Port Huron to Wall Street

"The Whole World is Watching"

My sense is that it is largely young people driving the Occupy Wall Street protests. They’re usually the ones behind revolutions and movements of this sort, which I think is very different from the Tea Party Movement. For me, it’s like Yogi Berra said, “déjà vu all over again.” The protests remind me of Chicago ’68. Without the extreme violence, thank goodness.

“The Movement” of the 1960s began with the Civil Rights movement, which was predominately black. However by mid-point in the decade, when Martin Luther King Jr. courageously spoke out against the war in Viet Nam, it become fused, to some extent, with the predominately white student protest movement that in the end was about many things: Civil Rights, The War, Women’s Liberation, Gay Liberation, the counter-culture, the disparity between rich and poor, and of course, rock and roll. Similar in a way to how CNN describes the Occupy Wall Street movement, which is now spreading to other cities: “A mix of protesters . . . decrying a loosely defined list of financial problems and mixing in places with others marking the 10-year anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan.”

I have always said that the 1960’s were left unfinished. By that I mean that we are still dealing with the same issues now as we were then. We, this nation, didn’t finish solving any of them. Didn’t even come close. We’ve been struggling with the same problems and fighting the same culture war for nearly 50 years. The only difference now is that the lunatic fringe is on the right.

Yesterday, I re-read a document I had not even thought of in years. Composed 1962 as a manifesto for the American student activist organization called Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the document was about democratic values, it was a generational call to action, laying out a vision for a revolution that many actually thought was feasible. Although a number of people participated in its drafting, the primary author was a University of Michigan student by the name of Tom Hayden.

Here are the opening paragraphs of “The Port Huron Statement.” Change a few words here and there and it could have been written yesterday. Later on, in the sections that deal with specific ideas about the New Left and so on, it becomes somewhat dated. But maybe not. Maybe whatever this new movement will grow into can benefit from the ideas presented in this important document:

Port Huron Statement

Introduction: Agenda for a Generation

We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit.

When we were kids the United States was the wealthiest and strongest country in the world; the only one with the atom bomb, the least scarred by modern war, an initiator of the United Nations that we thought would distribute Western influence throughout the world. Freedom and equality for each individual, government of, by, and for the people–these American values we found god, principles by which we could live as men. Many of us began maturing in complacency.

As we grew, however, our comfort was penetrated by events too troubling to dismiss. First, the permeating and victimizing fact of human degradation, symbolized by the Southern struggle against racial bigotry, compelled most of us from silence to activism. Second, the enclosing fact of the Cold War, symbolized by the presence of the Bomb, brought awareness that we ourselves, and our friends, and millions of abstract “others” we knew more directly because of our common peril, might die at any time. We might deliberately ignore, or avoid, or fail to feel all other human problems, but not these two, for these were too immediate and crushing in their impact, too challenging in the demand that we as individuals take the responsibility for encounter and resolution.

While these and other problems either directly oppressed us or rankled our consciences and became our own subjective concerns, we began to see complicated and disturbing paradoxes in our surrounding America. The declaration “all men are created equal…” rang hollow before the facts of Negro life in the South and the big cities of the North. The proclaimed peaceful intentions of the United States contradicted its economic and military investments in the Cold War status quo.

We witnessed, and continue to witness, other paradoxes. With nuclear energy whole cities can easily be powered, yet the dominant nation-states seem more likely to unleash destruction greater than that incurred in all wars of human history. Although our own technology is destroying old and creating new forms of social organization, men still tolerate meaningless work and idleness. While two-thirds of mankind suffers under nourishment, our own upper classes revel amidst superfluous abundance. Although world population is expected to double in forty years, the nations still tolerate anarchy as a major principle of international conduct and uncontrolled exploitation governs the sapping of the earth’s physical resources. Although mankind desperately needs revolutionary leadership, America rests in national stalemate, its goals ambiguous and tradition-bound instead of informed and clear, its democratic system apathetic and manipulated rather than “of, by, and for the people.”

Not only did tarnish appear on our image of American virtue, not only did disillusion occur when the hypocrisy of American ideals was discovered, but we began to sense that what we had originally seen as the American Golden Age was actually the decline of an era. The worldwide outbreak of revolution against colonialism and imperialism, the entrenchment of totalitarian states, the menace of war, overpopulation, international disorder, supertechnology–these trends were testing the tenacity of our own commitment to democracy and freedom and our abilities to visualize their application to a world in upheaval.

Our work is guided by the sense that we may be the last generation in the experiment with living. But we are a minority–the vast majority of our people regard the temporary equilibriums of our society and world as eternally functional parts. In this is perhaps the outstanding paradox; we ourselves are imbued with urgency, yet the message of our society is that there is no viable alternative to the present. Beneath the reassuring tones of the politicians, beneath the common opinion that America will “muddle through,” beneath the stagnation of those who have closed their minds to the future, is the pervading feeling that there simply are no alternatives, that our times have witnessed the exhaustion not only of Utopias, but of any new departures as well. Feeling the press of complexity upon the emptiness of life, people are fearful of the thought that at any moment things might be thrust out of control. They fear change itself, since change might smash whatever invisible framework seems to hold back chaos for them now. For most Americans, all crusades are suspect, threatening. The fact that each individual sees apathy in his fellows perpetuates the common reluctance to organize for change. The dominant institutions are complex enough to blunt the minds of their potential critics, and entrenched enough to swiftly dissipate or entirely repel the energies of protest and reform, thus limiting human expectancies. Then, too, we are a materially improved society, and by our own improvements we seem to have weakened the case for further change.

Read the entire Port Huron Statement here.

And visit the Occupy Wall Street site here.

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The Zen of Jobs

I have never owned, or for that matter even touched, an iPad, iPhone, or iPod. I have never seen an Apple computer turned on, outside of a computer store. In regards to much of the technological innovation that Steve Jobs created, I guess you could say that I am iGnorant.

Don’t get me wrong. I love technology. At least, I love using certain types of technology. I spend a lot of time in front of my laptop; however, I don’t necessarily need to understand exactly how it works. No geekhood for me.

I can’t say that I am a real big fan of the culture that Steve Job’s technology has unleashed. Whenever I venture out into our brave new world, I see folks walking around almost zombie-like, heads downturned, focused on the little box in their palm, or strolling through our communal reality impervious to what’s going on around them because they are self-contained, listening to another world through their ear phones.

Which brings up my biggest problem: whenever I see these people with their headphones on or wearing an ear-plug, I can’t help but think of the Bob Dylan song:

Well, you walk into the room
Like a camel and then you frown
You put your eyes in your pocket
And your nose on the ground
There ought to be a law
Against you comin’ around
You should be made
To wear earphones

Because something is happening here
But you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mister Jones?

Ironically Dylan was Steve Jobs favorite musical performer.

Anyway, it seems that human interaction ain’t what it used to be. Although I don’t think its improved much on the intimate, one-on-one level, I have to admit that Steve Jobs left his mark on this world. And despite my grumbling, I think he leaves behind a very positive personal legacy. I just didn’t follow his career or know much about him. Now I wish I had. I think he would have inspired me.

Think Different: A Mantra for Everyone

One thing I learned just today is that he was a Buddhist. According to an article at ABC News,

Jobs and his college friend Daniel Kottke, who later worked for him at Apple, visited Neem Karoli Baba at his Kainchi Ashram. He returned home to California a Buddhist, complete with a shaved head and traditional Indian clothing and a philosophy that may have shaped much of his corporate values.”

Robert Thurman, who met Jobs in the 1980’s is quoted in the article saying,

I wouldn’t say Steve Jobs was a practicing Buddhist. But he was just as creative and generous and went outside the box in the way that he looked to Eastern mental discipline and the Zen vision, which is a compelling one.”

Thurman makes some other good comments, one of which is to point out that by putting computers in the hands of everyday people, Jobs empowered them.  And there is the “focus and simplicity” that were the “foundation of Apple’s ethic.” Focus and simplicity are the hallmarks of Buddhism, at least in some forms, and, if we are to accept the idea that Buddhism influenced the way Jobs thought and conducted his business, we see how Buddha-dharma can exhibit a subtle and transcending influence on the world. I’ve not thought of it before but I think there can be no doubt that the innovations brought by Steve Jobs helped relieve suffering.

I knew Jobs had some health issues. But I didn’t pay much attention. Apparently, a few years ago he had a liver transplant. Pancreatic cancer got him in the end. Lately, when I hear of people succumbing to cancer it hits me right between the eyes.

Did I mention that Steve Jobs favorite musician was Bob Dylan?  Shows he had excellent taste in music . . .

The problem with earphones aside, I think we all owe him a debt of gratitude. So, thanks Steve . . . and peace, brother.

I have gone from rags to riches in the sorrow of the night
In the violence of a summer’s dream, in the chill of a wintry light
In the bitter dance of loneliness fading into space
In the broken mirror of innocence on each forgotten face

I hear the ancient footsteps like the motion of the sea
Sometimes I turn, there’s someone there, other times it’s only me
I am hanging in the balance of the reality of man
Like every sparrow falling, like every grain of sand

– Bob Dylan

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The Dalai Lama’s Commentary on The Precious Garland of Nagarjuna Part 13

The Chinese government recently passed a new law that bans Tibetan lamas, or monks, from reincarnating without Chinese government approval. The Chinese government wants to have the right to approve reincarnations of living Buddhas or senior religious figures in Tibetan Buddhism.

This is so ridiculous, and utterly petty, on the part of the Chinese. You would think a world super-power might have better things to do than go around “approving” reincarnations and bickering with a 76 year-old monk. Yet, there may be a method to their madness. After all, it does divert attention away from the Chinese government’s ongoing campaign in Tibet of ethnic cleansing through population transference and their reign of violence and terror.

The ruling has forced the Dalai Lama to make a formal pronouncement on the subject of his reincarnation. He says that when he reaches the age of ninety, he will decide for himself about the matter.

Despite his well-constructed argument in favor of reincarnation, logical from the particular point of view of Tibetan Buddhism, I would not be a bit surprised if personally the Dalai Lama didn’t have a more practical approach to the subject. For one thing, he is an astute scholar of Buddhist philosophy and he must realize that “reincarnation” does not comport with Buddhist teachings, which deal with the subject of “rebirth,” a somewhat different sort of thing. But I think his “reincarnation statement” is more of a political statement, using reincarnation as an expedient. He may be retired as head of state, but he is in no way removed from politics. As long he is Beijing’s rhetorical crosshairs, he’s in the game.

Were it not for the Chinese government, the Dalai Lama might have made a pronouncement of another kind. Several years ago, during a visit to the U.S., he made quite a point of denying his status as a “living Buddha.” It was a courageous thing to do. For many years, it has been the Dalai Lama’s special status that alone has held the Tibetan community together. By undercutting the mystique surrounding him, and which he is reportedly uncomfortable with, he gambled that his people and the world would see and accept him for the human being he is, and not as some sort of living god in the way others and his tradition has proclaimed. In this way, he helped move his culture in a more modern direction.

I suspect that Tenzin Gyatso would much prefer having a reasonable and fair dialogue with the Chinese over the issues, but since, from the Chinese side, it doesn’t seem possible, he feels compelled to perpetuate some of these old myths and superstitions. By putting a “final” decision off for fourteen years, he buys some time, for the situation to become diffused, or perhaps for both sides to grow up. But, don’t be surprised if someday, he ends up disavowing or radically changing this reincarnation message.

In the meantime, the Tibetans have the right to believe in any damn fool thing they wish. The Chinese have taken everything else from them. You can’t begrudge them trying to hold on to their idea of reincarnation.

Tenzin Gyatso, The Dalai Lama – Commentary on The Precious Garland of Nagarjuna

June 5-8, 1997

Part XIII

We will begin the session. First, I would like to thank the members of the Chinese Sangha for their recitation . . . So we begin the questions.

Previously questions were submitted on pieces of paper, which the translator reads in English and then in Tibetan. Several of the questions concern virtuous and non-virtuous actions in which the Dalai Lama basically repeats the points about these kinds of actions he has already made in the previous session.

The next question deals with religious tolerance, in which he makes the following points: 1) He feels that is more appropriate for people to follow the religious tradition of their own society or culture, but there can be exceptions to that; 2) if someone does decide to change religious traditions, this should be done only after careful consideration; 3) the differences between traditions especially between Buddhism and other traditions, reflect the richness of spiritual diversity and should be a cause for greater admiration; 4) it is possible in the beginning for a person to be able to follow both the Buddhist path and the Judeo-Christian path, but at some point one must choose between one or the other, since the Buddhist concept of emptiness and the Judeo-Christian concept of a creator god do not really fit together; 5) this last point may hold for people in the Buddhist tradition also, since there are some concepts from the various schools that, also, do not fit together. But no matter what, one should never become overly critical of religious tradition different from your own.

Q: How can we maintain faith when so many of the lamas and teachers misbehave?

A: If one is able to cultivate a faith that is grounded in a personal understanding, then there is no possibility of developing such a faith towards a lama or teacher who misbehaves.

It is very important when you relate to someone who is a dharma-teacher to use your critical faculty to subject that person to close scrutiny, so that you are aware that if not all the qualifications that are commented on in the scriptures are not found in that person, at least most of them are found in that individual.

Sometimes people select a dharma-teacher or choose a particular tradition during a very low period in their personal life. When that happens, when someone chooses a person or a tradition because they have a need to lean on someone or they lack confidence or self-esteem, then there is a real vulnerability for abuse and when that dependence is placed on someone, given that you are not really able to use the critical facility, then there is scope for abuse and disappointment.

Often when it comes to choosing a spiritual path or a teacher, our tendency is to be hasty and take on anything that comes near you, like a dog who will eat any food that comes its way and that is not how we should approach the question of choosing the dharma or a teacher.

As I say to members of the media, that they should have as long noses as possible, sort of sniffing around [laughter] and also this is true for the students-you should be able to sniff around so that you can see from both the front and the back. Sometimes what happens is that things may look very impressive from the front, but from the back they may be sort of empty, just hollow. [laughter]

If a teacher is able to maintain a good kind of integrity, then, of course, that person is worthy of your admiration and trust.

Judging the integrity of a teacher should be approached in the context of the three higher trainings on morality, meditation and wisdom or insight. That is what the Buddha taught in the Tripitaka, the Three Spiritual Collections . . . So, this means that since I am also a teacher, you should subject me to such investigation as well. [laughter]

Q: What is the quickest and easiest way to realize selflessness or no-self?

Both the Dalai Lama and the audience laugh, but it soon tapers off into a rather long pause.

A: Let us be serious, now. Even though I cannot claim to have any high levels of realization in relation to the understanding of selflessness, the little realization that I have is a product of effort over thirty years of time and also –

It was difficult to follow the translator here. Even after listening to the tape repeatedly, I am unsure exactly who the Dalai Lama via the translator is referring to here, whether it is himself or some other lama.The Milarepa story below seems separate from this.

Translator: Tenzin Gyatso [?], after he met with [? name unclear] and he had a long discussion with him  . . . later, he happened to write a biography of [?] and in it Master [?] mentions . . . that the realizations that he attained were a result of intensive effort and commitment of over a period of forty years, and now he’s reached . . . a point where he is on the threshold of gaining a high liberation.

The Dalai Lama says something to the translator in Tibetan. There is another long pause. Silence. The Dalai Lama then begins to cry. He wipes his eyes. The entire hall is completely hushed. The Dalai Lama muttering to himself, continues to wipe his eyes.

Translator: His Holiness was saying that Milarepa [one of the most revered teachers in the history of Tibetan Buddhism], when Milarepa was giving his last instructions to one of his foremost disciples, sGam-go-pa, he showed his behind to him – ah, he showed the calluses on his behind that were the result of his long sitting in meditation and said, “Look that this! This is what I’ve endured. This is the mark of my practice.” And this is how, you must remember that the realization of dharma requires effort and commitment –

The Dalai Lama breaks in, speaking for the first time in English:

So don’t think easiest, best, cheapest!

The rest of his comment is drowned out by applause.

[Back to Tibetan and the translator]: What one Tibetan master [? name unclear] said is very true. He said that someone who, at the initial stage is so enthusiastic about the practice that he or she doesn’t have time to eat properly, but this lasts only three or four days, then they are distracted and go on to something else and loses interest – such a person expects to have results immediately, but then loses interest – such a person will never achieve anything. therefore, it is important to always maintain a steady flow of effort, a steady flow, like a stream, always continuous.

[The Dalai Lama in English]: You agree? [audience applauds] That’s good!

Two days later, at the very end, following the empowerment ceremony on the last day, the Dalai Lama offered his only other words spoken in English: “I hope that you will reflect deeply on these teachings, so that the next time I come you won’t have to ask about best, fastest, easiest.”

To be continued . . .

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East, West

I recorded the Charlie Rose Show from the other night and watched Aung San Suu Kyi interviewed via Skype at a Clinton Global Initiative event. She said, “Some people say that democracy is a Western concept . . .” Obviously those people are in her country and using that line as a way to legitimatize maintaining the very non-democratic status quo there.

It mirrors expressions I often hear in the Buddhist World: “this or that is confusing for Western interpreters of Buddhism”, “Westerners putting a negativistic spin on Buddhism”, “the teachers of Western Buddhism will ignore most of this. . . “. And then, “Why are Eastern Buddhists condescending to Western Buddhists”, “Eastern Buddhism needs to catch up to the 21st Century” and so on.

East, West – What does it matter anymore? We’re one world now.  East and West are just hands on the one world body. If you are right handed, you don’t dismiss things done by your left hand, do you?

Sure, there are Eastern customs that may be archaic, just as there are some concepts from the West that are incompatible with Buddhism, like those from Christianity. But we seem to be stuck in a general mode of thinking that still looks for differences. At times, we sound like relics from 150 years ago, “East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet . . .”

That comes from a poem by Rudyard Kipling, and the remainder of the verse has often been overlooked: “But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,/ When two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth!”

We’re one world.  East and West are just hands on the one world body.

In response to a question about the recent Arab Spring, Aung San Suu Kyi replied, “Of course, our societies are very different. But in the end, we’re all human beings and I think we can all understand each others hopes and fears . . .”

You can see the interview here. Desmond Tutu, it seems, has a bit of a crush on Aung San Suu Kyi. This I can understand. She is beautiful inside and out.

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