A Single Voice can Change the World

Toward the end of his life and career, Lenny Bruce, perhaps the most influential comedian of the 20th century, had been busted for obscenity so many times that dealing with the court cases became a full time job. It became an obsession. It was all Lenny could think about or talk about. It took over his act. During his performances, he’d go into long rants about his court battles. He’d read aloud from the trial transcripts. Watch the Lenny Bruce Performance Film and you’ll see. He was no longer “Dirty” Lenny and he wasn’t funny. He had become unhinged, unfit to be a comedian.

I had never watched a Trump rally until the other night. Just saw sound bites. I was curious, so I tuned in. Trump took the stage in Phoenix and began his long rant about his battles, his foes, his feuds. At one point, he read aloud from a transcript of his Charlottesville remarks. It was astounding. Unbelievable. It reminded me of Lenny. Trump is unhinged and unfit to be President.

During the 16 minute reading of his Charlottesville statements, Trump was interrupted by a protester, who was immediately led out of the arena by security.

“Don’t bother,” Trump said, as the crowd booed. “It’s just a single voice. And not a very powerful voice.”

Actually, a single voice can be very powerful. Just one voice can change the world. You probably already know this, but if you’ve forgotten, today I will remind you.

Galileo was just one voice. He said that the Earth and planets revolve around the Sun. He was tried by the Inquisition, forced to repudiate his view, and spent the rest of his life under house arrest. In the beginning, Gandhi’s was but a single voice, and not a very powerful one physically, and yet that voice led his country to freedom through a non-violent revolution that still stands as a focal point for inspiration for all people. Rosa Parks was just one voice, and when she said “No” and refused to move to the back of the bus, she changed the world. Lenny Bruce was a single voice; his obscenity-laden performances were protests against a repressive society that censored free speech.

And Malala Yousafzai is a single voice. A human rights activist and an advocate for education for women,  the Taliban tried to silence her, murder her, but she survived. Her single voice inspires the world.

51 years ago, June 1966, during the height of apartheid, Robert F. Kennedy gave a speech in South Africa to the National Union of South African Students on the occasion of Cape Town University’s “Day of Reaffirmation of Academic and Human Freedom”.  Many have considered it Kennedy’s greatest speech:

“Each time man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

– Robert F. Kennedy

There is always a ripple when one person with courage stands up and raises a single voice in protest.

A voice that is always angry, that creates division, that is insincere, belittles others, spreads bigotry and hate, may seem powerful in the short run. However, history shows us that such voices are eventually silenced. Truth and justice are undefeated in the long run.

The power of a single voice is encouraging, emboldening. When we unite to make our voices heard, the resulting chorus becomes a potent and unbeatable force for change.

A single voice can inspire the world. A single voice can change the world.

– – – – – – – – – –

Phil Ochs had a rather smooth and engaging voice, yet there was a edge to it, provided by his sometimes stinging words.  He was a songwriter, a protest singer, an outlaw like Lenny, a revolutionary like Gandhi, a voice for peace like Malala Yousafzai.  His is a largely forgotten voice today, but listen to his songs and you’ll hear a voice that resonates with likable temerity and timeless truth.  An unsung singer, a single voice…


Johnny Cash, Bitter Tears and Human Rights

First off, in my un-humble opinion, Johnny Cash was one of the most important and authentic of American artists. He’s up there with such folk, country and blues legends as Leadbelly, Jimmie Rogers, Robert Johnson, Woody Guthrie, Bessie Smith and Hank Williams. Last night, I watched a documentary, Johnny Cash’s Bitter Tears, based on the book A Heartbeat and a Guitar: Johnny Cash and the Making of Bitter Tears by Antonino D’Ambrosio, and learned more about Johnny Cash and about two albums I had not heard of before.

bittertearsThe first is Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian, a concept album Johnny recorded in 1964 about the plight of Native Americans. Johnny wrote two of the songs, co-wrote another with Johnny Horton (Battle of New Orleans fame) but most of the tracks were written by folksinger Peter La Farge.

It is tempting to think of Johnny Cash as just a country music artist who used to hang out with cool people like Bob Dylan, but he was much more – a true original, an innovator and trailblazer. It’s also tempting to think that the concept album was an invention of the rock era, pioneered by the Beach Boys (Pet Sounds), The Beatles (Sgt. Pepper), The Who (The Who Sell Out) and others. However, when Bitter Tears was released in 1964, Johnny had already recorded two concept albums: Ride This Train (1960) and Blood Sweat and Tears (1963). Perhaps the only artist to beat him to the punch in the area of concept albums was Frank Sinatra.

The reaction to Bitter Tears back then was so hostile, and Johnny was so disappointed by the criticism he received, that he took out a full page ‘ad’ in Billboard magazine where he did not mince any of his words to music industry execs, critics, and DJ’s:

This ad, go ahead and call it that, cost like hell. Would you or those pulling the strings for you, go to the mic with the new approach? That is, listen again to the record? Yes, I cut records to try for sales. Another word we could use is success. Regardless of the trade charts, the categorizing, classifying, and the restrictions of airplay, this is not a country song, not as it is being sold. It is a fine reason, though, for the gutless to give it thumbs down.”

The second album I learned about is a 2014 re-recording, Look Again to the Wind: Johnny Cash’s Bitter Tears Revisited, featuring Gillian Welch, Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, Milk Carton Kids, and Kris Kristofferson, among others.

Like Joe Henry, the producer of the tribute LP, I was familiar with Johnny Cash’s song The Ballad of Ira Hayes, that tells the story of Ira Hamilton Hayes, a Pima Indian and a United States Marine who was one of the six soldiers captured in the famous photograph of the raising of the American flag on Iwo Jima during World War II. Ira Hayes died of drunk and suffering from acute alcoholism in a field on the Pima reservation on a cold January night in 1955. However, I was only vaguely aware of the 1964 concept album and knew nothing of the story behind it.

In the documentary, Joe Henry says,

At that moment, in 1964, the Civil Rights act had just been signed, and he [Cash] didn’t understand why people didn’t equate what was happening with Native Americans with what was happening in this country to African Americans. His point of view was that this is the same issue. This is human rights.”

Wednesday, Amnesty International released their annual State of the World report for 2014/2015 in which they state that International protection of human rights is in danger of unravelling as short-term national self-interest and draconian security crackdowns have led to a wholesale assault on basic freedoms and rights.

Salil Shetty, Secretary General of Amnesty International, adds

Your rights are in jeopardy: they are being treated with utter contempt by many governments around the world. Millions of people are suffering enormously at the hands of states and armed groups, while governments are shamelessly painting the protection of human rights as a threat to security, law and order or national ‘values.'”

Our challenge globally and locally is to protect human rights in the future and to heal from the abuses of the past.  I don’t know if Johnny Cash thought of it in terms of ‘healing,’ but that was probably his general idea.

Sometimes his recordings are so spare in style and instrumentation that the only thing you have to hold on to his magnificent voice and the words. I don’t think Johnny is remembered as an especially gifted songwriter, but he wrote what I feel is one of the most simple and beautiful songs of all time, I Still Miss Someone, and read these lyrics from his Apache Tears:

The victor and the loser came by here
No head stones, but these bones bring the mascalero death moans
See the smooth black nuggets by the thousands lying here
Petrified, but justified are these apache tears

In Johnny Cash’s Bitter Tears, currently showing on PBS stations, Native American singer and composer, sums it all up very well:

How do we actually deal with our situations right now . . . How do we heal that? How do we say, okay, let’s become whole again? And that’s what makes this land sacred . . . How do we change the hearts and minds and souls of those who are going to come after us? It begins with the thought.”

A Johnny Cash poster I made a few years ago:




Silence is Golden, But My Eyes’ Still See

Silence is Golden

Vacchagotta was a wandering ascetic who one day put a series of questions to the Buddha inquiring if the world is eternal or not, if the universe is infinite or not, is the self identical with the body or not, if the Buddha exists after death, and so on. The Buddha’s answer to these questions was silence.

On another occasion, a large group of followers sat by a lake on Vulture’s Peak waiting for the Buddha to give a dharma talk. When the Buddha arrived he pulled a white lotus flower from the water and held it up and was silent for a very long time. It is said that only the disciple Kashyapa understood the message the Buddha was conveying.

The account of the Buddha’s Flower Talk is a pivotal story in the Ch’an/Zen traditions. Kashyapa is considered the first to receive the lamp of Dharma Transmission, the way in which dharma is passed from Zen masters to disciples. The Buddha’s silence here is regarded as pointing directly to the Dharma of the Mind – the mind that all dharmas depend upon, the mind that we cannot physically see, the mind that is Buddha, the mind that manifests all phenomena and permeates the universe.

Yet, pure silence transcends all that. Silence, like emptiness, is the ground of everything. Silence can be another word for emptiness. Before there is a sound, there is silence. Where there is no sound, there is only silence. Silence is the true nature of our mind. What thoughts does a baby have while in the womb? I suspect that even after the mind is formed, there is just silence. We come from silence and we eventually return to it.

The story of Vacchagotta’s questions and the Buddha’s refusal to be drawn into a thicket of views, speculation and dogma, was crucial for Nagarjuna. Understanding the Buddha’s silence in this context is perhaps the key to understanding Nagarjuna’s own doctrine. As I quoted him recently, he maintained, “Silence is the ultimate truth for the wise.”

But my eyes still see

There is another truth we must contend with: the relative truth of the everyday world. And in that world, the persecution of the Rohingya Muslim minority community in Burma continues. This has engendered criticism directed at Aung Suu San Kyi for her silence on this issue, and the Dalai Lama as well. Not to mention criticism of the Burmese Buddhists for their part in attacks on the Rohingya. And I’ve seen this on many secular blogs like the Huffington Post, the Nation, and Voice of America and many news services. However, the Buddhist community seems strangely silent.

As of this writing, the only bloggers I know of who have even mentioned the current situation in Burma are myself and Arun at Angry Asian Buddhist. I don’t subscribe to every Buddhist blog or even know of every one, but I am aware of quite a few. I don’t mean to pass judgment on anyone. I know that some bloggers prefer to write about the more personal aspects of Buddhism, and I respect and admire their more intimate approach. At the same time, there are others who often blog about social issues and ethics, and some who consider themselves social activists as well as Buddhist.

It’s not up to me to decide what others should blog about, but one would expect that a few Buddhists would find the situation in Burma disturbing enough to say something about it. I would also think that some of higher profile Buddhists would want to use the platform they have to say something also.

Some might contend that it’s not our business to tell Buddhists in another country what to do. But when I hear of attacks and killings and the torching of homes perpetrated by Buddhists, or what Hanna Hindstrom reports at The Independent, “In recent days, [Buddhist] monks have emerged in a leading role to enforce denial of humanitarian assistance to Muslims,” then I say, it’s everyone’s business. Amnesty International is making it their business, and a U.N. human rights envoy is, too. Do we believe in interconnectedness or not? In this case, silence to that question is not an ultimate truth, or wise. No one had a problem cheering the Burmese Buddhists on when they faced down the military junta, so why the silence now?

I apologize for going off on what may seem like a rant on the subject of speaking out, yet again. But if nothing else I feel it is a discussion worth having, and you never know, if enough voices were raised it might influence the monks in Burma to disengage themselves from the attacks on this Muslim minority, who apparently have no place in this world. It is article of my faith as a Buddhist to believe that the Buddha would say we cannot turn our eyes away and abide in silence like this.

Oh, don’t it hurt deep inside . . .
Oh, don’t it pain to see someone cry . . .
Talkin’ is cheap, people follow like sheep
Even tho’ there is nowhere to go

Silence is golden
But my eyes’ still see
Silence is golden, golden
But my eyes still see

But my eyes still see
But my eyes still see

– The Tremeloes