Where The Mind is Without Fear: Denison, Nimoy, and Avijit Roy

American Buddhist pioneer Ruth Denison has passed away at the age of 92. She suffered a massive stroke a few weeks ago and was in hospice care.

Denison by Robert Beatty
Denison by Robert Beatty

Ruth Schäfer was born in Germany, where she saw first hand the horror of the Nazis and then immediately after World War II suffered abuse from Russian soldiers in occupied Berlin. She soon left her homeland, came to America, and settled in Los Angeles. There she met Henry Dennison, an independently wealthy intellectual who stimulated an interest in Ruth for the burgeoning counter-culture and Eastern philosophy. Gatherings at their Hollywood Hills home included such people as Alan Watts, Lama Govinda, and Aldous Huxley

In 1960, they traveled to the East, spent time at Zen monasteries in Japan and eventually found themselves in Burma where they met lay Buddhist teacher Sayagyi U Ba Khin and learned the art of vipassana or “insight” meditation. Ruth Denison was one of only four Westerners to receive permission to teach from Khin.

In 1977, she founded the Dhamma Dena Desert Vipassana Center in Joshua Tree, California where she stayed until she suffered her stroke.

One of her students, Sandy Boucher, who has written extensively on women and Buddhism, authored a biography Dancing in the Dharma: The Life and Teachings of Ruth Denison, in which she writes that “Ruth brought a strongly female, body-centered approach to Buddhist practice, when this was seen as radical and subversive.” As I understand it, what Boucher means by “body-centered” is that Denison encouraged “deep exploration of our body sensations, with great penetration and subtlety.”

I had always meant to venture out to Joshua Tree and avail myself of an opportunity to meet and learn from this pioneer Buddhist teacher, but I never did. That was a mistake. All I can do now is offer a deep and solemn gassho . . .

Star Trek was definitely a part of the counter-culture that exploded during the 1960’s and you didn’t have to be a sci-fi fan to enjoy the program. I am sad to learn of the death of Leonard Nimoy. He passed away Friday at his home in Bel-Air at the age of 83 from end-stage chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Because many of the Star Trek writers were of a certain frame of mind, traces of Eastern philosophy were occasionally woven into the scripts. Nimoy was Jewish by birth and I don’t know if he followed that faith or not, nor do I know the context he was speaking in when he made this remark: “I’m touched by the idea that when we do things that are useful and helpful — collecting these shards of spirituality — that we may be helping to bring about a healing.”

The LA Times described his Mr. Spock role as “transcendent.” I think it is safe to say that after Star Trek Leonard Nimoy lived well and prospered . . . If you ever come to Los Angeles, be sure to visit the Leonard Nimoy Event Horizon Theater at the Griffith Observatory.

Writer Avijit Roy, a U.S. citizen of Bangladeshi origin, and his wife, Rafida Ahmed, were attacked by machete-wielding assailants Thursday while returning from a book fair in the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka. Ahmed was seriously injured. Roy was hacked to death.

He was a engineer, writer and blogger. His website Mukto-Mona was “an Internet congregation of freethinkers, rationalists, skeptics, atheists, and humanists of mainly Bengali and South Asian descent.” [Wikipedia] Roy was also the author of a number of books and for his writings on human rights, philosophy, religion and science he received several death threats from Islamic extremists. One news report on his death described Roy as “the blogger who wouldn’t back down”.

Avijit Roy/Facebook
Avijit Roy/Facebook

The BBC writes, “Mr Roy’s followers argue that many of his secular ideas are in the tradition of the great Bengali writer Rabindranath Tagore, who died in 1941 and is often referred to as ‘Bengal’s Shakespeare’”. In the photo to the right, he holds one of Tagore’s books. Tagore coined the phrase “The Endless Further” that is used as the title of this blog, and no doubt were he around today he would have felt a deep kinship with Avijit Roy. I cannot do a complete profile of Roy here, so those who are interested in learning more, I suggest you follow some of the links embedded in this post.

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

– Rabindranath Tagore

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Free Speech, Right Speech: Teetering on a Razor’s Edge

I support the principle of free speech and stand in solidarity with the French in the aftermath of yesterday’s terror attack. I am sure most all of you do as well. But today I am not inclined to give myself over to expressions of outrage and defiance, which seem to me right now as little more than mere emotionalism and sloganeering. I have seen too many news reports of terror attacks in my years to be outraged. I am too weary to be very defiant. Instead, I have questions.

UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights Flavia Pansieri articulated the questions in my mind rather well at the opening of the 83rd session of The U. N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination last year in Geneva:

Where does the right of expression, which we all want to respect, stop and the need to sanction and prevent hate speech begin? What is the point in time when one right has to recognize that it cannot be exercised if it implies the violation of another one?”

Does free speech go too far if it is harmful to others? It’s a rather old question, actually. It was debated by the U.S. Supreme Court nearly a hundred years ago in Schenck v. United States, (1919), a case that revolved around free speech during World War I. The court concluded that the defendant (Schenck) had no First Amendment right to express freedom of speech against the draft during the war. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. wrote the unanimous opinion that included this line, “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic . . .”

Oliver Wendell Holmes (1841-1935)
Oliver Wendell Holmes (1841-1935)

Thus, it was Holmes who gave us the famous metaphor of “Shouting fire in a crowded theater.” I don’t get how he reasoned that to express one’s opinion on the morality of a wartime draft presented a “clear and present danger,” but that is another discussion.

In a free society, everyone should have a right to hold and express any opinion. Justice Holmes qualified his decision with the word “falsely.” So, one of the first questions we should ask ourselves is, does opinion need to have a factual basis? Usually, no. But that does not mean it is wise to offer opinions that are based solely on supposition, assuming facts not verified.

The second question might be does the right to free speech include a right to offend? In this most recent case, the alleged offense is against religious sensibilities and beliefs. What we see in the West as relatively harmless satire is to many Muslims, even moderate ones, hate speech.

Yesterday’s attack was against Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical weekly newspaper. The cover of a 2011 issue depicted a cartoon of the Islamic prophet Muhammed and teachings based upon the Quran forbid the creation of visual images of Muhammad. This religious dictum does not justify the savage murder of 12 people. But it does provoke questions about whether journalists, even those engaged in the business of satire, should be more sensitive to religious beliefs. In the global public sphere, does the sacred dictum of the West that “nothing is sacred” trump Islam’s sacred dictum regarding images of the Prophet? Just because we have the right to free speech, is it always wise and/or proper to exercise it?

Religion was often the target of Charlie Hebdo’s satire.  Religion isn’t as popular these days as it once was. Even those of us who are “spiritual” may have little use for “religion.”  In being dismissive, need we be disrespectful?

As a Buddhist, I can’t help but wonder how we might strike a balance between free speech and “right speech,” an ideal found in the Buddha’s Eightfold Path: “And what is right speech? Abstaining from lying, from divisive speech, from abusive speech, and from idle chatter: This is called right speech.”

The Dasabhumaka Sutra says,

“Whatever speech is unpleasant, whatever hurts one’s own nature or others, that is speech the bodhisattva avoids . . .”

What hurts one’s own nature or others can take many forms, and can be born from misunderstanding and thoughtlessness as well as hate and prejudice. When I was younger, I would have been tempted to simply dismiss Muslims as thin-skinned, denounce their violence, and leave it at that.  Nowadays, disgusted as I am, having been a witness to these unrelenting cycles of violence for so long, I am more interested in how concepts such as right speech and deep listening might be pathways to solutions. I am more interested in trying to understand the other side than I am in placing blame and demanding accountability.

Writing now, something else occurs to me, about to what extent religious sensibilities are used as political weapons. Muslims seem to be a devout people; yet many of them have no problem using their religion a propaganda tool. Arab Nations like to cast themselves as spiritual warriors righteously fighting a religious war against “infidels”, and they use this same ideology to agitate believers against the West. We do much the same thing, only we are the champions of democracy and free speech.

Where do we go from here? Do we encourage journalists to censor themselves? And if so, is it an act of tolerance, or is it just doing what the terrorists want us to do? Or, perhaps, the outrage, the defiance, the condemnation is exactly they want to see. Are we only displaying our wounds for their pleasure?

Why do we never get an answer when we’re knocking at the door
With a thousand million questions about hate and death and war?

– The Moody Blues

I don’t have the answers. Just suggestions, what ifs.

Je suis Charlie. I, you, we are all Charlie but if the world is ever going to change at some point we must also be Abdul and Fareed and Rabiya. I wrote above that I wanted to avoid sloganeering. But here I go. Not afraid. Without a doubt, we should not be afraid in the face of terrorism, never forsake our liberty of expression. Fear, though, can be a double-edge sword. Not afraid should also mean not fearing to use our liberty to express right speech, kind speech, and to open our hearts to the concerns of others. Why is it that when responsible leaders suggest offering an olive branch of understanding to Islam and the Middle East they are vilified for it and labeled as weak? It seems to me that kindness and understanding and empathy are strategies that have not yet been employed in this long, long war between our two cultures. Not afraid? I wonder  . . .

Protestors in Place De La Republique in the centre of Paris (Photo: Heathcliff O'Malley/The Telegraph)
Protestors in Place De La Republique in the centre of Paris (Photo: Heathcliff O’Malley/The Telegraph)
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