Democracy in America

Born on this day in 1805 was Alexis de Tocqueville, the French statesman who wrote Democracy in America following a nine month visit to the United States in 1831-32.  The young country he found on his trip, the democracy still in its infancy, continues to flourish, and his book, published in 1840, remains an influential book about the United States.

tocquevilleOur contemporaries are constantly excited by two conflicting passions; they want to be led, and they wish to remain free: as they cannot destroy either one or the other of these contrary propensities, they strive to satisfy them both at once. They devise a sole, tutelary, and all-powerful form of government, but elected by the people.  They combine the principle of centralization and that of popular sovereignty; this gives them a respite: they console themselves for being in tutelage by the reflection that they have chosen their own guardians.  Every man allows himself to be put in leading-strings, because he sees that it is not a person or a class of persons, but the people at large that holds the end of his chain.

By this system the people shake off their state of dependence just long enough to select their master, and then relapse into it again.  A great many persons at the present day are quite contented with this sort of compromise between administrative despotism and the sovereignty of the people; and they think they have done enough for the protection of individual freedom when they have surrendered it to the power of the nation at large. This does not satisfy me: the nature of him I am to obey signifies less to me than the fact of extorted obedience.”

It does not satisfy me, either.  Even in the process of selecting our ‘master’, we do not shake off dependence, for we rely on others to lead us.  Democracy is a participatory system.  It demands involvement and awareness on the part of its citizens.  Our current state of affairs is one of the consequences of too little intellectual participation.

I’m not the only one who can’t get no satisfaction.  In this year’s selection process, people on both sides are dissatisfied with their choice.  Choice may be an illusion. When the alternatives for selection are forced by external powers, choice does not exist.  Too often we don’t get to choose the best of the best, rather we choose what is handed to us.

Simultaneously, it seems that fate has taken a hand this time around, and the differences between the two alternatives seems startlingly clear.  Although, this too, may be a mirage.

Churchill said, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”  This implies that democracy is the best simply because it works better.  Hillarie Belloc remarked that the “use of such language connotes that the user of it is fatigued by the effort of thought.”  He went on to say “The institution ‘works’ in proportion as it satisfies that political sense which perfect democracy would . . .”*

Because in democracy, the people are sovereign, we should never be satisfied and always strive to be greater collectively than we are.  A greater democracy means a greater community of people.  On the individual level, we can stay involved by thinking and studying about democracy.  I wish more Americans felt the need to think past the political slogans, read more of the news as opposed to just listening to it, and then, read beyond the headlines.

For Tocqueville, civic and professional associations (people coming together) and participation in the public sphere were the vital components of any true democracy.  Democracy doesn’t ‘work’; we, the people, make it work.  But only, when we are involved in it, only when we put our mind to it.

Democracy in America, what a quandary . . .

I know of no country in which there is so little independence of mind and real freedom of discussion as in America.

Alexis de Tocqueville

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Hilarie Belloc, The French Revolution, Oxford University Press, 1966, 3


The Homelessness of Thoughts

Some years ago while participating in a campaign to raise funds for homeless people around the world, the Dalai Lama said, “On some level, I am also homeless.”

He was referring to the fact that since 1959 he has been exiled from his home, but the statement can be taken another way because on some level, we are all homeless.

07192016The Buddha and his followers were part of the Indian tradition of parivrajakas, or “homeless ones,” men who had “gone forth” from householder life.  To use an old ’60s expression, they had “dropped out,” rejecting not only homes, but kinship, class, and even their clothes, casting aside usual garments for old clothes and rags.

The bhikkhu’s homelessness, however, is symbolic of a greater homelessness, that of life itself.  As everything in this world will eventfully decay and disappear, there is no real home for anything in this life, no permanent place for anything or anyone to stand. According to the Buddha, the same applies to thoughts

In the Ratnacuda Sutra, the Buddha says,

Thought is formless, unseen, not solid, unknowable, unstable, homeless.  Thought was never seen by any of the Buddhas.  They do not see it, they will not see it; and what has never been seen by the Buddhas, what they do not see and will never see, what kind of a process can that have, unless things exist by a false conception?  Thought is like illusion, and by forming what is not comprehends all sorts of events. . . .”

Wandering through realms of consciousness like a refugee, thought looks for a home.  Thought thinks that perhaps by clinging to this or to that, it can find one.  Thought forms attachments with name and form, with concepts such as “is” and “is not,” “self” and “other,” “me” and “mine,” and with emotions like envy, pride, and desire.  Thought forms these attachments in hopes of finding a home.  Thought wants to own a home.

However, ownership has its burden.  It is easy to become a slave to things owned, and a passage from another sutra encourages us to strive to become the master of our mind, rather than let our mind master us. Moreover, since nothing can last, ownership is really an illusion.  There is nothing to be owned.

And nothing that is unreal can be a home, so in this way, there is no way to avoid being homeless.

To put an end to thought’s endless search for a home, we train our mind.  We train ourselves to think differently. This is one of the chief benefits of meditation, the way mindfulness helps us bring the mind into contentment and cease its relentless searching for itself.  Through practice, we discover the true nature of thought:

During his meditation, a [practitioner] will find that not even one of the thoughts arising in the mind stays for an instant . . . [He or she] will find that the past mind has gone, the present mind does not stay, and the future mind has not yet come. [The practitioner] will discover that it cannot be found anywhere after an exhaustive search of it in the three times. As it cannot be found, it follows that it is non-existent and that all things (dharma) are so as well.

T’ien-t’ai master Chih-i

We, and our thoughts, are homeless because we are searching for a home that doesn’t exist, a home that we can never own.  But when we let go of that, we realize that we’ve always been home, that home is all around us.  We might call it “abiding in the home of no-home.” When we open the front door and step in, we are home in the homelessness of Buddha-dharma.

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This is an edited version of a post published in 2012.


Interdependence Day

Tom Tancredo, outspoken former GOP congressman from Colorado, writes on Breitbart News, “Why do we continue to celebrate Independence Day each July Fourth when we no longer cherish independence?  Someday soon, our progressive politicians will propose celebrating the first Monday in July as Global Interdependence Day, and no one will protest as long as it includes barbecues and fireworks.”

The rest of the piece is the standard conservative complaint about the loss of cherished traditional values, the “abandonment of America’s unique character “ and so on, punctuated with lines like “Multiculturalism is not an idea to be debated, it’s the new orthodoxy to be obeyed. Or else!”

Multiculturalism is the coexistence of different cultures.  Not sure why that needs debate.

statue_of_liberty_03bAnyway, you probably don’t need me to tell you that that the views of people like Tancredo, and Trump, the Brexit backers in the UK, and others are largely irrational and based on a simplistic us vs. them mentality.  Furthermore, if you want to talk about cherished values, the idea of closed borders seems completely antithetical to one of the values that most typifies America, the spirit of openness. It’s the spirit behind the words in the “The New Colossus” sonnet by American poet Emma Lazarus engraved on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty.

I’ve read a number of articles recently that suggest xenophobia and nationalism are on the rise once again in Europe.  It is firmly entrenched here in the US.  I’m sure you also recognize that Trump is not offering the country anything new, it’s just different.  The right wing has been spouting this same gospel for decades.  What is unique about Trump is that somehow he has managed to make being offensive appealing to a great many potential voters.

About Europe, French journalist Jean Quatremer wonders, “How long can the EU, a project born out of the ruins of the post-war period, resist the wave of xenophobia and paranoia that is sweeping across our old and exhausted societies? Instead of going against the current of public opinion built on fear, European leaders on the right and the left have found no better strategy than to follow the extremist parties, as can be seen in France. Nothing seems capable of stopping this return to nationalism, the very thing that is pulling Europe towards the abyss.”

The same thing applies here, where you have people who can’t stand Trump, stand with him because they don’t know what else to do.

What people think about their country is one thing, the terms in which they think about it is another.  We can say the same about patriotism and nationalism.  The former can be a healthy emotion, but to my mind, the latter is almost always destructive.  When the difference between patriotism and nationalism is blurred and religion is thrown in, the mix is extremely volatile.

I don’t see globalization, multiculturalism, and diversity as things to fear.  I think a Global Interdependence Day is a good idea.  Maybe not on July 4th but some other day.  Interdependence should be celebrated.  Interdependence is reality. We should embrace reality.

Thus interdependence is a fundamental law of nature. Not only higher forms of life but also many of the smallest insects are social beings who, without any religion, law, or education, survive by mutual cooperation based on an innate recognition of their interconnectedness. The most subtle level of material phenomena is also governed by interdependence. All phenomena, from the planet we inhabit to the oceans, clouds, forests, and flowers that surround us, arise in dependence upon subtle patterns of energy. Without their proper interaction, they dissolve and decay.”

Tenzin Gyatsu, the Fourteen Dalai Lama, “The Compassionate Life”

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Emma_Lazarus“The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”


Sartre and Nagarjuna, Being and Emptiness

The impact of Buddhism on Western philosophy is still a relatively new field of study. J. Jeffrey Franklin of the University of Colorado in “Buddhism and Modern Existential Nihilism: Jean-Paul Sartre Meets Nagarjuna” * delves into the subject.  According to the abstract, Franklin’s essay contends “that modernist nihilism owes a largely unexamined historical debt to the nineteenth-century ‘discovery’ of Buddhism. It demonstrates that Jean-Paul Sartre’s nihilism was influenced by a debate that occurred as part of the Western struggle to assimilate Buddhism: the nineteenth-century nirvana debate.”

I bring this up because Jean-Paul Sartre was a key figure in Western philosophy of the 20th century, a founder of French Existentialism, and today is the 111th anniversary of his birth.  Sartre died in 1980.

He was also a novelist and playwright.  During the early part of World War II, Sartre was imprisoned by the Germans, escaped and joined the resistance movement.

How deeply Buddhism may have influenced Sartre, I don’t know. And I can’t get access to Franklin’s paper. However, I am aware that Sartre’s ‘nothingness’ is comparable to the Buddhist concept of sunyata (emptiness) in some respects, but we should not carry this comparability too far.

Hazel Barnes in the 1943 English translation of Being and Nothingness writes,

sartre2If an object is to be posited as absent or not existing, then there must be involved the ability to constitute an emptiness or nothingness with respect to it.  Sartre goes further than this and says that in every act of imagination there is really a double nihilation.  In this connection he makes  an important distinction between being-in-the world and being-in-the-midst-of-the-world. To be in-the-midst-of-the world is to be one with the world as in the case of objects.  But consciousness is not in-the-midst-of-the-world; it is in-the-world.  This means that consciousness is inevitably involved with the world (both because we have bodies and because by definition consciousness is consciousness of a transcendent object) but that there is a separation between consciousness and the things in the world.”

This comes close to emptiness and interdependence but doesn’t go all the way.  It seems dualistic to me.  For Nagarjuna, emptiness demolished all notions of separation and distinction, even though he recognized it was not possible to avoid using such terms.   An article on Buddhanet says, “All phenomena have a relative as opposed to an absolute existence . . . Nagarjuna used the dialectic method to ruthlessly negate all pairs of opposites.”  This is correct but I don’t understand how the article can go on to say that “Sunyata is the absolute reality.”

Emptiness is not a truth so much as it is a condition or state of existence.  We can say it is an aspect of reality, but even that is problematic.  Previously, I have quoted the famous verse from Chapter 24 of Nagarjuna’s Fundamental Verses on The Middle Way, “Whatever arises through interdependency is emptiness. However, this is a conventional designation. It is the meaning of the Middle Way.” These words summarize Nagarjuna’s whole philosophy as he identifies the non-duality of the relative and absolute or ultimate truth.  But the next verse in the chapter is equally important:

Whatever does arise through interdependency does not exist.  Therefore, something that is not empty does not exist.”

In his commentary on the verse, Buddhist scholar Jay Garfield** says,

Nagarjuna is asserting that the dependently arisin is emptiness.  Emptiness and the phenomenal world are not two distinct things.  They are, rather, two characterizations of the same things.  To say of something that it is dependently co-arisen is to say that it is empty.  To say of something that it is empty is another way of say that it arises dependently.”

The way I see it is that absolute reality is the absence of an absolute reality.  The ultimate truth is that there is no ultimate truth.  And emptiness is relative, which, as I have also mentioned before, Nagarjuna expressed as sunyata-sunyata or the emptiness of emptiness.

Anyway, it’s Sartre’s birthday.  Thought I would pass that along.

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* Franklin, J.J.: “Buddhism and Modern Existential Nihilism: Jean-Paul Sartre Meets Nagarjuna.” Religion and Literature

** Arya Nagarjuna. The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way,, Translation and Commentary, Jay Garfield, 1995

Being and Nothingness, Jean-Paul Sartre, Hazel Estella Barnes, Simon and Schuster, 1992


Did you see Jackie Robinson hit that ball?

Small-Blue-RGB-National-Poetry-Month-LogoThese lyrics to a 1949 song by Woodrow Buddy Johnson, are offered to commemorate National Poetry Month, the opening of the 2016 baseball season, and this day 69 years ago when Jackie Robinson became the first black player in major-league history by playing in an exhibition game for the Brooklyn Dodgers at Ebbets Field.

Did you see Jackie Robinson hit that ball?
It went zoomin cross the left field wall.
Yeah boy, yes, yes. Jackie hit that ball.

And when he swung his bat,
the crowd went wild,
because he knocked that ball a solid mile.
Yeah boy, yes, yes. Jackie hit that ball.

Satchel Paige is mellow,
so is Campanella,
Newcombe and Doby, too.
But it’s a natural fact,
when Jackie comes to bat,
the other team is through.

Jackie-Robinson_Stealing Home2bDid you see Jackie Robinson hit that ball?
Did he hit it? Yeah, and that ain’t all.
He stole home.
Yes, yes, Jackie’s real gone.
Jackie’s is a real gone guy.


Most of you know about Jackie Robinson, but you may not be familiar with Buddy Johnson, an African-American blues and jazz pianist, bandleader and songwriter.  His biggest hit as a tunesmith was Since I Fell for You, a standard recorded by many artists over the years, my favorite being Lenny Welsh’s 1963 hit.

Now, the best known recording of Did You See Jackie Robinson Hit That Ball? is no doubt the one by Count Basie, done at the Victor studios in New York City on July 13, 1949, with “Taps” Miller as vocalist.  According to the Library of Congress, this version “has become synonymous with the song itself.”