Saturday, April 25, 2020

Between the Frying Pan and the Fire

When the first inklings of a pandemic started brewing in late January, I was in Bodgaya, India, the place where the historical Buddha attained enlightenment while mediating under a bodhi tree. Around 260 BCE, a few hundred years after his passing, an impressive temple was built on that spot by the Mauryan emperor Asoka, who converted his empire to Buddhism. Today, as one of the most sacred sites for Buddhists, the Mahibodha Temple draws thousands of pilgrims from around the world, particularly during the winter months when the weather is pleasant.

At the beginning of my stay, China was the hot spot for covid-19 and given the official stance of the US government, there was no understanding of an imminent threat. Luckily, I had worn a face mask when submerged in that sea of humanity coursing around the Mahibodha Temple, not because of covid-19 but because my Buddhist teachers warned me of "super bugs" that could invade my system and wreak havoc, given the diverse population converging in that one small area renowned as the cradle of Buddhism.

It was only when my departure date of March 11 drew near that a sense of urgency began to dawn on me. By then, cases of the virus were being reported in Delhi, the hub through which I would pass on my way back to the US. Nonetheless, I did not wear a face mask in the airport, nor did anyone else. There was no such notion of social distancing going through Indian customs, where we were packed in like sardines. And my flight was full.

As a distinct counterpoint, when I landed in the US, customs was deserted and the baggage claim area of LAX was empty, even though it was high noon on a weekday. On March 12th, I had a checkup at my doctor's office and since then I have not left the house. Going from a seven week period of massive immersion in humanity - to quarantine in a very quiet neighborhood - has been more of a shock than expected, mainly because of the situation in which we find ourselves.

On the one hand there is the fire...the spread of a virulent disease that no one has yet to understand and which has the potential to kill off broad segments of humanity. Lockdown is the current solution for containing the fire. On the other hand is the frying pan...we may save lives from the virus but we will lose them to loss of income, loss of safe housing, loss of ability to afford the basics, and the loss of social gatherings of all stripes that are the glue of our cultural identity. In short, a loss of security on all levels will be as devastating as the disease itself.

Thus our choice - the frying pan or the fire. On that external level we are at an historic conundrum. The only thing left is to maintain our basic sanity and will to overcome the tidal wave of  disruption and change. This requires some mighty inner resources, and find them we must.

Sunday, April 5, 2020

The Power of "No!"

Our planet is exquisitely designed, an interconnected masterpiece of cause and effect. Recalling an example based on quantum physics, the flap of a butterfly's wings in Rio de Janero can effect the weather in Moscow - and if continued logically, that gentle beating of fragile wing material will effect the "all that is" in this universe and beyond. 

Everything that "is" exists because of a near infinite multitude of factors that support its physical manifestation, albeit a temporary, ever-changing and impermanent existence as that particular form.

The exquisite beauty of Mother Nature brings forth a dazzling display of animate and inanimate forms - many yet to be discovered and some to face extinction. But interconnection is a neutral process; the good, the bad and the ugly all have a part to play in the grand design. Which brings us to this point on Earth, an uncharted time in global history. 

Technology has caught up with the evolution of homo sapiens as we spread across the planet. A message can be sent from one side of the earth and received on the other side in 1 second or less. In a mere 24 hours, a well-scheduled airplane route can drop you on the other side of the world. And if that plane route ceased to exist and ships were moored, you might never get home again, a stranger in a strange land.

The intricate web of technology that allowed for the creation a global village now teeters on the edge. Our vital supplies come from lands near and far. Governments either have fragile alliances, neutral partners, or enemies. The plunder of our Mother's resources has created an unsustainable population of consumers and their insatiable viral counterparts.

It's time to say "no"to all those who use power to line their coffers. It's time to say "no" to all those in leadership who would turn a blind eye to the needs of their countries. It's time to say "no" to people who walk around with impunity endangering their lives and those of others.

When we say "no" to what we don't want it paves the way to "yes," what we do want. It will be up to us to define that future. Those who sit complacently on the sidelines will lose their vision to the more aggressive, restless forces. What choice will each one of us make?

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?

Between the Frying Pan and the Fire

When the first inklings of a pandemic started brewing in late January, I was in Bodgaya, India, the place where the historical Buddha attai...