“Without an enemy you cannot practice tolerance”

A few weeks after 9/11, The Onion (“America’s Finest New Source”) ran this headline:  “A Shattered Nation Longs to Care about Stupid Bullshit Again.”  It wasn’t fake news but satire, humor, and there was probably some truth to it.  The Onion could use that headline again now and it would be at least partly true.

The election in November and the inauguration in January has left many of us really bummed out.  We have a new term for it:  Post Election Stress Disorder.  PESD.  Evidently, it hits people on both sides.  The American Psychological Association’s recent survey, “Stress in America,” shows that 49 percent of Americans remain concerned about the election, 66 percent are concerned about the future of the nation, and 57 percent were worried about the current political climate.  The election is still stressing people out, while the inauguration is still creeping them out.

Over the weekend, Huffington Post ran an article titled “A Zen Master’s Advice on Coping with Trump,” the Zen master being Thich Nhat Hanh.  The piece includes some quotes from Thay’s new book, At Home in the World.  The HP also asked a nun and a monk from Plum Village in France for some guidance on how to survive in Trumpland.

Brother Phap Dung stated,

“We have the wrong perception that we are separate from the other. So in a way Trump is a product of a certain way of being in this world so it is very easy to have him as a scapegoat. But if we look closely, we have elements of Trump in us and it is helpful to have time to reflect on that.”

The article also quoted James S. Gordon, a psychiatrist and founder of The Center for Mind-Body Medicine, who wrote in The Guardian,

“Trump’s grand and vulgar self-absorption is inviting all of us to examine our own selfishness. His ignorance calls us to attend to our own blind spots.  The fears that he stokes and the isolation he promotes goad us to be braver, more generous.”

The Trump Presidency is almost unbearable to me.  It is an outrage and a national embarrassment.  My fear of and loathing for the man is wide, and deep.  But deeper still is a place within where I know that Phap Dung and James Gordon are right:  Trump is a reflection of ourselves.

The enemy always is.

In 2011, following the death of Osama bin Laden, I wrote:

“As a way of developing abundant compassion, prayers for a monster can be powerful. When we practice loving-kindness meditation, one of the four types of persons we develop compassion toward is a “hostile” person.  Someone with whom we are at odds, have difficulties about, who provokes our anger…” 

Trump is certainly in that category.  I added that “sometimes practicing compassion should be a real challenge.”  Part of the challenge is looking inside and seeing the reflection of our enemy within.  It is going to be difficult for me to summon up warm thoughts of loving-kindness for the monster in the White House.  It is much easier to despise him.  But that is not the Bodhisattva Way.

Compassion does not mean we stop our resistance, or that we cease calling the enemy out for his frequent lies, or stop mocking his alternative reality.  The way I look at it, resistance is compassion, too.  We resist for the sake of ourselves and others.

There is no doubt in my mind the nation, and the world, would be better off if Agent Orange had never run for president, let alone gotten himself elected.  But the enemy is here, and for us, his presence is not a reason for despair; it is an opportunity, a cause for compassion, a test of our capacity for tolerance.

“For a practitioner of love and compassion, an enemy is one of the most important teachers.  Without an enemy you cannot practice tolerance, and without tolerance you cannon build a sound basis of compassion.  So in order to practice compassion, you should have an enemy.

When you face your enemy who is going to hurt you, that is the real time to practice tolerance. Therefore, an enemy is the cause of the practice of tolerance; tolerance is the effect or result of an enemy.  So those are cause and effect.  As is said, ‘Once something has the relationship of arising from that thing, one cannot consider that thing from which it arises as a harmer; rather it assists the production of the effect’.”

Shantideva, A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life*

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As quoted in How to Practice: The Way to a Meaningful Life by Dalai Lama XIV

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Walls

When I was in high school, I saw an ad in Time Magazine that I’ve never forgotten.  Well, actually I’ve forgotten what the ad was for, but not the headline:

When you put up a wall who are you really shutting out?

I’ve not forgotten the Berlin Wall either.  Officially, it was the Anti-Fascist Protective Wall.  Remember Reagan’s line “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”?

Gorbachev did not tear the wall down.  The people did.  It started with 13,000 East German tourists who escaped to Hungary by way of Austria.  It started with some people wanting to leave oppression and go somewhere else.  Like ripples in a pond, it spread and in the end, the East German government had to open the borders and the wall came down.

Walls can be useful.  For instance, a good firewall for your computer is a smart thing to have.  I don’t know about you but my computer is an extension of me.  So the firewall protects me.

I’ve always needed protection.  I’ve always needed walls.

But the challenge of life is to tear down walls, remove the barriers that shut us out from each other.

“For when those walls come down, then love takes over, and it no longer matters what is possible or impossible…”

– Paulo Coelho, By the River Piedra I Sat Down and Wept

In tearing down walls, it is necessary to understand the meaning of empathy, to recognize and appreciate another person’s suffering.  Then, do something about it.  Empathy and action are the two components that produce compassion.

I have mentioned before that the Japanese Buddhist term for compassion, jihi, means “to care, to cry” and “to remove the cause for suffering.”

Around the world, people feel isolated.  Instead of building walls, we should be trying to recover our sense of unity with other people.  Buddhism teaches that not only must we have respect for others, a sense of responsibility toward others is also required.

Kenchen Thrangu Rinpoche says,

“Others, who feel compassion for human beings, feel compassion for the human beings of their own country but not for the human beings of other countries.  Then, some feel compassion for their friends but not for anyone else.  Thus, it seems that we draw a line somewhere.  We feel compassion for those on one side of the line but not for those on the other side of the line.  We feel compassion for one group but not for another.  That is where our compassion is flawed.  What did the Buddha say about that?  It is not necessary to draw that line.  Nor is it suitable.  Everyone wants compassion, and we can extend our compassion to everyone.”

In this sense, we can add that it is not necessary to build the wall.

We don’t need more separation.

We don’t need more thought control.

We don’t to be just more bricks in the wall.

It is up to us, the people, to tear down the wall, or prevent it from being built.

(apologies to Pink Floyd)

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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

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Tashi and the Monk

I watched a wonderful short documentary the other night on HBO, Tashi and the Monk.

tashi-monkThe monk is actually an ex-monk, Lobsang Phuntsok, who runs a school for orphans and abandoned children. Tashi is a 5-year-old girl whose mother died and father is an alcoholic. She is the youngest and newest member of the community. She has behavioral problems and reminds Phuntsok of his own childhood. He was born to an unwed mother and was often “very naughty.” Sent to a monastery, he continued to misbehave but eventually he changed. He’s hoping to see that same change in Tashi.

The Jhamtse Gatsal Children’s Community is located in the district of Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh, India, a place so remote it takes three days to get there from the nearest airport. The children come from nearby villages.

Lobsang Phuntsok studied with the Dalai Lama and taught Buddhism in Boston, before giving up his ordination in order to return to the Indian Himalayas to help unfortunate children. His work with the children is based on the principle that we should take good care of each other. Lobsang encourages an older boy to guide Tashi: “You must help her understand . . . what is right and wrong . . . this is your job as a responsible elder brother, OK?””

Jhamtse Gatsal is Tibetan for “garden of love and compassion.” The school is home to about 85 children. It is understaffed and overburdened.  Because of this, Phuntsok cannot take in as many children as he would like. However, he is like a father to all the children he has accepted and they call him “daddy.”

At one point during the film, the children, many of whom are motherless, sing a song:

In this great big world,
There is so much love and care,
But there is no kindness greater
Than my mother’s love.

From the Tibetan Buddhist perspective, no one is motherless. Recognizing that in the past all sentient beings have been one’s mother is part of the process of generating bodhicitta, the “thought of awakening”, along with remembering their kindness, and repaying that kindness with love, boundless compassion, and altruistic intention.

Nagarjuna said, “If we divided this earth into pieces the size of juniper berries, the number of these would not be as great as the number of times that each sentient being has been our mother.”

Directed by Andrew Hinton and Johnny Burke, Tashi and the Monk is only 45 minutes long. If you watch it, that will be three quarters of an hour well spent.  It is showing this month on HBO and may be available from other services and on other platforms.

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Crime and Punishment

The United States is world’s largest jailer, with 2.2 million people currently incarcerated. That is a statistic I would expect to see for a totalitarian regime, not the “land of the free.” But we have more of our people in prisons than Russia, China, and North Korea combined. Nearly half of the people jailed in the U.S. are there because of non-violent crimes, or because they are mentally-ill, or too poor to pay court-ordered fines.

Last week, President Obama in his remarks to the N.A.A.C.P. annual convention addressed the situation and he noted that “There are a lot of folks who belong in prison.” But he also said, “Mass incarceration makes our country worse off. And we need to do something about it.”

Speaking to the same group a day later, former President Clinton acknowledged his role in exacerbating the situation when in 1994 he signed into law a omnibus crime bill that increased prison sentences and “made the problem worse.”

As a proud American, I am embarrassed, and outraged, by the statistics cited above. However, I doubt that anything will change anytime soon. Not as long as so many people cling the notion that vengeance is justice and focus on punishment instead of rehabilitation. I might add that according to Craig Haney, PhD, a psychologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, , rehabilitation was a key part of U.S. prison policy, until the mid-1970s when it began to recede in favor of a “get tough on crime” approach that sees punishment as prison’s main function.*

It’s an old debate. In terms of legislation or reforms, I’m not certain about the best solution. However, as I am always interested in Buddhist ideas for modern problems, I feel we can take a cue from a few verses by Nagarjuna. It is not the specifics in his words that are important, but rather the spirit of compassion behind them.

I may be guilty of repeating myself on certain topics, such as compassion. However there are concepts which require constant repetition. In Buddhism, repetition is very important. As Shunryu Suzuki once remarked, “If you lose the spirit of repetition, your practice will become quite difficult.” This wise maxim applies to study, as well as practice.

Nagarjuna’s The Precious Garland (Ratnavalli) is a classic Buddhist text, written in the 2nd century (CE) for a Shatavahana king. Naturally, the bulk of the text deals with dharma, but for the 4th chapter, “Royal Policy,” Nagarjuna chose to give the king some practical advice. The excerpted verses here are from the translation by John Dunne and Sara McClintock prepared especially for the Dalai Lama’s teachings on the work in Los Angeles in June 1997.

Even if they rightly fine, imprison
or corporally punish (wrongdoers),
you, being always moistened by compassion,
should show kindness (to those punished).

King, out of compassion you should always
make your mind focused upon
benefiting all beings, even those
that have committed the most serious sins.

You should particularly have compassion for
those that have committed the serious sin
of murder; these ones who have ruined themselves
are indeed worthy of great persons’ compassion.

Either every day or every five days
release the weakest prisoners.
And see that it is not the case that the remaining ones
are never released, as is appropriate.

From thinking that some should never be released
you develop (behaviors and attitudes) that contradict your vows.
From contradicting your vows, you continually
accumulate more negativity.

And until they are released,
Those prisoners should be made content
by providing them with barbers, baths,
food, drink, and medical care.

As if you had the intention of making
unruly children behave properly,
you should discipline them out of compassion –
not out of anger or the desire for material gain.

Having properly examined and indentified
particularly hateful murderers,
you should send them into exile
without killing or harming them . . .

If the tree your kingship offers
the shade of tolerance, the open flowers of respect,
and the great fruit of generosity,
then the birds, your subjects, will flock to it.

More on the Dalai Lama and The Precious Garland

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* Craig Haney, The Psychological Impact of Incarceration: Implications for Post-Prison Adjustment, University of California, Santa Cruz, 2001

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