Walls

When I was in high school, I saw an ad in Time Magazine that I’ve never forgotten.  Well, actually I’ve forgotten what the ad was for, but not the headline:

When you put up a wall who are you really shutting out?

I’ve not forgotten the Berlin Wall either.  Officially, it was the Anti-Fascist Protective Wall.  Remember Reagan’s line “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”?

Gorbachev did not tear the wall down.  The people did.  It started with 13,000 East German tourists who escaped to Hungary by way of Austria.  It started with some people wanting to leave oppression and go somewhere else.  Like ripples in a pond, it spread and in the end, the East German government had to open the borders and the wall came down.

Walls can be useful.  For instance, a good firewall for your computer is a smart thing to have.  I don’t know about you but my computer is an extension of me.  So the firewall protects me.

I’ve always needed protection.  I’ve always needed walls.

But the challenge of life is to tear down walls, remove the barriers that shut us out from each other.

“For when those walls come down, then love takes over, and it no longer matters what is possible or impossible…”

– Paulo Coelho, By the River Piedra I Sat Down and Wept

In tearing down walls, it is necessary to understand the meaning of empathy, to recognize and appreciate another person’s suffering.  Then, do something about it.  Empathy and action are the two components that produce compassion.

I have mentioned before that the Japanese Buddhist term for compassion, jihi, means “to care, to cry” and “to remove the cause for suffering.”

Around the world, people feel isolated.  Instead of building walls, we should be trying to recover our sense of unity with other people.  Buddhism teaches that not only must we have respect for others, a sense of responsibility toward others is also required.

Kenchen Thrangu Rinpoche says,

“Others, who feel compassion for human beings, feel compassion for the human beings of their own country but not for the human beings of other countries.  Then, some feel compassion for their friends but not for anyone else.  Thus, it seems that we draw a line somewhere.  We feel compassion for those on one side of the line but not for those on the other side of the line.  We feel compassion for one group but not for another.  That is where our compassion is flawed.  What did the Buddha say about that?  It is not necessary to draw that line.  Nor is it suitable.  Everyone wants compassion, and we can extend our compassion to everyone.”

In this sense, we can add that it is not necessary to build the wall.

We don’t need more separation.

We don’t need more thought control.

We don’t to be just more bricks in the wall.

It is up to us, the people, to tear down the wall, or prevent it from being built.

(apologies to Pink Floyd)

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Morning Will Come (It’s Cooooold Out There)

Okay, campers, rise and shine, and don’t forget your booties ’cause it’s cooooold out there today.

No doubt you recognize that line from the 1993 movie Groundhog Day.

It is cold out there.  And in here.  I live in an old building and my apartment is difficult to heat.  There’s a wall heater but it’s expensive to run and doesn’t warm up the entire apartment.  Ditto for my parabolic heater, although using it is more affordable.  Chances are, where you are it’s much colder than it is here in California.  But things are relative, you know.

I used to live in Nebraska where it can get very cold in the wintertime, especially when that frigid north wind is blowing.  One year the temperature did not rise above zero for over sixty days, and again I was living in a old place.  I was extremely tired of shivering and decided to use some psychology.  I thought if I read about people who were colder than me, I might develop some obliviousness to glacial air.

I read some Jack London stories, and some other books I can’t remember now but the one that worked best was Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.  Anytime you feel like moaning about cold weather, read about some guy stuck in a work camp in Siberia and you’ll soon be thanking you’re lucky stars that you’re where you’re at.

Reveille was sounded, as always, at 5 a.m.–a hammer pounding on a rail outside camp HQ. The ringing noise came faintly on and off through the windowpanes covered with ice more than an inch thick, and died away fast. It was cold and the warder didn’t feel like going on banging… and he just couldn’t manage to keep warm that night. In his sleep he’d felt very sick and then again a little better.  All the time he dreaded the morning. 

But the morning came, as it always did.

Anyway, how could anyone get warm here, what with the ice piled up on the window and a white cobweb of frost running along the whole barracks where the walls joined the ceiling?

At Ivan Denisovich’s camp, the only days the prisoners do not work outside are the days when the temperature falls below -42F (41C), otherwise…  I’ve never been there but I’m pretty sure that Siberia beats the heck out of Nebraska for cold and misery.

Years later, I found a much better method for alleviating the cold, and the heat.  This method is illustrated in an old Zen parable involving Dongshan, the ninth century Buddhist teacher who founded the Caodong (Soto) school.  I have changed a few of the words, but not its essential meaning:

A novice monk once asked Dongshan, “How can I escape the heat and cold?”

Dongshan said, “Why don’t you go where there is no heat or cold?”

“Where is this place?  Is it far from here?”

Dongshan replied, “It is right here.  When it is hot, become one with the heat; when it is cold, become one with the cold.  This is the place of no heat or cold.”

Becoming one with the present moment can make us feel better about our circumstances, even if the circumstances we find ourselves in at that moment are miserable.   It frees us from our preoccupation with “if only” thinking.  If only it was warmer.  If only the pain would go away.  If only this, if only that…

I see the present moment as something like morning, and I never dread the morning.  Each morning is different, no two are alike, and in the same way, the present moment is ever changing, so we should not try to seize and cling to it as though it was something static.  Neither should we try to escape into it, as we would with a book or movie.  However, if we adjust our minds and embrace the reality of now, understanding that now is all there is and then we cherish it’s preciousness, some relief from cold, heat, and pain is possible.

The present moment is here.  Inside my mind, there is no cold.  I feel no pain from the bursitis and lymphedema in my leg.  Morning will come.

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On Men and Kings: Midnight in Springfield

Few words today.  It’s a sad day, tragic.  Not a day of celebration but one for reflection, and protest.  I know many of you share the same feelings I have, and you who are outside the United Stare share our heartache and concern.

I’m not a sore loser.  My side has lost before.  This is different.  It is disturbing in ways that past losses were not.  It’s frightening, because he is a dangerous man.

I was outraged when I learned of the secret meetings in early January 2009 where leading Republican lawmakers vowed to oppose President Obama at every step, and when a conservative talk-show host said even before Obama’s inauguration, “I hope he fails.”

Now the shoe is on the other foot.  But, again, it’s different.  For one thing, I do not object to the new President because of the color of his skin, rather on account of the content of his character.  And, yes, I want him to fail.  Individuals who preach hate and trade on fear should never remain victorious.

I agree with our outgoing President, there is more good than bad.  There is also a Buddhist maxim that says great good always follows great evil.  We have hope.  Tomorrow, I will be more hopeful.  Today I feel somber.

I’d like to think that someone like Abraham Lincoln would lower their heads, ashamed at this desecration of democracy.  A fanciful notion, I admit, but it offers some solace, and we all need some of that on occasion.  Sometimes it’s about whatever gets you through the night.

In the poem by Vachel Lindsay, written in 1914, Abraham Lincoln is unable to get through his endless night peacefully. He walks the streets, brooding, contemplating the same matter that led the Buddha to living peace, the matter of human suffering.

Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight
By Vachel Lindsay

(In Springfield, Illinois)

It is portentous, and a thing of state
That here at midnight, in our little town
A mourning figure walks, and will not rest,
Near the old court-house pacing up and down.

Or by his homestead, or in shadowed yards
He lingers where his children used to play,
Or through the market, on the well-worn stones
He stalks until the dawn-stars burn away.

A bronzed, lank man! His suit of ancient black,
A famous high top-hat and plain worn shawl
Make him the quaint great figure that men love,
The prairie-lawyer, master of us all.

He cannot sleep upon his hillside now.
He is among us:—as in times before!
And we who toss and lie awake for long
Breathe deep, and start, to see him pass the door.

His head is bowed. He thinks on men and kings.
Yea, when the sick world cries, how can he sleep?
Too many peasants fight, they know not why,
Too many homesteads in black terror weep.

The sins of all the war-lords burn his heart.
He sees the dreadnaughts scouring every main.
He carries on his shawl-wrapped shoulders now
The bitterness, the folly and the pain.

He cannot rest until a spirit-dawn
Shall come;—the shining hope of Europe free;
The league of sober folk, the Workers’ Earth,
Bringing long peace to Cornland, Alp and Sea.

It breaks his heart that kings must murder still,
That all his hours of travail here for men
Seem yet in vain.   And who will bring white peace
That he may sleep upon his hill again?

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The Bells of Religious Liberty

Monday, January 16, is Martin Luther King Day.  It’s also National Religious Freedom Day, first proclaimed by President H.W. Bush in 1993.  President Obama’s proclamation of 2010 reads, “On this day, we commemorate an early realization of our Nation’s founding ideals: Virginia’s 1786 Statute for Religious Freedom.”

It guaranteed Virginians the right to practice the religion of their choice and it separated church and state.  Encyclopedia Virginia notes, “The statute influenced both the drafting of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the United States Supreme Court’s understanding of religious freedom.”

Not long ago I watched a PBS documentary First Freedom: The Fight for Religious Liberty.  The program covers the development of religious liberty in our country from colonial times to the early 1800s.  The filmmakers remind us of an astounding fact: “A government without the interlocking authority of religion was utterly unprecedented in Western history and within a generation of its creation, it produced a vibrant religious culture still unmatched anywhere in the world.”

Religious freedom was a revolutionary idea.  And so it remains.

Some people accused President Obama of waging a war against religion, and curiously to me, many of these same folk supported the President-elect who during the campaign promised to enact a ban against Muslim entering the U.S.  Democrats have been accused of having a “religion problem” because not enough of them have it and those who do, don’t understand it the same way as some less-liberal believers.

This week, Breitbart.com posted an article with the rather sensational headline: Pew Report: Religion Plummeted in America During Obama Era.  The implication being that somehow this tragic trend is Obama’s doing.  Read the Pew report for yourself.

Here’s a tidbit of history from First Freedom:  “Somewhat surprisingly in America in the mid 18th century somewhere around 20 to 30 percent, at the most, of European American colonists had any kind of significant relationship with a Christian congregation.”  (Jon Butler, Yale University)

Only 20 to 30 percent.

Not only that, but some of those who came to these shores to escape religious persecution then went on to practice religious persecution.  Baptists and Presbyterians were favorite targets, and so were Catholics.   For instance, prior to the American Revolution, if you were Catholic you were forbidden by law from entering New York.

Religious bans and trends of dwindling interest are nothing new.  Our “religious problem” is context.  We are missing the context of history.  We’re largely illiterate about history.  It’s our political problem as well.

And we tend to forget, or accept, that religious liberty is not only freedom of religion, it’s also freedom from religion.  You don’t have to have a faith.  There’s no law that says you must believe… in anything.

I am not always tolerant toward certain religious beliefs.  I feel conflicted about how much respect I should show to the teachings of some religions.  Is there a line you cross over and become an abettor, an enabler, with teaching you feel are misguided?  I do not have to respect a religion’s teachings.  But I must respect the right for people to follow those teachings.

“We should begin by setting conscience free. When all men of all religions shall enjoy equal liberty, property, and an equal chance for honors and power we may expect that improvements will be made in the human character and the state of society.”

– John Adams, founding father, April 8, 1785

We could also begin by going back to our history.  Not just the fun stuff, like war.  I mean peering back beyond the popular images to see the forces and ideas that shaped the men who shaped America, and to read the words, planted like seeds beneath the slogans, which by themselves, out of context, are merely the echoes of the bells of liberty, and not their true ringing.

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Throwback Thursday: Bodhicitta, The Nectar of Immortality

The following is an edited version of a post published in 2014.

The Sanskrit word amrita means “immortality.”  In traditional Indian mythology, amrita is the nectar or “sweet dew” of the gods that grants immortal life.

In Buddhism, amrita appears in different contexts: it might be water or food that is blessed through the act of chanting, or it may be a sacramental drink taken at the beginning of certain tantric rituals. The great Tibetan yogi, Milarepa called the precepts (samaya) “the amrita (nectar) of abundant nourishment,” and there is also the “Ocean of Amrita” a teaching by Padmasambhava, as well as a story about the Healing Buddha appearing before Padmasambhava to give him a cup of amrita that would prolong his life.

It’s best to view both the idea of immortality and amrita as metaphors. The latter, the nectar, represents spiritual nourishment; anything that helps sustain or nurtures wayfarers is amrita, sweet dew.

The purest and most potent amrita is bodhicitta, the thought of awakening, the elixir of compassion. In his teaching “The Four Immeasurables and the Six Paramitas,” Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche states,

“[Bodhicitta] is very beneficial for oneself and for all others. So, when someone has bodhicitta, whatever he or she does, is like medicine or healing nectar (Skt. amrita) which brings calmness, peace, and the coolness discussed before.  It is very beneficial and is like a great and powerful medicine. It just flows out quite spontaneously and naturally from the presence of one’s bodhicitta. Take the supreme example of bodhicitta: when the Buddha taught, he led a very simple life and everything happened spontaneously around him. These far-reaching effects were a completely natural outflow of this very therapeutic healing, coming from the very pure motivation which he had. This is very special.”

Bodhicitta is not only the ultimate spiritual nourishment, it is raison d’ê·tre for Buddhist practice, because those who fare on the Bodhisattva Way practice not only for themselves, but also for the benefit of others. Bodhicitta is the aspiration to awaken for the sake of all living beings.  Nurturing bodhicitta is a cause that comes back to nurture us.

In A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life, Shantideva says of bodhicitta, the thought of awakening,

“It is the nectar of immortality prepared for vanquishing death in the world; an inexhaustible elixir to end the world’s poverty.”

Again, we should take “the nectar of immortality” as metaphor, for the non-fear of death.  Fear of death is a negative state of mind, a fixation on the future that distracts us from living fully in the present.  As this fear tightens its grip on our mind and spirit, it weakens our ability to deal with death when the time for it comes, and more importantly it weakens our ability to deal with what is happening now.  When we live for more than just ourselves, we develop courage, even without being aware of it, and acquire wisdom, through which we see that even death is an opportunity for awakening.

Speaking of metaphors, near the beginning of Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, we find these words:

“Tomas did not realize at the time that metaphors are dangerous. Metaphors are not to be trifled with. A single metaphor can give birth to love.”

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