The Bull Moose and the Buddhist

I’ve been watching The Roosevelts An Intimate History on PBS this week. I have DVR’d each night’s installment but am a couple of nights behind, so what I have seen so far has dealt mostly with Theodore Roosevelt, an energetic and immensely vital man, with a few disturbing sides to his very large personality.  Not to put too fine a point on it but he was a war monger, and he sometimes lived recklessly out of a need to constantly prove himself.

TR in 1917
TR in 1917

When America entered WWI in 1917, a 58 year-old, half-blind Roosevelt went to then-President Woodrow Wilson and offered to not only raise a division of volunteers but to also lead them into battle.  It was absurd and Wilson declined the offer.  Speaking of TR after their meeting, Wilson said “He is a great big boy. There is a sweetness about him. You can’t resist the man.” One of Teddy’s nicknames was “Bull Moose” because he was the founder of the Bull Moose Progressive Party. It was an apt description of the man.

I am always interested to see if figures like that have any connections with Buddhism. I did some research on my own and found out that Teddy had a Buddhist bud! In fact, they were close friends. The documentary mentions that at one point TR became interested in jujitsu. The person who introduced him to that martial art was a man named William Sturgis Bigelow, a long time friend who often entertained TR in his Boston home. Bigelow was a doctor, graduated from Harvard Medical School, who lived in Japan for seven years to study Buddhism, and became a collector of Buddhist and Oriental art.

In 1908, Bigelow gave a lecture at Harvard titled “Buddhism and Immortality” that was later published. It is a lengthy piece full of the rather stilted language of the time. Buddhist thinking from Westerners during this period is always a mixed bag. Sometimes they get it and sometimes they don’t. In this short paragraph from the lecture, Bigelow closes in on the former:

William Sturgis Bigelow in Japan, c.1884.
William Sturgis Bigelow in Japan, c.1884.

Consciousness is continuous. Therefore, there is but one ultimate consciousness. All beings are therefore one; and when one man strikes another, he strikes all men, including himself. Just when and where and how in terms of space and time he feels his own blow depends on circumstances, but sooner or later he will. A good deed comes back to the doer in the same way.”

You can read the entire lecture at Archive.org and learn more about TR’s BBF (Best Buddhist Friend) at the Bigelow Society

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Wisdom

The 9th chapter, “Transcendent Wisdom,” in Shantideva’s Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life that I referenced in my Sept. 8th post, begins with these words:

Wisdom is the only true final antidote to all suffering (the whole path aims at this).”

The Sanskrit word for wisdom is prajna, which is syllabified as praj, meaning “higher,” and na or “consciousness.” But higher consciousness should not be taken to mean that wisdom some sort of mystical state. It is more like the difference between viewing a landscape from the ground or atop a mountain. The higher one’s vantage point then the more one is able to see.

Dharmic wisdom has many shades and hues. Wisdom obtained by study is what the sutras call “literary prajna.” Prajna-paramita, or Transcendent Wisdom, is the coupling of compassion with emptiness-knowledge. Prajna-Dhyana is the non-duality of wisdom and meditation. But none of these constitute the highest form of wisdom.

“The Way is your everyday mind,” is a saying attributed to Huang Po, a Ch’an master during the Tang Dynasty. He means there is no wisdom that is detached from daily life.

You can go off in search of higher states of consciousness, but the state of mind that is most important is the one rooted in the everyday world. Through understanding daily life, we can understand the whole of life.

I don’t know how many of readers consider yourself Buddhists. It’s not important. Being a Buddhist is nothing special in the long run. It’s just being an ordinary person. Doing ordinary things. However, because most Buddhist engage in some sort of meditative practice, ordinary things are done with a bit more awareness, and one hopes, tranquility.

The ancient Ch’an/Zen tradition seemed to understand this very well. There’s old story from the school that illustrates the point, with the usual dash of paradox, of course:

Someone asked the Zen master three questions, What is Buddha? What is Dharma? What is Sangha? And the master answered each question with the same words, “Go and drink tea.”

In other words, you practice, and you do your daily life. That’s wisdom. That’s true Buddhism.

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To Re-Be or Not Re-Be, That is the Question

In 2011, the Chinese government enacted a law that prohibited Tibetan lamas or monks from reincarnating without government approval. The Chinese government wants to have the right to approve reincarnations of living Buddhas or senior religious figures in Tibetan Buddhism. Let’s for a moment forget the ridiculousness to trying to approve who may or may not reincarnate themselves, and focus instead on the high probability that this was merely a ploy to allow the Chinese to chose the next Dalai Lama, someone they could control.

Only problem is that if you understand Tibetan Buddhism then you know a Dalai Lama cannot be chosen, only found. That’s because the next Dalai Lama is supposed to be a reincarnation of the previous one. High Lamas and Tibetan governmental officials have to search for this person. Sometimes it takes a while. Took them four years to find the current Dalai Lama.

Some Chinese officials claim this young girl is the next Dolly Lama.
Some Chinese officials claim this young girl is the next Dolly Lama.

So, back in 2011, Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, said that when he reached the age of ninety, he would decide for himself whether to reincarnate or not.  In the meantime, last year he suggested that it might be a good idea for his successor to be a woman, remarking,

Biologically, females have more potential . . . females have more sensitivity about others’ well being. If the circumstances are such that a female Dalai Lama is more useful, then automatically a female Dalai Lama will come.”

Just recently, Tenzin Gyatso told a German newspaper he is actually doubtful about the need for successor:

We had a Dalai Lama for almost five centuries. The 14th Dalai Lama now is very popular. Let us then finish with a popular Dalai Lama.”

I suspect he might have had some tongue in cheek there about his popularity, but it’s true, and there may be a specific reason for this pronouncement. Commenting on the situation, Robert Thurman, Executive Director of Tibet House US, who is close to the Dalai Lama, indicated that by rejecting the need for a successor Tenzin Gyatso hoped to pave the way for a more democratic Tibet.

Now, the Chinese government, which doesn’t respect Tibetan Buddhist tradition enough to recognize that a Dalai Lama can’t be chosen, is accusing the current Dalai Lama of not respecting the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. In a statement to the press, Chinese government spokesperson Hua Chunying said:

China follows a policy of freedom of religion and belief, and this naturally includes having to respect and protect the ways of passing on Tibetan Buddhism. The title of Dalai Lama is conferred by the central government, which has hundreds of years of history. The (present) 14th Dalai Lama has ulterior motives, and is seeking to distort and negate history, which is damaging to the normal order of Tibetan Buddhism.”

Hmm. I wonder.  If China follows a policy of freedom of religion and belief, then why is it being accused of persecuting the country’s Christian community by demolishing churches, tearing down crosses, and kidnapping bishops, and of course, why does it continue to interfere with Tibetan Buddhism?

The bottom line here is that if the Chinese government has its way, the Dalai Lama will reincarnate whether he wants to or not.

Sad, and rather silly. Technically, you know, reincarnation is not a Buddhist concept. See this post from 2010 that explains.

Yes, the whole reincarnation business between Tibet and China is a lot of silliness. But this is something we should take seriously, for Stephen Colbert says he has the solution.

Watch:

 

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Thank You

Today I would like to do something I haven’t done in a while and that is to thank all the people who read and support this blog. I really appreciate all of you who have left comments here, contacted me privately, who have “liked” The Endless Further’s Facebook page, and so on. I continue to be amazed that anyone reads this thing.

I’ve worked the blog for nearly five years now, and the best part of this experience has been the friends I’ve made. The blog has put me in touch with some wonderful, interesting people I would have never met otherwise, and not just here in the United States, but throughout the world.

There are times when words are unneeded, excessive. The Buddha is thought to be one person who understood that very well. Most of you are probably familiar with the story of the Buddha’s Flower Talk. One day the Buddha was sitting with the bhikkhus on Vulture Peak. They expected the Buddha to give a dharma talk. Instead of speaking, he simply held up a flower. No one understood except for a bhikkhu named Mahakasyapa, who smiled.

One of the earliest records of a transmission between the Buddha and Mahakasyapa appears in The Transmission of the Lamp, a Ch’an text composed in the 11th century CE. The transmission was called “the pure Dharma eye, the wondrous mind of nirvana.” However, this account does not mention a flower or a smile. That was embroidered into the story later. In Japanese Buddhism, this story is known as nengemisho or “pick up flower, subtle smile.”

I am not likening myself to the Buddha, as a transmitter of wisdom, I am merely saying that today it would be superfluous to say anything more than thank you . . .

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War! Huh, Yeah! (Empty Sky)

Bruce Springsteen’s song “Empty Sky” is how I remember that day, how it looked that morning. Here in Los Angeles, the sun was bright and ths sky had not a cloud, it was Spanish blue.

I worked sales for a greeting card company. I usually went in between 6 and 6:30am. That’d be 9 o’clock on the east coast. I called a customer at a Hallmark store in New York City about a re-order. “We’re under attack!” he shouted into the phone. “America is under attack!” Well, that’s fine, Gus, but what about those cards? He hung up. We were under attack, yeah, right. I went into the main office where some of the other early birds were gathered around the television and I watched one of the towers fall.

It’s been 11 years, and since that morning it has been America on the attack. Wednesday night, the man who in 2007 got himself elected President of the United States with words like these, “It is time to bring our troops home! It is time to realize there is no military solution to the problem of Iraq! It is time to turn the page!” went on TV to speak to the nation. He told us we are still at war. I sort of get the feeling we will be at war . . . forever.

us-soldier-iraq2bJust as soon as the troops come home, out they go again. Only 475, but that is just the beginning. Like Yogi Berra said, déjà vu all over again.

Speaking of the New York Yankees, I’ve been watching a lot of my favorite team this summer. The other day I was trying to remember what song they used to play in the 7th inning stretch back in the good old days before 9/11. “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” usually. Now it’s a salute to the troops and Kate Smith’s rendition of “God Bless America.” Woody Guthrie hated that song. His prejudice rubbed off on me. I hate that song and I hate Kate Smith’s voice. She reminds me of Ethel Merman. I hated Ethel Merman. Well, hate is a harsh word. Strongly disliked.

But I really hate war. The thought of war blows my mind. I hate that we are still at war. I am not terribly fond of this ISIL group, but I think the mistakes of the last 11 years should have taught us there is no military solution to the problem in Iraq. Didn’t someone else say that?

Because so many of the Buddha’s teachings can be summarized with the word “peace” (santi), he is often called the “king of peace” (santiraja). Once, during a period of drought, his relatives argued over water rights to the Rohini River. They spit into two factions and were ready to go to war. The Buddha intervened. He asked each side what was more important to them, water or their blood? He was able to convince them of the futility of war.

The Sunni and the Shiite are related. They are brothers and sisters in the same faith. Can they ever be convinced of the futility of war? Of bloodshed? Can anyone in the Middle East, be they Muslim, Israeli or Christian be convinced? It will take a Buddha-like or Gandhian figure to bring them together. I don’t see one on the horizon, do you?

I am not against the President’s strategy. I mean, I guess I’m not. I don’t have a better one. It’s just that war is something I despise. And I am not against the troops. I am weary of the necessity of supporting them.

Tuesday was the 185th anniversary of Leo Tolstoy’s birth. I know it’s a joke from Seinfeld, but the title of his epic novel “War and Peace” really should have been “War, What Is It Good For?”

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