Ubuntu: “I am, because of you.”

Over the past week, during all the tributes and discussion of Nelson Mandela’s life, there was a word I kept hearing. Not surprisingly, during his eulogy at Mandela’s Memorial President Obama also mentioned it:

There is a word in South Africa — Ubuntu, a word that captures Mandela’s greatest gift: His recognition that we are all bound together in ways that are invisible to the eye; that there is a oneness to humanity; that we achieve ourselves by sharing ourselves with others, and caring for those around us . . . He not only embodied Ubuntu, he taught millions to find that truth within themselves.”

Literally, Ubuntu means “human-ness”, the quality of being human, and it also takes on the connotation of “human kindness.” Ubuntu stems from the African phrase “Ubuntu ngumtu ngabanye abantu” or “A person is a person through other people.” A popular rephrasing is “I am, because of you.”

This sounds similar to the phrase associated with the Buddhist concept of pratitya-samutpada, “because this is, that is.” Ubuntu and pratitya-samutpada are similar. Both concepts communicate the idea of interconnectedness.

We are one race, one people, and as John Donne wrote each of us “is a part of the main,” so the hardships and struggles of one individual, or a few, become those of the many, they become our hardships, our struggles. This seems so simple, and obvious, that it is difficult to think of what else needs saying.

And yet, because there are those who do not recognize our common bonds, who thrive on fragmentation, and because we ourselves can get caught up in our selves and disremember, there is a constant need to keep up a constant reminder.

Now here is something very interesting that I did not know, and perhaps you didn’t either: David Kaczynski, brother of Ted Kaczynski, the “Unabomber” is Buddhist. As a matter of fact, he is Executive director of the Karma Triyana Dharmachakra Buddhist Monastery in Woodstock, New York. From 2001 until his recent retirement, he was also executive director of New Yorkers for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.

In an interview earlier this year, Kaczynski talked about the emotions he felt as he suspected his older brother might be a serial bomber, and said,

There is a Buddhist belief that everything is interconnected. The only way to negotiate this situation was to understand that no life is more valuable than another . . . Buddhism is really about human beings finding common ground at the core of their humanity. It’s going to take a deeper approach to solve our most human problems . . .”

So, as David Kaczynski, Nelson Mandela, and so many others, remind us, interconnectedness or Ubuntu is not merely a concept, a philosophy, it is a solution, like Gandhi’s satyagraha (“soul-truth”) and ahimsa (non-violence). It is a Way, a path, a practice.

Since the 1980s Ubuntu has evolved into Ubuntuism, but it is really based on ages-long African practices, and an key element of Ubuntu practice is reconciliation, which needs to be exercised globally, and is something each of us can integrate into our daily lives.

I think there are very few individuals in history who have stepped upon the world stage and shown us the real power of Ubuntu and reconciliation than the man called Madiba:

A traveller through our country would stop at a village, and he didn’t have to ask for food or for water. Once he stops, the people give him food, entertain him. That is one aspect of Ubuntu but Ubuntu has various aspects. Ubuntu does not mean that people should not enrich themselves. The question therefore is: Are you going to do so in order to enable the community around you to improve?”

– Nelson Mandela

 

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Kabir’s Garland

A sandalwood bead necklace that belonged to the 15th century mystic poet Kabir, a gift from his guru Ramananda, was stolen from the Kabir monastery in Varanasi on November 30th. The necklace is considered priceless, but could fetch as much as $200,000 on the underworld market. Three Thai nationals were arrested Saturday in Varanasi. Police also detained a fourth man, a monk, who was a regular at the monastery. The necklace/prayer beads have not been recovered.

Hopefully the item will be found at some point. In the meantime, what a perfect opportunity to say a few words about Kabir and present some of his poetry.

Kabir (1440–1518) is revered as a saint in India. Very little is known about his life, however there are many legends surrounding it. According to these stories, Kabir was born to a Brahman widow who left him abandoned, and later he was adopted by a family of Muslims. Although he is considered somewhat of a holy man, he did not lead a particularly ascetic existence. He lived the life of a householder and made his living as a weaver. Evidently, he was illiterate, with no formal education. According to legend, he learned to write only one word his entire life: Rama. The seventh avatar of the God Vishnu in Hinduism. Rama is also said to be one of the last two words spoken by Gandhi as he lay dying from an assassins bullet.

Kabir believed in traditional Indian concepts such as karma, rebirth, and unfortunately, atman; however, he was not interested in sectarianism, rejecting the dogmas of both Hinduism and Islam. His work was influential on the Bhakti, a medieval movement similar to Sufism.

As I mentioned, Kabir was a mystic poet, and he stands among the great poets of the world. Rather than try to describe how beautiful his poetry is, perhaps it would be better to simple let you read for yourself. Another great Indian poet Rabindranath Tagor, whose phrase “the endless further” I took as the title for this blog, translated Kabir’s poetry into English. Here are some selections:

VI

The moon shines in my body, but my blind eyes cannot see it:
The moon is within me, and so is the sun.
The unstruck drum of Eternity is sounded within me; but my deaf ears cannot hear it.

So long as man clamours for the I and the Mine, his works are as naught:
When all love of the I and the Mine is dead, then the work of the Lord is done.
For work has no other aim than the getting of knowledge:
When that comes, then work is put away.

The flower blooms for the fruit: when the fruit comes, the flower withers.
The musk is in the deer, but it seeks it not within itself: it wanders in quest of grass.

XVI

Between the poles of the conscious and the unconscious, there has the mind made a swing:
Thereon hang all beings and all worlds, and that swing never ceases its sway.
Millions of beings are there: the sun and the moon in their courses are there:
Millions of ages pass, and the swing goes on.
All swing! the sky and the earth and the air and the water; and the Lord Himself taking form:
And the sight of this has made Kabir a servant.

XXIV

More than all else do I cherish at heart that love which makes me to live a limitless life in this world.
It is like the lotus, which lives in the water and blooms in the water: yet the water cannot touch its petals, they open beyond its reach.
It is like a wife, who enters the fire at the bidding of love. She burns and lets others grieve, yet never dishonours love.
This ocean of the world is hard to cross: its waters are very deep.
Kabîr says: “Listen to me, O Sadhu! few there are who have reached its end.”

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What’s all the hubub, bub?

Bugs Bunny, munching on a carrot, says to Elmer Fudd: “Eh, what’s all the hubub, bub?”

It’s interesting how the recent story about the new discovery at Lumbini in India has been inflated into a sort of Goodyear blimp of news. As I wrote last week, it’s really a great deal of wishful thinking on the part of these scientists. This headline from The Guardian, a UK newspaper, demonstrates how out of proportion it’s getting: “Archaeologists’ discovery puts Buddha’s birth 300 years earlier.” Even the National Geographic has jumped on the bandwagon with “Oldest Buddhist Shrine Uncovered In Nepal May Push Back the Buddha’s Birth Date.”

This team of archaeologists  claim they’ve discovered “a tree shrine that predates all known Buddhist sites by at least 300 years.” Yet, they really don’t if the shine is Buddhist or not. Let’s say it is, and that it does date from the sixth century BCE.  That would make it the oldest Buddhist shrine discovered by 300 years all right, but that’s about it (not to say that is insignificant). The traditional Buddhist calculation puts the Buddha’s birth at around 623 BCE, while some modern scholars lean toward 500 BCE. The sixth century BCE ended on the last day of 501 BCE, so assuming the shrine is Buddhist, it doesn’t change much in regard to the Buddha’s dates.

Some Buddhists believe the Buddha lived 3000 years ago. But not any reputable historians. Here’s how that got started: When Buddhism was first introduced to China, the Taoists felt threatened by it. So they went around saying, well this Buddha guy is just an emanation of our founder Lao Tzu (604-531? BCE). Some Buddhists got together and decided to push the Buddha’s date back so far that he couldn’t possibly be the emanation of anyone. 1000 BCE sounded good, and indeed, that fixed the Taoist’s wagon. The date was set in stone, so to speak, until modern scholarship came along and rendered it highly unlikely.

So how do historians determine the date for the Buddha? Actually, nothing has  been determined because it’s all guesswork, and it all depends on the dates for King Ashoka, who lived 304 to 232 BCE. Maybe. Last time I checked no one was positive about that either. Solid evidence of Ashoka’s historicity did not emerge until the 19th century.

According to a Harvard University paper, there are three issues considered:

“The question of the dates of Emperor Ashoka (especially the date of his “anointment” or “coronation”),

The differences among various sources and traditions on the question of how many years separated the Buddha’s death from Ashoka’s ascension to the throne,

The various lists of kings and Vinaya Masters (i.e., monks recognized by the tradition as authorities on the code of monastic discipline) who were said to have lived during the years between the Buddha’s death and Ashoka’s coronation.”

The team of archaeologists who made this latest discovery also claim to have definitively established Lumbini as the Buddha’s birthplace, but this is old news that must be considered speculative. It’s based on the presence of a stone pillar King Ashoka erected proclaiming Lumbini Gardens as the Buddha’s birthplace. The marker was discovered over a hundred years ago. We have no idea of what evidence Ashoka had. It’s possible he might have simply relied on the traditional tale of the Buddha’s life, which may be a bunch for hooey for all anyone knows.

Ashoka ruled almost all of the Indian subcontinent. He was sort of an Indian version of Constantine. Both were very bad guys until they found religion and saw the light. The story goes that following his bloodthirsty conquest of the state of Kalinga, Ashoka repented and adopted Buddhism, after which he practiced non-violence. Thereafter, he also ruled in a more humane manner, gave state support to Buddhism, and dispatched monks all over India, and even to foreign countries, to spread the dharma (dhamma).

And he issued “rock edicts.” These were proclamations on various subjects he had inscribed on stone pillars erected throughout the land. They were mostly moral exhortations to his subjects and many of them promoted Buddha-dharma. In the edicts, Ashoka often refers to himself as King Piyadasi. Here are some excerpts:

“In the past, for many hundreds of years, killing or harming living beings and improper behavior towards relatives, and improper behavior towards Brahmans and ascetics has increased. But now due to Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi’s Dhamma practice, the sound of the drum has been replaced by the sound of the Dhamma. The sighting of heavenly cars, auspicious elephants, bodies of fire and other divine sightings has not happened for many hundreds of years. But now because Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi promotes restraint in the killing and harming of living beings, proper behavior towards relatives, Brahmans and ascetics, and respect for mother, father and elders, such sightings have increased.

These and many other kinds of Dhamma practice have been encouraged by Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, and he will continue to promote Dhamma practice. And the sons, grandsons and great-grandsons of Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, too will continue to promote Dhamma practice until the end of time; living by Dhamma and virtue, they will instruct in Dhamma. Truly, this is the highest work, to instruct in Dhamma. But practicing the Dhamma cannot be done by one who is devoid of virtue and therefore its promotion and growth is commendable.

This edict has been written so that it may please my successors to devote themselves to promoting these things and not allow them to decline. Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, has had this written twelve years after his coronation.”

– First rock inscription at Girnar

“Piyadasi, King of Magadha, saluting the Sangha and wishing them good health and happiness, speaks thus: You know, reverend sirs, how great my faith in the Buddha, the Dhamma and Sangha is. Whatever, reverend sirs, has been spoken by Lord Buddha, all that is well-spoken. I consider it proper, reverend sirs, to advise on how the good Dhamma should last long.

These Dhamma texts — Extracts from the Discipline, the Noble Way of Life, the Fears to Come, the Poem on the Silent Sage, the Discourse on the Pure Life, Upatisa’s Questions, and the Advice to Rahula which was spoken by the Buddha concerning false speech — these Dhamma texts, reverend sirs, I desire that all the monks and nuns may constantly listen to and remember. Likewise the laymen and laywomen. I have had this written that you may know my intentions.”

– Third Minor Rock Edict

“Twenty years after his coronation, Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, visited this place and worshipped because here the Buddha, the sage of the Sakyans, was born. He had a stone figure and a pillar set up and because the Lord was born here, the village of Lumbini was exempted from tax and required to pay only one eighth of the produce.”

– First Minor Pillar Edict

This last edict is the one at Lumbini. It is believed that the pillar was erected during the 3rd century BCE, but it was buried from the 15th to the 19th century when a group of archaeologists unearthed it in 1896.

And now, back to our show . . .

Elmer Fudd, replying to Bugs: “Shhh. Be vewy vewy quiet, I am digging for an ancient wabbit swine.”
Bugs: “Wabbit swine? Some sort of crossbreed, Doc?”
Elmer: “No, a swine was were the ancient wabbits worshiped.”
Bugs: “Oh, you mean a rabbit shrine.”
Elmer: “That’s what I said, a wabbit swine.”
Bugs: “Gee, what a maroon.”

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You Don’t Have to Know Your Limitations

Even if you’ve never seen one of Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry movies, you are probably familiar with the line, “A man’s got to know his limitations.” I may or may not have seen the film that contains this line, I don’t recall (not a big Dirty Harry fan), so I can’t say in exactly what context the remark is made, other than I know he’s pointing a gun at someone. Nonetheless, I wouldn’t say this sentiment is always true.

In the Pali text, Majjhima Nikaya 62, the Buddha says to his son, Rahula,

“Develop a mind similar to space, then things of like and dislike will not take hold of your mind, nor will they remain . . . Rahula, abide in a mind like space.”

In Buddhism, the mind is often compared to space or to the sky. On one hand, the mind is a source of suffering, since negative thoughts and resulting speech and actions are causes of suffering. On the other hand, mind is a source of happiness, and is viewed as having unlimited potential. It is said to be as vast as sky or space.

T’ien-t’ai master Chih-i developed a concept he called i-nien san-ch’ien (Jp. ichinen sanzen) or “three thousand worlds in a single thought,” a way of expressing the notion that the mind is a microcosm of the universe. It is also limitless, permeating the entire universe. There is a theoretical way to understand this, and a practical way.

The practical implication of space-like mind is that we need not be restrained by self-imposed limitations; rather we should make a real effort to be rid of our limitations. We limit ourselves in many ways. As the passage above suggests, likes and dislike take hold of our mind. Our prejudices and preferences keep us in a specific mind-set, a comfort zone of the mind, and once we are settled in, it’s difficult to climb out. When we are reluctant, even afraid, to consider new ideas, new challenges, and so forth, we become prisoners in our own mind. Life is extremely limited behind bars.

Self-doubt is another way we limit ourselves. Self-doubt sends limiting messages to the mind. It also inhibits our ability to think freely, it inhibits our actions, causes depression, worry, dissatisfaction, leaving us feeling unfulfilled. Extreme self-doubt is obviously unhealthy.

There are times where reason and restraint are called for, when being realistic about our abilities will prevent us from making unwise decisions. So, perhaps it’s a good idea after all that we recognize some limitations, but we don’t need to be unnecessarily constrained by them. Our potential may not be literally unlimited, but it’s safe to say that it is far greater than we imagine.

Wayfarers on the Buddha path seeking to transcend sufferings and find happiness in this life should also be earnestly striving to transcend the limitations of the mind. Rebelling against self-shackling narrow mind and self-doubt is absolutely key to developing the boundless life we deserve.

“The capacity of the mind is as vast like space. It is limitless, neither round nor square, neither great nor small, neither blue, yellow, red or white. It is not above or below, or long or short. It is without anger and without joy, without like and dislike, without good or evil, and without beginning or end. The fields of the Buddha are identical to space.”

– The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch

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