Unarmed, Unconditional, Unlimited

Very near the end of his final State of the Union speech Tuesday night, President Obama said that the America he knows is a country “Optimistic that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.”

Unarmed truth.  Think about it again: unarmed truth.

obama-martin-luther-king-jrThe President borrowed the line from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who in his 1964 Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance address said, “I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant.”

I suspect that to Dr. King, a student of Gandhian philosophy, “unarmed truth” meant the principles of satya (truth), ahimsa (non-violence), and satyagraha (“firmness in truth”) or nonviolent resistance, which for Gandhi, were eternal principles. The Mahatma once wrote,

Mere non-killing is not enough. The active part of Non-violence is love. The law of Love requires equal consideration for all life from the tiniest insect to the highest man.”

Gandhi equated the law of love with the law of gravitity and said it will work whether we accept it or not.

gandhi_tagore2We don’t use the word ‘love’ very much in Buddhism, rather we speak of loving-kindness (metta) or compassion (karuna), and yet as the great Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore (one of the first people to refer to Gandhi as “Mahatma”) said that the way of the Buddha is “the elimination of all limits of love, the sublimation of self in a truth which is love itself.”

In Buddhism, true compassion consists of two aspects: empathy, to understand and care about the sufferings of others, and action, to remove the cause for suffering, to give peace and happiness. There is an element of sacrifice with love. There are great benefits, too. The greatest benefit is when we can benefit others.

Some people tell us the idea of universal compassion is too lofty, unrealistic. But what is the alternative? Love is not the cause of the turmoil in the world. Hate is the cause.

For others, compassion is not only the path to truth, it is truth, unarmed, unconditional, unlimited.

In his Autobiography, Gandhi stated,

The instruments for the quest of truth are as simple as they are difficult. They may appear quite impossible to an arrogant person, and quite possible to an innocent child. The seeker after truth should be humbler than the dust. The world crushes the dust under its feet, but the seeker after truth should so humble himself that even the dust could crush him. Only then, and not till then, will he have a glimpse of truth.”

Only then will he or she have a glimpse of love.

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Gandhi quote at beginning from The Essential Writings, Mahatma Gandhi, Judith M. Brown,Oxford University Press, 2008, 115


“Integrity is not a conditional word.”

Today our nation is celebrating the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. Well, most of us celebrate. I wasn’t alive when Dr. King was born, but I surely remember the day he died. I lived in New Orleans at the time. There were no riots, as in some other cities, but a great deal of tension and fear for several days afterward.

There are some who feel that Dr. was the victim of a conspiracy (a view upheld by a civil trial in 1999) and that his opposition to the Vietnam War was the tipping point that sealed his doom. During the 1999 trial, Reverend James Lawson testified that King alienated President Johnson and other powerful men in the government when he repudiated the Vietnam War on April 4, 1967, exactly one year before his death, in a speech at the New York City Riverside Church, “Beyond Vietnam”:

Somehow this madness must cease. We must stop now. I speak as a child of God and brother to the suffering poor of Vietnam. I speak for those whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroyed, whose culture is being subverted . . .  I speak as a citizen of the world, for the world as it stands aghast at the path we have taken. I speak as one who loves America, to the leaders of our own nation: The great initiative in this war is ours; the initiative to stop it must be ours.”

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Thich Nhat Hanh

Dr. King went on to say, “This is the message of the great Buddhist leaders of Vietnam. Recently one of them wrote these words” and then he offered a quote. (read the entire speech) I have never seen the author of that quote identified, but I suspect it might have been Thich Nhat Hanh. They first met during the Buddhist monk’s visit to the United States in 1966. The meeting had quite an impact on Dr. King, and influenced the “Beyond Vietnam” speech.

In a 2010 interview with Oprah Winfrey, Thich Nhat Hanh recalled that meeting:

In June 1965, I wrote him a letter explaining why the monks in Vietnam immolated themselves. I said that this is not a suicide. I said that in situations like the one in Vietnam, to make your voice heard is difficult. Sometimes we have to burn ourselves in order to be heard. It is out of compassion that you do that. It is the act of love and not of despair. And exactly one year after I wrote that letter, I met him in Chicago. We had a discussion about peace, freedom, and community. And we agreed that without a community, we cannot go very far.

Oprah: How long was the discussion?

Nhat Hanh: Probably five minutes or so. And after that, there was a press conference, and he came out very strongly against the war in Vietnam.

Oprah: Do you think that was a result of your conversation?

Nhat Hanh: I believe so. We continued our work, and the last time I met him was in Geneva during the peace conference.

Oprah: Did the two of you speak then?

Nhat Hanh: Yes. He invited me up for breakfast, to talk about these issues again. I got caught in a press conference downstairs and came late, but he kept the breakfast warm for me. And I told him that the people in Vietnam call him a bodhisattva—enlightened being—because of what he was doing for his people, his country, and the world.

Oprah: And the fact that he was doing it nonviolently.

Nhat Hanh: Yes. That is the work of a bodhisattva, a buddha, always with compassion and nonviolence. When I heard of his assassination, I couldn’t believe it. I thought, “The American people have produced King but are not capable of preserving him.” I was a little bit angry. I did not eat, I did not sleep. But my determination to continue building the beloved community continues always. And I think that I felt his support always.

Oprah: Always.

Nhat Hanh: Yes.

In 1967, Dr. King nominated Thich Nhat Hanh for the Nobel Peace Prize. In his letter of nomination, King wrote, “Here is an apostle of peace and non-violence, cruelly separated from his own people while they are oppressed by a vicious war which has grown to threaten the sanity and security of the entire world.”

Although he was not awarded the Nobel Prize (there was no award that year), Thich Nhat Hanh’s peace work has earned him the respect of the world. His opposition to the war exiled him from his native land. When a person stands up for a great cause, the result is often sacrifice. Sacrifice is the heart of the bodhisattva. And so is integrity, a quality that men like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Thich Nhat Hanh exemplify, a word summed up magnificently by crime fiction writer John D. MacDonald,

Integrity is not a conditional word. It doesn’t blow in the wind or change with the weather. It is your inner image of yourself, and if you look in there and see a man who won’t cheat, then you know he never will.”


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.


“We Have Seen an Honest Man.”

“We have seen an honest man.” Those were the words Michelle Obama used to describe her husband Monday night at the last rally in Iowa. She is a wonderful woman. I have been proud these past four years that she has been our First Lady, thrilled actually.

When Barack Obama took the stage and began to reminisce about the Iowa campaign of 2008, and talked about how the campaign workers there labored without heat, sleep, and food, tears trickled out of his left eye, which he had to wipe away several times. He gave a superb speech. It brought back the feeling I had four years ago, when I thought, here is a man who has the mark of greatness on him. This year I have been pessimistic about the President’s chances for reelection. However, listening to him Monday night, I was struck once again with a strong sense that history must be on his side, and ours.

We have seen an honest man. And we have seen a dishonest man.

I have been through quite a few presidential elections, but never before have I seen a candidate lie so brazenly as Obama’s challenger. The worst part was that when caught in his lies, he didn’t care, he continued to tell them, or as Bill Clinton put it the other day, “shove his hand deeper into the cookie jar.” I thought it betrayed a troubling cynicism about the people he sought to serve. It seemed to me that the only principle he held to was the maxim attributed to H. L. Mencken, “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.”

Well, you can fool some of the people some of the time, but you can’t fool all the people all the time. Someone said something like that. But it wasn’t Lincoln.

One would hope that this election would cause the Republican Party to change their tactics and move away from the politics of deception, demagoguery, hate, and division. Yet, I think that might be just too much to expect.

We have seen an honest man. Thank goodness, we will see more of him.

The only real losers of this election are those who will refuse to join in the march of history to an America where we work together, where we take care of not just our own, but everyone. The losers will be those who would stand in the way, block up the hall. The winners are us, we the people – all the people.

Photo: Damon Winter/The New York Times


“The ravening clouds shall not long be victorious . . .”

All I have to say is that this photo really affected me when I first saw it, and still does. It conveys much about compassion, community, America, and the human spirit. Taken by Pablo Martinez Monsivais (AP) last Wednesday, it shows President Barack Obama embracing Donna Vanzant during a tour of a New Jersey neighborhood affected by Hurricane Sandy. The text is taken from two poems by Walt Whitman, “Tears” and “On the Beach at Night.”

Tears! tears! tears!
In the night, in solitude, tears,
On the white shore dripping, dripping, suck’d in by the sand,
Tears, not a star shining, all dark and desolate,
Moist tears from the eyes of a muffled head;
O who is that ghost? that form in the dark, with tears?
O storm, embodied, rising, careering with swift steps along the beach!
O wild and dismal night storm, with wind–O belching and desperate!

Weep not, weep not,
The ravening clouds shall not long be victorious,
They shall not long possess the sky, they devour the stars only in apparition –
They are immortal, all those stars both silvery and golden shall shine out again,
The great stars and the little ones shall shine out again, they endure,
The vast immortal suns and the long-enduring pensive moons shall again shine.