Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Will the Real Buddhists Please Stand Up?

At the heart of Buddhism is the notion of compassion, balanced with innate wisdom. Nelson Mandela (who is not a Buddhist, at least in name) got it right when he said, "A good mind and a good heart are a formidable combination."

Fast forward to Bodgaya, India, the place where the historical Buddha Siddartha sat beneath a bodhi tree and attained enlightenment. Given that India is an ancient country with written historical records, it is possible this lore is based on a real event.

Every year on a certain date in February, calculated on the movements of the moon, 10,000 Buddhist monks, nuns, lay practitioners and others gather at an enormous temple erected around the bodhi tree to pray for world peace. The spectacle is impressive. Aside from an array of people dressed in robes of many colors, the grounds are adorned with literally thousands of flowers arranged in mandala-like designs, as well as gold statues of Buddhas with attending saints, and an array of traditional Tibetan religious items that are a veritable feast of eye candy.

Upon leaving the sprawling grounds of the Mahabodhi Temple and descending into secular India, one encounters an array of beggars who are counting on the entering or exiting faithful to spare some change. Yes, these unfortunates are the legendary horrors of India. A teenage boy with his hands cut off holding a cup in his forearms. An emaciated man sitting on the ground with a withered leg that runs permanently parallel to his upright torso. Yet another teenager with no legs scraping his torso along the ground, sweat pouring down his face at the effort, pulling at the robes of a monk who pays him no mind. An old woman so thin she looks as if she is about to shatter, being screamed at by an Indian policeman. "Move," he bellows from his tall height as the clearly disoriented woman looks up helplessly. I think to intervene but decide that challenging an Indian authority might not be wise. All the while, a group of Tibetan women look on with sympathy. No one, including me, helps her.

I do give a few of these hapless beings some rupees, but by the time I reach my hotel I have run out...too many on the five minute walk to manage.

The next morning on my way to the temple to film - and meditate, I pass a group of monks eating at a makeshift table by the dusty roadside. Although it is humble fare, they are happy and fresh in the early morning light. I stop to buy a chocolate bar at the store where they eat, and as I unwrap it I notice a small girl in rags looking wistfully at the food the monks are consuming. I take a third of the bar and hand it to her. Then I wonder why none of the monks offer a part of their breakfast -  or even notice this mute wraith standing behind them.

So where is all this going? Not sure. But the complete indifference to these wretched human beings by the seemingly well-fed is shocking. The seeming callousness cruel. Apparently,  overwhelming poverty is discouraging, generating a hopeless inaction, a determined avoidance. Although it is easy to point a finger, in reality they are me and I am them.  

What to do next?

Saturday, November 2, 2019

We Are All the Same

We have more in common than our differences. At a time when religion, politics, and class seem to divide us, at the core these are just illusions based on stories we make up about our identities. 

Founded upon inculcated belief systems taught to us at an early age, human beings grow up with a solidified sense of false self that draws a line between your color and my savior and your lost tailored suits better than your worn out jeans. 

Although these divisions seem to run deep, they are in fact superficial prejudices. What people really care about is being loved. Being heard. Being safe. Having friends, family and food on the table. Whether gathered around a clay pot in a mud hut or seated at a banquet table with crystal goblets, connection is all that matters. That is what’s really happening.

Next time you look around, try to see other other people as just like you. The clothes, the occupation, the social status are simply costumes in a fast moving, ephemeral play.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

The Day the Machines "Took Rest."

Tomorrow is Vishwakarma Day in India, the 24 hour period where machines are worshipped and thus lay idle. I discovered this interesting fact when ordering prints at a photo shop in the heart of Delhi. Their printing presses will be the subject of good vibes and a welcome rest on this day, which leaves me to wonder if the relentless smog of this city will also be lifted.

If one can be arrested for selling beef in this cow-worshipping country, might it be that anyone abusing his or her machine on this day of worship could also be subjected to penalties?

Certainly the streets of Delhi could use a break from the relentless pollution of cars, motorcycles, buses and all other mode of transport. But with modernity in full swing these days, an ancient rite may not hold sway in this bustling metropolis where busy-ness rules.

Monday, July 8, 2019

George Washington, Visionary

George Washington, our first American president, understood the duties of the office and the pitfalls inherent in such power. He grasped the danger of self-serving, egotistical individuals who might gain power, and named them the greatest threat to democracy. `

Just as Eisenhower in his parting speech as the president told us to "beware of the military-industrial complex," Washington preceded him with a prescient parting speech.

George Washington's Farewell Address: 

"The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty. …

"It serves a
lways to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which finds a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions. Thus the policy and the will of one country are subjected to the policy and will of another."

It is pointless to correct Trump or hope that reason will prevail. 45 has clearly demonstrated that he is the very person (or prototype) that George Washington foresaw...and the Republicans are "the prevailing faction" of handmaidens to usher in a dictatorship.

The next election is a watershed moment.

Thursday, July 4, 2019

Happy July 4th Not

A few hundred years ago today, our forefathers signed the Declaration of Independence from Great Britain. Then an arch enemy, today a staunch ally, the trajectory of history clearly points to impermanence-in-action. 

Over the decades this date has become a time to celebrate freedom from the oppression of a foreign power - theorectically. Manufacturers of flags and fireworks depend on this time of year for a bonanza of revenue, and barbeques replete with hot dogs, hamburgers, corn and beer are de rigeur.

That my countrymen see this date as party time could be considered a good thing - a day off from the workaday world, a time to get together with family and friends (if one is lucky enough to have those connections). A national holiday. 

At the risk of sounding like The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, this year's celebratory events feel like nails on a chalkboard. We have concentration camps at the southern border and a madman at the helm. We have wars of attrition, some public, some clandestine, happening of every continent. And yes, we still have more freedoms than many places on the globe. For this I am grateful...and confused.

So when people are chirping, "Happy July 4th" to me, a cynical little voice in my heart goes WTF?

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Fair and Balanced Journalism

The Fox television station's moniker "fair and balanced news" is an oxymoron. Nonetheless, this concept has merit in the broad arena of journalism.

Fareed Zakaria, a respected anchor, has produced a documentary about the rise of white nationalism. A promo for the upcoming show features a clip of the philosopher-in-chief delivering a monologue; a rationale laying out the raison d'être for this noxious rising tide. In stark contrast to the man's racist message, his countenance was relaxed, friendly, and gentlemanly, making his viewpoint dangerously palatable to the uninformed masses.

In the name of "fairness to all sides" Fareed allowed this monster to roll out his twisted logic unchallenged - which gave plenty of air time for the viewing public to soak in a demented philosophy. One could easily lift this segment and circulate it widely as a rationale for white supremacy -  as our "fair-minded" journalist nodded solemnly.

Fareed's respectful approach was an infuriating interpretation of what it means to promote free speech. What if he were interviewing Hitler? Would it be a "fair and balanced" strategy to remain silently attentive as the hate-monger rolled out his message, all the while allowing ample opportunity for viewers to ingest this primetime message and make it their own?

Fareed assured us that "the other side" would be heard as well. Yet, allowing more than one sentence to be uttered by this madman without an immediate and logical counter-punch is irresponsible journalism. Is it possible that Fareed, an Indian man with brown skin (as pointed out by his interviewee) is trying to win brownie points for being a reasonable man despite his country's historic humiliation at the hands of Colonial-era powers?

The phrase "Uncle Tom" was a term applied to black people who catered to bigoted white folk. I stand in no judgment of those accused of being Uncle Toms, as it was a survival strategy.

Nonetheless, in my book Fareed has just earned the title of Uncle Tom-anand - and all in the name of free and balanced journalism.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

The Ultimate Paradox of Life

The only certainty when a being draws its first breath is that it marks the beginning of the end, a relentless trajectory towards the last breath. Life and death, identical twins; the ultimate paradox.

Most of us cannot grasp this reality, viewing death as a morbid twist to the fundamental sanctity of an existence to which we cling ever so desperately. Yes, there are those whose lives are so fraught with suffering that death is a welcome balm to the soul. Yet, all breathing beings cling to life with every ounce of strength - including the plant and animal kingdoms.

Why do we cherish life so dearly when we know that life as we know it will be taken away at a time and place concealed from us until the very moment of its arrival?

That is the ultimate question.  

Will the Real Buddhists Please Stand Up?

At the heart of Buddhism is the notion of compassion, balanced with innate wisdom. Nelson Mandela (who is not a Buddhist, at least in name)...