War! Huh, Yeah! (Empty Sky)

Bruce Springsteen’s song “Empty Sky” is how I remember that day, how it looked that morning. Here in Los Angeles, the sun was bright and ths sky had not a cloud, it was Spanish blue.

I worked sales for a greeting card company. I usually went in between 6 and 6:30am. That’d be 9 o’clock on the east coast. I called a customer at a Hallmark store in New York City about a re-order. “We’re under attack!” he shouted into the phone. “America is under attack!” Well, that’s fine, Gus, but what about those cards? He hung up. We were under attack, yeah, right. I went into the main office where some of the other early birds were gathered around the television and I watched one of the towers fall.

It’s been 11 years, and since that morning it has been America on the attack. Wednesday night, the man who in 2007 got himself elected President of the United States with words like these, “It is time to bring our troops home! It is time to realize there is no military solution to the problem of Iraq! It is time to turn the page!” went on TV to speak to the nation. He told us we are still at war. I sort of get the feeling we will be at war . . . forever.

us-soldier-iraq2bJust as soon as the troops come home, out they go again. Only 475, but that is just the beginning. Like Yogi Berra said, déjà vu all over again.

Speaking of the New York Yankees, I’ve been watching a lot of my favorite team this summer. The other day I was trying to remember what song they used to play in the 7th inning stretch back in the good old days before 9/11. “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” usually. Now it’s a salute to the troops and Kate Smith’s rendition of “God Bless America.” Woody Guthrie hated that song. His prejudice rubbed off on me. I hate that song and I hate Kate Smith’s voice. She reminds me of Ethel Merman. I hated Ethel Merman. Well, hate is a harsh word. Strongly disliked.

But I really hate war. The thought of war blows my mind. I hate that we are still at war. I am not terribly fond of this ISIL group, but I think the mistakes of the last 11 years should have taught us there is no military solution to the problem in Iraq. Didn’t someone else say that?

Because so many of the Buddha’s teachings can be summarized with the word “peace” (santi), he is often called the “king of peace” (santiraja). Once, during a period of drought, his relatives argued over water rights to the Rohini River. They spit into two factions and were ready to go to war. The Buddha intervened. He asked each side what was more important to them, water or their blood? He was able to convince them of the futility of war.

The Sunni and the Shiite are related. They are brothers and sisters in the same faith. Can they ever be convinced of the futility of war? Of bloodshed? Can anyone in the Middle East, be they Muslim, Israeli or Christian be convinced? It will take a Buddha-like or Gandhian figure to bring them together. I don’t see one on the horizon, do you?

I am not against the President’s strategy. I mean, I guess I’m not. I don’t have a better one. It’s just that war is something I despise. And I am not against the troops. I am weary of the necessity of supporting them.

Tuesday was the 185th anniversary of Leo Tolstoy’s birth. I know it’s a joke from Seinfeld, but the title of his epic novel “War and Peace” really should have been “War, What Is It Good For?”


Black Rain

Today, August 6, is the 69th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. It happened at 08:15 Japan time. The Enola Gay, a Boeing B-29 Superfortress bomber, released a bomb named Little Boy containing 64 kg (141 lb) of uranium-235 over the city. It took Little Boy 44.4 seconds to drop from 31,000 feet (9,400 m) to a height of about 1,900 feet (580 m) where it detonated.

hiroshima-damage4.7 square miles (12 km2) of the city was destroyed. Within seconds, 75,000 people were killed or fatally injured. 65% of the casualties nine years of age and younger. Beneath the epicenter of the explosion temperatures were hot enough to melt concrete and steel. 69% of the city’s buildings were destroyed. The bomb started fires that spread rapidly through wood and paper homes.

The blast released nearly 200 different kinds of radioactive isotopes (nuclear fission particles of uranium and plutonium that escaped fission). These particles and other materials irradiated by the bomb’s neutrons were carried high into the atmosphere.

The mix of massive amounts of airborne irradiated materials merged with heat and thermal currents from the firestorms caused it to rain within an hour of the bombing. Fallout particles mixed with carbon residue from fires created the deadly “black rain” reported by many eyewitnesses.

On that day, Hiromu Morishita was 14 years old and in the ninth grade. He survived. He became a calligrapher and teacher. He was president of the Senior High School Teachers’ Society and the Hiroshima Peace Education Institute in Japan. He wrote a poem:


MorishitaWatch dutifully
with your eyes.

Here, something happened that shouldn’t have.
Here now, something irreparable continues.
Here tomorrow, signs of everyone’s destruction
may appear.

Don’t watch with one eye.
Don’t watch with your arm or with your head.

With the heart of one who endures despair.

– – – – – – – – – –

“Hiroshima” (Morishita, Bradley, and Dougherty 14) Memories of the Future: The Poetry of Sadako Kurihara and Hiromu Morishita Commentary by Edward A Dougherty


Cowardice Will Save the World

By all accounts, James Garner, who passed away Saturday at age 86, was a likeable guy, who excelled at playing likeable guys on the small and big screen. Many of the characters he played were interchangeable: wisecracking, sometimes glib, unsentimental, cynical. A number of them were cowards.

In one episode of the show that provided Garner with his initial fame, Bret Maverick said, “Bravery gets you nothing but hurt.” And Jim Rockford, Garner’s other big television role, was always a reluctant hero. But the biggest coward Garner ever played was in The Americanization of Emily. In that film, Lt. Cmdr. Charles Edward Madison makes no bones about it. He says, “I preach cowardice.”

Andrews as Emily
Andrews as Emily

Emily is one of my all-time favorite films. I saw it shortly after its release in 1964. In those days, we had what was known as the “double bill” or “double feature.” You got to see two movies for the price of one (plus a cartoon). I don’t remember what the main feature might have been that afternoon (as I recall it was an afternoon), but Emily stayed in my mind. For one thing, it caused me to fall in love with Julie Andrews. I had already seen her in Mary Poppins, where she was practically perfect in every way, but in this movie, she was sexy as hell.

Emily was memorable for another reason . . . in 1964, I still had an idealistic view about war, I doubt I knew much about what was happening in Vietnam at that time, and I certainly had not read anything in-depth about Gandhi or learned the word ahisma yet, but Charlie Madison’s “cowardice” resonated, striking a pacifist chord that must have already existed within my 12-year-old soul.

Based on William Bradford Huie’s 1959 novel of the same name, written by Paddy Chayefsky, directed by Arthur Hiller, the film is essentially a satire on war, but it’s also about life, love, bravery, Hersey Bars and Coca-cola. Garner’s character, like Henley in The Great Escape, is a “scrounger,” and aide-de- camp for an admiral stationed in London. It’s just before D-Day and Charlie has things pretty good, living it up in his cushy job until he’s handed a dangerous assignment (photographing the first dead man on Omaha Beach) and falls in love with Emily, a British war widow.

This brief exchange conveys the two character’s outlooks on life:

Emily Barham: I believe in honor, service, courage, and fair play, and cricket, and all the other symbols of British character. Which have only civilized half the world!

Lt. Cmdr. Charles E. Madison: You British plundered half the world for your own profit, let’s not pass it off as the age of enlightenment.

Chayefsky’s script captures the growing anti-war feeling, which in ’64 was actually little more than an undercurrent on college campuses across the U.S. Chayefsky later wrote Network, another cynical film, and it is his cynicism here that gave Emily its cutting edge. I don’t know, but I suspect that Chayefsky found the peacenik sentiment of songs like “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” with its “Oh when will they ever learn?” refrain a bit trite. Waiting in the wings was flower power and the Summer of Love and it would be quite a while before we learned that they will never learn.

Which begs the question, is Charlie a craven coward, or that another word for a pacifist, a hero who sees the absurdity of war and refuses to participate in it. Charlie sums up his philosophy with these remarks to Emily’s mother:

We shall never end wars, Mrs. Barham, by blaming it on the ministers and generals, or warmongering imperialists, or all the other banal bogeys. It’s the rest of us who build statues to those generals and name boulevards after those ministers. The rest of us who make heroes of our dead and shrines of our battlefields. We wear our widow’s weeds like nuns, Mrs. Barham, and perpetuate war by exalting its sacrifices. My brother died at Anzio…Yes. An everyday soldier’s death, no special heroism involved. They buried what pieces they found of him. But my mother insists he died a brave death and pretends to be very proud…Now my other brother can’t wait to reach enlistment age. That’ll be in September…Maybe ministers and generals blunder us into wars, Mrs. Barham, the least the rest of us can do is to resist honoring the institution . . .”

You will have to watch the film yourself to see how Charlie’s views on war play out, and filmed in glorious black and white, it is a film well worth seeing . . . more than once. By the time Garner made it, he was in a position to pick and choose the parts he played, so I have to believe that he shared this cynicism toward the virtues of war, even though he was a true hero in the classic sense, receiving two Purple Hearts in the Korean War.

moe2I’ll always be in love with Julie Andrews, and I will always have a fond regard for James Garner, a likable guy who played likeable guys so well that he seemed like a friend and it’s sad he’s no longer here.

And I think I shall always be a coward.


Out of the Halls of Vapor and Light

“But I still hear them walking in the trees; not speaking. Waiting here, away from the terrifying weaponry, out of the halls of vapor and light, beyond holland and into the hills . . .”

– Samuel R. Delany, Dhalgren

September 11: the day the world changed. Some might say that is an exaggeration, that many of the consequences we associate with the 2001 attacks would have taken place anyway. Regardless, the day stands as a dark symbol of how our world has been transformed in so many ways. And none of it seems for the better.

Last year, as the United Stated commemorated the day, for the first time no special security alert was issued. However our embassy in Cairo was mobbed by protesters angry over a disgusting film that mocked Islam. In Benghazi, our consulate was attacked by terrorists. Four Americans died and another bloody symbol was born.

On this September 11th, I would like to focus on another form of symbolism, a different sort of event, one that took place 120 years ago. It was on this date in 1893 that the World Parliament of Religions convened in Chicago at the World’s Columbian Exposition. Held over the course of 17 days, the Parliament was organized by a “wide spectrum of Protestant and Unitarian leaders, many of whom sought to demonstrate that the world’s religions affirmed the unity of humankind and that Christianity, ultimately, had the unique capacity to embrace this unity.” *

It was also first formal meeting between representatives of Eastern and Western religions and spiritual traditions. And, as far as I know, the first time teachers in the Japanese Buddhist traditions of Zen, Tendai, and Shingon had come to the West.

The legacy of this conference is perhaps negligible. As Richard H. Seager has written, the Parliament was an event “quickly banished from our collective memory.” ** Yet, the meeting of the twain between East and West makes it significant.

Japanese delegation.

The Japanese Buddhist delegation consisted of Soyen Shaku  (Zen), Ashitsu Jitsuzen (Tendai), Tori Horyu (Shingon), Yatsubuchi Banryu (Jodo Shinshu), and two laymen, Hirai Kinzo and Noguchi Zenshiro. I believe the only other Buddhist in attendance was H. Dharmapala, representing Sri Lanka.

All the members of the Japanese delegation were nationalists who were sympathetic towards Japan’s growing military madness, except Hirai Kinzo, who unfortunately wasted his speech at the conference trying to explain the Japanese position toward Christianity and defending  persecution of Christians during the period of the Tokugawa Shogunate.

For me, the most interesting presentations delivered by the Japanese Buddhists were from Soyen Shaku,  a 33 year old Roshi in the Rinzai tradition.  He prepared a speech, “The Law of Cause and Effect, as Taught by Buddha” translated into English by one of his students, a young man named D. T. Suzuki and delivered by one of the event organizers, John Henry Barrows on the 8th day of the conference, Sept. 18. Another eight days later on Sept. 26, Soyen Shaku presented another speech, this one entitled “Arbitration Instead of War.”

Soyen Shaku’s relationship with war was complicated. Some ten years after the conference, he served as a chaplain to the Japanese army during the Russo-Japanese War, and seemingly gave his full support to the aims of that conflict. The shift from advocating “universal brotherhood” to the adoption of a position that justified war from a Buddhist viewpoint is troubling. But also a subject for another post.

It is reasonable to assume that his words from “Arbitration Instead of War” in 1893  were sincere, and taken in that spirit they seem especially fitting for this September 11 in 2013:

Why does war take place? Is there no alternative but to appeal to swords? What excuse can there be? Why should men fight and kill each other over things that do not concern them? The nature of war is not acceptable at all. And why? Because it is only the ambition of a few men disturbing the social peace, the social order, against the course of truth. How great a story of dreadful wars and battles that have been fought in the world does history tell us? The perusal of those barbarous records is enough to make the blood of those who love truth, peace, and fraternity tingle and shut the book with a crying sigh!

And now we have international law which has been very successful in protecting the nations from each other and has done a great deal toward arbitration instead of war. But can we hope that this system shall be carried out on a more and more enlarged scale, so that the world will be blessed with the everlasting, glorious, bright sunshine of peace and love instead of the gloomy, cloudy weather of bloodshed, battles, and wars?

And what is gained by war? Nothing; it only means the oppression of the weak by the strong; it simply means the fighting among brothers and the shedding of human blood. The stronger gains nothing while the weaker loses everything. We very often say that we are brothers, but what a troublesome brotherhood it is where one has to be armed well against the other . . .

We are not born to fight one against another. We are born to enlighten our wisdom and cultivate our virtues according to the guidance of truth. And, happily, we see the movement toward the abolition of war and the establishment of a peace-making society . . . It is the duty of religion and of truth to attain this beautiful project of brotherhood, and is it not our duty to become the nucleus and motive power of this great plan? It is, and we must be that nucleus and power.

We must not make any distinction between race and race, between civilization and civilization, between creed and creed, and between faith and faith. You must not say “go away” because we are not Christians. You must not say ” go away because we are yellow people. All beings on the universe are in the bosom of truth. We are all sisters and brothers; we are sons and daughters of truth, and let us understand one another much better and be true sons and daughters of truth. Truth be praised!”

From Walter R. Houghton, ed., Neely’s History of The Parliament of Religions and Religious Congresses at the World’s Columbian Exposition, F. T. Neely, Chicago, 1894

– – – – – – – – – –

* At the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions, The Pluralism Project, Harvard University.

** Richard H. Seager, The World’s Parliament of Religions: The East/West Encounter, Chicago, 1893 (Religion in North America), Indiana University Press, 2009.


The Supreme Art of War

Sun Tzu, author of the ancient text Sunzi Bingfa  or “Sun Tzu’s Military Rules”, said:

The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”

Sun Tzu was a military general, a warrior who understood that there is almost always an alternative to war.

Wednesday, at the commemoration of the 1963 March on Washington, former President Carter said “I believe we all know how Dr. King would have reacted” to such things as new I.D. requirements to exclude certain voters, high unemployment, and so on. Shortly afterward, President Obama added his words, lauding King’s dream and accomplishments. I wonder how Dr. King would have reacted to the military action against Syria Obama is evidently trying to sell to a skeptical Congress and an American public weary of war.

Perhaps, Dr. King would say something like this, remarks made a mere four months after the historic march:

And the leaders of the world today talk eloquently about peace . . . They are talking about peace as a distant goal, as an end we seek, but one day we must come to see that peace is not merely a distant goal we seek, but that it is a means by which we arrive at that goal. We must pursue peaceful ends through peaceful means.”

When I see the President, the Vice-President, and the Secretary of State going around talking about a country in the Middle East and “weapons” and the need make sure the country in question is “held accountable” through military action, I can’t help but feel that I’ve sat through this movie at least once before, and I didn’t much care for it.

There are arguments both for and against a strike on Syria. There are various takes on the possible consequences. They are all out there, on television, on the Internet, so I won’t rehash them here.

As a Buddhist, I wonder how the Buddha would react to the current situation. From what we know about the Buddha, from the early texts, it appears that he believed in the power of dialogue and diplomacy. The Mahaparinibbanna-sutta tells the story of how Ajatashatru, the king of Magadha, was about to launch an attack on the neighboring Vajjian Republic. Ajatashatru sent a messenger to the Buddha to seek his advice. The Buddha did not give a direct response, rather he said that “As long as the Vajjians do all things enjoined upon and expected them, they will not be defeated or ruined.”

Hearing this, the messenger replied, “So, Gautama, the Vajjians cannot be overcome in battle; they will be overcome only by diplomacy or internal dissention.”

The messenger took this message back to the king of Magadha and war was adverted.

The reason Ajatashatru wanted to strike against the Vajjians is unclear, but also unimportant for this discussion. The takeaway here is that the Buddha suggested an alternative to war. He understood the deeply corrupting effects of violence, and that depending on war to solve the problems facing humankind, or as a tool to protect civilians and preserve security, is an unwise strategy.

Such a strategy is actually reckless. It accomplishes only a little in the short run, and often unleashes further suffering and more violence in the long run. Diplomacy, on the other hand, is “smart power,” as our previous Secretary of State described it. Someone else, I don’t remember who, said diplomacy is useful when you want to talk to people you really don’t like.

As long as there is a possibility for dialogue and diplomacy, there is an alternative to war.

Now that the British have voted against military strikes in Syria, President Obama has signaled that he may willing to go it alone. But UN chief Ban Ki-moon has pleaded for more time to allow the United Nations inspectors in Syria to establish the facts and to give diplomacy another chance to end the Syrian conflict. Instead of touting our military might, the U.S. would be better served by exerting the full force of our diplomatic influence and resources to press the Syrian regime to allow unfettered access to the UN team investigating the alleged chemical weapons attacks.

Once again, all we are saying is give peace a chance.