Gimme Some Truth (Then Gimme Shelter)

Some 13 years ago, shortly after President George W. Bush declared a war on terror, Monty Python’s Terry Jones asked: “How do you wage war on an abstract noun?” War on terror is an oxymoron. This war on terror was supposed to be a response to a barbaric act, but the first action taken was to invade a country that had nothing to do with it. The war began falsely and has been a fallacy ever since.

safe_state2On Tuesday, France’s prime minister declared war against terrorism.  The French people took to the streets in solidaires and bought up the new issue of Charlie Hebdo to exercise their right of free speech, and now they are poised to lose many of their other rights as the country transitions into another surveillance state.

What irony – the more we defend our rights, the more rights we lose. It might not be so bad if the people who make these declarations and defend our freedom just gave us some truth. But that gets lost in the shuffle, too.

Pope Francis says you should not “kill in the name of one’s own religion.” Well, that is precisely what folks have been doing ever since we invented God. But in this case, the war is only partly about religion. Maybe that’s always the case.

In the U.S., we are constantly going on about the troops, praising, thanking and honoring them for their service – but it’s not service, not really. I mean not like when people were drafted into the military. The truth is, it’s a job. Military employees are paid to do this work, which often puts them in harm’s way.

I don’t mean to suggest that our troops are not deserving of our praise and thanks. I just believe we need to see things as they truly are and have truthful discussions about it.

From day one we’ve been sold this war, and eager consumers that we are, we’ve bought it lock, stock and barrel. The patriotism the war on terror comes wrapped in is just a sales technique. So is the fear.

The war on terror is a business run by the terrorism industry and they are not above using fear tactics, which is just a form of terrorism, to keep it going by inflating national security threats, hinting that 9/11 type attacks are imminent. We have seen small attacks on this continent, such as the recent Canadian incident a few months back (that led to surveillance-expanding legislation and anti-terror laws), but what about 9/11 scale attacks? If the terrorists are “so demonically competent, why have they not done it?” asks John Mueller* in Foreign Affairs. He suggests that

One reasonable explanation is that almost no terrorists exist in the United States and few have the means or the inclination to strike from abroad. But this explanation is rarely offered.”

“Almost no terrorists” means few terrorists, mostly lone terrorists, and though their plots can be small, they can still be deadly.  But we’re talking about big 9/11 scale plots, the kind the Bush Administration and the CIA lied about to justify torture.

The worst thing about truth is that it is so damn inconvenient at times, and complex.

In our public sphere discussions, we need to talk about this as a culture war. A revolt against modernity. Or, we need to talk about it more.  Like climate change, too many people are in denial about the causes. I condemn terrorism, but I try to resist the temptation to paint terrorists simply as black clad evildoers with no reverence for human life. That may be true, but it is also true that most terrorists are disenfranchised young men, for whom Jihadist training in Iran or Syria somehow fills the emptiness in their lives and give them a sense of purpose no matter how warped. It’s something that needs to be addressed.

I’ve rambled. Probably have not articulated my thoughts very well. I wanted to make a point about how we have lost rights while defending them. I guess we didn’t notice we lost them. We were too busy with our eyes glued to our smartphones.

My biggest disappointment with Obama is he didn’t try to repeal the Patriot Act.

I am not saying we shouldn’t try to stop terrorists . . .

Just saying, to borrow from John Lennon, gimme some truth.

And gimme some rights back.

Speaking of rights . . . when will Israel give Palestinians the right to free movement? When will the Muslim world finally acknowledge Israel’s right to exist?

I feel that I should have written something positive, uplifting, possibly inspiring. I just don’t feel it today. I am pessimistic about the current state of affairs. I don’t have a good feeling for the future either.

We live in a cellphone world, and a surveillance state. Huxley and Orwell predicted this outcome.

BNW2One believes things because one has been conditioned to believe them.
– Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.
– George Orwell, 1984

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* John Mueller is Professor of Political Science at Ohio State University and the author of Overblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats, and Why We Believe Them. His article in Foreign Affairs can be found here.


Reverence for Life

He may not be so well known today, but at one time in the not too distant past, Albert Schweitzer was one of the most famous individuals in the world and his name was practically synonymous with the word “humanitarian.” He was a German-born theologian, philosopher, physician, musician, and medical missionary in Africa, who is also remembered for his work that challenged both the secular and traditional Christian views of the historical Jesus. He received the 1952 Nobel Peace Prize for the philosophy of ethics he called “reverence for life, and he was born on this day in 1875.

According to Dr. David L. Dungan, who teaches in the department of religious studies at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, “Schweitzer read the great Asian religious texts not as a historian only, but as one whose profound sense of the failure of Christianity led him into a genuine religious quest. In fact, the concept of “reverence for life” occurred to him at a moment when, as he later told a friend, he was meditating not upon Jesus Christ but upon the Buddha.”

Regarding Buddha, Schweitzer is rather famously quoted as saying,

He gave expression to truths of everlasting value and advanced the ethics not of India alone but of humanity. Buddha was one of the greatest ethical men of genius ever bestowed upon the world.”

Yousuf Karsh portrait of Schweitzer
Yousuf Karsh portrait of Schweitzer

When I was very young and Schweitzer was still alive, he was perhaps best known for his role as a medical missionary. But early in his life, Schweitzer enjoyed a somewhat distinguished musical career and also studied theology, planning to become a pastor. In 1905, at age thirty, he changed his mind and decided to go to Africa instead. He began to study medicine at the University of Strasbourg, and in 1913, obtained his M.D. degree. Soon afterward, he founded his hospital at Lambaréné in French Equatorial Africa. In 1917 he and his wife became prisoners of war and spent a year in a French internment camp. In 1918, Schweitzer returned to Europe where he spent the next six years, preaching, giving lectures, musical concerts, and writing essays. He did not return to Lambaréné until 1924, and except for a few short periods of time, spent the remainder of his life there. Schweitzer died in 1965.

In a 1936 article, The Ethics of Reverence for Life, Schweitzer wrote,

If I am a thinking being, I must regard other life than my own with equal reverence. For I shall know that it longs for fulness and development as deeply as I do myself. Therefore, I see that evil is what annihilates, hampers, or hinders life. And this holds good whether I regard it physically or spiritually. Goodness, by the same token, is the saving or helping of life, the enabling of whatever life I can to attain its highest development.”

The idea of “reverence for life” had occurred to Schweitzer as early as 1915. The basic thrust of his philosophy can be summed in a few words that are often used in Buddhism, “do no harm.” Schweitzer was deeply influenced by Indian philosophy and in particular the concept of ahimsa or non-violence, which he acknowledged in his book Indian Thought and Its Development. In the chapter of that book devoted to the teaching of Buddha, he demonstrates that he had grasped the spirit of Buddha’s teachings, commenting on an aspect often misunderstood:

Thus in the world and life negation to which he was devoted, the Buddha kept some measure of naturalness. This is what was great in him. Whilst he mitigated the severity of world renunciation, he made a fresh and great concession to world and life affirmation.”

Although today is the 140th anniversary of Albert Schweitzer’s birth, any day is a good day to recall the lives of those who have contributed to the greater good of humankind by demonstrating a profound reverence for life.

Learn more about Albert Schweitzer at


Understanding the Emptiness of Emptiness

In his Treatise on the Maha-Prajna-Paramita Sutra, Nagarjuna writes,

Emptiness demolishes all dharmas (concepts) so that the only thing that abides is emptiness (sunyata). After emptiness has already demolished all dharmas, emptiness itself should also be set aside. It is because of this that we require the ‘emptiness of emptiness’ (sunyata-sunyata). Whereas emptiness conditions all dharmas, the emptiness of emptiness conditions only emptiness.”

This explains once again why emptiness is not the ultimate truth. We can say the same about nonduality. Some folks find this confusing, especially when we say that from the Madhyamaka or Middle Way point of view ‘neither-emptiness-nor-non-emptiness’ and ‘neither-duality-nor-non-duality’ is the ultimate truth. These two phrases represent a middle path, as close as we can come to expressing the ultimate, as it is ultimately ineffable. Although Nagarjuna equated the ultimate with the Middle Way, he taught that actually “The ultimate truth is not any view. Silence is the ultimate truth for the wise.”

In his book Essence of the Heart Sutra, the Dalai Lama explains what Nagarjuna means when he says that emptiness conditions dharmas:

For example, when we speak of the emptiness of a form, we are talking about the ultimate reality of that form, the fact that it is devoid of intrinsic existence. That emptiness is the ultimate nature of that form. Emptiness exists only a quality of a particular phenomena; emptiness does not exist separately and independently of particular phenomena.”

In the passage from his Treatise, Nagarjuna also compares emptiness to medicine – the “antidote” to the disease that comes from delusions originating from the attachments to self-being and dharmas. However, once the disease has been cured, there is no further need for the medicine. Again, why we require the ‘emptiness of emptiness’.

Nagarjuna cautions us about clinging to the idea of emptiness, for when emptiness is seized there is always the temptation to misuse it, to fling it about as another view. Emptiness does not ‘exist’ for its own sake as a concept or a kind of dogma; all things are empty, even emptiness.  And so, emptiness is a tool that must be employed skillfully, and Nagarjuna warns,

Emptiness wrongly grasped is like picking up a poisonous snake by the wrong end.”

Nothing terribly bad will happen if we misunderstand or misuse emptiness, no punishments will befall us, but it does tend to push us further from the liberation from suffering, the peace and joy, we seek.


Free Speech, Right Speech: Teetering on a Razor’s Edge

I support the principle of free speech and stand in solidarity with the French in the aftermath of yesterday’s terror attack. I am sure most all of you do as well. But today I am not inclined to give myself over to expressions of outrage and defiance, which seem to me right now as little more than mere emotionalism and sloganeering. I have seen too many news reports of terror attacks in my years to be outraged. I am too weary to be very defiant. Instead, I have questions.

UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights Flavia Pansieri articulated the questions in my mind rather well at the opening of the 83rd session of The U. N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination last year in Geneva:

Where does the right of expression, which we all want to respect, stop and the need to sanction and prevent hate speech begin? What is the point in time when one right has to recognize that it cannot be exercised if it implies the violation of another one?”

Does free speech go too far if it is harmful to others? It’s a rather old question, actually. It was debated by the U.S. Supreme Court nearly a hundred years ago in Schenck v. United States, (1919), a case that revolved around free speech during World War I. The court concluded that the defendant (Schenck) had no First Amendment right to express freedom of speech against the draft during the war. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. wrote the unanimous opinion that included this line, “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic . . .”

Oliver Wendell Holmes (1841-1935)
Oliver Wendell Holmes (1841-1935)

Thus, it was Holmes who gave us the famous metaphor of “Shouting fire in a crowded theater.” I don’t get how he reasoned that to express one’s opinion on the morality of a wartime draft presented a “clear and present danger,” but that is another discussion.

In a free society, everyone should have a right to hold and express any opinion. Justice Holmes qualified his decision with the word “falsely.” So, one of the first questions we should ask ourselves is, does opinion need to have a factual basis? Usually, no. But that does not mean it is wise to offer opinions that are based solely on supposition, assuming facts not verified.

The second question might be does the right to free speech include a right to offend? In this most recent case, the alleged offense is against religious sensibilities and beliefs. What we see in the West as relatively harmless satire is to many Muslims, even moderate ones, hate speech.

Yesterday’s attack was against Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical weekly newspaper. The cover of a 2011 issue depicted a cartoon of the Islamic prophet Muhammed and teachings based upon the Quran forbid the creation of visual images of Muhammad. This religious dictum does not justify the savage murder of 12 people. But it does provoke questions about whether journalists, even those engaged in the business of satire, should be more sensitive to religious beliefs. In the global public sphere, does the sacred dictum of the West that “nothing is sacred” trump Islam’s sacred dictum regarding images of the Prophet? Just because we have the right to free speech, is it always wise and/or proper to exercise it?

Religion was often the target of Charlie Hebdo’s satire.  Religion isn’t as popular these days as it once was. Even those of us who are “spiritual” may have little use for “religion.”  In being dismissive, need we be disrespectful?

As a Buddhist, I can’t help but wonder how we might strike a balance between free speech and “right speech,” an ideal found in the Buddha’s Eightfold Path: “And what is right speech? Abstaining from lying, from divisive speech, from abusive speech, and from idle chatter: This is called right speech.”

The Dasabhumaka Sutra says,

“Whatever speech is unpleasant, whatever hurts one’s own nature or others, that is speech the bodhisattva avoids . . .”

What hurts one’s own nature or others can take many forms, and can be born from misunderstanding and thoughtlessness as well as hate and prejudice. When I was younger, I would have been tempted to simply dismiss Muslims as thin-skinned, denounce their violence, and leave it at that.  Nowadays, disgusted as I am, having been a witness to these unrelenting cycles of violence for so long, I am more interested in how concepts such as right speech and deep listening might be pathways to solutions. I am more interested in trying to understand the other side than I am in placing blame and demanding accountability.

Writing now, something else occurs to me, about to what extent religious sensibilities are used as political weapons. Muslims seem to be a devout people; yet many of them have no problem using their religion a propaganda tool. Arab Nations like to cast themselves as spiritual warriors righteously fighting a religious war against “infidels”, and they use this same ideology to agitate believers against the West. We do much the same thing, only we are the champions of democracy and free speech.

Where do we go from here? Do we encourage journalists to censor themselves? And if so, is it an act of tolerance, or is it just doing what the terrorists want us to do? Or, perhaps, the outrage, the defiance, the condemnation is exactly they want to see. Are we only displaying our wounds for their pleasure?

Why do we never get an answer when we’re knocking at the door
With a thousand million questions about hate and death and war?

– The Moody Blues

I don’t have the answers. Just suggestions, what ifs.

Je suis Charlie. I, you, we are all Charlie but if the world is ever going to change at some point we must also be Abdul and Fareed and Rabiya. I wrote above that I wanted to avoid sloganeering. But here I go. Not afraid. Without a doubt, we should not be afraid in the face of terrorism, never forsake our liberty of expression. Fear, though, can be a double-edge sword. Not afraid should also mean not fearing to use our liberty to express right speech, kind speech, and to open our hearts to the concerns of others. Why is it that when responsible leaders suggest offering an olive branch of understanding to Islam and the Middle East they are vilified for it and labeled as weak? It seems to me that kindness and understanding and empathy are strategies that have not yet been employed in this long, long war between our two cultures. Not afraid? I wonder  . . .

Protestors in Place De La Republique in the centre of Paris (Photo: Heathcliff O'Malley/The Telegraph)
Protestors in Place De La Republique in the centre of Paris (Photo: Heathcliff O’Malley/The Telegraph)

Watch the Pawking Metaws

At a recent conference in India, the Dalai Lama said, “Don’t follow leaders, watch the parkin’ meters.”

leaders3bNo, wait. Bob Dylan said that, or wrote it rather, in Subterranean Homesick Blues. But what the Dalai Lama did say at the International Conference on Secular Ethics in Nashik, India on Saturday was very similar. According to reports he urged those attending the conference, not to follow any religious leader blindly. “Question,” he said,

Buddha said investigate a thought thoroughly. Study the qualifications of a guru or a leader, meet them, observe till you develop a conviction that what the leader says can be followed.

Know the qualities of a disciple, and as a disciple conduct unbiased investigation; use your intellect and develop enthusiasm to practice what you have accepted and believed. This is the Nalanda tradition and time has come to follow it.”

This is consistent with what the Dalai Lama has been advising for a long time. In my transcript of his teachings on Nagarjuna’s Precious Garland at UCLA in 1997, he told students that when choosing a teacher you should “sniff around so that you can see from both the front and the back,” adding

Then the question is how do we determine what is being taught by a particular teacher is valid of not? And you can only do so by comparing it and relating it to your own understanding of the overview of Buddhist teachings.

It is vitally important for the practitioner to always examine whether what is being taught really accords with the cardinal line set in the basic teachings of Buddhism. If it does not accord with that cardinal line, then it is something to be rejected. This is always the bottom line to be constantly checked against the fundamental tenets of Buddhism.”

Seems like a common sense approach, and yet many people in this world routinely follow leaders blindly. They do and think what they are told without question, without reason, without using any sense at all. I know something about this. I was in a Buddhist organization where unwavering allegiance to and near fanatical devotion for the fearless leader, the President of the organization, was expected on the part of all followers. To question the President’s words or actions was, in my experience, to invite questions about your motives and provoke doubts about your understanding of Buddhism and the quality of your practice.

Once when I did question, I was told by a higher up that I should regard myself as a “disciple of a master, a cub of a lion.” Often the President referred to himself “our father.” But I already have a father.  That wasn’t what I was looking for. To be fair, this organization was attached to a Buddhist sect that maintained that if a person even though the High Priest (of the sect) “is capable of making an error, that person is committing heresy.”

One of the aims of Buddhist practice is the death of the ego, but not in the degree that one becomes so depersonalized, they will give themselves over to a spiritual leader or authority figure and cease thinking for themselves. That stems from looking for something or someone outside our own lives as a source for happiness or enlightenment.

Actually, it is good to have leaders and to follow them, however, in doing so we need to exercise critical judgment, as we have already noted. Good leaders are to be valued highly, for leadership is a crucial function in our society; only we should not put them on too high a pedestal. Now, although we are primarily discussing spiritual leadership here, I feel the guiding principles for all leaders are essentially the same.

Some years ago, I shared some guidelines for leaders taken from the Tao Te Ching and perhaps it would be useful, and of interest, to repost:

Lao Tzu’s Principles for Leadership

The best leaders are those whose presence is barely known by others.

Leaders value their words highly and use them sparingly.

Because a leader has faith in others, then others have faith in his or her leadership.

When a leader’s work is done, others will say: we did it ourselves.

Govern a great nation as you would cook a small fish. Do not overdo it.

To lead people, walk beside them.

Love people and lead without cunning or manipulation.

The ancient leaders who followed the Tao did not give people elaborate strategies, but held to a simple practice. It is hard to lead while trying to be clever. Too much cleverness undermines the people’s harmony. Those who lead without such strategies bring benefit to all.

By being lower, rivers and seas are able to receive the homage and tribute of all the valley streams, thus they rule over them all. Therefore, it is a wise leader, wishing to be above the people, who by his words puts himself below them, and, wishing to be before them, follows them.

Leaders go first by putting themselves last. It is from their selflessness that they are able to fulfill themselves.

It is good to empower people, so that no one is wasted.

The best leaders are effective because they do not try to seize power. They are effective because they are not conceited, proud or arrogant.

And, don’t forget: watch the pawking metaws.

The video from D.A. Pennebaker’s 1965 Dylan documentary Don’t Look Back. That’s poet Allen Ginsberg in the background chatting animatedly with Dylan road manager Bob Neuwirth.