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



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