Ubuntu: “I am, because of you.”

Over the past week, during all the tributes and discussion of Nelson Mandela’s life, there was a word I kept hearing. Not surprisingly, during his eulogy at Mandela’s Memorial President Obama also mentioned it:

There is a word in South Africa — Ubuntu, a word that captures Mandela’s greatest gift: His recognition that we are all bound together in ways that are invisible to the eye; that there is a oneness to humanity; that we achieve ourselves by sharing ourselves with others, and caring for those around us . . . He not only embodied Ubuntu, he taught millions to find that truth within themselves.”

Literally, Ubuntu means “human-ness”, the quality of being human, and it also takes on the connotation of “human kindness.” Ubuntu stems from the African phrase “Ubuntu ngumtu ngabanye abantu” or “A person is a person through other people.” A popular rephrasing is “I am, because of you.”

This sounds similar to the phrase associated with the Buddhist concept of pratitya-samutpada, “because this is, that is.” Ubuntu and pratitya-samutpada are similar. Both concepts communicate the idea of interconnectedness.

We are one race, one people, and as John Donne wrote each of us “is a part of the main,” so the hardships and struggles of one individual, or a few, become those of the many, they become our hardships, our struggles. This seems so simple, and obvious, that it is difficult to think of what else needs saying.

And yet, because there are those who do not recognize our common bonds, who thrive on fragmentation, and because we ourselves can get caught up in our selves and disremember, there is a constant need to keep up a constant reminder.

Now here is something very interesting that I did not know, and perhaps you didn’t either: David Kaczynski, brother of Ted Kaczynski, the “Unabomber” is Buddhist. As a matter of fact, he is Executive director of the Karma Triyana Dharmachakra Buddhist Monastery in Woodstock, New York. From 2001 until his recent retirement, he was also executive director of New Yorkers for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.

In an interview earlier this year, Kaczynski talked about the emotions he felt as he suspected his older brother might be a serial bomber, and said,

There is a Buddhist belief that everything is interconnected. The only way to negotiate this situation was to understand that no life is more valuable than another . . . Buddhism is really about human beings finding common ground at the core of their humanity. It’s going to take a deeper approach to solve our most human problems . . .”

So, as David Kaczynski, Nelson Mandela, and so many others, remind us, interconnectedness or Ubuntu is not merely a concept, a philosophy, it is a solution, like Gandhi’s satyagraha (“soul-truth”) and ahimsa (non-violence). It is a Way, a path, a practice.

Since the 1980s Ubuntu has evolved into Ubuntuism, but it is really based on ages-long African practices, and an key element of Ubuntu practice is reconciliation, which needs to be exercised globally, and is something each of us can integrate into our daily lives.

I think there are very few individuals in history who have stepped upon the world stage and shown us the real power of Ubuntu and reconciliation than the man called Madiba:

A traveller through our country would stop at a village, and he didn’t have to ask for food or for water. Once he stops, the people give him food, entertain him. That is one aspect of Ubuntu but Ubuntu has various aspects. Ubuntu does not mean that people should not enrich themselves. The question therefore is: Are you going to do so in order to enable the community around you to improve?”

– Nelson Mandela



Mandela: “Peace is not just the absence of conflict”

Today is Nelson Mandela International Day, celebrated in recent years on his birthday, and this year he turns 94. There’s no need for me to elucidate about Nelson Mandela. He’s a great man. A little bit, though, about the day: the purpose for celebrating Mandela is to inspire people all over the globe to work for positive change, to take action to make this a better world. An important aspect is service to others. One could say that a Mandela Day is a Bodhisattva Day.

Well, ‘nuff said. Now, here are some thoughts by Nelson Mandela, in a message to the Global Convention on Peace and Nonviolence in New Delhi on January 31, 2004:

I offer these few words to this important conference deeply aware of the state our world is in. Peace and non-violence have not yet become the automatic or predominant modes for living with difference and diversity, in spite of all the progress humankind has seen and achieved in the last century.

Too much of our planet is still embroiled in destructive conflict, strife and war.

And unfortunately none of us can escape blame for the situation in which humankind finds itself. In almost every part of the world human beings find reasons to resort to force and violence in addressing differences that we surely should attempt to resolve through negotiation, dialogue and reason.

Development and peace are indivisible. Without peace and international security, nations cannot focus on the upliftment of the most underprivileged of their citizens.

Peace is not just the absence of conflict; peace is the creation of an environment where all can flourish, regardless of race, colour, creed, religion, gender, class, caste, or any other social markers of difference. Religion, ethnicity, language, social and cultural practices are elements which enrich human civilization, adding to the wealth of our diversity. Why should they be allowed to become a cause of division, and violence? We demean our common humanity by allowing that to happen.

The Global Convention on Peace and Nonviolence is a very timely initiative and I congratulate its organisers. It is indeed the moment to refresh the memory of the lessons taught by the lives of great apostles of peace like Mahatma Gandhi. The fact that this Conference is being held just one day after the death anniversary of the Mahatma Gandhi is an apt reminder of the fact that the path of those who preach love, and not hatred, is not easy. They often have to wear a crown of thorns.

It should, however, not always be the case.

South Africa, the country that inspired the Mahatma and that was inspired by the Mahatma, chose a path of peace in the face of all the prophets of doom. We chose his path, the route of negotiation and compromise. And we hope that we honoured his memory. And that in remembrance of that great tradition others will follow.

Human beings will always be able to find arguments for confrontation and no compromise. We humans are, however, the beings capable of reason, compassion and change. May this be the century of compassion, peace and non-violence: here in this region where you meet, in all the conflict-ridden parts of the world, and on our planet universally.

I thank you.


Thank you, Nelson Mandela, for being a shining example of how to practice what one preaches.


“I wanted to be free so I let it go.”

It’s Mandela Day, formally known as Nelson Mandela International Day. The celebration was officially declared by the United Nations in 2009 and is held each July 18th, Mandela’s birthday. Today, he is 93.

NelsonMandela.org says, “The Mandela Day campaign message is simple: Mr. Mandela gave 67 years of his life fighting for the rights of humanity. All we are asking is that everyone gives 67 minutes of their time, whether it’s supporting your chosen charity or serving your local community.”

For Buddhists it’s a good day to practice loving-kindness meditation, to reflect on the nature of compassion, to perform some sort of Bodhisattva action. But, of course, as in the same spirit of the logo above, every day is a good day for that.

I find Nelson Mandela inspiring for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the way he emerged from 27 years of imprisonment without hatred or bitterness. But rather than read my words about this, here are the words of someone who has actually met Nelson Mandela. This is what former president Bill Clinton wrote a few years ago:

Mandela made a grand, elegant, dignified exit from prison and it was very, very powerful for the world to see. But as I watched him walking down that dusty road, I wondered whether he was thinking about the last 27 years, whether he was angry all over again. Later, many years later, I had a chance to ask him. I said, ‘Come on, you were a great man, you invited your jailers to your inauguration, you put your pressures on the government. But tell me the truth. Weren’t you really angry all over again?’ And he said, ‘Yes, I was angry. And I was a little afraid. After all I’ve not been free in so long. But,’ he said, ‘when I felt that anger well up inside of me I realized that if I hated them after I got outside that gate then they would still have me.’ And he smiled and said, ‘I wanted to be free so I let it go.’ It was an astonishing moment in my life. It changed me.

He’s got so much to teach us about forgiveness. It isn’t about being soft-headed and kind-hearted and essentially weak or forgetful  . . .  Mandela found that forgiveness was a strategy for survival. Because he found a forgiving heart under the most adverse circumstances, because he learned to hate the apartheid cause without hating the white South Africans, he had space left inside to learn and grow and become great.

To me he represents a great political leader. He had the discipline to stay the course for almost three decades, through enormous punishment, to achieve the political objective he sought. And he did it in a way that, in the end, had the support of people across the racial divide. In the process he freed not only black South Africa but, as Martin Luther King said about America, he freed white South Africans, too. It’s a terrible burden oppressing someone else; it’s like being in chains yourself.

What makes Mandela so special is that he’s a real human being. He laughs, he cries, he gets mad, he fell in love with Graça Machel. He’s got a real life. And the fact that he is so flesh-and-blood real makes his greatness and his sacrifice and his wisdom and his courage in the face of all that has happened to him even more remarkable. He never pretended to be somebody who didn’t like soccer or wouldn’t like to be able to go to a boxing match again. He’s not just great: He is a good man. Not because he is perfect—he still has his flashes of anger and regret—but in the big moment, in the big ways, there is nobody like him.”

I couldn’t agree more.


We Need Inspiration

I finally saw Invictus last night. Clint Eastwood’s film about Nelson Mandela and how South Africa won the 1995 Rugby World Cup. I thought it was good.  Much of what makes the film work is Morgan Freeman’s portrayal of Mandela. I was moved by nearly every scene he was in. I have no idea how much dramatic license was taken with the events, but I felt as though I had a window into the soul of a great man.

The film is also about inspiration. Invictus means “unconquered” and is the title of a famous Victorian poem that inspired Mandela during his 27 years in prison. After becoming president of South Africa, Mandela wisely saw that his country was in desperate need of inspiration. After attending a game of the Springboks, the country’s rugby team, he thought that if the team could win the Rugby World Cup (in one year’s time), it would help unite the country and South Africans would be inspired “to be better than they think they can be.”

We all need inspiration. Some of the best sources of inspiration come from things that on the surface would seem to be rather trivial, like sports. Most of us are all for inspiration when it is the creative kind. When it comes to inspirational words or stories, however, sometimes I think we are too jaded or think ourselves too sophisticated to be able to appreciate these small gems of wisdom. Often, we’ll look down our noses at inspirational quotes, for example, and dismiss them as just some feel-good fluff.

Here’s an  inspirational quote that’s a perfect example of what I mean:

Forgiveness liberates the soul. It removes fear. That is why it is such a powerful weapon.

True, but sounds pretty hokey, right? Maybe that isn’t the right word, because it’s not really sentimental, although it may be a bit corny, like one of those phony Buddha quotes. Only this is a line spoken by Nelson Mandela in Invictus. Maybe it’s something he actually said, I don’t know. I think it ceases to sound hokey when put in the context of another quote from the film, spoken by a character reflecting on Nelson Mandela’s spirit: “I was thinking about how you spend 30 years in a tiny cell, and come out ready to forgive the people who put you there.” For me, that raises it to another level.

Quotes like that one, and mottos, maxims, sayings, proverbs, etc. distill great wisdom in a few words. They convey sometimes complicated truths simply. That’s the part that catches us up. Because they are simple, they can be easily dismissed.

Nearly every successful businessperson I have ever met, particularly in sales, has had some simple motto or inspirational quote that they lived by. When you try to look past the surface and engrave the truth of these sayings into your life, they are no longer merely a string of words designed to make you feel good (and what’s wrong with that?), they are small bits of wisdom that serve as reminders of what we are striving for in life, and when faced with challenges they can help us keep up the momentum and not give up. It’s very easy to give up or become resigned to falling short of our own expectations.

In Tibetan Buddhism there is the practice of Lojong or “mind training” based on a set of sayings or proverbs, like inspirational quotes, concocted in the 12th century by Geshe Chekhawa. Here’s a few:

When the world is filled with evil, transform all mishaps into the path of bodhi.

Be grateful to everyone.

Always maintain only a joyful mind.

Change your attitude, but remain natural.

Don’t try to be the fastest.

Don’t seek others’ pain as the limbs of your own happiness.

There’s 59 all together. But I think they left out a few. Like “Silence is golden” and “Happiness is a warm Buddha.”

These are the kind of inspirational words that some people love to poke fun at, yet a number of today’s prominent teachers promote lojong practice, including Pema Chodron, Ken McLeod, Alan Wallace, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, and the Dalai Lama. They’re not too proud to be hokey. What do they know that we don’t?

They know that a simple truth can be profound, and that it can be a springboard into even deeper truths, if you let it. Even the uber-cerebral Ken Wilber recognizes the profundity of simple truths. In the foreword to The Practice of Lojong, by Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche, he writes:

It is Rinpoche’s belief, which I heartily second, that not only are the secrets of Lojong an antidote to much of today’s emotional pain and suffering, they contain the very practices that can fully awaken the mind and liberate awareness. And not just in a passing, self-help kind of fashion, a “Gosh-I-feel-better” kind of way, but by striking right at the heart of suffering itself, while simultaneously pointing to the enlightened or fully liberated mind.

Lojong practice requires seeing these little mottos differently.

So, to wrap this thing up, the next time you are tempted to look down upon someone’s inspiration quote, inwardly smirk at some proverb, or criticize someone for using them, think twice. Maybe they’re on to something you haven’t figured out yet. Maybe they’re the smarties.

We need inspiration. It’s hard enough to come by, so I don’t think it’s such a good idea to just dismiss inspiration out of hand because it’s too cute, comes from a source we think is silly, or doesn’t measure up to our standards. The inspirational words that might be too sweet for your tea, may be a lifeline to someone else, and to you, too, once you get past your preferences and prejudices.

Always keep in mind these inspirational words from the immortal Chinese detective, Charlie Chan:

Any powder that kills flea is good powder.