Democracy in America

Born on this day in 1805 was Alexis de Tocqueville, the French statesman who wrote Democracy in America following a nine month visit to the United States in 1831-32.  The young country he found on his trip, the democracy still in its infancy, continues to flourish, and his book, published in 1840, remains an influential book about the United States.

tocquevilleOur contemporaries are constantly excited by two conflicting passions; they want to be led, and they wish to remain free: as they cannot destroy either one or the other of these contrary propensities, they strive to satisfy them both at once. They devise a sole, tutelary, and all-powerful form of government, but elected by the people.  They combine the principle of centralization and that of popular sovereignty; this gives them a respite: they console themselves for being in tutelage by the reflection that they have chosen their own guardians.  Every man allows himself to be put in leading-strings, because he sees that it is not a person or a class of persons, but the people at large that holds the end of his chain.

By this system the people shake off their state of dependence just long enough to select their master, and then relapse into it again.  A great many persons at the present day are quite contented with this sort of compromise between administrative despotism and the sovereignty of the people; and they think they have done enough for the protection of individual freedom when they have surrendered it to the power of the nation at large. This does not satisfy me: the nature of him I am to obey signifies less to me than the fact of extorted obedience.”

It does not satisfy me, either.  Even in the process of selecting our ‘master’, we do not shake off dependence, for we rely on others to lead us.  Democracy is a participatory system.  It demands involvement and awareness on the part of its citizens.  Our current state of affairs is one of the consequences of too little intellectual participation.

I’m not the only one who can’t get no satisfaction.  In this year’s selection process, people on both sides are dissatisfied with their choice.  Choice may be an illusion. When the alternatives for selection are forced by external powers, choice does not exist.  Too often we don’t get to choose the best of the best, rather we choose what is handed to us.

Simultaneously, it seems that fate has taken a hand this time around, and the differences between the two alternatives seems startlingly clear.  Although, this too, may be a mirage.

Churchill said, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”  This implies that democracy is the best simply because it works better.  Hillarie Belloc remarked that the “use of such language connotes that the user of it is fatigued by the effort of thought.”  He went on to say “The institution ‘works’ in proportion as it satisfies that political sense which perfect democracy would . . .”*

Because in democracy, the people are sovereign, we should never be satisfied and always strive to be greater collectively than we are.  A greater democracy means a greater community of people.  On the individual level, we can stay involved by thinking and studying about democracy.  I wish more Americans felt the need to think past the political slogans, read more of the news as opposed to just listening to it, and then, read beyond the headlines.

For Tocqueville, civic and professional associations (people coming together) and participation in the public sphere were the vital components of any true democracy.  Democracy doesn’t ‘work’; we, the people, make it work.  But only, when we are involved in it, only when we put our mind to it.

Democracy in America, what a quandary . . .

I know of no country in which there is so little independence of mind and real freedom of discussion as in America.

Alexis de Tocqueville

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Hilarie Belloc, The French Revolution, Oxford University Press, 1966, 3


Modesty: Earth Above, Mountain Below

The I Ching is a marvelous book, one of the oldest in the world.   I have mentioned before that it’s more than book of divination; it is philosophy, and poetry.

As the English title, “Book of Changes”, implies, the subject is change.  The text and commentary accompanying the sixty-four interrelated hexagrams at the heart of the book provide insight and guidance to help us work with the changes of life.  The hexagram text is attributed to King Wen (1150 BCE) and his son Duke Chou King Wen of Zhou, and the commentary to Confucius and his disciples.  There are countless other commentaries, interpretations, and translations.

qian1Let’s take a very brief look at Hexagram 15: qian, modesty or humbleness.

Alfred Huang’s translation (The Complete I Ching) reads,

The structure of this gua [hexagram] is Earth above, Mountain below.  Normally mountains are high and the Earth is low.  What makes a mountain a mountain is its standing high above the Earth.  In this gua, the mountain stands underneath the Earth.  This image represents a state of becoming humble.

The Commentary on the Appended Phrases (in The Classic of Changes by Wang Bi) reads,

qian0The Master said: “To be diligent yet not to brag about it, to have meritorious achievement yet not to regards its virtue, this is the ultimate of magnanimity.  This speaks of someone who takes his achievements and subordinates them to others.  As for his virtue, he would have it prosper ever more, and as for his decorum, he would it ever more respectful.  Modesty as such leads to perfect respect, and this is how one preserves his position.”

Qian is how virtue provides a handle to things.

Qian provides the means by which decorum exercises its control.

In Taoism and Buddhism, modesty or humbleness is a vital quality to develop.  Tibetan Buddhists value the idea of seeing oneself as lower than others.  But this can be misunderstood as depreciating ourselves, and humility is often seen as a sign of weakness.   But it is really about seeing ourselves and others as equal.  Another word for it might be respect, seeing everyone, and everything, as our teacher.

Finally, in the commentary on the I Ching by T’ien-t’ai priest Chih-hsu Ou-i (1599-1655), translated by Thomas Cleary in The Buddhist I Ching, we find these words,

In Buddhist terms, [qian] means taking from the mountain of infinite virtues of Buddhahood to add to the earth of sentient beings, realizing that all beings have the mountain of virtues of Buddhahood within them, assessing people’s potentials and what suits them, impartially giving out the bliss of Buddhahood, not letting anyone realize nirvana alone.

For buddhas and sages, modesty is a vital trait to cultivate because it is an antidote to pride, one of the five poisons, an affliction caused by self-cherishing and attachment to the notion of “I”.  Buddhas and sages know that modesty is a dharma door that opens not only to to a remarkable and contented life but also to the sublime greatness of altruism.

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The Complete I Ching, Trans. Alfred Huang, Inner Traditions International, 1998

The Classic of Changes A New Translation of the I Ching, Trans. Wang Bi, Columbia University Press, 1994

Chih-hsu Ou-i, The Buddhist I Ching (Chou i ch’an chieh), Trans. Thomas Cleary, Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1987


The Homelessness of Thoughts

Some years ago while participating in a campaign to raise funds for homeless people around the world, the Dalai Lama said, “On some level, I am also homeless.”

He was referring to the fact that since 1959 he has been exiled from his home, but the statement can be taken another way because on some level, we are all homeless.

07192016The Buddha and his followers were part of the Indian tradition of parivrajakas, or “homeless ones,” men who had “gone forth” from householder life.  To use an old ’60s expression, they had “dropped out,” rejecting not only homes, but kinship, class, and even their clothes, casting aside usual garments for old clothes and rags.

The bhikkhu’s homelessness, however, is symbolic of a greater homelessness, that of life itself.  As everything in this world will eventfully decay and disappear, there is no real home for anything in this life, no permanent place for anything or anyone to stand. According to the Buddha, the same applies to thoughts

In the Ratnacuda Sutra, the Buddha says,

Thought is formless, unseen, not solid, unknowable, unstable, homeless.  Thought was never seen by any of the Buddhas.  They do not see it, they will not see it; and what has never been seen by the Buddhas, what they do not see and will never see, what kind of a process can that have, unless things exist by a false conception?  Thought is like illusion, and by forming what is not comprehends all sorts of events. . . .”

Wandering through realms of consciousness like a refugee, thought looks for a home.  Thought thinks that perhaps by clinging to this or to that, it can find one.  Thought forms attachments with name and form, with concepts such as “is” and “is not,” “self” and “other,” “me” and “mine,” and with emotions like envy, pride, and desire.  Thought forms these attachments in hopes of finding a home.  Thought wants to own a home.

However, ownership has its burden.  It is easy to become a slave to things owned, and a passage from another sutra encourages us to strive to become the master of our mind, rather than let our mind master us. Moreover, since nothing can last, ownership is really an illusion.  There is nothing to be owned.

And nothing that is unreal can be a home, so in this way, there is no way to avoid being homeless.

To put an end to thought’s endless search for a home, we train our mind.  We train ourselves to think differently. This is one of the chief benefits of meditation, the way mindfulness helps us bring the mind into contentment and cease its relentless searching for itself.  Through practice, we discover the true nature of thought:

During his meditation, a [practitioner] will find that not even one of the thoughts arising in the mind stays for an instant . . . [He or she] will find that the past mind has gone, the present mind does not stay, and the future mind has not yet come. [The practitioner] will discover that it cannot be found anywhere after an exhaustive search of it in the three times. As it cannot be found, it follows that it is non-existent and that all things (dharma) are so as well.

T’ien-t’ai master Chih-i

We, and our thoughts, are homeless because we are searching for a home that doesn’t exist, a home that we can never own.  But when we let go of that, we realize that we’ve always been home, that home is all around us.  We might call it “abiding in the home of no-home.” When we open the front door and step in, we are home in the homelessness of Buddha-dharma.

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This is an edited version of a post published in 2012.


Long Hot Summer: First Level of Intensity

1967, the Summer of Love in San Francisco: groovy music, free love, peace and harmony, Be-In’s, Love-In’s, gentle people, and if you went there, you wanted to be sure to wear some flowers in your hair.

But for folks in other cities across America, the summer of 1967 was the “long hot summer” of violence and civil unrest, the summer of riots in Atlanta, Boston, Cincinnati, Buffalo, Tampa, Birmingham, Chicago, New York, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, New Britain, Rochester, Plainfield, and in Newark.

Newark was the most intense.  Six days of rioting, looting, and destruction that left 26 dead, 750 injured and over 1,000 were jailed.  Mostly African-Americans.  Property damage amounted to more than $10 million.

The background to the Newark riots according to Wikipedia: “In the period leading up to the riots, police racial profiling, redlining, and lack of opportunity in education, training, and jobs led local African-American residents to feel powerless and disenfranchised. In particular, many felt they had been largely excluded from meaningful political representation and often suffered police brutality.”

lyndon-johnsonOn July 29, President Lyndon Johnson appointed a special commission to study the increase in American violence.  The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders was chaired by Otto Kerner, Governor of Illinois, and included such people as John Lindsay, Mayor of New York, and Roy Wilkins, Executive Director of the NAACP.  The commission was directed to answer three questions: What happened?  Why did it happen?  What can be done to prevent it from happening again?

[Photo: LBJ speaks at the advisory commission’s first meeting on July 29, 1967 at the White House,]

I got a copy of the report shortly after it was published in paperback by Bantam Books.  483 pages.  In his Introduction, Tom Wickers of the New York Times wrote, “This report is a picture of one nation, divided.”  The Commission stated in its introduction, “This is our basic conclusion: One nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white – separate and unequal.”

A section in Chapter Two, “Patterns of Disorder,” reads:

“In almost all the cities surveyed, we found the same major grievance topics among Negro communities – although they varied in importance from city to city.  The deepest grievances can be ranked into the following three levels of relative intensity:

First Level of Intensity:

  1. Police practices
  2. Unemployment and underemployment
  3. Inadequate housing”

book-civil-disordersFrom their investigation of the first grievance, the Commission concluded:

“Police practices were, in some form, a significant grievance in virtually all cities and were often one of the most serious complaints.  Included in this category were complaints about physical or verbal abuse of Negro citizens by police officers, the lack of adequate channels for complaints against police, discriminatory police employment and promotional practices, a general lack of respect for Negroes by police officers, and the failure of police departments to provide adequate protection for Negroes.”

The Commission devoted 200 pages of the report to the question “What can be done?”  Too much to discuss here, but what is clear is that in the 49 intervening years since the report was issued, there is more to do.  Police employment practices have improved, some inequalities have been rectified, yet many of the other issues persist.

In this report, the energy of intensity decreases as the levels graduate to higher numbers. The First Level of intensity is like DEFCOM 1, nuclear war imminent.

2016, another long hot summer: more violence against African-Americans, more deaths at the hands of law enforcement officers, and five police who were protecting peaceful protesters at a Black Lives Matter march assassinated.

Kai Wright in The Nation writes, the Dallas ambush is “a reminder that no life will be safe and truly valued until we also confront the broader American culture of violence.”

There is no question that every day police officers around the country put their lives at risk.  We should be grateful for their selfless service and praise their courage.  But  police violence, the excessive use of deadly force, is a serious problem, and no one should try to deny it.  Just as protestors and perpetrators are held accountable for their actions when they cross the line, so too must police be held accountable. Independent investigations and prosecutions can be a deterrent.

And it’s not just police. I’m sure many of you feel as I do, that violence permeates too many aspects of American culture.

Anyway, I thought it was worthwhile to point out the parallels between 1967 and 2016.  Maybe even necessary.  Of course, ’67 wasn’t the only long hot summer, and this stuff didn’t just start in the sixties.  I think we are still divided.  We have further to go, and we will always have further to go.

However, in the immediacy of the present moment, we need some change.

On July 29, 1967, that day when President Johnson issued Executive Order 11365 establishing the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorder, the #1 song in the nation was The Doors’ “Light my Fire”:

The time to hesitate is through
No time to wallow in the mire
Try now we can only lose
And our love become a funeral pyre

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Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, Bantam Books, March 1968


Nagarjuna’s Golden Bowl

Evidently, there was a Tibetan guru, an alchemist and tantric master, named Nagarjuna who lived during the 7th century.  This Nagarjuna and the legends surrounding him were mixed up with the earlier Nagarjuna (c. 250), known as the “second Buddha,” the founder of the Madhyamaka (Middle Way) philosophy.

There is a story about how one of these two Nagarjunas, who was also a metallurgist, turned an iron begging bowl into gold bowl.

bowlOne day, as he was taking a meal, Nagarjuna saw a thief passing by his open door.  The thief noticed the golden bowl and wanted to steal it.

But Nagarjuna saw into the thief’s heart, and to save time, he went outside and gave him the bowl, encouraging the man to go ahead and take it.

The next day, the thief returned and handed the bowl back to Nagarjuna, saying, “Great teacher! When you gave away this bowl so freely, I felt very poor and desolate.  Show me the way to acquire the wealth that makes this kind of untroubled detachment possible.”

The short tale empathizes an aspect of non-attachment that we probably don’t appreciate enough, which is, that letting go of attachments to material things is actually a way to realize great wealth and abundance.

A key element in cultivating non-attachment is said to be renunciation, a word that means to reject something, e.g. a belief, claim, or course of action.  It also coveys sacrifice, giving up.   Naturally, in the context of Buddha-dharma and Taoism, there is more to it.  The Dalai Lama says, “True renunciation is a state of mind.  It does not necessarily mean that someone has to give up something.”

In his version of the Tao Te Ching, the late Professor of Philosophy at the University of Hawaii, Chung-yuan Chang translated chapter 59 this way:

In guiding people and working according to nature,
It is best to follow renunciation.
Following renunciation means returning soon.
Returning soon means accumulating attainment.

He goes on to write, “The key word in this chapter is se, or renunciation, which means returning soon to one’s original nature . . . Thus [Te-Ching’s commentary says]: What Lao Tzu means ‘in guiding people and working according to nature, it is best to follow renunciation,’ is that nothing is better than the cultivation of returning to one’s original nature.”

I did an internet search for se and found it defined as “stingy, mean.”  But as the story of Nagarjuna’s golden bowl suggests that non-attachment requires generosity.

Atisha, in Kadamthorbu or “Precepts collected from Here and There”, is quoted as saying,

The greatest generosity is non-attachment.”

And in Nagarjuna’s Guidelines for Social Action, Robert Thurman writes,

Those who . . . simply consume and hoard, soon lose their wealth, just as Nagarjuna states.  It is a fact of economics that the basis of wealth is generosity.”

For us, a key aspect of non-attachment means to go beyond the mere rejection of materialism. Go beyond ‘giving up.’  Spread out into giving.  Non-attachment is a state or quality of mind that helps us develop openness, spaciousness of being.