Four Statues of the Apocalypse: Washington, Jefferson, Jackson and Lee

I’m stuck on what happened in Charlottesville.  Can’t get it out of my mind.  I am so disappointed that we haven’t been able to make more progress in diminishing the presence of racism, hate and violence in our country.   I’m frustrated.  There isn’t much I can do.  Except share some thoughts, if you don’t mind.  I warn you though, I may repeat myself…

Yesterday, Trump complained about the removal of Robert E. Lee statues.  He said that he’d heard Stonewall Jackson was next.  What then, he asked.   Are we going to take down statues of Washington and Jefferson because they were slave-owners?

These remarks alone show that Trump has zero understanding of the problem of race in America.  Yes, all four men had owned slaves.  However, unlike Jackson and Lee, Washington and Jefferson were not traitors to their country.  Jackson and Lee were military men who attempted to destroy the Union, split our country in two.  And it is for that alone they are remembered.

Washington, on the other hand, led the colonial troops into battle for the purpose of establishing a new country free from tyranny.  Washington and Jefferson were founders of our nation. But their efforts were directed toward something greater than merely the formation of another country, they envisioned the creation of a new society based upon freedom and equality and the sovereignty of the people.

They were involved, as Tagore put it, in the “constant struggle for a great Further…” our “ceaseless adventure of the Endless Further.”   The difference between them and the two Confederate generals should be obvious.

While looking up some information on Stonewall Jackson, I ran across this quote from James Robertson, the preeminent scholar on Confederate Lieutenant General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson:  “[In] his mind the Creator had sanctioned slavery, and man had no moral right to challenge its existence. The good Christian slaveholder was one who treated his servants fairly and humanely at all times.”

I suspect that this was the predominate rationalization for slave owning among whites at that time.  I hope most Christians today reject the idea that God would sanction the bondage of any of his creatures no matter how well they were treated.  But Jackson and the others lived in a different time.

Jefferson denounced slavery, and yet he was unable to free himself from what he called its “deplorable entanglement.”  His relationship to slavery is still debated by scholars.  But the important thing is that some 48 years before Stonewall Jackson was born, Thomas Jefferson had this to say about the Creator, the most revolutionary words ever composed:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

The American Declaration of Independence, the real shot heard round the world.

On July 9, 1776, several thousand Continental soldiers had come to New York from Boston to defend the city from the British.  General George Washington ordered them to gather at the parade grounds in Lower Manhattan at six o’clock to listen to a declaration endorsed by the Continental Congress declaring American independence from England.

When the troops heard Jefferson’s inspiring words about equality and the right to pursue happiness – the right of self-determination – and then heard the list of grievances Jefferson compiled of King George III’s tyrannical violations of those rights, the soldiers were motivated to march down Broadway where they toppled and decapitated a statue of George III.  They melted the statue down and made bullets to use against the British.

It appears that removing statues is another old American tradition.

A year before he died, Jefferson wrote in a letter that his stirring words were “intended to be an expression of the American mind.”

Some 80 years later, Abraham Lincoln’s mind was inspired by the same words.  In 1856, he said, “Let us revere the Declaration of Independence… Let us readopt the Declaration of Independence, and with it the practices and policy which harmonize with it.”  In his own declaration, The Gettysburg Address, Lincoln proclaimed that our nation was “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

Franklin Roosevelt, a great admirer of Jefferson, was obsessed with building a memorial to him.  He laid the cornerstone in 1939.  He ordered all the trees between the Memorial and the White House cut down so that he would have an unencumbered view of the memorial every day.  In 1943, during his address at the dedication of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C. , Roosevelt called Jefferson the “Apostle of Freedom”:

“The Declaration of Independence and the very purposes of the American Revolution itself, while seeking freedoms, called for the abandonment of privileges… [Jefferson] believed, as we believe, in certain inalienable rights.  He, as we, saw those principles and freedoms challenged.  He fought for them, as we fight for them.”

The fight Roosevelt was referring to was the World War, the struggle against fascism.  We are still fighting that fight for fascism has not disappeared from the earth and we are still struggling to abandon privilege, the privilege of being born into wealth, of being white or male.  What did Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee fight for?  The right to own slaves?  There were a number of issues that caused the American Civil War, taxation and States Rights, but most scholars maintain the primary cause was the South’s desire to protect the institution of slavery.   Not a just cause.

George Washington, in his Farewell Address (1796) as president, warned that the establishment of political factions, “sharpened by the spirit of revenge,” and would lead to “formal and permanent despotism.”  We have not heeded this warning and we have fallen short of fulfilling the promise of Jefferson’s ideals.   We have to heal the wounds of division because as Lincoln said “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”  And we must stand.  We must stand up for the ideals of equality and stand against this new wave of hate and racism.

Jackson, Lee and all the other Confederate leaders and supporters were traitors.  They betrayed our “American Mind.”

Jefferson and Washington, though imperfect men, sought to build a nation not tear it apart.  Jefferson’s words continue to inspire us 241 years later as we work to create a more perfect and just union.  And this is why their statues and memorials won’t be coming down.

Those who brandish Nazi flags and swastikas, offer Nazi salutes, glorify traitors, preach hate and bigotry and try to divide our country, betray the American Mind.  And those who aid and comfort them are complicit in this betrayal.  It is, in a sense, a form of treason.

We must meet this treason with reason.  Once again, dialogue not violence is the best weapon against prejudiced views.  It is the only way to change their minds.

“Change happens by listening and then starting a dialogue with the people who are doing something you don’t believe is right.”

– Jane Goodall

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Freedom and Interdependency

The word “freedom” is often used to refer to an absence of restraint or control of a person’s physical and mental activities.  This kind of freedom is always limited by conditions that prevent individuals from doing certain things. These conditions may be natural or human-made laws, or they may be physical or mental limitations.

Different people feel free in different ways. Everyone has a somewhat unique sense of personal freedom. Some persons may feel that one way to be free is to be entirely unconnected with anything else. However, this sense of freedom is only an illusion because in truth there is nothing that is unconnected with anything else.

As far as Buddhism is concerned, spiritual freedom is release from suffering. Buddhism teaches that an understanding of interdependency is crucial to attaining this kind of freedom.

The Indian term for this relativity is Pratitya-Samutpada, rendered in English variously as dependent origination, inter-dependent origination, dependent arising, conditioned co-becoming, co-dependent production, etc. I like interdependency. It’s short and to the point.

Interdependency is often explained with the formula of “because of this, that arises; because of that, this arises.” Nothing exists by itself because everything is inter-connected and nothing can arise or come into being without be produced by causes operating under various conditions.

Since the Buddha was primarily concerned with the problem of human suffering, he used interdependency to trace the causes of suffering, which he ultimately attributed to ignorance. This resulted in a reverse formula: “because this is not, that ceases; because that is not; this ceases.” According to this reverse formula, if ignorance is not then suffering is not. The Buddha taught that if we remove ignorance and replace it with wisdom, suffering can be transcended.

What do we mean by ignorance? In 1997, while giving teachings on Nagarjuna’s Precious Garland, the Dalai Lama offered these words:

The very word avidya or ignorance in itself shows a state that one cannot really endorse as positive. It is said to be fundamentally confused, so, surely it cannot be a state that is desirable. The point is that if our existence  is said to be completely determined and conditioned by that fundamentally flawed way of viewing the world, how can there be scope for lasting freedom or lasting peace? Therefore, it becomes crucial to see whether avidya or fundamental ignorance can be eliminated.

Some schools of Buddhism consider the root of ignorance to be self-grasping; the mind grasping at self-existence on one hand and ignorance on the other. In the Madhyamaka (Middle Way) school, ignorance is understood as a state of mis-knowing, viewing the world in a distorted way, and this arises from non-comprehension of the interdependency of all things.

I feel that interdependency is a key word for the future. As our world keeps shrinking though advances in technology, we are seeing more and more how things are truly interrelated. Each day, science provides us with new examples of how life and our environment are both like fabrics woven into a complex pattern of causes and effects. In medicine, recognition of the mind-body connection is now more commonplace than ever. If, in the future, we human beings can ever begin to cultivate a deep understanding of interdependency, we might be able to turn the world around and establish some measure of lasting peace.

This last point is the great benefit of the concept of interdependency because it leads us to a true understanding of equality. Owing to the fact that we are interconnected and because we are subject to the same causes and conditions, we are all equal.

Seeing ourselves as unconnected to other things, particularly other beings, is not freedom. Here again the reverse applies in that true freedom is embracing inter-connectedness. It’s seeing the world as it really is.

The person who thinks that freedom means being unconnected is just grasping after a “self” which does not exist. A self that is independent, permanent, and unchanging, and nowhere can such a thing be found. We like to feel we are a self that is different in both appearance and substance from other beings, which is true, but only in relative terms. Science tells us that the components which make us different from other beings constitute only a percent or two of our total being, so ultimately the rest is the same as every other being.

If nothing else, here lies freedom from hatred and racism, for it makes no sense to hate another person because one or two percent of difference. Not to mention that for any reason, hate is not cool.

Nagarjuna said, “Everything stands in harmony for the person who is in harmony with interdependency.” He taught that peace and harmony in the world is possible when we reject the idea of the unconnected self, and further, that anyone who comprehends interdependency deeply can help all beings realize freedom. Such a person is called a buddha, one who has awakened.

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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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Freedom’s Burden

The true burden of freedom is the obligation to summon up the courage to conquer fear.

A bill co-sponsored by US Senators Joseph Lieberman and Scott Brown calling for suspected terrorists to be stripped of their US citizenship is one of the worst ideas I have heard in quite a while. It is unconstitutional and I suspect that what it’s really about taking away due process.

I also think that fear is playing a part here, the kind that can eat away at the heart of a democracy. So the larger question concerns the way in which democratic governments should protect individual freedoms as they respond to the continuing terrorist threats.

Here is an opinion I found at the Washington Post by Ramdas Lamb, a former Hindu monk and current Profession at the University of Hawaii. The piece does not deal with the Lieberman-Brown bill directly however there is some correspondence. One of the points he makes is that reacting with intolerance, we allow ourselves to be intimidated. I appreciated the point of view. Perhaps you will too.

Without freedom of expression, there is no democracy

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