Much better than the other thing.

Elsewhere, Santana, who just published a memoir, The Universal Tone, has said,

Compassion is a far more powerful weapon than violence. Lets us all become weapons of mass compassion.”

And I say, let’s be the boots on the ground who search for Weapons of Mass Compassion wherever we are, for we need all of these we can get. I suspect we could be much more successful at finding WMCs than we were finding WMDs.

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