On Men and Kings: Midnight in Springfield

Few words today.  It’s a sad day, tragic.  Not a day of celebration but one for reflection, and protest.  I know many of you share the same feelings I have, and you who are outside the United Stare share our heartache and concern.

I’m not a sore loser.  My side has lost before.  This is different.  It is disturbing in ways that past losses were not.  It’s frightening, because he is a dangerous man.

I was outraged when I learned of the secret meetings in early January 2009 where leading Republican lawmakers vowed to oppose President Obama at every step, and when a conservative talk-show host said even before Obama’s inauguration, “I hope he fails.”

Now the shoe is on the other foot.  But, again, it’s different.  For one thing, I do not object to the new President because of the color of his skin, rather on account of the content of his character.  And, yes, I want him to fail.  Individuals who preach hate and trade on fear should never remain victorious.

I agree with our outgoing President, there is more good than bad.  There is also a Buddhist maxim that says great good always follows great evil.  We have hope.  Tomorrow, I will be more hopeful.  Today I feel somber.

I’d like to think that someone like Abraham Lincoln would lower their heads, ashamed at this desecration of democracy.  A fanciful notion, I admit, but it offers some solace, and we all need some of that on occasion.  Sometimes it’s about whatever gets you through the night.

In the poem by Vachel Lindsay, written in 1914, Abraham Lincoln is unable to get through his endless night peacefully. He walks the streets, brooding, contemplating the same matter that led the Buddha to living peace, the matter of human suffering.

Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight
By Vachel Lindsay

(In Springfield, Illinois)

It is portentous, and a thing of state
That here at midnight, in our little town
A mourning figure walks, and will not rest,
Near the old court-house pacing up and down.

Or by his homestead, or in shadowed yards
He lingers where his children used to play,
Or through the market, on the well-worn stones
He stalks until the dawn-stars burn away.

A bronzed, lank man! His suit of ancient black,
A famous high top-hat and plain worn shawl
Make him the quaint great figure that men love,
The prairie-lawyer, master of us all.

He cannot sleep upon his hillside now.
He is among us:—as in times before!
And we who toss and lie awake for long
Breathe deep, and start, to see him pass the door.

His head is bowed. He thinks on men and kings.
Yea, when the sick world cries, how can he sleep?
Too many peasants fight, they know not why,
Too many homesteads in black terror weep.

The sins of all the war-lords burn his heart.
He sees the dreadnaughts scouring every main.
He carries on his shawl-wrapped shoulders now
The bitterness, the folly and the pain.

He cannot rest until a spirit-dawn
Shall come;—the shining hope of Europe free;
The league of sober folk, the Workers’ Earth,
Bringing long peace to Cornland, Alp and Sea.

It breaks his heart that kings must murder still,
That all his hours of travail here for men
Seem yet in vain.   And who will bring white peace
That he may sleep upon his hill again?

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The Wisdom of Anger

A wise person does not neglect the way of propriety.  Democracy means freedom and equality, and mutual respect.  Authoritarians and demagogues use people as a tool.  The American way was always supposed to be about appreciating people as an end in themselves . . .

Trying to gather my thoughts about this election has been difficult.  I was so angry.  I still am.  Problem is, Buddhists are not supposed to get angry.  We have this notion that we always have to avoid any display of emotion, that there is never justification for anger, and our words must always be kind and healing.

I don’t believe that every moment has to be a kumbaya moment.  Now and again, there is justification for anger and rather than be afraid of the anger, or be ashamed for feeling anger, we can use it.

If you are a Mahayanist, then you realize that Buddha taught a certain use for the energy of anger . . . the bodhisattva, like the peacock who can use poison to be beautiful, can use the heat, the fire of anger . . .”

So says Robert Thurman in a video “The Wisdom of Anger” (see below).  Japanese Buddhists have a term for what he is talking about:  hendoku iyaku – change poison into medicine.

The purpose of the Buddha’s teaching is to transform negative aspects of the mind.  I suspect that many Buddhists practice suppression rather than transformation.  There are situations when negativity has to come out in order to be an object for transformation.  Furthermore, we should keep in mind that there are two truths and they are not separate, except when they are.  Conventionally speaking then, anger directed toward injustice or the infliction of harm can be positive.

T’ien-t’ai founder Chih-i was one of the first Buddhist teachers to explain how good and evil are non-dual.  Ng Yu Kwan* tells us that Chih-i taught “good and evil do not make terms with each other, but are constantly in a struggle.  Good must overturn evil in order to prevail, and good can prevail only by the overturning of evil.  It follows that overturning evil is a necessary and sufficient condition for the prevalence of good.  But the overturning of evil does not imply extirpation of evil.”

Why not?  Because ultimately, good and evil are non-dual.  They are “different states of the same thing under different conditions.”  The keyword here is ultimately.  This is the view from ultimate truth and it is important for us to remember that even though the ultimate and conventional are mutually inclusive, there are times in the conventional world when it is necessary to use conventional means.

The fact is that in the Mahayana Buddhist way of expressing non-duality, things are dual sometimes.  There are situations when it truly is a matter of good vs. evil, us vs. them.

This post-election period is one of those times.  It is not wrong to identify the President-elect with evil, for what he represents – hate, misogyny, racism – are identified as evil states of mind.  We do not have to support the President-elect or unite behind him.  To do so would be like saying hate speech is acceptable, that using hate speech to win an election is something we can tolerate.  It’s isn’t.  Not in the America I was taught to believe in.  Freedom of speech and accountability for your words are not mutually exclusive.

Understanding inter-dependency (dependent origination) means taking responsibility for being infinitely connected to each other, so we want to avoid creating animosity with people whose views are different from ours and do out best to follow the ways of propriety and mutual respect.  Yet, we should not become enablers of their delusions, sold to them by demagogues and hate-mongers.

If we’re angry, we need not be ashamed of it or feel that it must be suppressed.  We can take the anger, temper it with wisdom, and then speak out, raise an objection.  Our country is in a fog.  Our protests can be the sunlight that burns off the fog.

 

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* NG Yu Kwan, T’ien-t’ai Buddhism and Early Madhyamika, University of Hawaii Press, 1993, 171

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Democracy in America

Born on this day in 1805 was Alexis de Tocqueville, the French statesman who wrote Democracy in America following a nine month visit to the United States in 1831-32.  The young country he found on his trip, the democracy still in its infancy, continues to flourish, and his book, published in 1840, remains an influential book about the United States.

tocquevilleOur contemporaries are constantly excited by two conflicting passions; they want to be led, and they wish to remain free: as they cannot destroy either one or the other of these contrary propensities, they strive to satisfy them both at once. They devise a sole, tutelary, and all-powerful form of government, but elected by the people.  They combine the principle of centralization and that of popular sovereignty; this gives them a respite: they console themselves for being in tutelage by the reflection that they have chosen their own guardians.  Every man allows himself to be put in leading-strings, because he sees that it is not a person or a class of persons, but the people at large that holds the end of his chain.

By this system the people shake off their state of dependence just long enough to select their master, and then relapse into it again.  A great many persons at the present day are quite contented with this sort of compromise between administrative despotism and the sovereignty of the people; and they think they have done enough for the protection of individual freedom when they have surrendered it to the power of the nation at large. This does not satisfy me: the nature of him I am to obey signifies less to me than the fact of extorted obedience.”

It does not satisfy me, either.  Even in the process of selecting our ‘master’, we do not shake off dependence, for we rely on others to lead us.  Democracy is a participatory system.  It demands involvement and awareness on the part of its citizens.  Our current state of affairs is one of the consequences of too little intellectual participation.

I’m not the only one who can’t get no satisfaction.  In this year’s selection process, people on both sides are dissatisfied with their choice.  Choice may be an illusion. When the alternatives for selection are forced by external powers, choice does not exist.  Too often we don’t get to choose the best of the best, rather we choose what is handed to us.

Simultaneously, it seems that fate has taken a hand this time around, and the differences between the two alternatives seems startlingly clear.  Although, this too, may be a mirage.

Churchill said, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”  This implies that democracy is the best simply because it works better.  Hillarie Belloc remarked that the “use of such language connotes that the user of it is fatigued by the effort of thought.”  He went on to say “The institution ‘works’ in proportion as it satisfies that political sense which perfect democracy would . . .”*

Because in democracy, the people are sovereign, we should never be satisfied and always strive to be greater collectively than we are.  A greater democracy means a greater community of people.  On the individual level, we can stay involved by thinking and studying about democracy.  I wish more Americans felt the need to think past the political slogans, read more of the news as opposed to just listening to it, and then, read beyond the headlines.

For Tocqueville, civic and professional associations (people coming together) and participation in the public sphere were the vital components of any true democracy.  Democracy doesn’t ‘work’; we, the people, make it work.  But only, when we are involved in it, only when we put our mind to it.

Democracy in America, what a quandary . . .

I know of no country in which there is so little independence of mind and real freedom of discussion as in America.

Alexis de Tocqueville

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Hilarie Belloc, The French Revolution, Oxford University Press, 1966, 3

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Democracy

As I see it, we’ve been sucked into this debt ceiling crisis because some folks in Washington are more interested in demagoguery than discussion and quite a few of them don’t have a very good understanding of the spirit of democracy. As far as I’m concerned, all parties share the blame. I think they could get some valuable insight by taking a look at how the early Buddhist Sangha functioned as a democratic body.

During the Buddha’s time, or what we assume was his time, around 2500 BCE, the prevalent form of government in India was republican, although it was making way for monarchies. The Buddha’s father, rather than the rich and powerful king of legend, was probably the elected head of a tribal assembly, known as a sangha. Prof. Trevor Ling, in his book The Buddha*, says that “Government by discussion was the keynote of the republics.” And it’s believed that the Buddha modeled, and obviously named, his assembly of spiritual seekers after this form of government.

Prof. Ling further notes that,

Certainly every member of the Sangha was regarded as having equality of rights in any deliberations concerning the life of the community . . . The Sangha has been described, also, as a ‘system of government formed by the Bhikkhus, for the Bhikkhus and of the Bhikkhus’**, and therefore a democracy.”

Ling points to the Buddha’s response to the controversy regarding the Vajjian confederacy, found in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta:

So long as the Vajji meet together in concord, and carry out in concord their affairs . . . so long may they be expected not to decline but to prosper.”

Prof. Ling calls attention to the word “concord.” He says “It is expressly stated that ‘concord’ or unanimity is essential for the proper functioning of the Sangha.” Some other translations use “harmony and unity.” Further on in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, the Buddha relates the seven factors of non-decline for the Bhikkhus: regular assembly, concordant assembly, reasonable rules, respect for others, skillfulness at non-attachment, peaceful atmosphere, and mindfulness.

The spirit behind these factors should be integral to any kind of democratic assembly. It’s about mutual respect, listening to others, working together harmoniously. It doesn’t mean that everyone has to agree. Difference of opinion is only natural and should be encouraged. But, in the end, harmony and compromise must rule the day for any group of individuals to prosper.

What many of our elected officials tend to forget is that they are representatives, and as such, once they take office they serve everyone in their district, including those who didn’t vote for them and those with whom they disagree. They are not really in office to vote solely out of concern for their principles, they’re supposed to vote with a concern for the greater good of all. I don’t think anyone wants to see the interest on their credit card go up, or have any further damage inflicted upon our already weakened economy. We’d rather see them come to some sort of agreement, sooner than later.

When something like this happened in the early Sangha, when there was no hope of compromise, the dissenters would leave and form their own assembly: “The Buddhist method is one which allows minority views to be held, and not disregarded, but the price to be paid is the multiplication of bodies with different points of view . . .”

Unfortunately, when it’s a nation at stake, picking up your ball and going to play elsewhere is not an option. Actually, we did that once before. Didn’t work out too well. I think they call it the Civil War.

The only other option for the Sangha was to adopt the approach used by the Catholic Church and some others, totalitarianism. You know, brand the dissenters as heretics and condemn them to hell by excommunication or by sword. Fortunately, the early Sangha decided not to go that route.

Ling notes that this early Buddhist model of democracy,

[As] a prototype social organization of the future . . . [has] so to speak, a large practicality gap . . . The two major reasons against the idea of the whole of contemporary Indian society becoming a universal Buddhist sangha were, first, the existence of powerful monarchies, and second, the unreadiness of the mass of the people for participation in the kind of society envisaged in Buddhist teaching.”

The situation is not much different today. Still, our representatives, and we, the people, could benefit from some reflection on the principles discussed here.

* T. Ling, The Buddha, Great Britain, 1976

** G. De, Democracy in Early Buddhist Sangha, Calcutta, 1955

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The World’s Only Imprisoned Nobel Peace Laureate

Aung San Suu Kyi, prisoner of Burma, was born June 19, 1945.

The White House

Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release

June 18, 2010

Statement by the President on the Birthday of Aung San Suu Kyi

I wish to convey my best wishes to Aung San Suu Kyi, the world’s only imprisoned Nobel Peace Laureate, on the occasion of her 65th birthday on June 19.  Her determination, courage, and personal sacrifice in working for human rights and democratic change in Burma inspire all of us who stand for freedom and justice.  I once again call on the Burmese government to release Aung San Suu Kyi and all political prisoners immediately and unconditionally and to allow them to build a more stable, prosperous Burma that respects the rights of all its citizens.  Towards this end, I encourage all stakeholders in Burma to engage in genuine dialogue towards national reconciliation, a vital step to set Burma on a more positive course for the future.

Today, her 65h birthday, is also her 15th year under house arrest. Her two children will not be with her to celebrate. Aung San Suu Kiy has not seen her children for years, and in 1999, when her husband was dying, she was prevented from being at his side.

Aung San Suu Kyi won’t be going out to dinner in celebration. She won’t be going to a show. There will be no party. Likely she will receive a cake and perhaps some cards from her supporters, delivered by a family friend.  She lives in a dank, dark house with a crumbling roof, surrounded by soldiers, a prisoner of the ruling military junta.

What was her crime? She called for non-violent resistance against the military dictatorship that massacred thousands of protesting students. She founded a political party that won 82 per cent of the popular vote in the 1990 general election, and would have been appointed Prime Minister.

For those crimes the military junta nullified the election and placed Aung San Suu Kyi in jail, and then under house arrest, her status for all but five of the last twenty years.

Aung San Suu Kyi is a small, delicate, and beautiful woman with a soft but powerful voice. We can hear that voice from beyond the confines of her lonely prison. It has been called a fearless voice, a voice of hope, and it is a voice that cannot be silenced or suppressed, a voice that needs to be answered with millions of voices raised as one voice,  one mantra that must be recited over and over again around the world: FREE AUNG SAN SUU KYI.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi“Fearlessness may be a gift but perhaps more precious is the courage acquired through endeavour, courage that comes from cultivating the habit of refusing to let fear dictate one’s actions, courage that could be described as ‘grace under pressure’ – grace which is renewed repeatedly in the face of harsh, unremitting pressure.

Within a system which denies the existence of basic human rights, fear tends to be the order of the day. Fear of imprisonment, fear of torture, fear of death, fear of losing friends, family, property or means of livelihood, fear of poverty, fear of isolation, fear of failure. A most insidious form of fear is that which masquerades as common sense or even wisdom, condemning as foolish, reckless, insignificant or futile the small, daily acts of courage which help to preserve man’s self-respect and inherent human dignity. It is not easy for a people conditioned by fear under the iron rule of the principle that might is right to free themselves from the enervating miasma of fear. Yet even under the most crushing state machinery courage rises up again and again, for fear is not the natural state of civilised man.

The wellspring of courage and endurance in the face of unbridled power is generally a firm belief in the sanctity of ethical principles combined with a historical sense that despite all setbacks the condition of man is set on an ultimate course for both spiritual and material advancement. It is his capacity for self-improvement and self-redemption which most distinguishes man from the mere brute. At the root of human responsibility is the concept of perfection, the urge to achieve it, the intelligence to find a path towards it, and the will to follow that path if not to the end at least the distance needed to rise above individual limitations and environmental impediments. It is man’s vision of a world fit for rational, civilised humanity which leads him to dare and to suffer to build societies free from want and fear. Concepts such as truth, justice and compassion cannot be dismissed as trite when these are often the only bulwarks which stand against ruthless power.”

From ‘Freedom from Fear’ in Freedom from Fear and other writings ed. Michael Aris (London: Viking, 1991)

I highly recommend this excellent interview in the Shambhala Sun in which she discusses at some length Buddhism and meditation: Conversations with Aung San Suu Kyi.

And, there are many ways in which you can stand with this remarkable woman. To learn about them, please visit Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s Pages.

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