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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The Dalai Lama’s Message: True Compassion

Today Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet, turns 80. To celebrate this milestone, friends of the Dalai Lama organized the Global Compassion Summit, a three day event in Orange County, California. The summit began yesterday with the “official birthday celebration” in which world leaders, Nobel Laureates, celebrity guests, speakers and performers from around the world gathered at the Honda Center in Anaheim to pay tribute to “His Holiness” and to listen to him speak on creativity and compassion.

This October, in Philadelphia, the National Constitution Center will present the Dalai Lama with the Liberty Medal “in recognition of his advocacy for human rights worldwide.”

In Tibetan Buddhism, lamas (teachers) only teach when requested to do so, and during the several decades that the Dalai Lama has been giving public teachings and talks, compassion has been his most consistent and fundamental message. Compassion is more than an emotion, it should be dynamic, for it is also behavior.  In Essence of the Heart Sutra, the Dalai Lama writes,

978bCompassion can of course be understood on many levels, and at the highest level, compassion ultimately liberates you . . . According to Buddhism, compassion is an aspiration, a state of mind, wanting others to be free from suffering. It’s not passive – it’s not empathy alone – but rather an empathetic altruism that actively strives to free others from suffering . . .”

The aspiration, the state of mind the Dalai Lama is referring to here is what Buddhism calls bodhicitta, the wish or intention to realize awakening in order to help all living beings. Without this altruistic intention, it is not possible to realize full awakening.

However, during the practice of bodhicitta, we find that awakening is not as important as the generation of altruism and the performance of compassionate action. Or, perhaps, it is rather that deep altruism and compassionate action is awakening. The consummation of bodhicitta requires overcoming all narrow self-centered concerns and limitations, along with developing a genuine feeling of responsibility for others. What he said above, the Dalai Lama has stated many times: ultimately, compassion liberates us, and this is because through transcending the limitations of self and helping others become free from suffering, we become free from suffering, ourselves.

In another book, The Compassionate Life, he says,

True compassion is not just an emotional response but a firm commitment founded on reason. Because of this firm foundation, a truly compassionate attitude toward others does not change even if they behave negatively. Genuine compassion is based not on our own projections and expectations, but rather on the needs of the other: irrespective of whether another person is a close friend or an enemy, as long as that person wishes for peace and happiness and wishes to overcome suffering, then on that basis we develop genuine concern for their problem. This is genuine compassion.

For a Buddhist practitioner, the goal is to develop this genuine compassion, this genuine wish for the well-being of another, in fact for every living being throughout the universe.”

Real compassion is not based on any religious or political creed; it is altruism that is truly universal. It comes from the heart, and the mind, and not from belief.

Tenzin Gyatso, Ocean of Wisdom
great teacher of the Middle Way,
I make this request O Lama,
please remain strong and please live long.

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