Everything will be changed

Those of us who watched the news this weekend were bombarded with images from Paris, where Friday terrorists launched an extremely deadly attack. One image, or video, that affected me deeply was the one below of a man playing John Lennon’s “Imagine” on a piano just a few meters away from the Bataclan theater, one of the scenes of the attack.

The song’s message of non-duality and universal compassion is, I believe, the right message, the right response, in the wake of this horrific incident. It matches the spirit of non-violence that permeates Buddhism. The spirit of ahimsa (“do no harm”) is summarized in the famous admonition attributed to the Buddha, that with a boundless heart should one cherish all living beings.”

Victor Hugo, the French Romantic author known for his poetry and his novels, including Les Misérables and Notre-Dame de Paris (“The Hunchback of Notre Dame”), lived much of his life in the city of Paris. In 1882, he made a speech to the “Workingmen’s Congress.”  You may say Hugo was a dreamer, but he, too, was not the only one . . .

Have faith, then; and let us realize our equality as citizens, our fraternity as men, our liberty in intellectual power. Let us love not only those who love us, but those who love us not. Let us learn to wish to benefit all men. Then everything will be changed; truth will reveal itself, the beautiful will arise, the supreme law will be fulfilled, and the world shall enter upon a perpetual fete day. I say, therefore, have faith.”

I don’t feel that the faith Hugo speaks of is a religious faith, but a faith in humanity, a belief that the goodness in human beings will win out over the evil, faith in the power of compassion and reason.

As requested by the Mayor of Paris, the Eiffel Tower will be lit in the colors of the French flag (red white blue) and the motto of the City “Fluctuat nec Mergitur” will be projected onto the deck of the 1st floor (Trocadero side) from night fall Monday November 16 to 1:00 am and for three days (until Wednesday, November 18 included).



The End and the Means and the Killing In-between

The bombing in Bangkok that killed 22 people and wounded 120 took place at the Erawan Shrine, the most famous temple in Thailand and a popular attraction for tourists. Erawan Shrine was built during the mid 1950s, and its construction was plagued by so many problems that after consulting with an astrologer it was decided to dispel the bad karma by erecting a shrine to honor the Hindu deity Brahma, the god of creation. In Thailand, Brahma is known as Phra Phrom, the four-faced Buddha.

According to Monday evening’s news reports, it is not yet clear who placed the three kilograms of TNT stuffed in a pipe and wrapped with white cloth inside the shrine area or to what extent the statue of Phra Phrom was damaged.

ABC News says, “Previous to the August 17 blast, the statue had also come under attack in March 2006 by a lone man who smashed the statue with a hammer. The man was beaten to death by bystanders . . .”

On Hollywood Boulevard, just a few blocks from my apartment building, is Thailand Plaza (this part of Hollywood is Thai Town). It houses a Thai grocery store and a restaurant on the 2nd floor. Outside the plaza, next to the sidewalk, is a Phra Phrom shrine (see the photo rightFour Faced Buddha-1b). You can pass by almost any time of the day and you will probably see someone lighting incense and offering prayers to the four-faced Buddha.

Many years ago I heard about a study, I don’t recall the details, but a group of people were asked this hypothetical question: If the CIA asked you to kill a VIP, even if he or she were totally protected, would you agree to do it? An astounding 90% said yes.

Men and women have always been willing to kill for a cause, because they believe the end justifies the means, and I have always thought that to be one of the most evil concepts humanity has ever developed.

Traditional Buddhist teachings maintain that if you kill another human being, in your next existence you will have a short life. These days, I find that concept to be difficult to accept as well. However, I do believe there is something in the Buddhist view of the law of cause and effect, and that once you make a cause, someday, no matter what, a result from that cause will manifest. In that sense, killing is the worst cause.

Killing is a complicated issue because there are various ways to kill and different degrees of what we call murder. What I am discussing here is the killing of innocents with a bomb or beating a person to death out of anger, revenge, or for a cause. Buddhism does not have a perfect record of non-violence. Nevertheless, I feel its reputation as a philosophy of peace is justified. The First Precept in Buddhism is “Refrain from killing.” And if there were one mantra that transcends all the various Buddhist traditions, it would certainly be “Do no harm.”

Actually, to get through life without harming or killing is difficult, but I once heard someone say that when we become non-violence itself, when we become compassion itself, we embody those qualities in our world. Buddhism teaches that we accomplish that by looking within our mind to recognize and subdue the negative thought patterns that allow the potential for harm to arise.


Weapons of Mass Compassion

I rarely look at the comments section of news articles I read. Yesterday, while looking at an article on the Jordanian pilot, I inadvertently scrolled down too far and came across a comment with the Isis video embedded. I watched it,

The major news organizations and Google will not show these videos because they are disturbing and because of the propaganda value for Isis. I think this is a mistake. It is one thing to hear that a human being was burned alive, it is quite another to watch footage of him placed in a cage, doused with some flammable liquid, and set on fire. It is disturbing, haunting. It will stay with you. But I feel the propaganda value works against these murderers. By viewing the video I don’t feel I am complicit in their terrorism, rather I am seeing for myself the extent of their cruelty, their barbarism, and I am enraged. I sympathize with the anger and the calls for vengeance.

Yet, I understand that is an emotional reaction, and I know violence is not the answer.  This is a very different enemy than the West has ever faced. We are going to have to think differently than we have in the past in order to solve this problem. Aerial bombings, boots on the ground – these are simple and worn-out solutions for a complex situation. We need a long-range strategy that is bold, innovative, and visionary, and the first step in implementing it should be to address the root causes of Arab terrorism.

Simple solutions work best for those who want to ignore the complexity of the problem and cast this as a “war with radical Islam.” But it is not really about Islam or religion. We are not talking about holy crusaders, but thugs – disaffected, frustrated young men, many of whom don’t know much about Islam, but know a lot about poverty, high unemployment, inequality, injustice, and they have idle hands and minds. This is nothing new. Earlier generations of young men and women tried to find meaning for their lives by becoming Marxist revolutionaries. I know from my own experience, radicalism and revolution can seem very romantic, but adopting a radical ideology alone does not satisfy, nor, in most cases, is it real and true and understood in the same way that Lenin or Mao understood their revolutions.

Compassion will also help us find a solution.

A new interview show called Speakeasy recently premiered on PBS. In this program, Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame recipients, Grammy Award winners, and legendary iconic musicians are interviewed by people they themselves select. For instance, Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters chose to be interviewed by newsman Bill Weir, and Carlos Santana chose Harry Belafonte.

pde_118086978_speakeasy-santana-belafonteDuring his interview, Santana called Belafonte and some other men and women whose humanistic spirit he admires, “weapons of mass compassion.” I like that. Much better than the other thing.

Elsewhere, Santana, who just published a memoir, The Universal Tone, has said,

Compassion is a far more powerful weapon than violence. Lets us all become weapons of mass compassion.”

And I say, let’s be the boots on the ground who search for Weapons of Mass Compassion wherever we are, for we need all of these we can get. I suspect we could be much more successful at finding WMCs than we were finding WMDs.


Gimme Some Truth (Then Gimme Shelter)

Some 13 years ago, shortly after President George W. Bush declared a war on terror, Monty Python’s Terry Jones asked: “How do you wage war on an abstract noun?” War on terror is an oxymoron. This war on terror was supposed to be a response to a barbaric act, but the first action taken was to invade a country that had nothing to do with it. The war began falsely and has been a fallacy ever since.

safe_state2On Tuesday, France’s prime minister declared war against terrorism.  The French people took to the streets in solidaires and bought up the new issue of Charlie Hebdo to exercise their right of free speech, and now they are poised to lose many of their other rights as the country transitions into another surveillance state.

What irony – the more we defend our rights, the more rights we lose. It might not be so bad if the people who make these declarations and defend our freedom just gave us some truth. But that gets lost in the shuffle, too.

Pope Francis says you should not “kill in the name of one’s own religion.” Well, that is precisely what folks have been doing ever since we invented God. But in this case, the war is only partly about religion. Maybe that’s always the case.

In the U.S., we are constantly going on about the troops, praising, thanking and honoring them for their service – but it’s not service, not really. I mean not like when people were drafted into the military. The truth is, it’s a job. Military employees are paid to do this work, which often puts them in harm’s way.

I don’t mean to suggest that our troops are not deserving of our praise and thanks. I just believe we need to see things as they truly are and have truthful discussions about it.

From day one we’ve been sold this war, and eager consumers that we are, we’ve bought it lock, stock and barrel. The patriotism the war on terror comes wrapped in is just a sales technique. So is the fear.

The war on terror is a business run by the terrorism industry and they are not above using fear tactics, which is just a form of terrorism, to keep it going by inflating national security threats, hinting that 9/11 type attacks are imminent. We have seen small attacks on this continent, such as the recent Canadian incident a few months back (that led to surveillance-expanding legislation and anti-terror laws), but what about 9/11 scale attacks? If the terrorists are “so demonically competent, why have they not done it?” asks John Mueller* in Foreign Affairs. He suggests that

One reasonable explanation is that almost no terrorists exist in the United States and few have the means or the inclination to strike from abroad. But this explanation is rarely offered.”

“Almost no terrorists” means few terrorists, mostly lone terrorists, and though their plots can be small, they can still be deadly.  But we’re talking about big 9/11 scale plots, the kind the Bush Administration and the CIA lied about to justify torture.

The worst thing about truth is that it is so damn inconvenient at times, and complex.

In our public sphere discussions, we need to talk about this as a culture war. A revolt against modernity. Or, we need to talk about it more.  Like climate change, too many people are in denial about the causes. I condemn terrorism, but I try to resist the temptation to paint terrorists simply as black clad evildoers with no reverence for human life. That may be true, but it is also true that most terrorists are disenfranchised young men, for whom Jihadist training in Iran or Syria somehow fills the emptiness in their lives and give them a sense of purpose no matter how warped. It’s something that needs to be addressed.

I’ve rambled. Probably have not articulated my thoughts very well. I wanted to make a point about how we have lost rights while defending them. I guess we didn’t notice we lost them. We were too busy with our eyes glued to our smartphones.

My biggest disappointment with Obama is he didn’t try to repeal the Patriot Act.

I am not saying we shouldn’t try to stop terrorists . . .

Just saying, to borrow from John Lennon, gimme some truth.

And gimme some rights back.

Speaking of rights . . . when will Israel give Palestinians the right to free movement? When will the Muslim world finally acknowledge Israel’s right to exist?

I feel that I should have written something positive, uplifting, possibly inspiring. I just don’t feel it today. I am pessimistic about the current state of affairs. I don’t have a good feeling for the future either.

We live in a cellphone world, and a surveillance state. Huxley and Orwell predicted this outcome.

BNW2One believes things because one has been conditioned to believe them.
– Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.
– George Orwell, 1984

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* John Mueller is Professor of Political Science at Ohio State University and the author of Overblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats, and Why We Believe Them. His article in Foreign Affairs can be found here.


Free Speech, Right Speech: Teetering on a Razor’s Edge

I support the principle of free speech and stand in solidarity with the French in the aftermath of yesterday’s terror attack. I am sure most all of you do as well. But today I am not inclined to give myself over to expressions of outrage and defiance, which seem to me right now as little more than mere emotionalism and sloganeering. I have seen too many news reports of terror attacks in my years to be outraged. I am too weary to be very defiant. Instead, I have questions.

UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights Flavia Pansieri articulated the questions in my mind rather well at the opening of the 83rd session of The U. N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination last year in Geneva:

Where does the right of expression, which we all want to respect, stop and the need to sanction and prevent hate speech begin? What is the point in time when one right has to recognize that it cannot be exercised if it implies the violation of another one?”

Does free speech go too far if it is harmful to others? It’s a rather old question, actually. It was debated by the U.S. Supreme Court nearly a hundred years ago in Schenck v. United States, (1919), a case that revolved around free speech during World War I. The court concluded that the defendant (Schenck) had no First Amendment right to express freedom of speech against the draft during the war. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. wrote the unanimous opinion that included this line, “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic . . .”

Oliver Wendell Holmes (1841-1935)
Oliver Wendell Holmes (1841-1935)

Thus, it was Holmes who gave us the famous metaphor of “Shouting fire in a crowded theater.” I don’t get how he reasoned that to express one’s opinion on the morality of a wartime draft presented a “clear and present danger,” but that is another discussion.

In a free society, everyone should have a right to hold and express any opinion. Justice Holmes qualified his decision with the word “falsely.” So, one of the first questions we should ask ourselves is, does opinion need to have a factual basis? Usually, no. But that does not mean it is wise to offer opinions that are based solely on supposition, assuming facts not verified.

The second question might be does the right to free speech include a right to offend? In this most recent case, the alleged offense is against religious sensibilities and beliefs. What we see in the West as relatively harmless satire is to many Muslims, even moderate ones, hate speech.

Yesterday’s attack was against Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical weekly newspaper. The cover of a 2011 issue depicted a cartoon of the Islamic prophet Muhammed and teachings based upon the Quran forbid the creation of visual images of Muhammad. This religious dictum does not justify the savage murder of 12 people. But it does provoke questions about whether journalists, even those engaged in the business of satire, should be more sensitive to religious beliefs. In the global public sphere, does the sacred dictum of the West that “nothing is sacred” trump Islam’s sacred dictum regarding images of the Prophet? Just because we have the right to free speech, is it always wise and/or proper to exercise it?

Religion was often the target of Charlie Hebdo’s satire.  Religion isn’t as popular these days as it once was. Even those of us who are “spiritual” may have little use for “religion.”  In being dismissive, need we be disrespectful?

As a Buddhist, I can’t help but wonder how we might strike a balance between free speech and “right speech,” an ideal found in the Buddha’s Eightfold Path: “And what is right speech? Abstaining from lying, from divisive speech, from abusive speech, and from idle chatter: This is called right speech.”

The Dasabhumaka Sutra says,

“Whatever speech is unpleasant, whatever hurts one’s own nature or others, that is speech the bodhisattva avoids . . .”

What hurts one’s own nature or others can take many forms, and can be born from misunderstanding and thoughtlessness as well as hate and prejudice. When I was younger, I would have been tempted to simply dismiss Muslims as thin-skinned, denounce their violence, and leave it at that.  Nowadays, disgusted as I am, having been a witness to these unrelenting cycles of violence for so long, I am more interested in how concepts such as right speech and deep listening might be pathways to solutions. I am more interested in trying to understand the other side than I am in placing blame and demanding accountability.

Writing now, something else occurs to me, about to what extent religious sensibilities are used as political weapons. Muslims seem to be a devout people; yet many of them have no problem using their religion a propaganda tool. Arab Nations like to cast themselves as spiritual warriors righteously fighting a religious war against “infidels”, and they use this same ideology to agitate believers against the West. We do much the same thing, only we are the champions of democracy and free speech.

Where do we go from here? Do we encourage journalists to censor themselves? And if so, is it an act of tolerance, or is it just doing what the terrorists want us to do? Or, perhaps, the outrage, the defiance, the condemnation is exactly they want to see. Are we only displaying our wounds for their pleasure?

Why do we never get an answer when we’re knocking at the door
With a thousand million questions about hate and death and war?

– The Moody Blues

I don’t have the answers. Just suggestions, what ifs.

Je suis Charlie. I, you, we are all Charlie but if the world is ever going to change at some point we must also be Abdul and Fareed and Rabiya. I wrote above that I wanted to avoid sloganeering. But here I go. Not afraid. Without a doubt, we should not be afraid in the face of terrorism, never forsake our liberty of expression. Fear, though, can be a double-edge sword. Not afraid should also mean not fearing to use our liberty to express right speech, kind speech, and to open our hearts to the concerns of others. Why is it that when responsible leaders suggest offering an olive branch of understanding to Islam and the Middle East they are vilified for it and labeled as weak? It seems to me that kindness and understanding and empathy are strategies that have not yet been employed in this long, long war between our two cultures. Not afraid? I wonder  . . .

Protestors in Place De La Republique in the centre of Paris (Photo: Heathcliff O'Malley/The Telegraph)
Protestors in Place De La Republique in the centre of Paris (Photo: Heathcliff O’Malley/The Telegraph)