Obama, Nagarjuna, and Invisibility

Last week the Republicans treated us to the spectacle of Clint Eastwood interviewing President Obama in an empty chair. Not Eastwood’s best performance by a long shot. It’s led to a nearly endless series of “Invisible Obama” jokes, but I, for one, feel we should take this matter seriously.

Now that this previously unknown power of Barack Obama to become invisible has been revealed, I have reached the conclusion that far from being a “secret Muslim”, or openly Christian, the President is actually a Buddhist and he probably doesn’t even know it. In fact, I believe that Barack Hussein Obama is the reincarnation of Nagarjuna, considered by many to be the Second Buddha. Why? Because Nagarjuna, too, had the power to become invisible.

Don’t laugh. Obama as the reincarnated Nagarjuna is as plausible as some of the other things said about the President, like he was born in Kenya, or that he’s a communist.

I don’t know how President Obama learned how to become invisible, but I know how Nagarjuna did. The story, culled from Chinese texts by Kumarajiva in the 5th century*, goes like this (more or less):

Acharya (teacher) Nagarjuna was from south India and belonged to the Brahman caste. At an early age he was taken to Nalanda, the famed Buddhist university, and his life became one of intense study. By the time he became a teenager, though, he found studying all the time to be rather boring. One day he got together with three of his friends and he said to them, “Are you guys as bored as I am? Haven’t we studied enough? We need some fun. Let’s go find a magician and learn the art of making ourselves invisible.” Everyone was agreed that this was a cool idea.

They found a magician and asked him to give them a formula for invisibility. This magician, however, had years of business experience, and he didn’t do magic for any altruistic reasons, he wanted to make a profit. He’d acquired a number of formulas from another magician who went out of business, and he knew if he just sold the formulas out right, he’d lose a lot of repeat business. So he bottled the formulas, and marketed his product as “Dr. Bain’s Magic Elixirs.”

Even though the four boys were very learned, the magician still pegged them each for a sucker. After all, there was one was reborn every minute. He said, “Here you are. The first one’s free. Of course, if you run out and need some more, you’ll have to pay. I’m trying to make a living here, you know.”

Nagarjuna said, “I see, you want our money but don’t want to tell us how you make this stuff.” He then unscrewed the cap on his bottle, took one sniff, and read off to the magician each of the seventy ingredients in the elixir. The magician was flabbergasted. He said, “How did you figure it out?” Nagarjuna replied, “I’m no longer just a customer. I’m the Acharya.” The magician thought to himself, “I gotta get better elixirs.”

Ancient painting of Nagarjuna and his friends climbing the palace stairs.

Nagarjuna and his friends, having obtained bottles of the elixir and the knowledge of how to make more, indulged themselves. They started going over to the king’s palace each night and having their way with women in the king’s harem. This went on for about three months and then some of the women became pregnant. The king was mystified. His security was very tight and he thought it impossible for anyone to sneak in and fool around with his harem girls. He brought all his advisers together and asked, “What the hell is going on? Is this the work of demons or is it magic?”

One of the advisers said, “Your majesty, a few months ago there was a magician around town selling various magic elixirs. Personally, I thought he was little more than a snake-oil salesman, but you never know, he might have some magic formulas that work. Perhaps he had one for invisibility and he sold the formula to someone who’s been using it to get in and screw around with your girls.”

The king said, “Okay. That sounds plausible. How do we catch this person or persons?”

The advisor replied, “Easy. We just sprinkle some dirt around the doors and on the floor beneath the windows. They are bound to leave some footprints behind.” And the king said, “Sounds like a plan,” and that’s what they did.

The next night, a guard noticed the footprints and alerted the king who called out all the guards and ordered them to storm the harem rooms waving their swords in every direction. Nagarjuna’s three friends were thus beheaded. Nagarjuna only escaped by standing next to the king, as he knew no one would wield their sword anywhere near his head. In this way, he managed to get away unharmed.

Naturally, Nagarjuna was bummed out. The death of his three friends took all the fun out of becoming invisible and shagging harem girls. In his sadness, Nagarjuna awoke to the ultimate truth about suffering, and realized that one of its causes is the pursuit of earthly desires. He resolved then to formally join the Buddhist Order.

Now, I don’t need to tell you there’s about as much truth in this story as you’ll find in a speech by Mitt Romney or Paul Ryan. It’s just one of the many legends that surround Nagarjuna’s life. Nor should I have to say that Buddhism does not teach reincarnation but rebirth, which is very different. And I probably don’t need to point out that it is highly unlikely President Obama has the power to become invisible.

However, I would like to mention, in case you are an undecided voter, that I like the power of the argument in favor of President Obama’s reelection. As former President Bill Clinton said Wednesday night, “Here it is. He inherited a deeply damaged economy. He put a floor under the crash. He began the long, hard road to recovery and laid the foundation for a modern, more well-balanced economy that will produce millions of good, new jobs, vibrant new businesses, and lots of new wealth for innovators.”

And because I am a Buddhist who reveres the ideal of the Bodhisattva, I agree with Clinton that “We’re all in this together” is a far better philosophy than “You’re on your own.”

Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan scare me. For the first time in my life, this election is extremely personal. Because I had a pre-existing medical condition, I couldn’t get health insurance. I’m relying on Medicare to help me afford cancer treatment and a liver transplant. Without a transplant, I’m dead.

Receiving a new liver could take a year or a year and a half. Because Romney wants to repeal the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, and turn Medicare into Vouchercare, I’m afraid his election will have an adverse effect on my life. There’s a lot he hasn’t been specific about. As President Obama said last night, he wants my vote but won’t tell me his plans. I’m concerned for others as well, and not just senior citizens. The Ryan Medicare budget essentially destroys the program for everyone under the age of 55 years.

So, I plan to be visible this November 2nd and cast my vote for President Obama, and I urge you not to believe the sales pitch, well let’s call it straight, the lies the two Republican snake-oil salesmen are handing out.

I am grateful that the Affordable Care Act provides a lifeline for people with pre-existing medical conditions. The Republicans want to repeal it. They don’t want to save Medicare, they want to trash it. Don’t let Romney and Ryan make me and others who are in a similar situation invisible once again.

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*Kao-seng-chuan (Biographies of Eminent Monks)


Trust in Words

Like many Americans, I watched President Obama’s address to the nation Monday night about the debt ceiling crisis, and the Republican response. While there may have been some exaggerations in the President’s remarks, none really popped out at me. Perhaps that’s because of my liberal bias. I was pre-disposed to have a generally favorable view of what Obama was going to say. On the other hand, also due to my bias (at least I’m honest about it), and because after more than a few decades observing the American political scene, I have found that those on the right have a tendency to be less truthful, I was ready to play gotcha with John Boehner. And sure enough, he did not disappoint.

Boehner exaggerated when he claimed that last week’s “Cut, Cap, and Balance” Act passed the House passed “with bipartisan support.” Now, just a few hours earlier I had been watching “Hardball” with Chris Matthews when this subject came up and I remember an exchange between the host and  Sen. Mike Lee, a tea party supporter, in which it was revealed that only five Democrats voted in favor of the bill. That’s hardly what anyone would call “bipartisan.”

It reminded me of something by Chuang Tzu, the Taoist philosopher who is thought to have authored a seminal work of Chinese philosophy named after him. This is from the Burton Watson translation, found in The complete works of Chuang Tzu:

Let me tell you something else I have learned. In all human relations, if the two parties are living close to each other, they may form a bond through personal trust. But if they are far apart, they must use words to communicate their loyalty, and words must be transmitted by someone. To transmit words that are either pleasant to both parties or infuriating to both parties is one of the most difficult things in the world. Where both parties are pleased, there must be some exaggeration of the good points and where both parties are angered, there must be some exaggeration of the bad points. Anything that smacks of exaggeration is irresponsible. Where there is irresponsibility, no one will trust what is said, and when that happens, the man who is transmitting the words will be in danger. Therefore the aphorism says, ‘Transmit the established facts; do not transmit words of exaggeration.’ If you do that, you will probably come out all right.”

I don’t know what the real solution to our political deadlock is, but politicians speaking with words that can be trusted would be a great beginning.



Grab Bag + Guns

A follow up of sorts to yesterdays post, a look at another side to the situation in Burma. From the Seattle Times: As Myanmar politics ease, tourism grows.

This was sent in by Carl, a recent interview with Dan Reed, who was a popular musician that got to spend 2 hours interviewing the Dalai Lama.

From This Week: Self-immolation: A brief history

On a completely different note, Ellen sent in this from Cracked.com (imitating Mad Magazine since 1958), “6 Cats More Badass Than You (And Most Superheroes)”

This article from the Hindustan Times is short and I love the title: Be a lotus in life.

Hard to believe, but Clint Eastwood is 80. Don’t know why it’s hard to believe but it is. Anyway, this piece is rather long, but in it, Clint remarks on Buddhism and meditation.

I watched the state of the Union speech last night on MSNBC. Now, I like and support Barack Obama, but I have to say, I don’t care who you are, if you are going to speak for over an hour on nation-wide (hey, world-wide) television, you need to schedule some commercial breaks so that people can go to the bathroom. It just makes sense. It’s the right thing to do.

And what is with John Boehner? He always looks like he’s in pain. I’m thinking maybe, hemorrhoids?

After the speech, I watched some of the commentary. Chris Matthews said, “The music was unity.” Lawrence O’Donnell, who I just started watching recently, and who impresses me as a very smart guy, said something about the speech being so transcendent that he couldn’t figure out what it was about. Then he added, “In the end, Republicans should be happy, it [the speech] says very little.”

Perhaps the country needed a pep talk and a message of unity, but I think we also deserved a speech that had some meat. Something missing was the problem of guns. In my opinion, this is one of the most pressing issues we need to deal with, and has been for decades now. I would think that in the wake of the Tucson tragedy, the present moment would be the perfect time to have a discussion. Especially since those who will be doing most of the talking, and the deciding, should be on their best behavior for a while.

Avoiding the gun issue is a mistake. The message that I got from the President’s speech was that to win the future we need to grapple with these enduring issues. So when are we going to do something about guns? Every day that goes by where we allow people, young people especially, have easy access to dangerous weapons, we, as a country, as a society, are committing a form of murder.

In the Tao Te Ching, it says,

As for weapons – they are instruments of ill omen.
And among things there are those that hate them.
Therefore, the one who has the Way, with them does not dwell.
When the gentleman is at home, he honors the left;
When at war, he honors the right.
Therefore, weapons are not the instrument of the gentleman –
Weapons are instruments of ill omen.
When you have no choice but to use them, it’s best to remain tranquil and calm.
You should never look upon them as things of beauty.
If you see them as beautiful things – this is to delight in the killing of men.
And when you delight in the killing of men, you’ll not realize your goal in the land.

Some believe that the right to bear arms is a fundamental right, but it’s also a fundamental problem. The United States accounted for 45% of the total gun-related deaths in the 36 countries studied by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 1998. Between 1980 and 2006, America has had on average more than 32,000 gun deaths per year. I can’t help but think of the line in Blowin’ in the Wind: “How many deaths will it take till he knows, that too many people have died.”

except from Chapter 31, Lao-Tsu Te-Tao Ching, translated by Robert G. Hendricks