New Boat People Crisis

According to Thailand’s foreign minister the number of migrants in the Indian Ocean has reached an “alarming level.” Migrants desperately fleeing their home countries have been landing on the shores of Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. During the past month, over 3,000 people have been rescued by fishermen or have washed ashore, and the UN estimates that several thousand more are still be at sea, abandoned by human smugglers.

Friday, during the opening of an Asean conference in Bangkok aimed at tackling the issue, Thai Foreign Minister Thanasak Patimaprakorn called for governments in the region to address the root causes of the crisis. Both he and the UN singled out Burma, also known as Myanmar, as the country most responsible for the situation.

Most of the migrants are Rohingya Muslims fleeing Burmese persecution, while many others are economic migrants from Bangladesh seeking job in other countries.

At the conference, Htin Linn, the head of the Myanmar delegation, refused to accept any responsibility, while in Yangon, Burma’s largest city, over three hundred protesters, including scores of extremist Buddhist monks, took to the streets to deny that the boat people are Rohingya Muslims. Demonstrators wore shirts and held signs with messages such as “Boat People are not Myanmar, Stop Blaming Myanmar” and “There is no Rohingya in Myanmar.”

Dalai Lama and Aung San Suu Kyi, London, 2012 (Photo:Jeremy Russell/OHHDL)
Dalai Lama and Aung San Suu Kyi, London, 2012 (Photo:Jeremy Russell/OHHDL)

Meanwhile in an interview before a visit to Australia next week with The Australian newspaper, the Dalai Lama urged fellow a Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi to speak out: “It’s very sad . . . I met her two times, first in London and then the Czech Republic. I mentioned this problem and she told me she found some difficulties, that things were not simple but very complicated. But in spite of that I feel she can do something.”

Suu Kyi’s silence on the issue has disappointed many of her admirers around the world.

I would hope that if the Dalai Lama, as head of a Mahayana Buddhist sect, feels confident about pressing Suu Kyi, a follower of Theravada Buddhism, to take some action, he would also feel confident about calling on Theravadins in Burma and Sri Lanka to do something about the Buddhist extremism on the rise in both of those countries.

In an article published Thursday at Tricycle, the Buddhist magazine, Theravada Buddhism’s Muslim Problem, Iselin Frydenlund, a researcher at the Norwegian Centre for Human Rights, University of Oslo and the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO), and Susan Hayward, Interim Director of the Religion and Peace building program at the United States Institute of Peace, wrote that the problem “requires an intra-Buddhist debate on Buddhist principles, religious pluralism, and human rights.” They also maintain that joint statements crafted at local summits between Buddhist and Muslims “carry far more weight than any human rights group’s condemnation of the role of religious leaders in creating intolerance and mistrust.”

This may be true, but joint condemnation or at least some rather loud vocalization from fellow Buddhists would carry some weight as well. In my opinion, Buddhists worldwide have been far too quiet.


Ethics and Inspiring the Mind

I’ve read a lot in the Buddhist Blogosphere recently on the subject of ethics, as part of the on-going discussion about the secularization of “mindfulness.” The concern for some folks is that as Buddhist meditation moves further into the secular mainstream, it has lost its original ethical component.

I share the concern to some extent, but don’t know enough about the various secular applications of Buddhist meditation to feel confident about wading very far into the discussion. However, I do like to think I am competent to say a few words about “Buddhist ethics.”

Buddhism and Jainism were the first Indian spiritual paths to contain a strong moral element. The Buddhist take was that as suffering was produced by ignorance (avidya), it was necessary to destroy ignorance in order to bring an end to suffering. The state of no-suffering was called awakening, and the Buddha taught that one could not awaken merely through intuition, mystical ritual, or the practice of austerities as other Indian systems had previously maintained. For the Buddha, a progressive advancement in the practice of moral conduct (coupled with meditation) was essential.

An emphasis on morality in other spiritualities, particularly those in the West, has often led to moralizing, which is almost universally viewed as preaching moral values in “a self-righteous or tiresome way.” Buddhism was able to avoid this by focusing on karma (no need to judge or condemn because wrongdoing inevitably results in karmic retribution) and through promoting bhavana or self-development (as one progresses in awakening, ethical behavior arises in an organic way).

Buddhism and Jainism are very similar, and this is the case with Buddhism and Taoism, too. For many, Taoism appears to lack a moral vision, especially when compared to the ethical teachings of the other major Chinese path, Confucianism.

In Mystics and Zen Masters, Thomas Merton, the Catholic monk who was an ardent student of Eastern philosophy, questioned whether Taoist quietism and “non-action” (wu-wei) didn’t play right into the hands of the totalitarian Chinese communists:

“Theirs is a way of ‘non-action,’ which is falsely interpreted as pure quietism when in reality it is a policy of non-interference and an abstention from useless and artificial action. Taoism is not complete non-action but rather non-activism.” ( 54)

I’m not sure how Merton felt about it, but there are those who feel that ethics in Buddhism should be expressed as social and political action, and since Buddha-dharma seems deficient in this regard, to them it means Buddhism is “absent”. I can’t help but feel this point of view stems from a fundamental misapprehension about the nature of Buddhist dharma.

Like Taoism, Buddhism has never been a social action movement. Buddhism is self-help.  As odious and “bourgeois” as that may sound to some, it is nonetheless dead-on. As I pointed out in my March 30th post, bhavana or “self-development” is the word frequently used by the Buddha for meditation. If, because of one’s self-development, a choice is made to engage in social action, it is highly commendable. But it is not the prime point of Buddhism’s ethical thrust.

In The Tao of the West, J.J. Clarke offers an excellent explanation for how Taoism conveys the moral ideal:

sage001bTaoism teaches an ‘ethics’ of ‘self-cultivation’ . . . At the heart of this is the idea of the sage who, through mirroring and cultivating himself in the way of nature, the dao, exemplifies but does not specify in law-like terms the way for others; like an artist, his self-creative activity should inspire rather than be imitated.” (95)

You can replace the word “sage” with Buddha or Bodhisattva and arrive at the heart of Buddhism. Imitate means to “take or follow as a model.” Inspire means “fill (someone) with the urge or ability to do or feel something.” It seems to me that inspiration must come from a deeper place in one’s being than imitation.

I recently came across a blog post by a fellow who has had a somewhat high profile in Buddhist circles in recent years and he was explaining why he was quitting his blog and stepping away from Buddhism. The reasons he gave included the notions mentioned above: a “bourgeois” mindset, Buddhist absenteeism concerning social action, the self-help/feel-good-about-yourself focus. I’ve seen this often, people get very involved in dharma for a short time and then they burn out. I think now I understand why this happens. They’ve learned the teachings and learned from them, but they haven’t been deeply inspired.

The kind of inspiration I’m referring to should stimulate within us a genuine eagerness to be an example to others of how to live ethically and with compassion. There’s no need to teach ethics or preach morality, yet it is important that we find ways to inspire these values.

But first, we have to be a good example for ourselves.  Like it or not, it is difficult to inspire others if you don’t feel inspired yourself, or you are uncomfortable about your own life. So, again, it all comes down to one’s personal development. Our first and foremost task is to win over ourselves.

This may sound pompous and/or self-serving, but I cannot imagine ever turning back, stepping back, or quitting the dharma because I am inspired. What’s more, I am continually inspired.

Q: Do practitioners inspire their own minds or do others induce their inspiration?

A: It has nothing to do with self and others, it is just a matter of inspiration of the mind through response to an inner sense of contact with truth.

Chih-i, “Mo Ho Chih Kuan” (tr. Thomas Cleary)


Mischievous Blonde

The Dalai Lama is in trouble again. This time, in an interview from his home in India, commenting on the controversy over whether he will reincarnate or not, he sparked another controversy by saying if he does come back it might be as a “mischievous blonde woman.” But, he added, “then her face must be very attractive” or “nobody pay much attention”.

Historically speaking, some blondes have been too mischievous.
Historically speaking, some blondes have been too mischievous.

Some folks have jumped on this and now he being labeled a sexist.

Two things people should know about the Dalai Lama: A) his command of the English language is not that great, and B) he has a sense of humor.

B is good, he doesn’t take himself too seriously and he tries to inject some lightheartedness into what can often be a dry subject, namely Buddhism. However, because of A, his words sometimes come out wrong and he is misunderstood.

Here is what I think happened: A) he was trying to make a joke and he muddled it up, or B) he was trying to make a sly commentary on the sad fact that women are still judged by their appearance and he muddled it up.

But this is what almost everyone is missing: for the Dalai Lama to suggest that he could reincarnate as a woman period is a very radical statement. That’s because the traditional teachings of Buddhism say a woman can never be enlightened. So, if the next Dalai Lama were a woman that would more or less tear that idea to sheds.

Gender inequality is still a problem in Buddhism and instead of nitpicking perhaps we should be commending the Dalai Lama for striking a blow against sexism.

Some of the things written about women in Buddhist literature are rather ugly. They are objects of scorn, their bodies are unclean, they are evil and to be avoided, etc. There are positive things said about women, too; however, the negative remarks stand out as rather large blemishes. The Dalai Lama addressed this issue in 1997 during his teachings on Nagarjuna’s Precious Garland at UCLA. He was discussing a section of the text known as the “Twenty Verses” and here is an excerpt from my transcript of the teachings:

In the 20 verses [from The Precious Garland] I would like to warn you about a passage that reads “may all women be reborn as males.” [Laugher.] When you read that passage it is important to bear in mind the culture and the context that those kind of sentiments are being expressed. If we are to take that literally and that aspiration comes into realization, then it’s going to be rather silly, because if the entire world is going to be populated by men then that means the human species is going to end at some point. [Laugher.] There’s going to be no possibility of procreation. [Laugher.] So, the point is that if one feels that in the form of a female existence one can make a great contribution, be more effective and be of greater service, then reverse the thought and pray that all men be born as females! [Laugher and applause.]

In the Buddhist scriptures, there is another type of sentiment that I have reflected on: when you read the Buddhist scriptures that deal with altruism and compassion, there is always a reference to sentient beings as mother sentient beings, never as father sentient beings. This suggests that within the Buddhist tradition, women are seen as the symbol of compassion and affectionate perfection. It is very rare that a man is the symbol of affection. Women, in the form of mothers, are also the embodiment of kindness.”


The Meaning Lies in the Effort Itself

It seems that most folks took my Orson Welles story the other day good naturedly. He really did live for a while on Stanley Drive north of Hollywood Blvd, but I didn’t learn that until many years after he passed on.  When I thought about how I used to ride the bus right by there nearly every day, I engaged in some fantasying and Friday’s story was the end result. If anyone felt my deception bamboozled them unduly or unfairly, which I highly doubt, I apologize. It just seemed a very Wellesian way to celebrate the centennial of his birth.

Today, another birthday: Zen pioneer Shunryu Suzuki was born May 18, 1904. Like Welles, Suzuki has been a huge influence. I’ve mentioned him a number of times on the blog, and you can read it all by clicking on his name in the tag cloud on the left sidebar (in between Shantideva and sufferings).

Suzuki helped popularize Zen Buddhism in the West and the collection of his teachings, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, is a book of deep wisdom that anyone, Buddhist or not, can benefit from reading.

He valued simplicity, so I feel it is a very Suzukian way to celebrate his life and spirit by keeping my words to a minimum and focusing on his:

shunryu_suzuki3In our everyday life we are usually trying to do something, trying to change something into something else, or trying to attain something. Just this trying is already in itself an expression of our true nature. The meaning lies in the effort itself. We should find out the meaning of our effort before we attain something. So Dogen said, “We should attain enlightenment before we attain enlightenment.” It is not after attaining enlightenment that we find its true meaning. The trying to do something in itself is enlightenment. When we are in difficulty or distress, there we have enlightenment. When we are in defilement, there we should have composure. Usually we find it very difficult to live in the evanescence of life, but it is only within the evanescence of life that we can find the joy of eternal life.

By continuing your practice with this sort of understanding, you can improve yourself. But if you try to attain something without this understanding you cannot work on it properly. You lose yourself in the struggle for your goal; you achieve nothing; you just continue to suffer in your difficulties. But with right understanding you can make some progress. Then whatever you do, even though not perfect, will be based on your inmost nature, and little by little something will be achieved.”

From “Calmness” Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind


The day I met Orson Welles

This year is the centennial of Orson Welles; May 6th was the 100 anniversary of his birth. Welles was a great filmmaker and a colossal failure. He suffered from the curse of being his own worst enemy. He was one of those people who regularly shot himself in the foot.

f-for-fake-3After 1938, when he succeeded in pulling off one of the greatest gags of all time, Welles seemed to have a compulsive need to push the envelope on all his projects, and more often than not he pushed the project into commercial and critical disaster.   Of course, nowadays, those disasters are considered the work of genius.

I became a Welles fan in high school, after listening to a recording of the 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast. It sounded pretty hokey, but still, it was a cool joke, tricking half of America into believing Mars was invading the earth. My mother recalled people out in the streets in Wichita Kansas, all in a panic because the Martians were coming.

About a year and a half later, I saw my first Welles film, the greatest film ever made, Citizen Kane. I had seen plenty of movies already in my young life but nothing like that. If you have seen the film, I need say no more.

Then, many years later, I was living in Los Angeles and working in Beverly Hills. Each day I rode the old Number 1 bus to and from my job.   The bus ran along Hollywood Blvd, that west of La Brea changes from a business thoroughfare to a residential street.

One afternoon I was headed home but decided to get off before La Brea to visit a friend who lived in an apartment building on the corner of Stanley and Franklin. As I walked up the hill, I saw a man standing on the sidewalk who looked very much like Orson Welles.

As I drew closer, I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was Orson Welles. A tall, massive, gigantic Orson Welles. Wow, it looked like I’d have a chance to see one of my heroes close up!

He was looking for something.   Walking back and forth, calling out “Rosebud . . . Rosebud . . . Here kitty kitty!”

I mustered up some nerve and came up and said, “Is there anything I can do to help you?”

Without bothering to look in my direction, he growled, “I looking for a cat.”

Orson Welles had a cat named Rosebud? Too much.

I said, “How did your cat get out?”

Now he turned and stared at me.  He took the longest cigar I’d ever seen out of his mouth and said, “Young man, do you know anything about cats?”

“A little.” I explained that when cats are scared sometimes they go into a super-freak-out mode and hide. If it’s an indoor cat, it’s not likely it will go outside because that’s even scarier that whatever frightened it in the first place. A freaked-out cat will head for the first good hiding place it sees and stay there, and no matter how many times you call it, the cat won’t come out until hunger become more overwhelming that fear.

“You’re saying Rosebud is probably still inside the house?”

I nodded. “Yeah, probably. I would be glad to help you look around, if you like.” Then I said something I thought might be the equivalent of shooting myself in my own foot: “I mean, I’m a really big fan and it would be my honor to help you find Rosebud, er, your cat.”

I thought it might turn him off, you know, acting like a star-struck fan, but he loved being adored.

He took me inside his house. It was a Colonial Revival style house, and like most Hollywood mansions I’ve been in, it looked big on the outside, but was rather small on the inside. We found Rosebud hiding behind a bookcase. Welles was grateful for my help. He never did explain what frightened the cat but he told me that his wife was out shopping and he thought the cat had escaped through the front door that he had left open by mistake.

At that moment, star-struckednes got the better of me and I told him I had seen all his films, or at least as many as I was able to because they weren’t screened very often and that when I saw Citizen Kane at age 17 during my first week of college, it completely blew my mind and I couldn’t of anything else for days afterward, and so on and so forth. He loved it.

A few minutes later, his wife, Oja Kodar, a very beautiful woman, came home and Welles told her what happened and she said, “Orson, where are your manners? You should offer our guest something to drink.”

Welles opened a bottle of Dom Perignon. Unbelievable. It was like 4 in the afternoon. First time I had tasted the stuff.

He asked me what I did for a living and I said I worked in the reservations department at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel and he said he had stayed there many times but swore he would never set foot in the place again as long as Warren Beatty lived there, and I said Beatty didn’t live there anymore but a lot of people thought he did and women with names like Bambi and Trudi were always calling up wanting his room number.

He did not elaborate about what he had against Beatty but I think I got a clue when later on he mentioned that famous actors who were also producers and directors were always saying how great he was but they would never give him any money.

After I finished my glass, I got up to go. I didn’t want to wear out my welcome. Welles had already finished off the bottle and he was getting ready to open another one.  He told me to stay.  I did.

With the second bottle, Welles got really loose and started in on a monologue. Oja Kodar kind of rolled her eyes as if to say she had heard it all many times before, but I thought he was hilarious and he said some very funny things, like:

“If there hadn’t been women we’d still be squatting in a cave eating raw meat, because we made civilization in order to impress our girlfriends.”

“I’ve spent most of my mature life trying to prove that I’m not irresponsible.”

“When you are down and out something always turns up — and it is usually the noses of your friends.”

“I hate television. I hate it as much as peanuts. But I can’t stop eating peanuts.”

During his soliloquy, Rosebud had come up and rubbed herself (or himself, I never found out which) against my leg a few times, and then Welles said something that astounded me.

“Young man, you seem to know a lot about cats, and Rosebud has taken to you. I have need of a good cat person. We’re going to France next week to speak with some people about directing another Shakespeare film, and I need a cat-sitter.”

“A house sitter, too,” Oja Kodar added.

“Would you be interested?”

Would I? Damn! Baby-sit Orson Welles’s cat? And his house? What an opportunity! Maybe it would lead to something like being his assistant.  Who could tell? Stranger things have happened.

I couldn’t believe it. I thought I must be dreaming.

And I was. I woke up, took a shower, got dressed, and headed down to Hollywood Blvd to catch the Number 1 bus for Beverly Hills. It was another ordinary day.

I never had a chance to meet the great man. He died three months later.

Touch Of Evil2