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.

– – – – – – – – – –

Gandhi quote at beginning from The Essential Writings, Mahatma Gandhi, Judith M. Brown,Oxford University Press, 2008, 115


Two Pairs of Sandals

I saw this photo of a man giving his sandals to a homeless girl in Rio de Janeiro on Facebook. It was in black and white with the caption: “The world is full of good people. If you can’t find one . . . be one!”

man-giving-sandalsI looked for the original and discovered that it’s been posted all over the Internet for several years, so likely you’ve seen it before. I hadn’t. One reason why I found it so interesting is that it reminded me of this story about Mahatma Gandhi:

In India, during those days, rail was the fastest and most affordable way to travel across the country. The British rail company would only stop at a station if white people were waiting, otherwise they would merely slow down so that non-whites had to run and hop aboard the still moving train.

One day as Gandhi scrambled on to a train, one of his sandals slipped off and landed on the track. With the train rolling, he was unable to retrieve it, so he took off his other sandal and threw it back along the track where it landed close to the first one.

Asked by a fellow passenger why he did that, Gandhi replied, “If some poor man finds one sandal, he will surely find the other and then he have a good pair he can use.”

We have to accept both the photo and the story with a certain amount of faith. I have not been able to find the original source of either. The photo might have been staged, or it might actually depict something quite different from what it’s supposed to be. As far as the Gandhi story is concerned, well, there are a lot of stories about the Mahatma and I doubt if half of them are true.

It doesn’t really matter. What is important is the positive messages they convey. In the Gandhi story, there are two points. One is about how compassion and kindness can become so deeply ingrained in someone that they instinctively, without a moment’s hesitation, think about the welfare of others. The second point is about non-attachment. If Gandhi had been attached to his shoes, the loss of one might have caused to give in to anger or some other negative emotion. Instead, he was calm about the loss of his shoe, and he turned his misfortune into possible good fortune for another person.

As I’ve mentioned many times, in Buddhism, compassion begins with bodhicitta, the thought or wish to awaken for the welfare of all living beings. Bodhicitta has two stages, intentional, or the aspiration, and active bodhicitta, the practical engagement or the performance of altruistic acts. The Gandhi story is an example of both. Even though he was not Buddhist, Gandhi certainly aspired to be altruistic, and through his practice of meditation, he had trained his mind so that the welfare of others was nearly always his first thought.

The Dalai Lama, at a teaching I attended in 2001, put it this way:

Bodhicitta cannot be realized merely by making a wish or offering a prayer, but you can practice to a point where you make a simple thought and this causes a spontaneous arising of bodhicitta within you.”


“Woman is the incarnation of ahimsa.”

The other day while rummaging around in a closet, I ran across an old book I have on Mahatma Gandhi and since I hadn’t seen it for some time, I began thumbing through the pages and almost immediately hit upon this, which is so beautifully said, that I just have to share it with you:

Woman is the incarnation of ahimsa. Ahimsa means infinite love, which again means infinite capacity for suffering. Who but woman, the mother of man, shows this capacity in the largest measure? She shows it as she carries the infant and feeds it during nine months and derives joy in the suffering involved. What can beat the suffering caused by the pangs of labour? But she forgets them in the joy of creation.

Who, again, suffers daily so that her babe may wax from day to day? Let her transfer that love to the whole of humanity, let her forget that she ever was or can be the object of man’s lust. And she will occupy her proud position by the side of man as his mother, maker and silent leader. It is given to her to teach the art of peace to the warring world thirsting for that nectar.”

M.K. Gandhi*

Ahimsa (Sanskrit: “not to injure”) means non-violence. Another way to put it is “do no harm.” It is an important principle in all the major Indian religions, and in fact, the phrase “do no harm” is often used for the Buddha’s first precept.

Historically, Buddhism has demonstrated some extremely misogynistic tendencies and even today there remain issues in a few Buddhist schools regarding gender equality. Yet, Buddhism has also a tradition of revering women as uniquely awakened beings. In Prajna-Paramita literature, Buddhas are not born from Nirvana but from the practice of Prajna-Paramita, Transcendent Wisdom. Transcendent Wisdom is the “mother of all Buddhas,” and when contemplated in this way, visualized as feminine.

Compassion, or in Gandhi’s words “infinite love,” is often represented by Kuan Yin, the goddess of compassion. Kuan Yin is the Chinese translation of the name Avalokiteshvara, which means “one who hears the cries of the world.” In China, this bodhisattva is often viewed as female. Kuan Yin not only hears sentient beings’ cries of suffering, but also works tirelessly to assist all those who call upon her name. To call upon Kuan Yin, to chant her name, really means to work tirelessly to capture the spirit of compassion she represents.

Woman is the incarnation of “infinite love.” For this and many other reasons, women should be protected and cherished, and respected.  This why we must continue to resist and deny access to power to all who denigrate and abuse and mistreat women. Women are the foundations of our families. They are the fabric that holds our society together.

For men, women are a beautiful gift, especially when we make efforts to cultivate the spirit of women within.  In the words of the Buddha,

Even as a mother protects with her life
Her child, her only child,
So with a boundless heart
Should one cherish all living beings;
Radiating kindness over the entire world.

– – – – – – – – – –

* M.K. Gandhi, Women and Social Justice, Ahmedabad, Navjivan Publishing House, 1954, 26-27.


Remembering the Rendezvous with Rama

Today is the 65th anniversary of the assassination of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, known as the Mahatma or “Great Soul.” One of the most important and remarkable figures of the 20th Century, Gandhi is perhaps best remembered for the way he led India to independence through the use of non-violent civil disobedience, and in so doing, inspired civil rights and freedom movements around the world.

Gandhi was a deeply spiritual man. Prayer and meditation were as important to his strategy as were fasting and marching. In Buddhism, prayer is not a central part of the practice. The Buddha was a bit pessimistic about the so-called power of prayer. Yet, there is a correlation between the purest form of prayer and meditation. With that in mind, today I offer a short sketch of Gandhi’s evening prayer service and some brief thoughts of his on prayer, meditation, and mantra.

gandhi-3bI am unsure of the source of this description of Gandhi during evening prayer. I saved it off my old website on Buddhist Meditation. I believe it is by Eknath Easwaran.

The sun had set when we got back from his regular evening walk. Hurricane lanterns were lit; Gandhi settled down at the base of a neem tree as ashramites and the rest of us huddled in. I managed to get a seat close by, where I could fix my whole heart on him.

Some hymns were sung, a Japanese monk opened with a Buddhist chant, a British lady began one of Gandhi’s favorite hymns, John Henry Newman’s “Lead, Kindly Light,” and then Gandhi’s secretary began reciting the second chapter of the Gita. Then it happened . . . Not that I can describe it very easily. Gandhi’s eyes closed; his body went stock still, his eyes closed in deep concentration, as if absorbed in the words; it seemed as though centuries had rolled away and I was seeing the Buddha in a living person. I saw what we had almost forgotten was possible in the modern world: a man had conquered himself . . .

I believe I found these quotes at gandhi.org.

Gandhi on Prayer and Meditation*

I do not forbid the use of images in prayer. I only prefer the worship of the formless . . .

Prayer is no flight of eloquence; it is no lip-homage. It springs from the heart. If, therefore, we achieve that purity of the heart when it is ’emptied of all but love’, if we keep all the chords in proper tune, they ‘trembling pass in music out of sight’. Prayer needs no speech. It is itself independent of any sensuous effort. I have not the slightest doubt that prayer is an unfailing means of cleaning the heart of passions. But it must be combined with the utmost humility.

Even if your mind wanders in meditation, you should keep up the practice. You should retire to a secluded spot, sit in the correct posture and try to keep out all thoughts. Even if they continue to come, you should nevertheless complete the meditation. Gradually the mind will come under control.

On Mantra**

First, mantra should come from the heart. To install mantra in the heart requires infinite patience. It might take ages. But the effort is worthwhile. However, one’s mantra cannot be heartfelt unless one has cultivated the virtues of truth, honesty and purity within and without. This does not mean that one should give up reciting on the ground that one has not the requisite purity. For recitation of mantra is also a means for acquiring purity.

For one who has experienced peace and is in quest of it, mantra will certainly prove to be a philosopher’s stone. The [divine nature] has been given a thousand names, which only means that it can be called by any name and that its qualities are infinite.

In 1933, Nichidatsu Fujii, a Nichiren priest and later founder of the Nipponzan-Myohoji order (well-known for their Peace Pagodas) visited the ashram in Wardha, where he lived for some time and taught Gandhi how to chant Namo-Myoho-Renge-Kyo while beating a drum. This is likely the “Buddhist chant” mentioned above. Although, Gandhi liked this chant, it is difficult for me to believe he would have had much regard for Nichiren’s extremist philosophy.

The mantra that Gandhi chanted throughout his life and which had the most meaning to him was Om Sri Rama Jaya Rama, Jaya, Jaya Rama (Om Victory to Rama, victory, victory to Rama.)

In a talk he gave some nine months before he was assassinated, Gandhi said, “Even if I am killed, I will not give up repeating the names of Rama and Rahim, which mean to me the same God. With these names on my lips, I will die cheerfully.”

Rama is an avatar of the god Vishnu, held by some to be a supreme being. Rahim is derived from al-Rahim, an Arabic word meaning “The Merciful.”

Indeed, when Gandhi was shot, the last words on his lips are reported to be either “Rama, Rama,” “He Ram” (“Oh God”), or “Rama Rahim,” according to different accounts.


* K.L. Seshagiri Rao, Mahatma Gandhi And Comparative Religion, Motilal Banarsidass Publ., 1990

** mkgandhi.org


Honesty is Still a Lonely Word

Honesty is such a lonely word
Everyone is so untrue.

– Billy Joel

I imagine that, like me, many of you are deeply disappointed to learn that Lance Armstrong was almost certainly lying when he said he didn’t dope. I like the guy and was really hoping that the allegations weren’t true. I feel sorry for the kids who looked up to him.

Children expect adults to be honest with them, and it can be a traumatic experience for a child to learn that an adult has lied. Yet, adults often lie, or withhold the truth, in order to protect kids. My parents shielded me from the awful truth that George Reeves, the man who played my hero Superman on TV, had committed suicide. I don’t know how my 7 year old mind would have processed the information had I had heard the news when it happened. By the time I finally did learn of his death, I could take it in stride. And I’m certainly glad that I was an adult before I learned what a mess Mickey Mantle was. It was much easier to protect kids when I was growing up. Nowadays, they are bombarded with so much information from so many sources I don’t see how it’s possible.

Kids live in a world when the line between what’s real and what’s fantasy is blurred. Most experts will tell you that it’s normal for children to make up stories and “fib” in the form of tall tales. But as people grow older, lying is often a sign of emotion problems. Yet, we all lie.

As Billy Joel sang in “Honesty,” everyone is so untrue. It’s a fact. A recent study conducted at the University of Notre Dame indicates that “Americans average about 11 lies per week.” I suspect the vast majority of these lies are what we call “little white lies.” They’re minor, we consider them harmless, even necessary at times.

That we engage in so much lying is troubling. Equally disconcerting is way in which we accept lies and how we are inconsistent about who we hold accountable for telling lies. We’re outraged when government officials lie, and yet we accept, even expect, that politicians will lie. I suppose politicians and government officials have always been liars to a certain degree, just as athletes have lied and attempted to cover up the truth about their consumption of alcohol and drugs. But I wonder why we put up with it. Do we realize that these people are just reflections of ourselves?

The researchers at Norte Dame studied 110 people. Half were told not to lie for 10 weeks. The other half received no instructions. According to a presentation given at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association:

Both groups came to the laboratory each week to complete health and relationship measures and to take a polygraph test assessing the number of major and white lies they had told that week . . . Over the course of 10 weeks, the link between less lying and improved health was significantly stronger for participants in the no-lie group . . . when participants told fewer lies, they reported that their close personal relationships had improved and that their social interactions overall had gone more smoothly that week, the study revealed.”

While it’s by no means conclusive, the study suggests is that when we’re honest our health and our relationships improve. But, you know, there is an even more compelling reason why we should tell the truth: it’s the right thing to do.

When a person feels no shame in telling a deliberate lie, there is no evil deed that he will not do. Thus, you should train yourself, ‘I will not tell a deliberate lie even in jest.'”

– Buddha, quoted in the Ambalatthika-rahulovada Sutta

That statement might be a bit of a stretch, after all, just because a person tells lies it doesn’t mean he or she would then engage in murder. We could amend it, slightly, to say that when a person feels no shame in telling a lie, there is no lie he or she might not tolerate. Owing to the fact that this is a world in which all things are interlinked through causes and conditions, there must be a correlation between acceptance of our own lies and our acquiescence to the lies told by others.

People lie because they know they can get away with it. Politicians especially know they can get away with it because our attentions spans are short and our level of apathy is high.

The situation is not acceptable and we can change it. When we become stricter with ourselves and practice less lying, it will have a causal effect on those around us, and the world at large.

Buddhism teaches that “self and surrounding environment” (Jp. esho) exist in a mutual relationship (Jp. sogo kankei), and furthermore “self and surrounding environment” are non-dual, they are one (Jp. esho funi). Because of this, it is said that when we change, the world changes. Indeed, this principle is the foundation that supports one of the basic of all Buddhist concepts, self-purification.

Gandhi once observed that the Buddha used self-purification “to to overcome the oppression, injustice, and darkness around him.” [1. Y.P. Anand, Mahatma Gandhi on Lord Buddha and Buddhism, New Delhi, National Gandhi Museum] Gandhi undertook the same practice because he understood that self-purification is the best way to build a better society, and his accomplishments were a living testament to that truth.

Honesty is still a lonely word, but it’s also, as has been said many times, the best policy. For better health, for better relationships, for a better world – perhaps it is time that we demand more honesty from ourselves, if we do not then we cannot demand it from others, and everyone will continue to be so untrue.