A Dharma talk given at the regular Friday morning service at Oasis.
A Dharma talk given at the regular Friday morning service at Oasis.
A week is a long time in politics
There has been a torrent of words since last week’s UK Referendum vote to leave the EU. Changes upon changes to unstabilised political parties. Our newspapers and TV screens are filled with news of behind the scenes plotting, uncovering of mendacity, stabbings in the back, Machiavellian tactics, changing moment to moment - almost as if one had walked onto the set of a Shakespearean or Greek tragedy. Seven days since the result was announced - yes, only seven days.
One of the most alarming, distressing, concerning aspects has been the rise, on the back of the ‘Leave’ result, of incidents of racism and xenophobia. The rhetoric of some of the campaigners, which demonised immigrants, seems to have legitimised previously held views and encouraged others to hold them. There has been a five-fold increase in reports of racial abuse, and this estimation is only of the incidents reported. It’s easy to blame others, having been told that they threaten one’s way of life and that floods of immigrants are responsible for one’s current woes. The ultra-right are having a field day.
We are all immigrants
Let’s face it, we are all immigrants - my own genetic line, through my father, is from the earliest Scottish inhabitants, hunter-gatherers who spread northwards to the Scottish Highlands ten or eleven thousand years ago, as the massive ice caps of the last Ice Age retreated. They were following the herds. Palaeolithic ‘economic migrants’, as it were, attempting to survive and feed their offspring. Every one of us is part of a bloodline that stretches back some millions of years ago to Africa. Wherever we are now, our ancestors were originally from somewhere else.
We are all immigrants, and we all live on the back of those who have travelled and endured great hardship for the continuation of our species. And we are all, somewhere far, far back, kin.
An outpouring of positivity, too
I’m glad to say that, amongst the negative news reports there are also stories of the many people who are looking for ways to support and offer comfort to members of our community who are afraid. To put themselves in the place of others, to show compassions, to have the courage to speak up for, to stand up for those who cannot stand up for themselves.
Constructiveness is the human way
“From one point of view we can say that we have human bodies and are practicing the Buddha's teachings and are thus much better than insects. But we can also say that insects are innocent and free from guile, where as we often lie and misrepresent ourselves in devious ways in order to achieve our ends or better ourselves. From this perspective, we are much worse than insects.
When the days become longer and there is more sunshine, the grass becomes fresh and, consequently, we feel very happy. On the other hand, in autumn, one leaf falls down and another leaf falls down. The beautiful plants become as if dead and we do not feel very happy. Why? I think it is because deep down our human nature likes construction, and does not like destruction. Naturally, every action which is destructive is against human nature. Constructiveness is the human way. Therefore, I think that in terms of basic human feeling, violence is not good. Non-violence is the only way.
We humans have existed in our present form for about a hundred thousand years. I believe that if during this time the human mind had been primarily controlled by anger and hatred, our overall population would have decreased. But today, despite all our wars, we find that the human population is greater than ever. This clearly indicates to me that love and compassion predominate in the world. And this is why unpleasant events are "news"; compassionate activities are so much a part of daily life that they are taken for granted and, therefore, largely ignored.”
~ H.H. The 14th Dalai Lama, from 'Dzogchen: The Heart Essence of the Great Perfection'
Namo Amida Bu
I expect that the following fictitious speculation will prove completely unfounded, but it is interesting to consider how impermanence can play out....
History Regarded from 2050
"Looking back on the early part of the 21st century, one can see that it was 2016 that was the turning point that has brought us to the position that we are in now at mid-century, when, rather as happened in the 20th century, everything that was taken for granted about the political order in the first decade or so of the century had been completely over turned by 1950.
Yes, 2016 was the year that Britain voted to leave the European Union and Donald Trump was elected president in the USA. Prior to these events, the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, one of the most experienced statesmen on the planet at that time, had played his cards very close to his chest, but he had been, perhaps, one of the very few who saw the real possibilities in the unfolding drama.
The departure of English speaking influence from the EU left a situation where the complementarity between the technologically sophisticated and industrial Western part of Europe and the resource rich domains of the former Soviet empire became much more obvious. The election of a president intent on cutting back American military involvement was also leading to a fundamental rethink of NATO. An accommodation between Mr Putin and Mrs Merkel soon made it apparent that the balance of forces in the world had decisively shifted.
The American pull back was further accelerated by the emerging, yet predictable, difficulties with Mexico. The insistence by the new American regime that Mexico pay for the wall along the southern border of the USA was not ruinous to the Mexican exchequer, but it was felt as unbearably humiliating and pride can count for a lot more than money. Almost overnight, attitudes across Latin America hardened. For some decades, the Latin countries had been trying to detach themselves from their northern neighbour. Now the matter had a new earnestness. If they could not look to America for aid, then where? Mr Putin's phone lines were open.
These two parallel processes of rapprochement brought Russia into the centre of things as never before. The English (for we cannot really include the Scots in this) had voted for independence out of pride and xenophobia, little imagining that what used to be called the Iron Curtain would soon arrive at the English Channel. America too, had elected the Republican candidate on similar considerations and similarly soon found themselves in a parallel plight. The wall that was supposed to keep the Mexicans out, became the symbol of the new world division in which America now found itself very much on the back foot having lost most of its allies and being too much in debt to sustain dominance purely from its own resources. When, in 2022, the world stopped using dollars as the main support currency for international trade, the American economy suffered a massive cutback that made the financial crises of the beginning of the century seem trivial by comparison. England no longer had worries about an excess of immigrants - the country was now too poor to be a magnet any more.
England - Scotland having severed itself and rejoined the EU - soon found that it had, in effect, become an appendage of a declining USA which was not a happy situation, especially since America was increasingly concerned with its own 'enemy within' in the form of the millions of Latinos who had been needlessly alienated.
In a strange irony of history, the English speaking world now found itself as much surrounded by enemies as the soviets had done in the second half of the 20th century. When so surrounded one can hardly afford such luxuries as 'civil liberties' and soon the Greater European Alliance, that now reached from Vladivostok to Cape Horn, taking in Berlin and Paris on the way, felt itself increasingly to be the defender of all true human values in contrast to the repressive 'patriot' rump of the English speaking lands.
Eventually, the struggle of America to maintain its identity collapsed. The dominant language of the country was rapidly coming to be Spanish. The real political game had, in any case, by now become the tension between the GEA and the powers of East Asia. England was an irrelevance, about as significant as Austria (also once centre of a great empire) had been after 1918.
What a fantasy! Of course, none of this will ever happen. History is not predictable. I am, however, somewhat surprised that the debate over the EU referendum has contained virtually no reference to such geo-political considerations. After all, this is not really about money and immigrants, it is about the 'Great Game' as it used to be called.
There seems to be a naive assumption that all can be relied upon to go on just as before, rather as, in the second half of the 20th century, the 'Cold War' was taken for granted as the inevitable and perennial backdrop to all world events - until, suddenly, it wasn't. The referendum vote is being taken as though it does not really make much difference to the balance of power in the world, but this is surely a great mistake.
Is it inevitable that in a democracy the public cannot be made aware of the really big consequences of the actions they contemplate? Perhaps so. Politics is a game of cat and mouse and to tell the public is to also inform the mouse that one is trying to catch and so make success impossible. Democratic parties, therefore, must, for the most part, keep the public focussed on short term irrelevancies and not let them ever see the bigger picture until it is too late.
“Our enemy is hatred, anger, ignorance and fear.” The roots of terrorism are not to be found in religious philosophies or unfamiliar cultures, but in misunderstanding, fear, anger, and hatred.
“Terrorists are human beings who are sick with the virus of terrorism. The virus you see is made of fear, hatred, and violence. You can be a doctor for a person with this illness.”
“Some people commit acts of terrorism in the name of their values and beliefs. They may hold the idea that others are evil because they don’t share these values. They feel justified in destroying their enemies in the name of God. People who engage in this violence may die with the conviction that they are dying for a righteous cause. And isn’t our country acting out of the same conviction when we kill those we define as threats? Each side believes that it alone embodies goodness, while the other side embodies evil.
“Fear is another root of violence and terrorism. We terrorize others so that 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. lf we kill someone we call a terrorist, his son may become a terrorist. Throughout history, the more we kill, the more terrorists we create.
“Across the globe, people suffer from very much the same things: social injustice, discrimination, fear, and fanaticism. Fundamentalism is very much alive in countries around the world. Many people believe that they alone are on the side of God, and they behave as if they are the only children of God and the lives of others are not as precious. They want God to bless their own country above all, and not to bless others who they feel represent evil. But to think that everything the other group does is evil and everything we do is good, prevents us from understanding the values of others, and from recognizing their suffering and fear. Instead of making us stronger, our unwillingness to listen keeps us vulnerable and afraid.
“God does not take sides. Jesus, Buddha, Allah—all the great beings speak of compassion and inclusiveness. We should not believe that we can be peaceful by eliminating the other side.
“A doctor wants to destroy the malaria in a sick person, not destroy the patient himself. Terrorists are human beings who are sick with the virus of terrorism. The virus you see is made of fear, hatred, and violence. You can be a doctor for a person with this illness. Your medicine is the practice of restoring communication.
“But if a doctor cannot talk to a patient, if the patient refuses to cooperate, then how can the doctor help? If the patient refuses the doctor’s help, doesn’t trust her, and fears the doctor maybe trying to kill him, he will never cooperate. Even if the doctor is motivated by a great desire to help, she cannot do anything if the patient will not collaborate. So the first thing the doctor has to do is find ways to open communication. If you can talk to the patient, then there is hope. If the doctor can begin by acknowledging the patient’s suffering, then mutual understanding can develop and collaboration can begin.
“To resolve our current dilemma with terrorism we must be like this doctor. After our leaders have inspired confidence in Americans and proved that, as a country, we have the capacity to listen and understand, we can then turn to those who are considered to be terrorists. Our leaders can address them with loving speech,
“We know that you must have suffered and hated us very deeply to have attacked us. You must have thought that we want to destroy you as members of a religion, as a race, as a people. You must have believed that we embody evil, that we don’t recognize your religion a nd your spiritual values. We are sorry that you suffer so much. We want to tell you that it is not our intention to destroy you as a people, as a race, or as members of a religion. It is not our intention to i-eject your spiritual values.
“We want to respect you. Because of a lack of understanding on our part, we have not been skillful at showing our respect, our care I or you, and we have been caught in our own situation of suffering. Please tell us what is in your hearts. We want to understand your suffering. We want to know what mistakes we have made for you to hate us so much.
“We ourselves do not want to live in fear or to suffer and we do not want you to live in fear or to suffer either. We want you to live in peace, in safety, and in dignity because we know that none of us will have peace until all of us have peace. Let us create together an occasion for mutual listening and understanding, which can be the foundation for real reconciliation and peace.”
Excerpted from Thich Nhat Hanh, Calming the Fearful Mind: A Zen Response to Terrorism (2009)
We Need Restraint Not More Bombs
We are all dismayed by the events in Paris. Yet, have we been equally dismayed by the daily events in the Middle East where our own governments are dropping bombs? I am deeply sympathetic to the French people affected by the recent violence. I am deeply sympathetic to the people in Syria, in Iraq, in Afghanistan and in the whole Middle East Region. I understand why there is hatred. I understand why people want to kill. However, killing more and more will not bring the killing to an end. Only restraint, understanding, wisdom and compassion will do that.
We are caught up in a tit-for-tat world and each retaliation only provokes more of the same. Every bomb we drop generates a new group of people who hate us. Every atrocity increases the likelihood of more. It is like fire spreading. Let us all pray for restraint and ask wisdom of our leaders.
A Little Political Analysis
Who are Islamic State? They are basically the Sunni Muslims who were driven out of power by the invasion of Iraq. Since we invaded their country, do we expect them to be our friends? They have been more successful than was expected in establishing a new proto-state by becoming the most effective element in the opposition to the Assad government in Syria, but were not our own governments also supportive of that opposition? In effect, there is a civil war going on in the Middle East, mostly between Sunni and Shia Moslems. The West has changed sides several times in its interference in this regional conflict. Sometimes it is anti-Iran and therefore anti-Shia, then it is establishing a Shia government in Iraq and so being anti-Sunni, then it is opposing Assad and being anti-Shia again, then it is dropping bombs on the most effective anti-Assad faction and becoming anti-Sunni again. It is difficult to escape the impression that the basic logic of Western policy is to keep changing sides frequently so as to generate the maximum amount of chaos and ensure that nobody in the Middle East ever become powerful enough to establish peace and order and become a rival to Western interests. If we carry on like this, what can we expect? Do we think that exporting chaos, destruction and death to a whole region is never going to come home? And now that some of it is coming home, do we think that we can re-stabilise the situation by escalating the strategy that is responsible for the trouble in the first place?
What Will Happen?
If we go on like this we can only expect the situation to worsen, both in the Middle East and in Europe. No analyst I have read thinks that Islamic State can be destroyed by bombing alone, even if this were desirable, and no Western country seems likely to commit ground troops, so why are we fighting a war we cannot win? Apart from the horror of the killing involved, it makes little or no political sense. The only power that is at all likely ever to commit ground troops to the defeat of Islamic State is Turkey and the expansion of Turkey in the region would probably only lead to sudden, startled Western suspicion of Turkish intentions and a new arena of conflict. Perhaps the whole region will be carved up by Turkey and Iran. It has happened before.
Alternatively, there will be ever increasing fragmentation, chaos and killing. In the short run we need restraint, but I am pessimistic. The tit-for-tat may continue to escalate. If it does we shall lose civil rights, become paranoid, elect extremist governments and much that has been achieved in Europe in the past generation will be lost. I hope this pessimism is unfounded. All spiritual people should now be urging restraint. Many are doing so. Let us pray that wise voices prevail.
Ethan Nichtern and Michael Stone have composed a letter about why teachers of Buddhism and yoga should support the Occupy Movement. And they’ve reached out to their peers, asking a number of fellow leaders to sign the letter as a gesture of “commitment to align our practice and values and work together to help our society.”
Initial signees include Sharon Salzberg, Stephen Batchelor, Sean Corne, Robert Thurman, Jack Kornfield, David Loy, Joan Halifax, Norman Fischer, Susan Piver, Anne Cushman, Gaylon Ferguson, Pat Enkyo O’Hara, Trudy Goodman, David Nichtern, Sarah Powers, Judith Simmer-Brown, angel Kyodo williams, Adam Lobel, Eihei Peter Levitt, Cyndi Lee, Koshin Paley Ellison, Robert Chodo Campbell, Ty Powers, Sarah Weintraub, Ted Grand, Maia Duerr, and Ari Pliskin.
There are now 7 billion people on earth, a billion more than 12 years ago, and 6 billion more than two centuries ago. How does this fact fit with the Buddhist doctrine of reincarnation?
The idea of reincarnation is commonly thought of as "one-out-one-in"– you die and then you get reborn somewhere else. That's not at all how it's perceived in Buddhism: one of the hallmarks of the Buddhist teaching is a refutation that there's any permanent self or soul that could endure from lifetime to lifetime. This is such a different view to the one above that most Buddhists prefer not to use the word reincarnation at all, opting instead for something like "rebirth" or "rebecoming".
The Buddha taught that all things are impermanent, in a state of continuous change and flux – and this includes us. We're constantly mutating as we grow, develop, age and decay, and what we tend to think of as "myself" is actually an ever-changing heap of body parts, thoughts and feelings, influenced by a vast range of past and present causes and conditions (family and cultural history, environment, schooling, biology and so on). Ask yourself: are you the same person you were when you were five years old? The same person as five years ago? Five minutes ago? If not, then aren't we being born and dying in every moment?
Having completed my work in Korea I travelled to Madrid to meet Franca and we stayed with her sister's family. It was my first time in the Spanish capital and I enjoyed seeing the great boulevards and gardens, modern and ancient architecture, and, of course, the Prado, the great art gallery where we viewed the Goyas and a wide range of great art, Spanish and from other European countries.
Spain is currently suffering some economic stress. Some of the lighting and the amount of water used in the famous fountains has been reduced in a visible sign of the relative austerity. Europe is gradually reorganising and doing so at a time of international loss of economic confidence. Very soon they are going to have elections, but one feels that whoever is elected there must be serious limitations upon what it is possible for them to do. Furthermore, elections depend upon the wisdom of the electorate and this is inevitably drawn from past experience which may be a poor guide to what Europe faces in the next few years and the decades to follow. I feel that serious changes are afoot, that such times are perillous, but there is surely, too, a real possibility of a quantum leap forward.
Our world is changing. There is austerity. There are rising prices. There is anger. Where will it lead? What will people do? They may over-throw governments in the hope that new ones will do better - but the new ones will have the same problems as the old ones and less experience. They may persecute minorities; this is quite likely. There may be wars, though this is increasingly difficult in the contemporary world of weapons of mass destruction because there are no real winners any more. There may be civil disorder and even civil war is possible in some places. Governments are likely to retrench and extensive systems of social control such as have proliferated in recent decades are likely to weaken. This creates conditions favourable to new movements. Discontent can be turned negatively into hate and strife or it can be turned positively into new contruction and values.
In the nineteen fifties, sixties and early seventies there was the idea of the Alernative Society. This was an ideal of greater liberation and greater togetherness that took many forms. There were many associated sub-movements - beatnik poets, hippies, communes, etc - and various periodicals sprang up. It generated much popular music which celebrated the sense of hope. Some of the manifestions - the free love and the drug culture - now appear to have been aberrations, but they were all manifestations of a spirit of hope and freedom, both social and psychological.
At that time, knowledge of Buddhism was in its infancy here in the West. Buddhism was, in many ways, at that time, a sub-movement within the Alternative Society. I myself lived in a Buddhist commune. The population there was from several kinds of Buddhism. There was a sense that meditation achieved what drugs were supposed to achieve, only more effectively and enduringly.
Since then, Buddhism has become more institutionalised and is now in danger of stagnation, which will, I fear, be its fate unless it can indeed rediscover that spirit of liberation and become the focus of hope for young people. Most Buddhist groups in Europe at least now have aging congregations. A renewal is already needed and it needs to be a renewal that reanimates idealism about all aspects of human life. Buddhism is not just "a practice" or, even worse, "one's own practice", that isolates a person from the corrupt world. Buddhism is a light for the world itself and a light does not just illuminate the light-house.
There are two kinds of Buddhism. There is Pure-Self Buddhism and there is Pure-Land Buddhism. One can aim to become an alternative self or to be part of an alternative society - or both. If those practising pure-self have pure-land in view and those practising pure-land appreciate all approaches then there can be a movement that transcends narrow boundaries. The idea of Pure Land or Other Power is not limited to a couple of Japanese and Chinese denominations. It is a gospel of hope for everybody. There is no membership - just the opening of the heart to what is all around. Pure Land is liberation-in-relation. The time of hope is returning.
This, however, is not just a Buddhist movement. The age of the spirit may take on a myriad forms and associations. We should think of ourselves not as "the answer" but as a rich contribution. If we have a real sense of our own bombu position, then we can contribute to a renaissance of hope in society at large. The ideals of liberation and of the Alternative Society can be a beacon. When something is unleashed in the world there is no telling where it will end. We are entering such times.