Fearlessness

At eleven o’clock on the morning of Thursday August 9, 1945, the world’s second atomic bomb exploded 1,625 ft. above Nagasaki, one of Japan’s westernmost cities, located on the island of Kyushu. Nick-named “Fat Man,” a reference to Winston Churchill, it completely destroyed the city. More than 73,000 people died.

Nagasaki after the bomb.
Nagasaki after the bomb.

At that very moment, the Japanese Supreme War Council was meeting at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. Unaware of what was happening at Nagasaki, Premier Suzuki was urging the council that in light of the Soviet invasion of Manchuria and the first atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima three days before, Japan could not possibly continue the war. Still, it took six more days for the Japanese to announce surrender.

Thus, the Atomic Age began.

I grew up with the Atomic Bomb, the constant threat of nuclear war. Although I don’t recall ever receiving instruction on how to “duck and cover” as has been shown in some famous newsreels, I do remember clearly seeing those orange and black Fallout Shelter signs almost everywhere you went.

Ah, nostalgia.

In the late 1950’s and early 1960’s Fallout Shelters were quite a phenomenon in the U.S. Most were makeshift, just basements in existing buildings. However, many people built their own backyard underground bomb shelters. In Kansas, where I lived at the time, they doubled as tornado shelters.

It was a very real fear for some. But, I didn’t think anyone would be foolish enough to resort to nuclear war. After all, as P.J. Sloan wrote, and Barry McGuire sang, in “Eve of Destruction”: “If the button is pushed, there’s no runnin’ away/There’ll be no one to save, with the world in a grave.”

That doesn’t mean that as in the subtitle to Stanley Kubrick’s 1965 film, Dr. Strangelove, I had “Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.” I didn’t love the Bomb. Who could? I just didn’t worry about it.

The late, great Slim Pickens on that wild ride to oblivion in "Dr. Strangelove."
The late, great Slim Pickens on that wild ride to oblivion in “Dr. Strangelove.”

I do now, though. That a terrorist could carry a dirty bomb into an American city, perhaps my city, and set it off is a possibility that seems frighteningly real. Terrorist groups are not like nations. The mutually assured annihilation that held the superpowers in check is not a consideration for terrorists.

I don’t fret about it all the time. But it’s there. Fear. One of our most basic, innate emotions.

Not all fear is negative. Some fears are useful, as survival mechanisms. A healthy fear of fire, for instance, is a good thing to have. But some fears are not helpful. Theses are the fears we learn, and whether rational or irrational, for some people they can be overwhelming.

In Buddhism, fearlessness is often touted as a quality of life obtainable through Buddhist practice. In The Heart Sutra, we read that because bodhisattvas rely on Prajna-Paramita, or Transcendent Wisdom, they have no fear. This shouldn’t be taken literally. The sutra was composed in what we might call shorthand, so “no fear” actually refers to having no fear of emptiness.

In his Precious Garland, Nagarjuna describes four flawed ways of pursuing dharma practice. One is when we are held back by inhibition or fear, in that we feel threatened by emptiness. This fear comes from clinging to substantiality, to the idea of “I” or “mine.” For the wise, however, there is “no fear” because the teaching of emptiness shows that there is a way to transcend the concept of self, and unlearn certain fears.

Fearlessness is really a state where we have cultivated mindfulness to such a degree that fear cannot overwhelm us. Using meditation, the path of Transcendent Wisdom, we stabilize our mind by maintaining a focus on the present, lessening the possibility of influence from thoughts about experiences from the past or anxiety concerning future events, where fears generally arise.

One benefit that comes from accepting emptiness is the understanding that many of the things we fear have no real substance, they are ultimately unreal. I’ll admit that it’s hard to accept the idea that a terrorist threat is empty. Or that fire is. But as far as the conventional everyday world is concerned, we have this wonderful tool of mindfulness at our disposal to loosen the grip of fear. We can master fear, instead of letting it master us, and in that sense, we become fearless.

Let me not pray to be sheltered from dangers
But to be fearless in facing them.
Let me not beg for the stilling of my pain
But for the heart to conquer it.
Let me not look for allies in life’s battlefield
But to my own strength.
Let me not crave in anxious fear to be saved
But hope for patience to win my freedom. 
Sarvamangalam! Blessings to all!

– Rabindranath Tagore

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Bards and Bombs

As regular readers of The Endless Further know, I dig poetry. And when poets I appreciate have birthdays, I like to mention it, because it gives me an opportunity to share their poetry with others and perhaps introduce them to new readers.

john-ashberyToday is John Ashbery’s birthday. He was born in 1927 and he is an important, yet somewhat controversial, poet on the American scene. “No figure looms so large in American poetry over the past 50 years as John Ashbery,” according to Langdon Hammer, chairman of the English Department at Yale University. Ashbery is the author of more than twenty books of poetry, and served as the poet laureate of New York State from 2001 to 2003.

According to the Poetry Foundation, Ashbery’s work is controversial mainly because some readers and critics “deplore his obscurantism and insist that his poems, made up of anything and everything, can mean anything and everything.” Yet, as Nicholas Jenkins once wrote in the New York Times Book Review, Ashbery’s work “appeals not because it offers wisdom in a packaged form, but because the elusiveness and mysterious promise of his lines remind us that we always have a future and a condition of meaningfulness to start out toward.”

I’m not sure what, if any, connection Ashbery has with Buddhism, but two of his poems are included in an 1979 anthology titled Zero: Contemporary Buddhist Life and Thought, Vol III that also featured works by John Cage, Leonard Cohen, Allen Ginsberg, and Joni Mitchell.

Here is a short poem I found on Ashbery’s homepage at SUNY Buffalo’s Electronic Poetry Center:

At North Farm

Somewhere someone is traveling furiously toward you,
At incredible speed, traveling day and night,
Through blizzards and desert heat, across torrents, through narrow passes.
But will he know where to find you,
Recognize you when he sees you,
Give you the thing he has for you?

Hardly anything grows here,
Yet the granaries are bursting with meal,
The sacks of meal piled to the rafters.
The streams run with sweetness, fattening fish;
Birds darken the sky. Is it enough
That the dish of milk is set out at night,
That we think of him sometimes,
Sometimes and always, with mixed feelings?

– – – – – – – – – –

That was the poetry, now the bombs:

Sunday, in a coordinated terror attack, nine bomb blasts rocked Bodh Gaya, the site where the Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment. The explosions were set off inside the Mahabodhi temple complex.

In addition to housing a number of temples, Bodh Gaya also features the Bodhi Tree that Gautama sat under during his night of awakening. Actually, it’s not the original tree but a “direct descendant planted in 288 BC from the original specimen,” and is located next to the Mahabodhi Temple. I have a leaf from the tree that sits on my altar.

The entrance of a temple appears torn apart at the Mahabodhi temple complex in Bodh Gaya after the serial bomb blasts. (PTI)
The entrance of a temple appears torn apart at the Mahabodhi temple complex in Bodh Gaya after the serial bomb blasts. (PTI)

The Mahabodhi temple itself did not have extensive damage, but Vilsagga, age 30, a student monk from Burma, and Tenzing Dorjee, 60, from the Ningma Tibetan monastery, who were both meditating near the Bodhi tree, suffered serious injuries.

According to CNN, “While no one took responsibility for the attack, suspicion fell on the home-grown Islamist group Indian Mujahideen . . . designated as a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department, is blamed for dozens of deadly bomb explosions throughout India since 2005.”

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Fear, Loathing, and Terrorism in Buddhist Countries

A guy named Andrew Brown writes in the Guardian UK,

It’s a commonplace that wars and religions are closely associated. Since about 1945 there has been an increasing tendency for wars to be fought along religious, as well as ethnic, economic and cultural lines, though I don’t think many people realise that the most warlike religion in the modern world, measured by the proportion of countries at war where it has a significant following, is actually Buddhism.”

My first reaction to this was, Hey, wait a minute, pal. Then, well, maybe there’s some truth to that. When I took a closer look at the statement, I went back to my first reaction.

To say, “increasing tendency for wars to be fought along religious, as well as ethnic, economic and cultural lines”, is to say nothing really, except that there are many reasons why wars are being fought. And, what does he mean by war?

According to Buddhanet, the top ten countries with the largest Buddhist populations are Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Tibet, Laos, Vietnam, Japan, Macau, Taiwan. And according to the Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP), a data collection project on organized violence housed at Uppsala University in Sweden, which evidently is relied upon by the United Nations, only two of those countries have ongoing military conflicts: Burma/Myanmar (internal conflict since 1948) and Thailand (South Thailand insurgency since 2004).

So I don’t think Brown’s claim is valid.

That does not mean that bad stuff isn’t happening in some Buddhist countries. It is. Some very bad stuff.

Burma: Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA)
Burma: Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA)

I’ve previously written about the situation in Burma (here, here, here, and here). A week ago, Human Rights Watch accused Burmese security forces backed by Buddhist monks of having “committed crimes against humanity” by waging a campaign of ethnic cleansing that has displaced more than 125,000 Rohingya Muslims. Wednesday, the Dalai Lama finally issued a public condemnation of violence there. In December, a number of Buddhist leaders wrote an overly-polite (to my mind) letter expressing their concern about the growing conflict.

I’ve also commented many times on the situation in Tibet (most recently in this post), and it not only qualifies as a conflict, but as far as I’m concerned, it is a war against the Tibetan people. I don’t know much about the insurgency in Thailand except it is led by an Islamic separatist group.

In Sri Lanka, suppression of racial minorities is nothing new. Buddhism is the de facto state religion. The treatment of Sri Lankan Tamil people by the Theravadin majority resulted in a long civil war that officially ended in 2009, however tensions between the two groups still persist. Recently I’ve learned of a couple of hard-line Buddhist Nationalist groups targeting Muslim minorities in Sri Lanka.

One, called the Bodhu Bala Sena, or BBS, which means “Buddhist Strength Force,” has been involved in several incidents of sectarian violence. In one altercation, a mob of hundreds of Buddhist extremists set fire to a clothing store and warehouse in the capital of Colombo. They claim that Muslim students receive favorable treatment in schools, that Muslims use illegal methods to kill livestock, accuse Muslims of building too many mosques, and having too many children.

Another ultra-nationalist Buddhist group, Sinhala Echo, founded by a monk named Akmeemana Dayarathana, makes similar claims, but does not seem to have been involved in any violence.

These things are troubling. Buddhist groups like Bodhu Bala Sena and Sinhala Echo shame the Buddha’s dharma. Equally troubling are journalists like Andrew Brown who don’t do their homework and write inflammatory statements, I suppose to create a stir. Brown, surprisingly, was winner of the 1994 “John Templeton European Religion Writer of the Year” award. Currently he is editor for the Guardian’s Comment is Free Belief section. I suspect he is a Christian.

I make that last comment because many Christian writers have a bad habit of criticizing other religions without having any real knowledge about those religions. A recent case in point is an article I read by Peter Kreeft, a professor of philosophy at Boston College and The King’s College, “Comparing Christianity & Buddhism.” There are so many inaccuracies in this piece it would take an entire post to go through them all. I suppose what really rankles me about what Kreeft wrote was his superior tone and statement at the end: “But Buddhists even more desperately need to hear what they do not know: the news about God and His love.”

I couldn’t disagree more, but that would another post, too. While I am critical of the beliefs of the Abrahamic religions, I certainly don’t approve of intolerance or violence against their believers. The actions of ultra-nationalist groups using the dharma as an excuse for their fanaticism should be strongly (not politely) condemned by all Buddhists.

If you want to read more about the these situations, I recommend this at CNN and this at thinkprogress.org.

Lastly, if you search Google Images using the search terms “Buddhist terrorist,” “Buddhist terrorist groups,” or something similar, you will see a great many disturbing images, especially of the recent atrocities in Burma. They may be difficult to look at, but they will definitely disabuse you of any idealistic notions you might harbor about Buddhism in some of the countries I’ve mentioned in this post.  

Fear is another root of violence and terrorism. We terrorize others so they will have no chance to terrorize us. We want to kill before we are killed. Instead of bringing us peace and safety, this escalates violence. If we kill someone we call a terrorist, his son may become a terrorist. Throughout history, the more we kill, the more terrorists we create.

Thich Nhat Hanh, Calming the Fearful Mind: A Zen Response to Terrorism

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Freedom’s Burden

The true burden of freedom is the obligation to summon up the courage to conquer fear.

A bill co-sponsored by US Senators Joseph Lieberman and Scott Brown calling for suspected terrorists to be stripped of their US citizenship is one of the worst ideas I have heard in quite a while. It is unconstitutional and I suspect that what it’s really about taking away due process.

I also think that fear is playing a part here, the kind that can eat away at the heart of a democracy. So the larger question concerns the way in which democratic governments should protect individual freedoms as they respond to the continuing terrorist threats.

Here is an opinion I found at the Washington Post by Ramdas Lamb, a former Hindu monk and current Profession at the University of Hawaii. The piece does not deal with the Lieberman-Brown bill directly however there is some correspondence. One of the points he makes is that reacting with intolerance, we allow ourselves to be intimidated. I appreciated the point of view. Perhaps you will too.

Without freedom of expression, there is no democracy

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