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?


Long Hot Summer: First Level of Intensity

1967, the Summer of Love in San Francisco: groovy music, free love, peace and harmony, Be-In’s, Love-In’s, gentle people, and if you went there, you wanted to be sure to wear some flowers in your hair.

But for folks in other cities across America, the summer of 1967 was the “long hot summer” of violence and civil unrest, the summer of riots in Atlanta, Boston, Cincinnati, Buffalo, Tampa, Birmingham, Chicago, New York, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, New Britain, Rochester, Plainfield, and in Newark.

Newark was the most intense.  Six days of rioting, looting, and destruction that left 26 dead, 750 injured and over 1,000 were jailed.  Mostly African-Americans.  Property damage amounted to more than $10 million.

The background to the Newark riots according to Wikipedia: “In the period leading up to the riots, police racial profiling, redlining, and lack of opportunity in education, training, and jobs led local African-American residents to feel powerless and disenfranchised. In particular, many felt they had been largely excluded from meaningful political representation and often suffered police brutality.”

lyndon-johnsonOn July 29, President Lyndon Johnson appointed a special commission to study the increase in American violence.  The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders was chaired by Otto Kerner, Governor of Illinois, and included such people as John Lindsay, Mayor of New York, and Roy Wilkins, Executive Director of the NAACP.  The commission was directed to answer three questions: What happened?  Why did it happen?  What can be done to prevent it from happening again?

[Photo: LBJ speaks at the advisory commission’s first meeting on July 29, 1967 at the White House,Time.com]

I got a copy of the report shortly after it was published in paperback by Bantam Books.  483 pages.  In his Introduction, Tom Wickers of the New York Times wrote, “This report is a picture of one nation, divided.”  The Commission stated in its introduction, “This is our basic conclusion: One nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white – separate and unequal.”

A section in Chapter Two, “Patterns of Disorder,” reads:

“In almost all the cities surveyed, we found the same major grievance topics among Negro communities – although they varied in importance from city to city.  The deepest grievances can be ranked into the following three levels of relative intensity:

First Level of Intensity:

  1. Police practices
  2. Unemployment and underemployment
  3. Inadequate housing”

book-civil-disordersFrom their investigation of the first grievance, the Commission concluded:

“Police practices were, in some form, a significant grievance in virtually all cities and were often one of the most serious complaints.  Included in this category were complaints about physical or verbal abuse of Negro citizens by police officers, the lack of adequate channels for complaints against police, discriminatory police employment and promotional practices, a general lack of respect for Negroes by police officers, and the failure of police departments to provide adequate protection for Negroes.”

The Commission devoted 200 pages of the report to the question “What can be done?”  Too much to discuss here, but what is clear is that in the 49 intervening years since the report was issued, there is more to do.  Police employment practices have improved, some inequalities have been rectified, yet many of the other issues persist.

In this report, the energy of intensity decreases as the levels graduate to higher numbers. The First Level of intensity is like DEFCOM 1, nuclear war imminent.

2016, another long hot summer: more violence against African-Americans, more deaths at the hands of law enforcement officers, and five police who were protecting peaceful protesters at a Black Lives Matter march assassinated.

Kai Wright in The Nation writes, the Dallas ambush is “a reminder that no life will be safe and truly valued until we also confront the broader American culture of violence.”

There is no question that every day police officers around the country put their lives at risk.  We should be grateful for their selfless service and praise their courage.  But  police violence, the excessive use of deadly force, is a serious problem, and no one should try to deny it.  Just as protestors and perpetrators are held accountable for their actions when they cross the line, so too must police be held accountable. Independent investigations and prosecutions can be a deterrent.

And it’s not just police. I’m sure many of you feel as I do, that violence permeates too many aspects of American culture.

Anyway, I thought it was worthwhile to point out the parallels between 1967 and 2016.  Maybe even necessary.  Of course, ’67 wasn’t the only long hot summer, and this stuff didn’t just start in the sixties.  I think we are still divided.  We have further to go, and we will always have further to go.

However, in the immediacy of the present moment, we need some change.

On July 29, 1967, that day when President Johnson issued Executive Order 11365 establishing the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorder, the #1 song in the nation was The Doors’ “Light my Fire”:

The time to hesitate is through
No time to wallow in the mire
Try now we can only lose
And our love become a funeral pyre

– – – – – – – – – –

Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, Bantam Books, March 1968


Dalai Lama in the USA, Prayer, and Meditation

Tenzin Gyatsu, the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet is in the United States this week to give teachings and public talks in six cities, including Westminster here in Southern California.  He met privately with President Obama today.

1139bMonday, the Washington Post published an opinion by the Dalai Lama, “Why I’m Hopeful About the World’s Future”.  In the piece, he wrote, “It is not enough simply to pray. There are solutions to many of the problems we face; new mechanisms for dialogue need to be created, along with systems of education to inculcate moral values. These must be grounded in the perspective that we all belong to one human family and that together we can take action to address global challenges.”

Also on Monday, speaking at the US Institute of Peace in Washington, the Buddhist leader asked the audience to observe a moment of silence for victims of the deadliest mass shooting in US history:

“Yesterday, very serious tragedy, Orlando. So let us some silent prayer, OK . . . Although, one Buddhist monk grows quite skeptical about the effects of prayer.”  He added that serious action, such as non-violent conflict resolution was the key to affecting real change.  “Then on top of that, some prayer is OK, no harm.”

This is not the first time the Dalai Lama has expressed skepticism about the power of prayer.  Responding to the terror attacks in Paris last November, he said, “We cannot solve this problem only through prayers.  I am a Buddhist and I believe in praying.  But humans have created this problem, and now we are asking God to solve it.  It is illogical.  God would say, solve it yourself because you created it in the first place.”

It is difficult to tell from brief remarks if there has been a significant change in the Dalai Lama’s thinking – as he says above he believes in praying, and in the past, he has often been enthusiastic about the idea of prayer (see this) – or whether the message is essentially that prayer alone is not sufficient.  I’ve long been skeptical about the value of prayer myself and feel torn about its inclusion in Buddhist practice.

The initial definition of prayer is “petition.”  Prayer comes from Latin prex or précis, meaning “to ask”, which, interestingly, has a Sanskrit root, pracch that also means “to ask.”

The Buddha did not teach his followers to pray, and it seems he was rather pessimistic about prayer.  He was critical of the religious rites of the Brahmins, rejecting the authority of the priestly class to stand as intermediaries between ordinary people and the “divine.” But at the same time, the Buddha did not admonish the people for their religious ideas and practices.  He did not endorse prayer; he did not openly oppose it either.  As usual, the Buddha took a middle path.  We are to assume that he did not adopt this position out of some kind of political correctness but rather it was an unfolding of wisdom.

I’ve used prayer to augment meditation, but more like reciting aloud the Four Bodhisattva Verses or verses from Shantideva.  Reciting the Metta Sutta or Heart Sutra can be forms of prayers.  Prayer is related to meditation but I don’t see it as equivalent.

DalaiLamaInMeditationMeditation is method-oriented.  The efficacy of the various ways of meditation is in calming the mind, realizing inner peace, and awakening our inherent inner potential for compassion and wisdom.  As the Dalai Lama said the other day, “Genuine peace must come from inner peace.”  Meditation is about change.  Within the framework of a non-theistic practice, I am not sure about the usefulness of prayer.

Prayer is not a necessary part of the process of mental exercise as taught in the [Buddhist] tradition. We discuss these matters in completely different terms . . . We don’t regard the Buddha as universal spirit, or self as universal self, or personal self. We don’t discuss things in those terms. We don’t have any power beyond dhamma. Dhamma means things as they really are . . . That genuine knowledge . . . can be used to improve our condition.”

– Wadawala Seelawimala, professor at the Institute for Buddhist Studies and the Graduate Theological Seminary in Berkeley


Champion of the World

I don’t care about boxing, it is a brutal and stupid sport.  But I cared about Muhammad Ali.  I admired him.  I admired his courage.

When you are the Heavyweight Champion of the World, it takes a lot of courage to risk all that you have trained and fought for and refuse induction into the military because you object to the immorality of a war. Standing by his religious beliefs cost him the title, and he was found guilty of draft evasion.  He didn’t box in a fight from 1967-70.

Ali96When you have suffered from Parkinson disease for over decade and your hands are trembling badly, it takes courage, and determination, to muster up the control necessary to carry the torch and light the Olympic cauldron, as he did in 1996.  I watched it as it happened and it was a trilling moment, inspiring.

You had to love his gift of the Blarney, and even early on, in 1964, just after he won the world heavyweight championship and he declared “I’m the greatest thing that ever lived. I don’t have a mark on my face, and I upset Sonny Liston, and I just turned twenty-two years old. I must be the greatest,” there was something about the way he carried on that made you think he really didn’t take himself so seriously.  All the gab was put-on.  Like a few years later when Andy Warhol was to go on a lecture tour and he sent out an impersonator to make all the appearances for him.  I always thought Muhammad Ali was like the Andy Warhol of sports.

On the 11 o’clock news, I heard it said that Ali was much more than a boxer; he was a political activist, a global humanitarian.  I also saw one of his bodhisattva-like quotes:

Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth”.

Parkinson’s was very likely caused by all the punches he took to the head during his career.  That’s why, like football, boxing is stupid.  You might want to ask whether there is any real difference between the basic violence of boxing or waging war, but not today.

A man who liked to talk, the disease silenced him.  An man of movement, action; the disease disabled him.  But Parkinson’s never diminished Muhammad Ali.

To the end, he was the champion of the world.


The Diamond Sutra in La-La-Land

“In La-La Land We Trust.”
– Robert Campbell

There’s a new exhibition opening tomorrow at the Getty Center in Los Angeles, Cave Temples Of Dunhuang: Buddhist Art On China’s Silk Road:

library-cave-2On the western edge of the Gobi Desert, near the ancient oasis town of Dunhuang, China, hundreds of cave temples were carved into a cliff face and decorated with Buddhist wall paintings and sculptures. [“Library” cave shown right.] The caves are known as the Mogao (peerless) Grottoes. From the 4th to the 14th century, Dunhuang bore witness to intense religious, commercial, and cultural exchange along the trade routes linking the East and West, known collectively as the Silk Road. The documents and artifacts discovered in the site’s famed Library Cave, along with the paintings and sculptures found in almost 500 other caves, focus primarily on Buddhism. They also tell tales of the merchants, monks, and ruling families who lived, worked, and worshipped in the Dunhuang region.”

The exhibition is collaboration with the Dunhuang Academy and the Dunhuang Foundation and will feature rare objects from the caves, cave replicas, along with Cave 45 described as a “virtual immersive experience.”  One of the 43 manuscripts included is The Diamond Sutra, the world’s oldest complete printed book, currently on loan from the British Library.

I’ve written a number of posts that deal with this indispensible Mahayana Buddhist teaching that you can find here.

But an even better resource is a book by Joyce Morgan and Conrad Walters, Journeys on the Silk Road: A Desert Explorer, Buddha’s Secret Library, and the Unearthing of the World’s Oldest Printed Book that tells the fascinating story of Aurel Stein (and his dog, Dash), an archaeologist, who traveled along the Silk Road through India, Tibet, and China in search of relics for the British Museum. It details his various expeditions, the friendships made, the politics and intrigue encountered, and the artifacts he discovered, one being the oldest printed copy of the Vajracchedika Prajnaparamita Sutra.

On the surface, The Diamond Sutra seems difficult to understand, but when we read between the lines we find that, as Thich Nhat Hanh notes in The Diamond That Cuts Through Illusion, “The sutra is so deep and wonderful.  It has its own language.  The first Western scholars who obtained the text thought it was talking nonsense.  It’s language seems mysterious, but when you look deeply, you can understand.”

In the Morgan and Walters book, Paul Harrison, Professor of Religious Studies at Stanford University, compares the sutra to a “piece of music that must be heard to be appreciated or a play that needs to be witnessed”  but if you approach the text as you would a novel “with a logical mind expecting things to be done in sequence and no repetitions to occur, it seems very weird.”

Subhuti, what do you think?  Has the Buddha attained the supreme awakening? Has he something he can teach?”

Subhuti said, “World Honored One, as I understand the dharma of the Buddha, the Buddha has no doctrine to covey.  The truth is ungraspable and inexpressible.  It neither is nor is not.  How is it so?  Because all noble teachers are exalted by the unconditioned.”

[Based on the Mu Soeng translation]