Four Statues of the Apocalypse: Washington, Jefferson, Jackson and Lee

I’m stuck on what happened in Charlottesville.  Can’t get it out of my mind.  I am so disappointed that we haven’t been able to make more progress in diminishing the presence of racism, hate and violence in our country.   I’m frustrated.  There isn’t much I can do.  Except share some thoughts, if you don’t mind.  I warn you though, I may repeat myself…

Yesterday, Trump complained about the removal of Robert E. Lee statues.  He said that he’d heard Stonewall Jackson was next.  What then, he asked.   Are we going to take down statues of Washington and Jefferson because they were slave-owners?

These remarks alone show that Trump has zero understanding of the problem of race in America.  Yes, all four men had owned slaves.  However, unlike Jackson and Lee, Washington and Jefferson were not traitors to their country.  Jackson and Lee were military men who attempted to destroy the Union, split our country in two.  And it is for that alone they are remembered.

Washington, on the other hand, led the colonial troops into battle for the purpose of establishing a new country free from tyranny.  Washington and Jefferson were founders of our nation. But their efforts were directed toward something greater than merely the formation of another country, they envisioned the creation of a new society based upon freedom and equality and the sovereignty of the people.

They were involved, as Tagore put it, in the “constant struggle for a great Further…” our “ceaseless adventure of the Endless Further.”   The difference between them and the two Confederate generals should be obvious.

While looking up some information on Stonewall Jackson, I ran across this quote from James Robertson, the preeminent scholar on Confederate Lieutenant General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson:  “[In] his mind the Creator had sanctioned slavery, and man had no moral right to challenge its existence. The good Christian slaveholder was one who treated his servants fairly and humanely at all times.”

I suspect that this was the predominate rationalization for slave owning among whites at that time.  I hope most Christians today reject the idea that God would sanction the bondage of any of his creatures no matter how well they were treated.  But Jackson and the others lived in a different time.

Jefferson denounced slavery, and yet he was unable to free himself from what he called its “deplorable entanglement.”  His relationship to slavery is still debated by scholars.  But the important thing is that some 48 years before Stonewall Jackson was born, Thomas Jefferson had this to say about the Creator, the most revolutionary words ever composed:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

The American Declaration of Independence, the real shot heard round the world.

On July 9, 1776, several thousand Continental soldiers had come to New York from Boston to defend the city from the British.  General George Washington ordered them to gather at the parade grounds in Lower Manhattan at six o’clock to listen to a declaration endorsed by the Continental Congress declaring American independence from England.

When the troops heard Jefferson’s inspiring words about equality and the right to pursue happiness – the right of self-determination – and then heard the list of grievances Jefferson compiled of King George III’s tyrannical violations of those rights, the soldiers were motivated to march down Broadway where they toppled and decapitated a statue of George III.  They melted the statue down and made bullets to use against the British.

It appears that removing statues is another old American tradition.

A year before he died, Jefferson wrote in a letter that his stirring words were “intended to be an expression of the American mind.”

Some 80 years later, Abraham Lincoln’s mind was inspired by the same words.  In 1856, he said, “Let us revere the Declaration of Independence… Let us readopt the Declaration of Independence, and with it the practices and policy which harmonize with it.”  In his own declaration, The Gettysburg Address, Lincoln proclaimed that our nation was “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

Franklin Roosevelt, a great admirer of Jefferson, was obsessed with building a memorial to him.  He laid the cornerstone in 1939.  He ordered all the trees between the Memorial and the White House cut down so that he would have an unencumbered view of the memorial every day.  In 1943, during his address at the dedication of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C. , Roosevelt called Jefferson the “Apostle of Freedom”:

“The Declaration of Independence and the very purposes of the American Revolution itself, while seeking freedoms, called for the abandonment of privileges… [Jefferson] believed, as we believe, in certain inalienable rights.  He, as we, saw those principles and freedoms challenged.  He fought for them, as we fight for them.”

The fight Roosevelt was referring to was the World War, the struggle against fascism.  We are still fighting that fight for fascism has not disappeared from the earth and we are still struggling to abandon privilege, the privilege of being born into wealth, of being white or male.  What did Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee fight for?  The right to own slaves?  There were a number of issues that caused the American Civil War, taxation and States Rights, but most scholars maintain the primary cause was the South’s desire to protect the institution of slavery.   Not a just cause.

George Washington, in his Farewell Address (1796) as president, warned that the establishment of political factions, “sharpened by the spirit of revenge,” and would lead to “formal and permanent despotism.”  We have not heeded this warning and we have fallen short of fulfilling the promise of Jefferson’s ideals.   We have to heal the wounds of division because as Lincoln said “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”  And we must stand.  We must stand up for the ideals of equality and stand against this new wave of hate and racism.

Jackson, Lee and all the other Confederate leaders and supporters were traitors.  They betrayed our “American Mind.”

Jefferson and Washington, though imperfect men, sought to build a nation not tear it apart.  Jefferson’s words continue to inspire us 241 years later as we work to create a more perfect and just union.  And this is why their statues and memorials won’t be coming down.

Those who brandish Nazi flags and swastikas, offer Nazi salutes, glorify traitors, preach hate and bigotry and try to divide our country, betray the American Mind.  And those who aid and comfort them are complicit in this betrayal.  It is, in a sense, a form of treason.

We must meet this treason with reason.  Once again, dialogue not violence is the best weapon against prejudiced views.  It is the only way to change their minds.

“Change happens by listening and then starting a dialogue with the people who are doing something you don’t believe is right.”

– Jane Goodall

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Not Hate, Fear

Mahatma Gandhi is supposed to have said, “The enemy is fear.  We think it is hate; but it is really fear.”  This is an unsourced quote and may not be legitimate; nonetheless, it speaks truth.  I think it helps explains what happened in Charlottesville, what has happened so many times in the past, and what will undoubtedly transpire in the future.

I think it is clear that we need a new approach to this problem.  First, though, it would be helpful to have a better understanding of the nature of the problem, an understanding rooted in compassion.

It is not hate, it’s fear.  The Dalai Lama says,

“If we examine how anger or hateful thoughts arise in us, we will find that, generally speaking, they arise when we feel hurt, when we feel that we have been unfairly treated by someone against our expectations.”

Former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, a hater whose support Trump refused to reject during the campaign, was there in Charlottesville, tweeting that “our people were peacefully assembling” but were attacked by “radical leftists,” and “So, after decades of White Americans being targeted for discriminated & anti-White hatred, we come together as a people, and you attack us?”

After two hundred years of Black Americans being targeted for worse things than discrimination, all we’ve been saying is let’s give equality a chance.  When one group achieves equality and freedom, everyone benefits in the end.  The plight of white people in this country doesn’t quite stack up against the sufferings endured by the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan people, either.  Duke’s argument is just not reasonable, and yet behind it is palpable fear, emotion as solid as a stone statue of Robert E. Lee.  Income inequality, job loss, old and familiar values giving way to new ones that seem threatening and foreign, a world moving ahead too swiftly – these are real concerns for many people.  Not just in the South but all across America.  When people are for whatever reason unable to adapt and change, it produces fear and, in some cases, leads them into hate.

Speaking of General Lee, I’ve always thought it interesting that very few in the South have ever thought about the fact that these statues, like the one I used to see at Lee Circle in my old hometown of New Orleans, are monuments to a traitor.  Furthermore, Lee was a slave-owner, responsible for hundreds of thousands of war deaths, and a white supremacist.

I imagine that when black men or women pass by these statues of Lee it produces the same kind of emotion that Jewish men or women must experience when they see a swastika spray-painted on a schoolhouse wall.  It’s taken a long time for us to recognize that.  And it’s why General Lee has to go.

People in the grip of extreme fear cannot see this.  Fear is blinding, making it impossible to see oneself as others.

Reacting to the events in Charlottesville, former President Obama tweeted, “People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love…”

No one is born a racist.  It is an attitude that is acquired, learned around the dinner table, in school, in church, and nowadays, on social media.  Very little has changed since Bob Dylan penned these words 54 years ago:

He’s taught in his school
From the start by the rule
That the laws are with him
To protect his white skin
To keep up his hate
So he never thinks straight
‘Bout the shape that he’s in…

But it ain’t them to blame… they’re only a pawn in a game, a game of fear.

At the time, civil rights activist and folklorist, Bernice Johnson Reagon told a journalist Only a Pawn in their Game was the first song that showed the poor white was as victimized by discrimination as the poor black.  We must understand this.  Not to the extreme that people like Duke take it, but to the extent where we aren’t demonizing anyone and we can see white supremacists as human beings whose liberation is our concern.

Offering up Nazi salutes is offensive.  Yesterday, as I watched the news from Charlottesville, I was eager to jump on the labeling-them-Nazis bandwagon.  But today, I’m not so sure…  On one hand, a historical perspective is crucial; we should never forget the terror of Nazism.  On the other hand, labels do little to promote understanding, which is the beginning point of compassion.

So, while we are right to denounce white supremacy, nationalism, hate and violence, unless condemnation is coupled with understanding of the fear that motivates their behavior and empathy with them as victims of fear, we won’t be moving forward anytime soon.

We can do it.  A 2016 study by David Broockman at Stanford University and Joshua Kalla at the University of California Berkeley found “that a single 10-minute conversation with a stranger could reduce prejudice toward transgender people and increase support for nondiscrimination laws.”  It’s conversation that involves what Thich Nhat Hanh calls ‘deep listening,’ the kind of listening that can help relieve the suffering of another person.  Through all this festering hatred and deep division our country is in danger becoming irrevocably torn apart.  We have tools, let’s use them and make this nation less brutal, less fearful, and a great country at last.

“May those whose hell it is to hate and hurt be turned into lovers bringing flowers.”

– Shantideva.

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Bob Dylan, at the historic 1963 March on Washington, is introduced by the late Ozzie Davis.

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Study: Generosity makes you happier.

After conducting a study to investigate how brain areas communicate to produce feelings of well-being, researchers at the University of Zurich have concluded that “Generosity makes people happier, even if they are only a little generous.  People who act solely out of self-interest are less happy.  Merely promising to be more generous is enough to trigger a change in our brains that makes us happier.”

This is hardly news.  It’s what Buddhism and other philosophies both religious and secular have always maintained.  Yet, insight into how this works is useful.

In the study, the researchers took 50 people and divided them into two groups, one ‘generous’ and the other ‘selfish.’  The ‘selfish’ group was asked to think about spending 100 Swiss francs on themselves and the ‘generous’ group were to consider spending the same money on another person.  Although I’m not sure how they did this, they measured happiness levels before and after the experiment, and found that those in the group asked to think about spending money on others had a larger “mood boost” than the other group.

The bottom line is both simple and encouraging:  Prof.  Philippe Tobler says, “You don’t need to become a self-sacrificing martyr to feel happier.  Just being a little more generous will suffice.”

The Buddhist term for generosity is dàna, a Pali word that literally means “almsgiving,” but in general refers to the practice of giving.  The first step (paramita) on the Bodhisattva path is giving of oneself.

Some years ago, in a series of dharma talks on Lamrim ((Tibetan: “stages of the path”), Thubten Chodron, American Tibetan Buddhist nun and founder Sravasti Abbey*, drew a distinction between worldly generosity and what she calls the “far-reaching attitude of generosity” :

“[The] far-reaching attitude of generosity [is] sometimes called giving.  It’s not just generosity as we normally think of it.  Generosity is giving things, which is great; but the far-reaching attitude of generosity is combined with both compassion and wisdom.  It’s different from ordinary generosity, because it is motivated by the wish to become a Buddha in order to benefit others.  It’s very different from ordinary generosity that happens at Christmas time or at Halloween, Thanksgiving, or Valentine’s.  That kind of generosity is very much based on the happiness of this life.”

To achieve the far-reaching attitude of generosity, one must first achieve true selflessness.  This means to practice generosity without making distinctions, without discrimination or preferences.  To practice generosity without preferences is to help others regardless of who or what they are, and it also means giving without any purpose in mind, without thoughts of reward or benefit.

Ultimately, the idea is to dissolve the concepts of subject and object, self and others, because as Seng-ts’an wrote in the “Faith-Mind Inscription” (Hsin-hsin Ming),

“One thing, all things; move among and intermingle, without distinction.  To live in this realization is to be without anxiety about nonperfection. To live in this faith is the road to nonduality, because the nondual is one with the trusting mind.”

“Trusting” corresponds to the Chinese character hsin or “faith, belief.”  We could also call it confidence.  It’s trusting that the mind’s true nature is awakened mind or Buddha-nature.

The kind of generosity that Thubten Chodron speaks of, the kind of true selflessness that wrote about – these are far-reaching goals.  We might be tempted to doubt ourselves and think, I can’t achieve that sort of all-embracing attitude.   And we can’t, not all at once.  We begin with small steps.  As the University of Zurich shows, just thinking about being more generous can make us happier.

If with kindly generosity
One thinks, “May I relieve living beings
Merely of headaches,”
This produces a boundless positive force…

– Shantideva

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* Sravasti Abbey is the only Tibetan Buddhist training monastery for Western nuns and monks in the United States.

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Dalai Lama on Religion, Love and Compassion

On July 28, a crowd of some 40,000 people gathered in Leh India to attend a three day series of teachings by the 14th Dalai Lama on Shantideva’s Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, one of the most important philosophical works in Mahayana Buddhism.  Some general remarks by the Dalai Lama seemed noteworthy to me (everything he says is noteworthy) and I thought I would share them with you.

A view from the stage looking out at the crowd attending the Dalai Lama’s teaching in on July 28, 2017.

“Many people have gathered here, not for entertainment, business, or for a political rally, but for a spiritual teaching.  What does that mean?  Here in the 21st century all 7 billion people alive today want to be happy and not to suffer.  We’re all equal in that.  Many seek solace in religion, but 1 billion declare they have no interest, saying that religion is exploitative and unnecessary.  All religious traditions commend the practice of love and compassion, which are a source of peace and happiness and warn of the faults of destructive emotions like anger and jealousy.

Scientists say they have evidence that those who cultivate love and compassion have greater peace of mind, while constant anger and fear make us uneasy and are bad for health.  Common sense too tells us that people who are moved by love and compassion are peaceful and happy.  Those overwhelmed by destructive emotions like jealousy and competitiveness feel the whole world is their enemy.  It’s easy to see that love and compassion earn people’s trust and trust wins friends.  Similarly, honesty and truthfulness are the basis of justice.

Economic development alone is not a solution to the problems we face, nor is the use of force.  Peace in the world depends on individuals, families and communities achieving peace of mind.  It can’t be bought.  We need to cultivate those inner values that counter our destructive emotions…

I’m here to give a Buddhist teaching today.  The Buddha clearly said that mind can be tamed and when it is tamed it is conducive to happiness.  It is also said that Buddhas do not wash unwholesome deeds away with water, nor do they remove the sufferings of beings with their hands.  Neither do they transplant their own realization into others.  They liberate (beings) by teaching the truth of suchness.”

Some may be unfamiliar with the term “suchness” (tathata).   As the Dalai Lama is using the term here, I believe it corresponds with B. L. Suzuki’s* definition of suchness as “to see things as they are in themselves.”  It means to see reality, not illusion, and in the context of these remarks, suchness refers to the reality of interdependency (pratitya-samutpada).  We are many in being, however owning to the fact that all things are interconnected, we are one in reality.  Most religions teach this principle in theory but too often religion is often a tool used to divide people, to keep them separate from others.

Buddhist teachers like the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh prefer to emphasize the points where religions interconnect, rather than those points where they diverge.  We do not have to agree with another person’s religion but we should be able to respect different religions.  I used to carry around the attitude that “my religion is better than yours.”  Eventually I realized that this was a negative attitude that only constructed walls between people and that it was counter-productive to the Buddhist aim of tearing down walls.

Although it is not an exact quotation, one of the most famous sayings of the Dalai Lama is “My religion is very simple.  My religion is kindness.”  Peace and happiness in the world will only be possible when we all practice this same religion.

For more on the Dalai Lama’s teachings on Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, visit the Dalai Lama’s website here.

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* B. L. Suzuki: Beatrice Lane Suzuki, wife of Zen teacher D. T. Suzuki; also a scholar and author of a number of books on Buddhism and Theosophy.

Photo by Tenzin Choejor/OHHDL

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My New Tumor

Two days after Senator John McCain announced he had a brain tumor, I underwent a biopsy to diagnose a new mass in my left leg and determine whether it is cancerous.

Medicine Buddha statues at Land of Medicine Buddha, Santa Cruz

It is.  It’s a big fat ugly tumor the size of a baseball.

I’m still in the dark about treatment.  My oncologist has mentioned something about an experimental drug.  Personally, I am leaning toward a drug that is non-experimental, one known to work.

When I know exactly what my options are, I will consider them with the knowledge that I am terminal.  Nothing is going to save my life.  That being the case, if my doctor’s plan is to subject me to an aggressive therapy that will make me sick and miserable, on top of the pain and misery I am already experiencing, further degrading the quality of my life, I am not sure that I am interested.  If the treatment might save my life, I would think differently.  But it’s just to keep me alive a while longer.  My feeling is that quality of life is more important than longevity.

Needless to say, I hate all this.  While it is tempting to bemoan my rotten fate, I have to look at this as an opportunity.   It’s as if the gods of destiny, fate, karma, whatever you want to call them, decided that I am just too lazy these days to practice on my own accord so they figured to give me something really serious to practice about.  They keep doing this and I wish they’d just leave me alone.

“With a good heart, compassion for others, whenever a problem arises, you experience it for others, on behalf of other sentient beings. If you experience happiness, you experience it for others. If you enjoy a luxury life, comfort, you dedicate it to others. And if you experience a problem, you experience it for others—for others to be free of problems and to have all happiness up to enlightenment, complete perfect peace and bliss. Wishing others to have all happiness, you experience problems on their behalf.”

– Lama Zopa Rinpoche, The Joy of Compassion

Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s teachings were very instructive and encouraging to me a few years ago when I was preparing for a liver transplant.  Based on Medicine Buddha practices, some of it steeped in Buddhist mysticism, much of it practical and empowering.  He makes clear that healing begins and ends with our hearts and minds.  He maintains that there is no healing without compassion, and indeed, compassion itself is an important source of healing.

“The best healer is someone with the realization of bodhicitta, the altruistic thought to achieve enlightenment for the sake of all living beings…  Every single breath of someone with great compassion is medicine…”

What the immediate future holds I don’t know – but I have made a decision on the end.  I do not want to die in a hospital, or here at home, I want to die in a Buddhist setting, in fellowship with other Buddhists.  My thought is to conduct the end of my life as though it were a personal retreat.  I’ve been looking into Buddhist hospices.  Unfortunately, there are not many.  I’ve only found three:  Zen Hospice in San Francisco, Tara House at Land of Medicine Buddha, and Enso House in Washington state.  If you know of any or if you are a Buddhist caregiver, please contact me.

In the meantime, may you be happy and at ease, and free from suffering.

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