FDR and the Dalai Lama

I’ve finally finished watching The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, Ken Burn’s documentary on Theodore, Franklin, and Eleanor, three extraordinary individuals. It’s a long haul, fourteen hours, but I recommend this program. A comprehensive portrait of complex personalities who shaped history in ways still felt today.

In my Sept. 19 post, I wrote about the slight connection TR had with Buddhism, through a friend, William Sturgis Bigelow, who was Buddhist. FDR had a similar link. His Vice President, Henry Wallace, studied Buddhism, and was friends with a self-styled guru from Russia, Nicholas Roerich, who wrote a book on Tibetan Buddhist legends. Wallace at one point was involved with a woman, a relationship that evidently was “not physical but metaphysical – they were involved together in a quest to discover the true Buddha” or so Roosevelt was told.

FDR sent the Dalai Lama a signed photo like this one in 1942
FDR sent the Dalai Lama a signed photo like this one in 1942

But the primary Buddhist link for both FDR and Eleanor was Tibet. The country’s status was a delicate issue early in FDR’s administration. The Chinese had already laid claim to the Land of the Snows and Roosevelt had to tread lightly when dealing with the Tibetan government. In 1937, a cousin of Eleanor’s, Helen Cutting Wilmerding, wrote to him asking for a “signed photo” and a “letter of good will” on behalf of her brother, Charles Suydam Cutting, who planned to visit Tibet that summer. In 1930, Cutting was the first American to visit Tibet. He had traveled previously with Theodore Roosevelt to Ladakh and Sinkiang.

Wilmerding’s letter landed on the desk of Assistant Secretary of State Sumner Welles who vetoed the request. In a letter to Marguerite Alice “Missy” LeHand FDR’s private secretary (and mistress), Welles wrote, “Tibet is still technically under the suzerainty of China and consequently, gifts or a letter of good will from the President of the United States to officials of Tibet would be liable to be misconstrued in China.” Even then, the U.S. Government walked on eggshells around the Tibet issue for fear of upsetting the Chinese.

Eventually, FDR did send the Dalai Lama a personal letter.

Ilia A. Tolstoy was a Russian Count, the son of Leo Tolstoy, and a U.S. Army Colonel. He and a man named Brooke Dolan visited Tibet in December of 1942. They were on a mission for Roosevelt and the Office of Strategic Services (OSS, forerunner to the CIA). They wanted Tibet’s help in the war against Japan. The Allies wanted to set up a shipping route in the country for transporting goods Tibet to China.

Tolstoy and Dolan carried with them a letter from the President of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, age 60, to Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet, age 7. It read:

Tenzin Gyatso
Tenzin Gyatso in 1944

Your Holiness:

Two of my fellow countrymen, Ilia Tolstoy and Brooke Dolan, hope to visit your Pontificate and the historic and widely famed city of Lhasa. There are in the United States of America many persons, among them myself, who, long and greatly interested in your land and people, would highly value such an opportunity.

As you know, the people of the United States, in association with those of twenty-seven other countries, are now engaged in a war which has been thrust upon the world by nations bent on conquest who are intent on destroying freedom of thought, of religion, and of action everywhere. The United Nations are fighting today in defense of and for preservation of freedom, confident that we shall be victorious because cause is just, our capacity is adequate, and our determination is unshakable.

I am asking Ilia Tolstoy and Brooke Dolan to convey to you a little gift in token of my friendly sentiment toward you.

With cordial greetings [etc.]

Franklin D. Roosevelt

The “little gift” was a gold Rolex watch. “At that time, my only interest (was) the gift of the watch, not the letter,” the Dalai Lama said 68 years later. In 2007, the watch was in his pocket when President George W. Bush presented him with the Congressional Gold Medal. The letter, however, had been lost. In 2010, he received a copy of it from President Barack Obama during a White House meeting.

In a future post, I’ll have some tidbits about Eleanor Roosevelt and her Tibetan connection.

– – – – – – – – – –


David M. Jordan, FDR, Dewey, and the Election of 1944, Indiana University Press, 2011

Franklin D. Roosevelt and Foreign Affairs: Vol. 5, April – June 1937, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt Library (New York, N.Y.), Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1969

Melvyn C. Goldstein, A History of Modern Tibet, 1913-1951: The Demise of the Lamaist State, University of California Press, May 19, 1991


Paying Our Debts

Karma means “action.” Do our actions have consequences? Yes. Nagarjuna likened them to “debts.” Rather than take these debts to be some sort of payback or karmic retribution, I prefer to think of simply taking responsibility for our own actions.  Not that taking responsibility is all that simple.

It’s said that all karma is volitional. All human activity is volitional, a result of an individual’s own self-determination, and even when action is not determined by choice, but by external forces, one may choose a response that is not prevented by any outside forces or conditions. This is freedom of choice, free will.

We are always free in one way or another. We exert our free will by choosing our actions, our behavior. Volitional activity is always directed by will, determined by choice.

I was reading something on this subject by someone who evidently practices Buddhist meditation but may not be a Buddhist, and he maintains that free will is an illusion, that everything in the world is the result of past events, which is more or less the popular view of karma, and along with other causes and conditions, such as biology, there is no freedom.

From the Buddhist side I see some holes in this position. One is that this “illusion” would be created by the mind, which is thinking, and if karma is created by thought, words, and deeds, then thinking must on some level be a volitional process.  Secondly, if there is no freedom of action, then how do we even explain volition, one of the Five Skandhas, the components of human life? Thirdly, Buddhism teaches that we can control our minds, and I don’t believe that would be possible unless we maintained some degree of free will.

Maybe we are conning ourselves about freedom.  Maybe you can scientifically prove there is no free will.  Nonetheless, for me, the idea of everything per-determined is a tough sell.

As for karmic retribution, we should be less concerned with payback and focused more on paying it forward.

Nagarjuna says, “[The debt] is paid only through cultivation.” He’s talking specifically about meditation. However, in a broader sense, it means “to avoid negative actions, and do actions that are good, and to purify the mind” (the Buddha’s words). We pay forward by striving to improve ourselves and our choices, and helping others do the same.  Compassion is also paying it forward.

We are free to choose our actions, and we are free to decide how to react to the consequences of our actions. So, there is free will, but this is not absolute.  As living beings, our existence is dependent upon causes and conditions, but neither is determinism absolute.  The real Buddhist answer to all this is where is always is, in between absolutes, for that is The Middle Way.



He was a boy with a simple dream. He just wanted to play ball for his favorite team. That team happened to be the greatest team in Major League Baseball, the New York Yankees. And for the last 20 years, Derek Jeter has lived his dream. As shortstop and Captain of the team, he has earned a place as one of the best players in the history of the game.

Jeter practically invented the jump throw.
Jeter practically invented the jump throw.

Jeter, age 40, announced his retirement earlier this year. On Thursday, he donned the Yankees pin-striped uniform for the final time to play in his last home game. He could not have closed out his career any better. It was a perfect storybook ending:

The Yankees had been leading. Then in the top of the ninth, pitcher David Robertson allowed a pair of homers, and suddenly everything it was an entirely different ball game.  What had looked like a pretty sure thing for the Yanks was in jeopardy.

Bottom of the ninth. The Yankees last at-bats for the night. Jeter’s last professional at-bat for all time. And he hit a walkoff single that brought the winning run to the plate. It was more than perfect. It was a magical ending.  A miracle ending. It was New York Yankees ending.

Tomorrow, at Fenway Park in Boston, “out of respect for the Boston fans and the rivalry,” Derek Jeter will likely make an appearance as Designated Hitter, and then it’s over.  Sunday’s game will be the Yankees’ last for the season, sadly locked out of post-season play. For the team, there’s always next year.  For Jeter, it’s a wrap.

He has had an incredible career. As of Thursday: Five World Series rings, 3463 career hits (6th all time), 200 post-season hits, 2674 games at shortstop (2nd most all time). No player in the history of the NY Yankees has played more games, had more at-bats, more hits, more doubles, more stolen bases. It’s not just about statistics. Ability, integrity, loyalty, class, a leader, role model, a player admired by fans of all ages – he played clean during a time many players relied on performance enhancing drugs. It is all these things that has made Derek Jeter a great ballplayer and a great human being.

O Captain! My Captain! Saying goodbye to the New York fans Thursday
O Captain! My Captain! Saying goodbye to the New York fans Thursday

During his second year in the major leagues, Jeter established the Turn 2 Foundation, a charitable organization that helps children and teenagers avoid drug and alcohol addiction, and reward young people who show high academic achievement. I’ve always thought it said something very positive about the man that established his foundation so early in his career.

The last of the “Core 4” (Jeter, Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada, and Mariano Rivera), the mighty sub-team that took the club to glory so many times during the Joe Torre years, and like Murderer’s Row, will be long remembered in the annals of Major League Baseball history. Last year Yankees fans bid goodbye to the Sandman, Mariano Rivera, and this year to the Captain . . . the end of an era.

Joe DiMaggio said once, “I’d like to thank the good Lord for making me a Yankee.” I think what I have always liked best about Derek Jeter is that there was only one baseball team in this world for him. I’ve always felt the same way. No other ball club has had the magic, the history, or the thrills. As a Buddhist, I don’t know who to thank for the Yankees, but I’d sure like to thank Derek Jeter for the past 20 years.  It has been a treat to watch him play.

And as he retires, the Yanks are retiring his No. 2. That’s Re2pect.

Here’s something I saw on a fan sign during a recent games that really says it all:

Don’t be sad it’s over, be glad it happened.

In the clip below, you’ll hear the voice of long time public address announcer for the Yankees, Bob Sheppard. When he died on July 11, 2010, Jeter asked that an audio recording of Sheppard’s introduction be used at Yankee Stadium whenever Jeter came to the plate. That’s Re2pect, too. You’ll also see a close-up of Jeter’s parents. And you’ll see a most amazing finale to a most amazing career.




Today marks the 31st anniversary of the day I accepted the Precepts and officially became a Buddhist. Then, I was full of answers. Now, full of questions. I question, for instance, if it is necessary to become a “Buddhist.” I question the doctrines of karma and rebirth. And yet, I cannot help leaning toward a sort of Buddhist exceptionalism, and I am waiting, like Lawrence Ferlinghetti, for a rebirth of wonder.

During these 31 years I have been dedicated to a meditative practice, be it mantra or meditation, or both. I have been dedicated but not consistent. I am sure there are many meditation teachers who have nearly perfect practices. I am not one of them. I am too busy trying to be human to be perfect.

I don’t know how many of you practice meditation. I wouldn’t say that meditation is for everyone, unless they are Buddhist. Buddhism is a philosophy but more than that it is about the process of awakening, which is nearly impossible to describe, and according to Buddhism, impossible to undertake without meditation.

Buddhist Meditation, on the other hand, can be described, and although there are many variations, a good general description would be that it is a system for mind development. In turn, mind development can be described plainly as observing. The breath and the mind are the two most common objects for observation.

Another word for observation is seeing. T’ien-t’ai master Chih-i translated the Indian term for basic Buddhism meditation, samatha- vipassana (tranquility and insight) as “stopping and seeing” (chih-kuan), and said, “seeing (kuan) is observing, examining, introspecting . . . when the mind is seeing clearly it is seeing. The chief aim [of meditation] is the concentration of mind by special methods for the purpose of clear insight and to be rid of illusion.”

This is stating things very simply. Yet, I believe that the historical Buddha’s approach to meditation was very simple, in the beginning. I feel he wanted to offer an alternative to the complex meditation techniques offered by the teachers of his day.

The Buddha said if you want to overcome suffering, then once or twice a day, sit down, be still and calm your mind. Just focus on your breath and be one with the timeless reality of now.

It is true that meditation is not enough. We must apply the awareness and wisdom we cultivate through meditation into our daily life. It’s also true that meditation won’t change the world. But it may change you, and me. And we have to be the change we want to see in the world. Gandhi didn’t really say that. What he said was,

If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him.”

In my experience, there are very few people who truly want to change their life. Oh, they will accept change if it comes easy to them and includes material benefits. Deep-seated change is too hard for most. Some people will never meditate because they are afraid of seeing too clearly the loneliness and pain of their life. When they try meditation, though, and stick with it, then they understand that observing also means seeing through our suffering, transcending it.

That is enough for today. It is after midnight and I need to post this and then go to bed. I have changed a lot in 31 years. One thing that’s changed is I am beginning to agree with the Dalai Lama that “Sleep is the best meditation.”



Here we are . . . the first full day of autumn . . . seasons changing, nature and her cycles: metaphors for life and transformation . . . autumn represents the end of a cycle, completion, harvest . . .

The Tao Te Ching says,

The unfinished becomes complete,
The crooked becomes straight,
Empty becomes full,
And what is old becomes new again.

IMG_3757-2bI like the idea of old becoming new again. Autumn also represents aging. The leaves at the end of their cycle have grown old, they turn to gold and red, and while newness may not seem apparent to us, there is certainly beauty. What did Albert Camus say? “Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.”

After the leaves turn colors, they fall the ground to become compost that helps other plants to grow and they become food for worms, then the worms become food for ants and beetles – a continuous cycle.

With completion, there is also continuation. When we come to the end of a cycle, a new one begins.

So it is with the ebb and flow of life.

We might ask where, within the seasons of life, is there fulfillment? Surely, there must be some measure of satisfaction and happiness that accompanies completion . . . Where do we find it?

But sages like the Buddha and Lao Tzu, the author of the Tao Te Ching, would tell you to wait for it.  They’d say that when we seek fulfillment, it will often elude us. Satisfaction and happiness come when we simply go with the flow. That sounds like a rather worn out cliché, and it is, but it is also true. Buddha taught that the inclination to seize, to cling and contend was the chief source of conflict and suffering. Nagarjuna stressed  the term “non-contentiousness” (anupalambha), the very heart the Buddha’s dharma. And Lao Tzu ends Chapter 22 of the Tao with this:

Because sages do not contend, no one can contend with them
When the ancients said, “the unfinished becomes complete”
Were they speaking empty words?
Become whole, and all things will return to you.