Alternative Nobels and Republics with a small r.

In Monday’s post I mentioned the wonderful Malala Yousafzai who last week became the youngest person (17) ever awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace, but have you heard of the “Alternative Nobel”? This is also known as the Right Livelihood Award, established by a Swedish charity and presented annually in the Swedish Parliament.

On September 24, the 2014 awardees of the Right Livelihood Award were announced and they are NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden and Guardian editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger (The Guardian is a British national daily newspaper founded in 1821).

Snowden is being recognized for “courage and skill in revealing the unprecedented extent of state surveillance violating basic democratic processes and constitutional rights” and Rusbridger for his role in “building a global media organisation dedicated to responsible journalism in the public interest, undaunted by the challenges of exposing corporate and government malpractices.”

Earlier in September, the 1995 recipient of this award, Buddhist activist and social critic Sulak Sivaraksa spoke at the University of Wisconsin in commemoration of 9/11. The eighty-one year old delivered what was described as a “fiery lecture.” He cited the need to create new economic systems as a path to peace, and discussed the individualism of Western economic systems in contradistinction to the more collective Buddhist philosophy:

The capitalist myth of individual emancipation is not equal to the we. The community is made of the individual and the people around the person. Only through realizing the suffering of others can peace arrive . . .”

According to The Progressive, he also expressed his hope that young Americans will less hesitant to question the lifestyles of their elders than past generations:

Young people will save the world from the American empire and make it into an American republic with a small r.”

I must admit that I am not wild about first part of that sentence.  “Empire” sounds so evil, but I suppose someone needs to be saved from us, probably us most of all. That aside, I very much like the idea of a republic with a “small r.”

Sulak Sivaraksa likes small letters. So do I. Lower case is cool.* I have written about Sivaraksa several times. Included in those posts are his thoughts about Buddhism with a small b. He says,

Buddhism with a small “b” means concentrating on the message of the Buddha and paying less attention to myth, culture, and ceremony.

I think having a small “r” republic is much the same thing.  The question, however, is what is meant by message. Many people seem to think that Republic means patriotism, flag-waving, parade-holding, adopting a sort of us or them mentality, nationalism.  All that is message, all right, but it is usually of little real substance.  What I think Sivaraksa means is something less symbolic and more significant, more liberating.  In a republic with a small “r” patriotism is not as important as people and upholding the principle that the supreme power rests with the people and that all people in the republic are equal.

The people in Sivaraksa’s country of Thailand do not have much power at the present time.  It is a country going through a great deal of unrest. The current issue of National Geographic has an article from New York Times ‘ Asia correspondent Seth Mydans that explores the roots of the situation, “Thailand in Crisis.” Accompanying the article are photographs by James Nachtwey and I thought there was one in particular you might enjoy seeing:

13-robot-aide-buddhist-monk-670The caption reads, “Icons of different eras meet as Dinsow, a robotic home health aide, attends to a Buddhist monk. Not all changes sweeping Thailand are so benign.”

* Re: small letters – see this


“Woman is the incarnation of ahimsa.”

The other day while rummaging around in a closet, I ran across an old book I have on Mahatma Gandhi and since I hadn’t seen it for some time, I began thumbing through the pages and almost immediately hit upon this, which is so beautifully said, that I just have to share it with you:

Woman is the incarnation of ahimsa. Ahimsa means infinite love, which again means infinite capacity for suffering. Who but woman, the mother of man, shows this capacity in the largest measure? She shows it as she carries the infant and feeds it during nine months and derives joy in the suffering involved. What can beat the suffering caused by the pangs of labour? But she forgets them in the joy of creation.

Who, again, suffers daily so that her babe may wax from day to day? Let her transfer that love to the whole of humanity, let her forget that she ever was or can be the object of man’s lust. And she will occupy her proud position by the side of man as his mother, maker and silent leader. It is given to her to teach the art of peace to the warring world thirsting for that nectar.”

M.K. Gandhi*

Ahimsa (Sanskrit: “not to injure”) means non-violence. Another way to put it is “do no harm.” It is an important principle in all the major Indian religions, and in fact, the phrase “do no harm” is often used for the Buddha’s first precept.

Historically, Buddhism has demonstrated some extremely misogynistic tendencies and even today there remain issues in a few Buddhist schools regarding gender equality. Yet, Buddhism has also a tradition of revering women as uniquely awakened beings. In Prajna-Paramita literature, Buddhas are not born from Nirvana but from the practice of Prajna-Paramita, Transcendent Wisdom. Transcendent Wisdom is the “mother of all Buddhas,” and when contemplated in this way, visualized as feminine.

Compassion, or in Gandhi’s words “infinite love,” is often represented by Kuan Yin, the goddess of compassion. Kuan Yin is the Chinese translation of the name Avalokiteshvara, which means “one who hears the cries of the world.” In China, this bodhisattva is often viewed as female. Kuan Yin not only hears sentient beings’ cries of suffering, but also works tirelessly to assist all those who call upon her name. To call upon Kuan Yin, to chant her name, really means to work tirelessly to capture the spirit of compassion she represents.

Woman is the incarnation of “infinite love.” For this and many other reasons, women should be protected and cherished, and respected.  This why we must continue to resist and deny access to power to all who denigrate and abuse and mistreat women. Women are the foundations of our families. They are the fabric that holds our society together.

For men, women are a beautiful gift, especially when we make efforts to cultivate the spirit of women within.  In the words of the Buddha,

Even as a mother protects with her life
Her child, her only child,
So with a boundless heart
Should one cherish all living beings;
Radiating kindness over the entire world.

– – – – – – – – – –

* M.K. Gandhi, Women and Social Justice, Ahmedabad, Navjivan Publishing House, 1954, 26-27.



Leo Tolstoy wrote in War and Peace, “’Greatness,’ it seems, excludes the standards of right and wrong. For the ‘great’ man nothing is wrong, there is no atrocity for which a ‘great’ man can be blamed.”

At several points in the novel, Tolsoy’s characters (and the narrator) proclaim the greatness of Napoleon Bonaparte, a man whose intentions were often noble but his actions regrettably ignoble. Napoleon’s ego and ambition led him to believe he was the greatest of the great, and therefore, excluded from those standards of right and wrong. Tolstoy, however, at the conclusion of the chapter from which the above quote is taken*, rejects the ethical exceptionalism of the great, stating, “There is no greatness where there is no simplicity, goodness and truth.”

Those three qualities would most certainly describe the “great” man whose birthday is tomorrow, October 11.

tnh-3bThey don’t call it a birthday at Plum Village in France where Thich Nhat Hanh lives and where he is currently in Autumn Retreat. It’s Continuation Day. As Thich Nhat Hanh continues, he will be 88 years old.

It seems somewhat inappropriate to praise a man whose path asks him to shun praise in favor of humility. This, of course, is what makes Thay (as he is affectionately known by his students) an exceptional teacher and role model, deeply grounded in the standards of right and wrong, an individual whose positive influence has been felt far beyond the tradition of Vietnamese Zen and the Way of Buddha-dharma. Whether you hear him speak in person, or watch him on a video, or merely read his words, his humility and sincerity shines through. It’s like Lao Tzu said, “When greatness is not shown, true greatness is revealed.

I like the idea of Continuation Days.  Continuation seems an excellent word, for as you know in Buddhism each individual is a continuum, beginningless and infinite, a continuum of consciousness, and actually, everything continues . . .

In the clip below, Thay talks about this using simple words and poetic imagery that allows for greater accessibility to a complex concept, and helps those who listen deeply and openly to think about death and continuation differently, in a way that transcends notions of literal rebirth or other such concepts.

“Some people might ask you, ‘When is your birthday?’ But you may ask yourself a more interesting question: ‘Before that day which was my birthday, where was I?’”

– – – – – – – – – –

* Book Fourteen: 1812 Chapter XVIII


Eleanor Roosevelt and Tibet

This is the final installment of my trilogy of posts about the Roosevelts and Buddhism. Although the connections are rather slight, I feel they are intriguing. As I wrote on Sept. 30, the primary link with Buddhism for Franklin and Eleanor was Tibet.

In 1923, Eleanor Roosevelt wrote an article titled “The Women of Tibet.” I have not been able to find the piece or gather much information about it. There is, though, a rather well known quote from the article that biographers take to be a subtle jab at husbands (hers in particular) and their “betrayals.”

It has been brought to my attention that the wives of Tibet have many husbands. This to me seems a good thing, since so many husbands have so many wives.”

eleanor-roosevelt2 It is true that Tibetan tradition allowed a man or woman several spouses (most Tibetan marriages are monogamous nowadays). I suspect though that this information, and nearly everything Eleanor knew about Tibet came to her second-hand, because as far as I can determine she did not ever visit there, although she went to India in 1952. Of course, she was no doubt very aware of the dispute between Tibet and China since that had been an issue FDR had to deal with early in his administration.

In the 1950s ER became an ardent supporter of the Tibetan struggle for freedom. She wrote about the Tibetan situation a number of times in her “My Day” syndicated newspaper column (published 6 days a week from 1935 to 1962, the year she died).

Earlier that decade she exerted influence that went beyond simply trying to mold public opinion. In a book on Theos Casimir Bernard, the self-proclaimed “White Lama,” Paul G. Hackett reports that “Acting along the line of one of the suggestions made by Eleanor Roosevelt years earlier, the CIA decided to train and arm Tibetan fighters from Kham (Eastern Tibet), who had already gained notoriety for their fighting against the Chinese.” Even though something she had said was the genesis of the plan, apparently ER was unaware of this action taken by the Eisenhower Administration.

In October 1959, the Dalai Lama’s brothers came to the United States to speak before the United Nations. ER met with one brother, Gyalo. She wrote about their meeting in her Oct. 16 column in which she also expressed these thoughts:

I am glad that the situation is being brought before the U.N. and I hope that the nations of the world will give help to these refugees and bring the weight of world opinion to bear on the entire situation. Only thus can peace come to Tibet and the traditional ruler returned in peace and be allowed to try to work out the problems of modernization and contact with the outer world, which now becomes necessary in spite of the remoteness of the people in that country.

It points up to us that there is no area of the world that is remote any more and that all of us are going to feel whatever happens, no matter how far away it is.

Five days later, on October 21, 1959 the UN passed a resolution calling “for respect for the fundamental human rights of the Tibetan people and for their distinctive cultural and religious life.” Eleanor Roosevelt urged the Chinese to appear before the UN to “justify [their] actions before a world body.”

Eleanor_Roosevelt_and_Human_Rights_Declaration2Well, some interesting tidbits about a very interesting woman . . .

What is most interesting, and remarkable, about her is that when people think of Eleanor Roosevelt, it is not just for her role as an exceptional and transformational First Lady, but also for her outstanding achievements in promoting universal human rights and peace. She was our country’s first delegate to the United Nations and chaired the committee that drafted The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document praised by many, also criticized by many, but which Roosevelt herself said “may well become the international Magna Carta of all men everywhere.”

“It isn’t enough to talk about peace. One must believe in it. And it isn’t enough to believe in it. One must work at it.”

Eleanor Roosevelt



Discussing Buddhist conversion from a historical perspective in his book Unmasking Buddhism, renowned Buddhist scholar Bernard Faure writes,

It was not the expectation of Awakening that convinced Chinese, Tibetan, and Japanese leaders to convert to Buddhism but rather the protection that Buddhism appeared to offer them against evils of all kinds, both individual and collective (epidemics, invasions, etc.).”

This was also true of the common folk who took refuge in the Buddha’s dharma. Protection of both the state and the individual was a major appeal for Buddhism in earlier times, perhaps still today. Dhammo have rakkhati dhammacarim – “the dharma protects those who follow the dharma” is supposed to be a saying of the Buddha. The idea is that those who follow dharma cultivate goodness and this goodness will provide inner and outer protection, or from their practice of dharma they may receive protection from mystic forces.

The fears we must grapple with today are not different from the fears people have faced throughout history. A quick review of the news reveals what? Jihad, the Ebola epidemic, and something new but which has been long in the making: deadly climate change. It would be nice to think that if everyone just became good, it would all turn around and we’d be safe. Or that merely by practicing meditation or chanting a mantra we could invoke the protection from those mystic forces. You don’t need me to tell you that it doesn’t work like that.

Goodness manifests through thoughts, words, and deeds, but stems from feeling. I don’t mean emotion so much as I mean a sort of pervading awareness, a deep-seated state of consciousness that permeates our entire being. A good person feels goodness. Meditation and mantra are tools for developing a total feeling of goodness.

Meditation, ethics, and wisdom are three components of the Eightfold Path, which in turn is one of the four Noble Truths taught by the Buddha. Wisdom is known through meditation, calming and observing the mind, and is then displayed through ethical living rooted in compassion. My feeling is that the Buddha believed that whenever a crisis arose or a threat appeared, a person who had cultivated tranquility and ethics was equipped with a presence of mind that would deliver him or her to emotional, mental, and perhaps even physical safety.

Ultimately, the practical view of dharmic protection is that those who follow and most importantly practice the dharma are able to protect themselves from unwholesome thoughts, harmful speech, unwise actions, key factors in the spread of epidemics and war. Put another way, we protect ourselves from ourselves, and then because we have wisdom and compassion we know that we have to protect the human beings around us and our planet.