Presidents, Big Buddhas and Secret Buddhas

AP/Carolyn Kaster

I could be wrong about this, but I believe Barack Obama is the first sitting U.S. President to visit a Buddhist temple. Yesterday, accompanied by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the President made his first stop in Thailand at Wat Pho Royal Monastery in Bangkok. Now this didn’t amount to much more than a photo op, but some of the photos are pretty cool, like this one on the right.

That’s one big Buddha: 150 feet long, 50 feet high.

This was not Obama’s first visit to a Buddhist site. In 2010, he toured Kotoku-in, a Jodo (Pure Land) temple in Kamakura, Japan, where another big Buddha statue is located, the “Daibutsu” statue of Amida. It was actually the President’s second visit there, the first he made when he was 6 years old.

AP/Charles Dharapak

Sad to say, but I don’t expect a whole lot from the President’s historic visit to Burma. As I write this he has just arrived and is only spending six hours in the country, meeting naturally with Aung San Suu Kyi, and I’m sure that neither will have anything significant to say about the violence between Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims, and particularly not about the persecution of the latter group, which is to be expected I suppose, since the purpose of the visit is to encourage the Burmese government to continue democratic reforms. Yet there does seem to me to be some linkage.

Suu Kyi has been criticized regarding her “silence” on the issue. But, to be fair, a lot of people have been silent about this thing. I have yet to see very many Buddhists step out and suggest that Burmese Buddhists need to stop persecuting the Rohingyas. For her part, Suu Kyi recently said that the Burmese government should send troops to the Rakhine State to bring peace to that violence-stricken area. I don’t quite get that since the troops are among those who have been mistreating these poor Rohingya people.

I must sound rather pessimistic today. But I am also disheartened about our country’s lack of attention to the Tibet issue. Sunday, to protest repressive Chinese rule a 24-year old Tibetan man set himself on fire, on Saturday it was a cab driver and mother of two, last week a Western monk, and four more people the week before that. You don’t see any of this reported in the mainstream news media. No one in Washington is talking about it. I don’t see how the U.S. expects to have credibility on human rights abuses when we are so selective about the ones we denounce. If Burma or Tibet were in the Middle East you can bet Anderson Cooper would be all over it like a fly on dog doodoo.

You know, every President since George H.W. Bush has met with the Dalai Lama, and has sung his praises, but when it comes time to vocally support his cause, they have been practically mute.

Beyond occasional meetings with the Dalai Lama, connections between the U.S. Presidency and Buddhism belong pretty much to the realm of imagination. Case in point: Earlier this year, Thomas Jefferson: Lessons from a Secret Buddha by Suneel Dhand was published by Mindstir Media. The author, a physician in Florida, imagined a scenario where Jefferson had a secret Buddhist adviser and all these years later the adviser’s letters are discovered. It’s not as far fetched as it may sound, for Buddhists have been known to show up in the strangest places. Godfrey de Bouillon, for instance, the Frankish knight who was one of the leaders of the First Crusade and who became the first ruler of the “Kingdom of Jerusalem,” had a Buddhist adviser.

As far as I know there is no evidence of any real connection between Thomas Jefferson and Buddhism. But we do know that Jefferson had rather complex views on the subject of religion. In fact, some folks question whether he can be rightfully called a Christian since he did not believe in the Holy Trinity of orthodox Christianity and questioned the divinity of Jesus.

Confusion about Jefferson’s religious beliefs stem no doubt from his reluctance to discuss them publicly. He felt that religion was a private matter, and so his public remarks on the subject are few in number. However, in a letter to a Mrs. Samuel H. Smith, dated August 6, 1816, he did say this:

I never told my own religion nor scrutinized that of another. I never attempted to make a convert, nor wished to change another’s creed. I am satisfied that yours must be an excellent religion to have produced a life of such exemplary virtue and correctness. For it is in our lives, and not from our words, that our religion must be judged.”

Good words.


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