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

– – – – – – – – – –

* 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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More Precious than a Wish-fulfilling Jewel

Chiron was a centaur, and if you know your Greek mythology, you’ll recall that centaurs are half-human, half-horse. Chiron, however, was a something special. He was extremely wise, and he was an immortal god to boot. One day he was accidently struck by Hercules’ arrow. The wound was so agonizingly painful, Chiron wanted to die. But he couldn’t, because he was immortal. One of the downsides to being a god, I guess.

Eventually, he was able to renounce his immortality and before he went off to Elysium (the afterlife), he taught the art of medicine to man, and to gods, including Askelpios, who became the god of medicine. For this, Chiron is known as the “father of medicine” and the “wounded healer.”

Carl Jung borrowed “wounded healer” to describe an archetype he saw in the relationship between an analyst and patients. An analyst, or doctor, is able to treat others because “The doctor is effective only when he himself is affected. Only the wounded physician heals.”

If we unpack that idea a bit, then we can say that generally speaking, as we are all wounded in some way, for we all experience pain and suffering, and because each of us has the capacity to help others to alleviate their pain and suffering, we are all healers. Furthermore, as the myth of Chiron represents the ideal of compassion and selfless service, it is similar to the ideal of the Bodhisattva; so, we can be Bodhisattvas, too.

Jung, in outlining his concept of the wounded healer in Fundamental Questions of Psychotherapy (1951), said he believed disease was the best training for a physician.

Jihi (Compassion): “to care, to cry: to remove the cause for suffering.”
Jihi (Compassion): “to care, to cry: to remove the cause for suffering.”

There is no doubt that the experience of sufferings is beneficial training for the practice of altruism, but in Buddhism the prime cause for helping others is much more fundamental. In Supplement to the Middle Way, Chandrakirti wrote, “Compassion alone is seen as the seed . . . as water for its growth, and as ripening into a lasting source of usefulness. And so, first, I pay homage to compassion.”

He’s talking about Bodhicitta, the wish to realize awakening for the benefit of all living beings. There are two kinds of bodhicitta: “aspiration bodhicitta”, generating the thought, and “action bodhicitta” or putting the thought into practice.

Year ago, at a meditation class I was leading, a first time visitor, a rather cynical young man, wanted to know why we should practice compassion. He thought there should be a reason for it. I must admit that I failed at making him understand that compassion does not need a reason. It is a kind of vicarious identification, you see the suffering of living beings and you feel empathy, you feel compassion. I realize now that he suffered from an acute sense of separation from others and consequently, he thought he needed some rationale for practicing compassion.

That is why it is important for us who understand the inseparability, the interdependence of all things to reflect on thoughts like the one we find expressed in Geshe Langri Thangpa’s Eight Verses of Training the Mind:

By thinking of all sentient beings
As more precious than a wish-fulfilling jewel
For accomplishing the highest aim,
I will always hold them dear.

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Killer Country

“Some people call me an idiot, but I know who I am. I am The Killer.”
– Jerry Lee Lewis

Last weekend I watched all six episodes of The Jinx, HBO’s documentary on millionaire real estate heir Robert Durst. No doubt, you’ve heard about this guy in recent days. He is a suspect in the 1982 disappearance of his wife, Kathleen; in 2003, he was acquitted of murder charges in Texas, despite that he admitted dismembering the victim; and Saturday in New Orleans he was arrested in connection with the 2000 execution-style murder of his friend Susan Berman here in Los Angeles. It’s an engrossing story, and in a warped sort of way, Durst is a highly interesting person.

What is it about killers that fascinates us so? Macbeth, Jack the Ripper, Lizzie Borden, Charles Manson, Hannibal Lecter, and my all-time favorite, Dexter Morgan – fictional or real, we love ‘em. Can’t get enough of their stories. Perhaps it is because they commit the foulest of all deeds, the taking of life. Whatever it may be, I am not going to try to analyze it here. Instead, I would like to recount for you briefly the story of the Buddha and a murderer named Angulimala.

The story of Angulimala (“finger garland,” or “necklace of fingers”) comes from the early sutras. Angulimala’s father was the Brahmin minister to the king of Kosala. The story goes that when Angulimala was born, a “constellation of thieves” appeared in the sky, prophesying he would become a robber.  And as it often happens in tales like this, the prophesy was fulfilled, in a manner of speaking.

Angulimala was sent to study in Taxila, in present day Pakistan, where one of the earliest universities in the world existed. He became the student of a Brahmin teacher and he excelled at his studies. Other students resented Angulimala’s brilliance and they made up stories that caused the teacher to believe Angulimala was evil. The teacher demanded that Angulimala provide him with a gift before he would be allowed to “graduate.” The gift the teacher requested was 1,000 fingers, each taken from a different victim. The teacher figured that that Angulimala would get himself killed during the course of collecting the fingers and thus he would be rid of this evil student.

Evidently, Angulimala had no problem accepting this grisly assignment. He became a highwayman, hiding in the forest and robbing travelers of their fingers. Unfortunately, the travelers died as a result of these holdups.

The people in the area asked the king of Kosala to capture Angulimala. Angulimala’s mother went out to find him and warn him that the king had vowed to hunt him down. The Buddha set out to find Angulimala, too. Buddha had divined that Angulimala had collected 999 fingers and needed only one more.

angulimala-buddhaWhen Angulimala saw the Buddha enter the forest, he rushed out to murder him and take his 1000th finger. He took out his sword, raised it and chased after the Buddha but could not catch him even though the Buddha was walking at a slow pace. Eventually, Angulimala became wore out and shouted for the Buddha to stop. Buddha turned and calmly said, “Angulimala, I have stopped for all time, forsaking violence; but you have not stopped, you have no restraint towards living beings; that is why I have stopped and you have not.” So moved was Angulimala by the words the Buddha spoke to him that he immediately renounced his murderous ways and became a bhikkhu.

The story is about the transformative power of compassion as well as the redemptive power of the Buddha’s teachings. Transformation is always possible. Any person, regardless of how many negative acts they have committed, can change and live a more positive life. Compassion is more powerful than punishment. Angulimala could have been captured, imprisoned or executed. Instead, he changed and thus was able to benefit far more beings than those he previously harmed. If you accept the doctrine of karma, there is also the notion that he was able to change his karma and improve his circumstance in future lives, so he would not come back to kill again.

Most importantly, we should always remember that every life matters. There is an old Buddhist saying that even a murderer loves his mother, meaning that every person, no matter how wretched and depraved, has some good in him or her somewhere. Even Charles Manson is entitled to the basic dignity of life.

It’s a safe bet that most people who know Robert Durst or know about him believe he is guilty of at least three murders. Whether he is or not, it doesn’t alter the fact that even Robert Durst has a Buddha-nature.

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