The Wisdom of Anger

A wise person does not neglect the way of propriety.  Democracy means freedom and equality, and mutual respect.  Authoritarians and demagogues use people as a tool.  The American way was always supposed to be about appreciating people as an end in themselves . . .

Trying to gather my thoughts about this election has been difficult.  I was so angry.  I still am.  Problem is, Buddhists are not supposed to get angry.  We have this notion that we always have to avoid any display of emotion, that there is never justification for anger, and our words must always be kind and healing.

I don’t believe that every moment has to be a kumbaya moment.  Now and again, there is justification for anger and rather than be afraid of the anger, or be ashamed for feeling anger, we can use it.

If you are a Mahayanist, then you realize that Buddha taught a certain use for the energy of anger . . . the bodhisattva, like the peacock who can use poison to be beautiful, can use the heat, the fire of anger . . .”

So says Robert Thurman in a video “The Wisdom of Anger” (see below).  Japanese Buddhists have a term for what he is talking about:  hendoku iyaku – change poison into medicine.

The purpose of the Buddha’s teaching is to transform negative aspects of the mind.  I suspect that many Buddhists practice suppression rather than transformation.  There are situations when negativity has to come out in order to be an object for transformation.  Furthermore, we should keep in mind that there are two truths and they are not separate, except when they are.  Conventionally speaking then, anger directed toward injustice or the infliction of harm can be positive.

T’ien-t’ai founder Chih-i was one of the first Buddhist teachers to explain how good and evil are non-dual.  Ng Yu Kwan* tells us that Chih-i taught “good and evil do not make terms with each other, but are constantly in a struggle.  Good must overturn evil in order to prevail, and good can prevail only by the overturning of evil.  It follows that overturning evil is a necessary and sufficient condition for the prevalence of good.  But the overturning of evil does not imply extirpation of evil.”

Why not?  Because ultimately, good and evil are non-dual.  They are “different states of the same thing under different conditions.”  The keyword here is ultimately.  This is the view from ultimate truth and it is important for us to remember that even though the ultimate and conventional are mutually inclusive, there are times in the conventional world when it is necessary to use conventional means.

The fact is that in the Mahayana Buddhist way of expressing non-duality, things are dual sometimes.  There are situations when it truly is a matter of good vs. evil, us vs. them.

This post-election period is one of those times.  It is not wrong to identify the President-elect with evil, for what he represents – hate, misogyny, racism – are identified as evil states of mind.  We do not have to support the President-elect or unite behind him.  To do so would be like saying hate speech is acceptable, that using hate speech to win an election is something we can tolerate.  It’s isn’t.  Not in the America I was taught to believe in.  Freedom of speech and accountability for your words are not mutually exclusive.

Understanding inter-dependency (dependent origination) means taking responsibility for being infinitely connected to each other, so we want to avoid creating animosity with people whose views are different from ours and do out best to follow the ways of propriety and mutual respect.  Yet, we should not become enablers of their delusions, sold to them by demagogues and hate-mongers.

If we’re angry, we need not be ashamed of it or feel that it must be suppressed.  We can take the anger, temper it with wisdom, and then speak out, raise an objection.  Our country is in a fog.  Our protests can be the sunlight that burns off the fog.


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* NG Yu Kwan, T’ien-t’ai Buddhism and Early Madhyamika, University of Hawaii Press, 1993, 171


Jack and the Buddhastalk

Today some more about Jack Kerouac’s connections with Buddhism. I’m one of those people who consider Kerouac an important American novelist. He possessed a phenomenal memory, almost total recall, and as his “novels” were autobiographical, he documented the affairs of a small group of people who would become known as the Beat Generation, and who would have a tremendous influence on American culture. His writing style was as spontaneous as the life he lived and documented, a completely unique voice in literature.

No, that’s not an ancient Buddhist scroll, it’s Kerouac’s original manuscript of “On The Road,” that he typed onto a 120-foot roll of teletype paper. (Photograph: AP)

Like Alan Watts, also identified with the Beat Generation to some extent, Kerouac was one of my earliest Buddhist influences. Unlike Watts, however, it was not what Kerouac wrote about Buddhism that impressed me, which in his novels is not a great deal, but simply that he was into Buddhism. Kerouac was cool, so Buddhism must be cool. That’s how I reasoned things back then.

Kerouac was probably introduced to Buddhism by Allen Ginsberg, who according to Gerald Nicosia (Memory Babe*), in 1953 “had begun an intensive study of Chinese and Japanese art, literature, and religion,” and “began to communicate his new enthusiasm to his friends almost immediately.” Nicosia reports that in late ’53, Kerouac was describing himself as a “big Buddhist.”

Kerouac’s interest in Buddhism, although intense, lasted only a few years. By 1957, he no longer considered himself Buddhist, and those readers familiar with his life story know that in his later years (he died in 1969), he retreated to his mother’s house in Lowell, MA where he returned to his Catholic roots, practiced his alcoholism and adopted some rather conservative views.

While he dabbled with meditation, I suspect Kerouac was more of a book-reading, intellectual kind of Buddhist. Nicosia says the texts most influential on him were the Surangama and Lankavatara Sutras, the Tao te Ching, the Sutra Spoken by the Sixth Patriarch, and most especially, the Diamond Sutra, as I wrote about the other day. All these works are found in Dwight Goddard’s A Buddhist Bible that he carried around with him in a leather wrapper. It’s likely that this one book was his sole source of Buddhist information, as it also contained a biography of the Buddha.

Various paperback editions of “The Dharma Bums.” (click to enlarge)

Buddhism permeated Kerouac’s writing during the period he immersed himself in its philosophy. The Dharma Bums is essentially the story of the relationship between himself and Gary Snyder (Japhy Ryder), “the number one Dharma Bum of them all.” Snyder was, and is, a Zen Buddhist, but Kerouac was not particularly attracted to Zen, he was more interested in Indian and Chinese Buddhism. In the novel, he writes,

I’d say that was a lot of silly Zen Buddhism.” This took Japhy back a bit. “Lissen Japhy,” I said, “I’m not a Zen Buddhist, I’m a serious Buddhist, I’m an oldfashioned dreamy Hinayana coward of later Mahayanism,” and so forth into the night, my contention being that Zen Buddhism didn’t concentrate on kindness so much as on confusing the intellect to make it perceive the illusion of all sources of things.”

Desolation Angels, which he began writing in 1958 or 59, and not published until 1965, also reflects his interest in Buddhism, and as well, Japanese culture in the way he incorporated haiku poetry into his prose.

In 1956, Snyder suggested to Kerouac that he should write a sutra. This resulted in The Scripture of the Golden Eternity, which Kerouac subsequently lost and was published without his participation in 1960. This work consists of 66 prose poems, and my favorite is Scripture 22:

Stare deep into the world before you as if it were the void: innumerable holy ghosts, buddhies, and savior gods there hide, smiling. All the atoms emitting light inside wavehood, there is no personal separation of any of it. A hummingbird can come into a house and a hawk will not: so rest and be assured. While looking for the light, you may suddenly be devoured by the darkness and find the true light.

You can read the entire work here.

During his Buddhist period, Kerouac also put together a “book of Dharma,” originally an attempt to explain Buddhism without using Buddhist terms. He struggled to get Some of the Dharma, as it was eventually titled, published during his lifetime, but it didn’t see publication until 1996:

Buddhism is a return to the Original mind.

Return those shoes
to the shoemaker
Return this hand to my father
This pillow to the pillowmaker
Those slippers to the shop
That wainscot to the carpenter,
But my mind
my tranquil and eternal Mind
Return it to whom?

In 2009, Penguin Books released Kerouac’s Wake Up: A Life of the Buddha, featuring a forward by Robert Thurman, who reveals that like many others, his interest in Buddhism was sparked by reading The Dharma Bums in his youth; Thurman calls it “the most accurate, poetic, and expansive evocation of the heart of Buddhism that was available at that time.”

Snyder: “the number one Dharma Bum of them all.”

Gary Snyder quoted in Memory Babe:

Jack made the moment everything – the present was where he wanted to be, and for people around him the present became the only thing that mattered.”

Overall, Jack Kerouac’s sense of what it meant to be in the present moment, along with his grasp of Buddhism, was to some degree immature and naive, fueled by a certain amount of hedonism and self-aggrandizement. Nicosia writes: “Although Jack would say, ‘I am Buddha,’ Gary was sure Jack knew better.” However, through the legacy of his words (“cease to cherish any arbitrary conceptions as to your own self, the selfhood of others, of living beings, of an Universal Self”), we get the sense that on an elemental and intuitive level, he got it. It’s just too bad he didn’t stick with it.

Here’s Kerouac in 1959 on the Steve Allen Show reading a medley of On the Road and Visions of Cody. He had a page of “Cody” taped inside of the first edition of “Road” he reads from. Dean Moriarty is, of course, the legedary Neal Cassady.

*Gerald Nicosia, Memory Babe A Critical Biography of Jack Kerouac (Grove Press, 1983)



The Zen of Jobs

I have never owned, or for that matter even touched, an iPad, iPhone, or iPod. I have never seen an Apple computer turned on, outside of a computer store. In regards to much of the technological innovation that Steve Jobs created, I guess you could say that I am iGnorant.

Don’t get me wrong. I love technology. At least, I love using certain types of technology. I spend a lot of time in front of my laptop; however, I don’t necessarily need to understand exactly how it works. No geekhood for me.

I can’t say that I am a real big fan of the culture that Steve Job’s technology has unleashed. Whenever I venture out into our brave new world, I see folks walking around almost zombie-like, heads downturned, focused on the little box in their palm, or strolling through our communal reality impervious to what’s going on around them because they are self-contained, listening to another world through their ear phones.

Which brings up my biggest problem: whenever I see these people with their headphones on or wearing an ear-plug, I can’t help but think of the Bob Dylan song:

Well, you walk into the room
Like a camel and then you frown
You put your eyes in your pocket
And your nose on the ground
There ought to be a law
Against you comin’ around
You should be made
To wear earphones

Because something is happening here
But you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mister Jones?

Ironically Dylan was Steve Jobs favorite musical performer.

Anyway, it seems that human interaction ain’t what it used to be. Although I don’t think its improved much on the intimate, one-on-one level, I have to admit that Steve Jobs left his mark on this world. And despite my grumbling, I think he leaves behind a very positive personal legacy. I just didn’t follow his career or know much about him. Now I wish I had. I think he would have inspired me.

Think Different: A Mantra for Everyone

One thing I learned just today is that he was a Buddhist. According to an article at ABC News,

Jobs and his college friend Daniel Kottke, who later worked for him at Apple, visited Neem Karoli Baba at his Kainchi Ashram. He returned home to California a Buddhist, complete with a shaved head and traditional Indian clothing and a philosophy that may have shaped much of his corporate values.”

Robert Thurman, who met Jobs in the 1980’s is quoted in the article saying,

I wouldn’t say Steve Jobs was a practicing Buddhist. But he was just as creative and generous and went outside the box in the way that he looked to Eastern mental discipline and the Zen vision, which is a compelling one.”

Thurman makes some other good comments, one of which is to point out that by putting computers in the hands of everyday people, Jobs empowered them.  And there is the “focus and simplicity” that were the “foundation of Apple’s ethic.” Focus and simplicity are the hallmarks of Buddhism, at least in some forms, and, if we are to accept the idea that Buddhism influenced the way Jobs thought and conducted his business, we see how Buddha-dharma can exhibit a subtle and transcending influence on the world. I’ve not thought of it before but I think there can be no doubt that the innovations brought by Steve Jobs helped relieve suffering.

I knew Jobs had some health issues. But I didn’t pay much attention. Apparently, a few years ago he had a liver transplant. Pancreatic cancer got him in the end. Lately, when I hear of people succumbing to cancer it hits me right between the eyes.

Did I mention that Steve Jobs favorite musician was Bob Dylan?  Shows he had excellent taste in music . . .

The problem with earphones aside, I think we all owe him a debt of gratitude. So, thanks Steve . . . and peace, brother.

I have gone from rags to riches in the sorrow of the night
In the violence of a summer’s dream, in the chill of a wintry light
In the bitter dance of loneliness fading into space
In the broken mirror of innocence on each forgotten face

I hear the ancient footsteps like the motion of the sea
Sometimes I turn, there’s someone there, other times it’s only me
I am hanging in the balance of the reality of man
Like every sparrow falling, like every grain of sand

– Bob Dylan


When Myth and Reality Meet

Bob Thurman

The other day I blogged about the importance of dialogue, quoting a very fine book by Noble laureate Amartya Sen. Then I learned through an interview with Robert Thurman in the Times of India, that Sen, as head of a project to restore Nalanda, the ancient Buddhist university, has excluded Tibetan Buddhists and especially the Dalai Lama, from being part of the project. Why should the Tibetans be included? Only because they’ve been the ones keeping the Nalanda tradition alive since it was destroyed in the 12th century by Turkic Afghan invaders.

The objection to Tibetan participation apparently comes from Singapore and its because of some “deference” to China, who as we all know, has no love for the Dalai Lama.

In the interview, Thurman says,

He is out for the moment. He is happy being kept out as he is having a jolly time resigning from everything. But it’s ironic that Tibetan Buddhists are being kept out of the project. Amartya Sen (who heads the project) and company see the Dalai Lama as some kind of pope or something. They have not read any of his books. They don’t know what a great scholar he is.

My first thought was that sounded as if they need to have some meaningful dialogue, and it seemed surprising that someone who wrote such a wonderful account of the Indian tradition of open, public discussion would sign off on such an exclusionary move. But, I think this remark made by Sen to journalists questions about the Dalai Lama clues us in to what is really going on: “being religiously active may not be the same as (being) an appropriate person for religious studies.”

I think the key word here is “appropriate.” I get the impression that everyone is acting out of deference to China, which is no friend to Buddhism. Like Robert Thurman, I consider the Dalai Lama to be a great scholar and can’t imagine anyone else more appropriate to be assigned a role in this project. Many other scholars consider Tibetan Buddhism to be the only form of Buddhism in the world today that reflects the state of Indian Mahayana as it was before it was wiped off the face of the Indian subcontinent those hundreds of years ago.

Nalanda ruins, India via Prince Roy

I also saw some similarities between this situation and a story about Shantideva, one of the most famous students of Nalanda who lived in the 8th century. According to legend, when  Shantideva was a student at Nalanda, he was not well liked. The officials and students thought he was lazy and no-good. All he did was sleep and eat and use the toilet (later revealed to be Shantideva’s “three Perfections”), while everyone else was busy studying and practicing. In fact, they wanted to kick him out. However, they decided that Shantideva should at least give one teaching before they expelled him. So one day they came up and demanded that he give a teaching, and Shantideva had never given one before so he was hesitant, but eventually he said okay, let’s do it.

They gathered a large group of monks together and erected a very high throne for Shantideva to sit in. They actually planned to embarrass Shantideva because they figured that he wouldn’t know how to get up into the throne. But when Shantideva merely touched the throne, it shrank to normal size. He sat down and they requested he present a teaching that had never been given by anyone before.

Shantideva then recited the Bodhicharyavatara or “A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life.” The legend has it that when he got to the 34th verse of the ninth chapter he rose into the sky and  finished the rest of the teaching from atop a cloud.

After that, Shantideva disappeared and everyone immediately regretted their attitude towards him because now, of course, they realized he was a great scholar. According to one version of the story, officials from Nalanda finally caught up with Shantideva and begged him to return, but he refused to come back, although he did clarify some of his teaching for them.

So I thought it was  interesting how this story parallels the situation with the Nalanda project and the Dalai Lama, considering how Robert Thurman described it: “They don’t know what a great scholar he is” and “resigning from everything”, which could be considered a sort of disappearing act. Maybe Bob had the Shantideva story in mind when he gave the interview.

One thing I have learned is that most of the stories like this had a purpose beyond merely mythologizing a great figure, and Shantideva was certainly that. Many of these tales were not meant to be taken literally but rather they were used a devices to illustrate a point of dharma. To be honest, I don’t know what the symbolism behind this one is, but I suspect it has something to do with that 34th verse.

In any case, you can read the Thurman interview here, and the controversy over the Nalanda project here, and learn about the ancient center for Buddhist study at Nalanda here.

And here’s the 34 th verse of the Ninth Chapter from the Crosby-Skilton translation of the Bodhicharyavatara:

When neither entity nor non-entity remains before the mind, since there is no other mode of operation, grasping no objects, it becomes tranquil.


Buddha Boy Goes Berserk, Tibetan Environmentalist Gets Jail, and the Ground Zero Mosque

Palden Dorje-Buddha BoyMAYBE you heard about the “Buddha Boy”: Ram Bahadur Bamjan, age 20, known by his monastic name, Palden Dorje, and believed to be enlightened, in fact the reincarnation of the Buddha. He sat meditating in the hollow of a tree for nearly a year, between May 2005 and March 2006, where he received thousands of visitors and much media attention.

The Buddha Boy recently went berserk, savagely beating 17 people who sacrificed animals during an annual fair near Kathmandu, Nepal. Bomjan and a few of his associates more or less kidnapped these 17 villagers, jammed them in a small room and beat them up with sticks.

I don’t have much sympathy for anyone who would sacrifice an animal. Nonetheless, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say I don’t think that Buddhas beat people with sticks, either.

Rinchen SamdrupTIBETAN environmentalist Rinchen Samdrup was sentenced to five years in prison by a Chinese court earlier this month. His crime was inciting separatism by posting a pro-Dalai Lama article on his website. Samdrup is the third brother in his family to be jailed. His website is devoted to protecting the environment in the Himalayan region.

It is amazing to me that this man will spend five years in prison for doing what I have on this blog many times. I feel sad for him and I also feel thankful to live in a free society. Read the BBC report here.

Ground Zero

I HAVE mixed feelings about the proposed Ground Zero Mosque, which is actually going to be two blocks away. I’m not crazy about any of the three Western Monotheistic religions, but Islam I find particularly disturbing.  For many reasons.

Likewise, even though I have great respect the man, I also have mixed feelings about Robert Thurman’s recent editorial in the Washington Post.  He thinks it’s a wonderful idea to build a mosque and says that it would send a positive message of tolerance and peace.

Thurman says, “. . . let the 9/11 tragedy be mourned with museums and monuments to those who lost their lives, and let the building of mosques, churches, synagogues, temples, Dharma centers – and ideally a world religions’ Temple of Mutual Understanding . . .”

Maybe I have the wrong attitude, but I think it would be better to have a very simple, non-sectarian monument to remember and then take the money they would spend building all those mosques, churches, museums, etc., and create a global program or organization that would go out into the world to teach and foster tolerance and peace. That’s where the need is. Some readers will remember my recent post about a UN report that cited 24 countries where religious persecution was widespread in one form or another. Those are the places where we should send living monuments, in the form of dedicated practitioners of peace, a sort of Peace Corps of tolerance.

I suppose such an entity would require a building to be housed in, but I think one would suffice. Perhaps the idea is unworkable, I don’t know. I just feel that monuments are somewhat passive. We have enough of them already. If we are ever going to really deal with the underlying causes for terrorism and religious intolerance, I think we need to take a more active approach.

In any case, you can read the complete editorial by Robert Thurman here.