The Good, the Bad, and Four Guys from Jersey

A number of interesting birthdays today: Ann Wilson, of the rock group Heart, in 1951; actresses Kathleen Turner (1949) and Phylicia Rashad (1948); Salman Rushdie, author of Satanic Verses, 1947.

Also born on this day, in 1935, Tommy Devito, guitarist with the Four Seasons. I see where the film version of the play Jersey Boys, based on the story of the Four Seasons, one of the great 60s groups, is hitting the theaters this weekend. One of the big problems with movies about rock and roll is that the vast majority have been made by people who don’t understand rock and roll. The Jersey Boys book is by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice and the music by Bob Gaudio, lyrics by Bob Crewe, and they’re all rock and roll guys, but the director is Clint Eastwood, more of a jazz guy.  Now maybe back in the early 6os when he was playing Rowdy on Rawhide, Eastwood really dug the Four Seasons, who knows? Jon Favreau was to direct the movie originally . . . that I could see. Unfortunately, I’m not holding out much hope for this film.  I have liked a few of Eastwood’s directorial efforts, but I think he makes too many of them just for the money.

Other birthdays include, in 1903, Lou Gehrig aka “The Iron Horse,” immortal first baseman for the New York Yankees, and in 1897, Moe Howard, and I shouldn’t have to tell you what group he was in . . . but just in case, here’s a clue: “Oh, a wise guy, eh?”

Last but not least: Aung San Suu Kyi was born June 19th, 1945. She has taken some flak lately about the situation in Burma. Some feel she should be more outspoken. I shared my opinion about that here.

In an interview last March at the Irrawaddy Literary Festival she was asked, “I’ve learned to understand Buddhism is a peaceful and serene religion. But how does Buddhism play out politically?”

Suu Kyi gave this response:

Reuters photo

I don’t think Christians are quite Christian in their political lives. So Buddhists are not necessarily Buddhist in their political life, or even in social life. People ask me, ‘Are you a Buddhist?’ My answer would be I’m studying to be one, to be a better Buddhist. I’d like to say I’m a good Buddhist, but I’m not in a position to say I’m a good Buddhist as I’m trying to learn to be one . . .

Meditation has taught me tremendous awareness of getting annoyed, getting tired and feeling better. I meditate unless I’m lazy or tired, mostly once a week . . .

I was born into a Buddhist family. Buddhism is rooted in a practical cause. It’s about the discovery of what the human mind and human beings are like. The more I meditated, the more I learned of how true to life Buddhist teachings were.

For example, I’m very fond of the teaching that explains how to distinguish a good man from a bad man. A bad man always exaggerates his good points and minimizes the good points of others. A good man does it the other way around. And a bad man will always exaggerate everything people say to him in gratitude. It’s a very simple bit of teaching. I’ve found that very human. And believe me, I can tell a good man from a bad man.”

Here is the full article.

Finally, this song is sung by the guy who plays Frankie Valli on the soundtrack of Jersey Boys, but there is no substitute for the original:

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Betraying Buddhism

In 1992, Stanley Jeyaraja Tambiah (1929–2014), a social anthropologist, published Buddhism Betrayed?: Religion, Politics, and Violence in Sri Lanka, a book that traced the history of Buddhism in Sri Lanka and asked the question “Given Buddhism’s presumed nonviolent philosophy how can committed Buddhist monks and laypersons in Sri Lanka today actively take part in the fierce political violence of the Sinhalese [Buddhist majority] against the Tamils [non-Buddhist minority]?”

monk-with-gunThat question is still relevant 22 years later despite that the civil war between the Sinhalese and Tamils technically ended in 2009.  Since then, we have seen the rise of the Bodu Bala Sena (Buddhist Power Force) in Sri Lanka, and the 969 in Burma. Both are Buddhist extremist groups that promote racism and encourage violence against minorities.

Last month in Burma, 969 followers incited Buddhist mobs to attack offices and residences of international aid workers, prompting the evacuation of almost all non-essential staff and residents. A 13-year-old girl died when police fired into the air to disperse the crowds. The aid workers were targeted because of accusations they are favoring the minority Rohingya Muslim population.

Human Rights Watch in a new report says that Burmese security forces supported by Buddhist monks have “committed crimes against humanity” in a campaign of ethnic cleansing.

To be fair, it needs to be said that in Sri Lanka and Burma, all sides have committed violent acts, but the side I am concerned with here is the Buddhist side, for I am a Buddhist, and racism and violence enacted under the banner of Buddha-dharma is an abomination that should not be tolerated.

Make no mistake about it, these fundamentalists are abusing the dharma, justifying their actions with nonsense about how the presence of non-Buddhist ethnic groups in their countries is a threat to Buddhism, or perhaps we should say Theravada Buddhism.

But it is these Buddhist extremists who are the real threat. By promoting hate and inciting violent acts, they not only betray Buddhism, they also degrade it.

What puzzles me, and I’ve commented on this before, is the silence of the world Buddhist community. As far as I know, and I have followed the situation rather closely, only a handful of Buddhist leaders have commented on the conflicts, and those comments have been rather mild. The Buddhist blogosphere, also, save for two or three exceptions, has been silent.

Recently there has been discussion on a couple of Buddhist blogs about what this phenomenon should be called, whether terms like “Buddhist terror” or “Buddhist extremism” are justifiable, or whether something more “nuanced,” like “Ethnocentric Buddhism” would be more appropriate. This was started by a scholar, Dr. Paul Fuller, and I know academics must analyze and classify, but frankly, when considering the plight of the Rohingya Muslims, called by the UN “one of the most persecuted minorities in the world,” debating what label should be used to describe the Buddhist campaign against them seems rather trivial.  One thing is clear, what these intolerant monks are preaching cannot be called Buddhism.

I feel that if Buddhists who are a bit more enlightened were to engage the extremists in dialogue (the Buddha’s preferred method for conflict resolution), or if the Buddhist world united in one voice to basically tell these folks either to start acting like Buddhists or disrobe, there is a possibility they could be turned around, or if nothing else, made to think twice.  There is no central Buddhist authority to compel them to do anything, but world-wide Buddhist condemnation might have some effect.   At the very least, those of us who discuss Buddhism on blogs and other forms of social media could do much more to raise awareness about the situation.  To remain silent is, in my opinion, also a betrayal of Buddhism.

Aung San Suu Kyi dialoging with Muslims in 2012 (EPA)
Aung San Suu Kyi dialoging with Muslims in 2012 (EPA)

Burmese activist Aung San Suu Kyi has received her share of criticism for remaining largely silent about this situation. I have no doubt that as a Buddhist and a human being, she deplores these crimes. After all, she has stated many times that “democracy must include everyone.” She has also said that she can accomplish more by working quietly behind the scenes for reconciliation than by making public statements. This seems to me a wise strategy, considering that she is no longer a political dissent but an elected member of the Burmese Parliament and can dialogue not only with the persecutors and their victims, but also those who wield the real power.

Speaking of Suu Kyi, the other night I finally saw The Lady, the 2011 biopic about the Nobel Laureate. As I recall, the film received mostly negative reviews at the time of its release. Condensing a person’s life to a two-hour movie is always difficult, but I was satisfied and inspired by French Director Luc Besson’s effort.

Michelle Yeoh as "The Lady"
Michelle Yeoh as “The Lady”

Michelle Yeoh, who made her name as a star of Hong Kong action films, gave a strong, emotional performance. I thought she captured Suu Kyi perfectly, and from what I read afterward, she studied about 200 hours worth of audiovisual material on Suu Kyi and learned Burmese so that she could deliver Suu Kyi’s political speeches authentically.

One of the real-life characters in the film, U Win Tin, a writer and co-founder of the National League for Democracy Party with Aung San Suu Kyi, died Monday at the age of 84.

At the very end of The Lady, a quote from Aung San Suu Kyi appears on the screen:

Please use your liberty to promote ours.”

Ultimately, there is no “your,” only “ours.” The sufferings of the Rohingya Muslims and other minority groups are our sufferings. For those who think of themselves as Buddhists, the abuses of a small group of extremists committed in the name of Buddha, is our shame, and our business.

We, who live in more democratic societies where we enjoy the right of free speech, should use our speech to promote human rights and freedom for all.

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Short Takes:Two Interviews

(AP Photo/Saul Loeb)

Aung San Suu Kyi is in the United States for a 17-day tour. Yesterday, she met with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Just look at the expression of joy on Clinton’s face. It’s wonderful.

Suu Kyi was interviewed by Scott Stearns for Voice of America. He asked her this:

 STEARNS: One final question. Another question from Facebook – In your years under house arrest, what is it that kept it going? Did you feel that it was just never going to end?

ASSK:  No I never felt it was never going to end,  and I didn’t really feel the need for anything to keep me going.  I felt myself to be on the path that I had chosen and I was perfectly prepared to keep to that path.

I don’t know if I would have that kind of perseverance. Aung San Suu Kyi has been free nearly two years now, and she will be in Los Angeles at the Convention Center on October 2, and I am free to attend this free event. I am really looking forward to seeing and hearing this woman I have admired for so long. If you’re in the L.A. area and are interested, go here.

Dylan in 1963

Bob Dylan is also on tour in the U.S., and Canada. Last week, I shared some thoughts on Bob’s new album and I mentioned how he’s been accused of plagiarism. Accused is not the right word. It’s a proven fact. Bob has been a serial plagiarist going back to his high school days. Below are some links that discuss some of the incidents.

What does Dylan have to say about it? In a recent interview with Mikal Gilmore in Rolling Stone, he says, “Wussies and pussies complain about that stuff.”

He also claims, “In folk and jazz, quotation is a rich and enriching tradition.” That’s true, to a certain extent. In rock, for instance, who hasn’t borrowed from Chuck Berry? That classic guitar riff has been used in plenty of songs with only a few of the borrowers crediting Berry, who in turn borrowed the lick from his piano player, Johnnie Johnson. Bruce Springsteen has been rather open about what he calls “stealing.” Listen to Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire” sometime and then listen to Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Travelin’ Band.” It’s basically the same song, Springsteen just slowed it down.

Still, when an artist releases 3 albums in a row full of “quotation” and refried blues licks, it gets a bit old. I cannot believe the reviews Bob’s latest, Tempest, is getting. If it is the best album of the year, then the rest of the stuff out there must be really putrid.

In new interview Bob sort of confesses to stealing lines from Japanese novelist Junichi Yakuza (2001’s Love and Theft), and Civil War poet Henry Timrod (2006’s Modern Times).

Bob “writes” a poem in 1957.

Plagiarism in Chronicles Volume One.

Questions about Bob’s “Original” Artwork.

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From The Saffron Revolution to The Saffron Racism

Last week Buddhist monks in Burma led a demonstration in the city of Mandalay against the Muslim minority Rohingya, the first large monk-led demonstrations in Burma since the 2007 uprising against military rule. But things were different this time. Instead of marching for democracy, the monks were marching is support of President Thein Sein’s proposal that the Rohingya, described by human rights groups as one of the world’s most oppressed minorities, be segregated and deported.

The 2007 protests, called the Saffron Revolution after the color of monks’ robes, were widely hailed as a defining moment in the history of Burma. Sadly, this too may be on the same order, and the current situation seems as surreal as it is ironic. Thein Sein was Prime Minister in 2007, when the government waged a violent crackdown on the monks. Now, the monks are supporting him.

Human Rights Watch Deputy Director for Asia Phil Robertson told Voice of America last week that the monks’ moral authority “raises the stakes in the sectarian tensions”:

The fact that these monks just several years ago were protesting for democracy and human rights, and are today now protesting for exclusion and potential deportation of a particular ethnic group causes some concern that the government in Burma may in fact listen to these kinds of voices.”

I wonder, though, if the monks haven’t now lost their moral authority. I am beginning to wonder if Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s champion of democracy, isn’t finding herself on “shaky moral ground.”

Aung San Suu Kyi continues to pick up criticism over the way she has reacted to the Rohingya controversy. As Jocelyn Gecker of the AP reports, “For weeks, Suu Kyi has dodged questions on the plight of a Muslim minority known as the Rohingya, prompting rare criticism of the woman.” A blogger at the Huffington Post asks, Should Aung San Suu Kyi be Stripped of her Nobel Peace Prize? At the Wall Street Journal, William McGowan writes this:

In Europe to receive her belated Nobel Peace Prize when the Rohingya crisis peaked, Aung San Suu Kyi was like a deer caught in headlights. When asked if the Rohingya should be treated as citizens, she answered. “I do not know,” followed by convoluted statements about citizenship laws and the need for border vigilance. Nowhere did she or the NLD [National League for Democracy] denounce either the attacks or the racist vitriol that followed them, or express sympathy for the victims.

According to some analysts, Ms. Suu Kyi’s reluctance to speak out reflected concern for her own parliamentary district, where anti-Rohingya feeling runs high. Others note the fierce racism of Buddhists in Rakhine, a state that plays a key role in the NLD’s wider electoral strategy.

The pinched response left many observers downcast. Journalist Francis Wade, who has followed the democratic transition in Burma closely, wonders whether Western observers have “overromanticized” the struggle between the NLD and the junta and if the pro-democracy movement ever had the “wholesale commitment to the principle of tolerance” many presumed.”

Perhaps we’ve also “overromanticized” Aung San Suu Kyi as well. “The Lady,” as she is often called, will be in the United States next week. She’ll travel to Washington to receive the Congressional Gold Medal, the top honor bestowed by the US Congress. She will also pay tribute to five leading activists from Burma who will accept the National Endowment for Democracy’s (NED) 2012 Democracy Award honoring the Democracy Movement of Burma at an event scheduled for September 20 at Capitol. Suu Kyi will speak at the Allen County War Memorial Coliseum in Ft. Wayne, Indiana Tuesday, September 25.

I truly don’t know what to think of all this. I find it bizarre, and terribly sad. A recent artcle in the Smithsonian.com suggests that “It is impossible to understand Aung San Suu Kyi, or Myanmar, without understanding Buddhism.” Well, I don’t understand.

I fail to see how anyone who has a commitment to Buddhist ideals can remain silent in the face of this kind of injustice. I’m willing to cut Aung San Suu Kyi some slack. I’m hoping there is some reason we don’t know about that explains her reluctance to speak out. I don’t feel quite as generous toward other quarters . . .

As the Saffron Revolution gives way to Saffron Racism, we also hear the sound of the Saffron Silence, as Buddhists worldwide continue to be largely silent on this issue . . . and once again, we say hello to darkness, our old friend . . .

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Having A Stubborn Streak

"The Lady" meets the Dalai Lama

I’ve been on vacation. Visiting relatives in Northern California. Had a wonderful time. Now I’m back and catching up on all the news and different things I missed while I was away: Rodney King died. That guy had one troubled life. Hosni Mubarak suffered a stroke and may be brain dead. And Henry Hill, the guy who inspired Goodfellas, also passed away. Aung San Suu Kyi traveled to Europe and finally got her Nobel Prize.  And yesterday, on her 67th birthday, she met with the Dalai Lama.

In the UK, someone asked Aung San Suu Kyi how she found the strength to resist the military government in Burma for so long, and she said,

During this journey I have found great warmth and great support among people all over the world . . . So it’s all of you and people like you who have given me the strength to continue . . . And I suppose I do have a stubborn streak in me.”

Stubbornness is not usually considered a positive trait, but all truly great people are stubborn. Unyielding might be a better word for it. I’m thinking especially of my aunt, who is English, and not because she is particularly stubborn or unyielding herself (although she probably is to some degree), but because during one of the evenings I spent at her and my uncle’s house, she told me some stories about her life as a young woman in London during the early days of World War II, when the Germans were bombing the city and the block she lived in was completely destroyed. Thank goodness, the English people were stubborn, unyielding, and refused to knuckle under to Hitler’s onslaught.

There were a lot of stubborn people around that time. Churchill was stubborn, so was Roosevelt, and Gandhi. Stubborn people are real heroes of life. In more recent times, Nelson Mandela was stubborn. After his long years of imprisonment, he stubbornly did not give in to hatred, bitterness, or vengeance. Stubborn people refuse to yield to oppression, or life-threatening diseases. They are the kind of people who do not accept their circumstances in life and want to better themselves, or resist acceptance of the way things are and because they’re stubborn, they work to enact change. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of being stubborn enough to just survive.

In this sense, I think stubbornness is good trait for Buddhists to cultivate. I hear many people complain about meditation practice these days. They say, well, you know, Buddhism is more than meditation, and so on. They’re right, and yet, I have the feeling that’s just a rationalization, an excuse. Whether it’s silent meditation or chanting, a daily practice is hard to maintain. Maybe these complainers lack the stubbornness to keep it up.

“Resolution” is another good word for stubbornness. Shantideva wrote:

The thought of enlightenment has two stages: (1) the resolution for enlightenment; and (2) the advancement toward the same. As the holy Gandavyuha says: ‘Rare, my son, in all the world are such beings who make a resolution toward the highest illumination, yet rarer than these are they that have started toward the same’ . . . The first of these, the thought of the resolution towards enlightenment, is produced by the decision of the mind: ‘I must become a Buddha’ for the Surangama Sutra says that the thought of enlightenment produced by actual deception is a cause of Buddhahood . . .”

The way I interpret this is that the “deception” is the notion that there is a final stage, a consummate state called Buddhahood or enlightenment. It’s a deception because, as I always say, enlightenment is a journey, not a destination. Yet, without some idea of an end, we would never begin; we’d never make that decision of the mind to step off on the journey. That’s why I prefer to use the word “awakening” for enlightenment. The “ing” form implies something happening in the present, of “doing.” We don’t become enlightened so much as we are becoming enlightened, we are awakening.  And to me, being a Buddhist means having the stubbornness, the resolution, the unyielding spirit to continue the process of awakening no matter what happens.

The Dhammavadaka Sutra says,

You, no less than all beings have Buddha Nature within. Your essential Mind is pure. Therefore, when defilements cause you to stumble and fall, let not remorse nor dark foreboding cast you down. Be of good cheer and with this understanding, summon strength and walk on.”

Having a stubborn streak means to “walk on.” For 15 years the military government of Burma kept Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest. She could not step out of her small compound, yet she walked on. This year she was elected to her country’s parliament. This week she went to Norway and finally received her Nobel Prize, and she traveled to England and finally received her honorary degree from Oxford University. And she, like Mandela, has resisted the temptation of hatred, bitterness or vengeance.

Unyielding. Resolute. We should all have such a stubborn streak.

Suu Kyi/Dalai Lama Photo: Jeremy Russell/OHHDL

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