The Silent Cost of Shangri-La? The Human Rights Controversy in Bhutan

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For many in the Western Buddhist world, Bhutan has become a quasi-mythical land.  Bhutan is an officially Buddhist Kingdom with ties to internationally popular Lamas. It has become famous for it’s lauded vision of “gross national happiness”. In 2006, it was named the happiest country in Asia and the sixth happiest in the world in a survey based on the Gross National Happiness index inspired by Bhutan itself. In 2012, as a result of an initiative of the Bhutanese government, the UN named March 20The International Day of Happiness. More recently the environmental media declared Bhutan one of the few countries in the world to be not just carbon neutral but carbon negative.

 

Bhutan is venerated for resistance to modernization and westernisation.  The fact that it is difficult to even visit Bhutan due to its limitations on tourism only increases its mystique. In addition many Western students of Vajrayana dream of retreats in the green mountains and valleys of the “land of the dragon”, where pure teachings of the Kagyu and Nyingma lineages are still to be found.    

 

Gross National Happiness

In the 1970’s the Bhutanese King Jigme Singye Wangchuck began instituting his vision of “gross national happiness (GNH)”, which included strong measures to protect Bhutan’s dominant ethnic culture and the religious tradition of Vajrayana Buddhism (which it shares with Tibet). In the 1980s, the Bhutanese government was worried about illegal immigration and preserving the country’s cultural identity in the face of Nepali influence as well as the power of it’s neighboring giants China and India. Bhutan adopted a “one nation one people” policy and introduced mandatory Driglam Namza, the ancient code of social etiquette practised by the dominant ethnic group- people from west Bhutan, who are of Tibetan origin. The government decided to deport thousands of people of Nepali ethnicity, many of whom had lived in the south of Bhutan for generations and are known as lhotshampas (“southerners”). The government passed laws requiring people to wear traditional Bhutanese dress and banned the Nepali language in public, and, human rights groups say, tortured Nepali Bhutanese, who spoke out.  

 

In a harrowing 2013 NY Times article Vidhyapati Mishra wrote an account of the expulsion of his family from Bhutan. He recalls an idyllic childhood on a farm that grew “maize, millet and buckwheat, a cardamom garden, beehives and enough pasture for cows, oxen, sheep and buffaloes.” After the 1989 declaration of the “one people, one country” policy things began to change. Hindu seminaries were closed, “traditional Bhutanese” customs were imposed on all and Mishra’s elementary school, which served the Lhotshampa population, was closed down. One day in 1991 Mishra reports, men in uniform came to his house and seized his father. After insisting he put on his bakku (traditional Bhutanese dress), they dragged him from the house kicking and slapping him. As Mishra describes it, “My father was held for 91 days in a small, dank cell. They pressed him down with heavy logs, pierced his fingers with needles, served him urine instead of water, forced him to chop firewood all day with no food. Sometimes, they burned dried chilies in his cell to make breathing unbearable. He agreed eventually to sign what were called voluntary migration forms and was given a week to leave the country our family had inhabited for four generations.” At the time of writing that NY Times article Mishra had been in a refugee camp known as Beldangi 2 for 21 years.  

 

Bhutan’s governmental policies had dreary results beyond the camps for those sentient beings who happened to be Nepali in origin. One refugee, who spent 17 years living in a camp before immigrating to the US, said that when he first arrived in the camp “two or three’ dead bodies” were being taken away every day due to crowding and lack of medicine. The U.N eventually arrived with help, but the governments of Bhutan and Nepal refused to take responsibility for the more than 100,000 refugees living in camps. In 2007, the U.N. decided there was no hope of either country taking them in and started sending the refugees around the world to the U.S., Canada, Australia, and elsewhere. Amnesty International says that “the Bhutanese refugee situation has become one of the most protracted and neglected refugee crises in the world.”

 

Many refugees have had difficulty integrating into their new homes abroad. The rate of depression among surviving Bhutanese refugees has been found to be three times that of the general public, and their suicide rate almost twice as high. Vidhyapati Mishra has now relocated to North Carolina, but 27,000 refugees are estimated to remain in the camps.

 

To this day, the Bhutanese government claims that the exodus of over 100,000 lhotshampas from Bhutan was voluntary. Some students of the Bhutanese lama Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche who I contacted justified Bhutanese governmental actions with the assertion that some Nepali Bhutanese did not just speak out but engaged in acts of violence against the government and even acts of terrorism against Bhutanese citizens in response to laws perceived as creating a monocultural Bhutan that excluded lhotshampas.

 

Jigmi Thinley, who wrote an article for the “Mindful Politics” compilation put out by Wisdom Publications in 2013, and was given an honorary degree from the Université Catholique de Louvain in Belgium in 2014, was the Prime Minister of Bhutan from 2008-2013. Thinley worked in the Bhutanese government since 1976. He is currently the president of the Council of the Centre for Bhutan Studies. In 2011, when Prime Minister of Bhutan, he announced that the government was open to repatriating lhotshampa refugees following “screening.” He stated:  “They are economic refugees, they are environmental refugees, they are refugees of political instability. And they are victims of circumstances beyond their control. But I maintain that the question of whether they are refugees from Bhutan is a subject of discussion.” This statement  sparked outrage among the refugee community. The Bhutanese government disputes the claim that the camps are filled with Bhutanese of Nepali origin, claiming that some of them were illegal immigrants in Bhutan only for a short time or agitators from within Nepal seeking to enter and gain power in Bhutan.

Human rights organizations like Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and others, contest this, as does the US State Department.  According to Human Rights Watch, who refers to Bhutan’s policies as “ethnic cleansing”: “The government enacted discriminatory citizenship laws directed against ethnic Nepalis, that stripped about one-sixth of the population of their citizenship and paved the way for their expulsion.” In 2008 HRW noted that Bhutan had not repatriated a single refugee, which is still the case. In 2007 the United States recognized the refugee status of the lhotshampas and accepted 60,000 people from the camps. In 2011 Bill Frelick, director of the Refugee Program at Human Rights Watch, wrote an article pleading with the Bhutanese government to at least repatriate some of the elderly refugees in the camps who did not want to be resettled abroad but wanted to return to the homes they remembered. His plea went unanswered.

“What I would like to see,” says Vidhyapati Mishra today, echoing Frelick, “is for the government to admit the remaining unsettled refugees. Some of them have refused to be resettled in the US or elsewhere because they just want to go home. At least the government could admit those who have been resettled on tourist visas to be able to see their own country, but even with a US passport the Bhutanese government will not let us in to see our homeland again.”

When asked whether the refugee camps have been infiltrated by “fake refugees” Mishra says it has not. “A small amount have joined themselves to the refugees through marriage perhaps,” he says, “But their children, once they reach adulthood, must leave the camps and enter Nepal. Perhaps there are a small number of people who have become parts of the families of refugees, but there have been no masses of people coming in. Everyone knows each other in the camps and groups of people coming in from Nepal and claiming to be refugees would be obvious and unwelcome.”   

 

Bhutan Today

 

According to the Diplomat, “Article 7(4) of the 2008 Constitution of Bhutan states that every Bhutanese citizen shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. Article 7(15) adds that all persons are equal before the law and are entitled to equal and effective protection of the law and shall not be discriminated against on the grounds of race, sex, language, religion, politics or other status.”

Nevertheless only Buddhists and Hindus are legally allowed to form organizations. 80 percent of Bhutan’s population is Buddhist and about 20 percent of Bhutanese are lhotshampas, most of whom are Hindu. The Religious Organizations Act of 2007 says that its main intent is to “benefit the religious institutions and protect the spiritual heritage of Bhutan,” which is Vajrayana Buddhism. In practice the government reportedly harasses Hindus and obstructs their activities. Bhutan’s roughly 19,000 Christians, who are mostly southerners but also from other ethnic groups, say they are treated like second-class citizens. Christians have applied to be able to function with a legal Christian identity but have been unsuccessful so far. As a result, there are no Christian burial grounds, no Churches, and no Christian book stores.

There are some signs of improvement. According to Freedom In The World 2015, Bhutan is taking steps towards becoming more authentically democratic and towards greater transparency in government and lawfulness in its judiciary. Since 2013, the laws requiring traditional dress in public have been repealed. When the current King of Bhutan, Jigme Khesar Wangchuk was married, he had a parallel Hindu wedding in the south in an attempt to forge better relationships with the lhotshampas who remain in Bhutan. Local authorities are still reported to severely harass non-Buddhists however, and permits for Hindu and Christian religious activities are very hard to obtain. In March 2014, a group of Christian religious pastors was arrested for holding a worship service and held in jail for a month with no trial or charges laid. In September of the same year, two Christian pastors were sentenced to prison for conducting illegal religious activities.

 

Western Buddhism and Bhutan

Asked whether anyone from the Buddhist community had ever approached him to offer help or hear his story, Mishra says they have not. Nevertheless, and despite his experiences at the hands of Buddhist Bhutan, Mishra retains his respect for the religion. “I have great admiration for Buddhism as a religion. What is happening in Bhutan is not being done by the real Buddhists. Buddhism is being used to justify criminal behaviour.” 

Buddhist organisations in the West associated with Bhutanese traditions have largely been silent on the persecution of ethnic and religious minorities in Buddhist Bhutan. One webpage on a site run by Shambhala, a major force in Western Vajrayana, at one time had a link to some comments on video by Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche on the issue. They are now nowhere to be found, removed due to issues with ownership rights over the video according to a website administrator.  My request to be directed to the owner of the video or someone else qualified to discuss the issue met with no reply. One source, who asked to remain anonymous, claimed to have tried to inspire high ranking leaders in the Shambhala community to take action on the issue for years but had been resisted or ignored. Others within Shambhala, however, including at least one senior student who studied directly with Chogyam Trungpa, offered help and contacts who might shed light on the situation in Bhutan. Similarly, some direct students of Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche, Gangteng Tulku Rinpoche, and Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche offered assistance in finding sources for this piece.

Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche is one of the most popular contemporary Buddhist teachers, and probably the one with the strongest ties to Bhutan. As well as being a spiritual teacher he is also a writer and film-maker and made the first feature film shot in Bhutan, Travellers and Magicians (2003). Although he has been actively teaching in the West since at least 1989, the year that the deportation of the lhotshampas began, and is well known for his frank outspokenness, I could find no public statements of his dealing with Bhutanese human rights violations against ethnic and religious minorities. A source among his senior students supplied me with some anonymous opinion pieces written about Bhutan which argued that the actions of the Bhutanese government were substantially justified by their need to retain cultural and political stability as a distinct nation state. The pieces also argued that the Bhutanese government had taken steps to limit abuses of lhotshampas by citizens and government officials, and that the situation was more complicated than western media sources represent it to be. Finally, the anonymous essays echoed Jigmi Thinley’s assertion that the people in the camps were not definitely refugees from Bhutan. As stated above Vidhyapati Mishra, who lived in Beldangi 2 for 21 years, dismissed the claims of “fake refugees” as untrue and making little sense.

 

Concluding Thoughts

Many in the Western Buddhist community do not countenance government actions which compromise the human rights and dignities of refugees and illegal immigrants, nor those of ethnic or religious minorities. It hardly seems correct to rationalize or overlook the situation when an explicitly Buddhist country chooses realpolitik over compassion, or defends its culture and borders with outright aggression, violence and ethnic cleansing, as the evidence suggests.

How should the Bhutanese government deal with these issues? The UN resolution on the rights of refugees would suggest that those in the camps, or who have been relocated, should be allowed to return. That would be a beginning toward redressing well-evidenced injustices visited upon the lhotshampas.  Both Frelick and Mishra have argued that the least they could do is to allow the elder refugees still in the camps to return home. As for the repression, harassment, and persecution of religious minorities, that is both against Buddhist principles and common sense. Human societies, like gardens, flourish when there is a healthy diversity and what polyculturalists call “fertile edge”- the place where two systems meet. Perhaps it’s time for Bhutan to fear diversity less.  

 

Four Thoughts of Dogen on Time

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Eihei Dogen (1200-1253) is widely considered one of Japan’s greatest philosophers. He was a monk in the Soto Zen tradition and a poet and religious essayist. He left behind him a body of writings called the Shobogenzo which contains almost 100 essays which resemble what in the West would be called “theology”, except that they deal with Zen Buddhist preoccupations. The essays are bold, labyrinthine, beautiful and profound. Today they are a major inspiration for contemporary Soto practitioners and have spawned a small academic industry of interpretations. One essay, Uji (For The Time Being), deals with the nature of time. Below I’ve posted a contemplation on four of Dogen’s thoughts in Uji, from a collection of Dogen’s writings co-edited by my friend and teacher Peter Levitt.

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Do not think that time merely flies away. Do not see flying away as the only function of time. If time merely flies away, you would be separated from time. The reason you do not clearly understand the time being is that you think of time only as passing.

We often think of time as something people are losing. Time flows by, and we lose more and more time. It is as if time were sand in an hourglass flowing away, or as if we were all leaking time.

Dogen is pointing out that just as all things have a spatial dimension, all things have a temporal dimension. Just as the space of a thing is not separate from it but part of it, so the time of a thing is not separate from it but a part of it.  Time is not just something “passing away”. Time is being, and being is time. We do not lose or gain time. We are time.

Mountains are time. Oceans are time. If they were not time, there would be no mountains or oceans. Do not think that mountains and oceans here and now are not time. If time is annihilated, mountains and oceans are annihilated.

Time is as much a part of me as breath, skin, bone, or thinking. Time is actually even more fundamentally a part of me: I can live for moments without breath, skin, bone or thinking, but not for one moment without time. Not just without time: without being time. When we resist time we become divided against ourselves. We should love time, because time is our most intimate friend. Our intimacy with time is our intimacy with ourselves. To resist time is to resist being a creature. Yet we only exist as creatures. We only exist as limited beings. Those limitations are not limitations on our being but conditions for existing at all.

The way the self arrays itself is the form of the entire world. See each thing in this entire world as a moment of time.

The self- you or I- arranges itself as a world. We exist always as a world, and that world has flowing through its fabric both space and time. Every thing is thus a moment of time. A car is a moment of time. A word is a moment of time. A cloud, a coffee, you, me, are all moments of time.

Spring always flows through spring. Although flowing itself is not spring, flowing occurs throughout spring.

I flow throughout myself. Although flowing itself is not me (since we all flow) flowing occurs throughout me. In my very nature I flow, just as a river or, as Dogen would say, a mountain flows.

Is there any part of me that doesn’t flow? Most Buddhist philosophers have said that there is. Dogen’s view on this is controversial. I believe he would say that there is, and that part is what is experienced when “body and mind drop off” (shinjin datsuraku). Dogen says that when this happens “the original face appears”. Thus something appears. It is not the cessation of experience.

Some traditions, notably Hinduism but also some Buddhists, refer to this that appears as “the self”. I think this is misleading, while also in a certain way pointing to a truth. What is misleading is that what appears is not our individuality. It does not have spatio-temporal characteristics. It is not what makes Jane Jane or Franco Franco. That self, which is what we normally mean by “self”- the bundle of body, mind, experiences, knowledge, choices, etc which make me different from you, includes time within its being and experiences itself as time as it flows.

The original face is not a self in the sense of something that lasts (it does not last as an object in a world since it is not an object in a world). It is also not a self in the sense of something that confers individuality. Yet in a way it does last, and in a way it does confer individuality. This is because it is the ground of our experience. It is an open space which allows us to be. In the words of the Dzogchen practitioner turned Catholic theologian Stratford Caldecott, this ground of our being spoken of by both Buddhist and Christian mystics is both gift and grace. When we meet it we meet that without which our flowing self of time and space could not exist.

In the thought of Jewish kabbalist Isaac Luria (1534-1572), when God created the universe S/he first created an empty space in herself where a universe could go- like a womb. This space is called the halal panui, the empty place. As Rav Shneur Zalman of Liadi pointed out, this is actually a space where God appears not to be. It is actually bristling with divine energy- it is an empty fullness. This may be sounding familiar to Buddhists, though of course most would reject the idea that this empty fullness (tathata/shunyata) was created or exists within God.

However you look at it, the fact remains that this “empty space”, this urgrund, this empty fullness-full emptiness, is the gift that comes to us and allows us to be.

The time being has a characteristic of flowing. So-called today flows into tomorrow, today flows into yesterday, yesterday flows into today. And today flows into today, tomorrow flows into tomorrow.

Each moment flows into itself and flows as itself. All moments are also interconnected and interdependent. Hence they are always already flowing through each other. How you experience anything depends on your position in time and space, and the rate of your flow, as Einstein showed. Those who have studied Indo-Tibetan Madhyamika philosophy know all of this relative interdependence is necessarily true for their to be “times”, for there to be “spaces. This is because if an object were defined by itself it could not change or interact with other objects. The same is true of a moment of time.  If anything solid were found anywhere it would gum up the works, and the luminous gears of the cosmos would grind to a halt.

The way the self arrays itself is the form of the entire world. See each thing in this entire world as a moment of time.

The way the self arrays itself is as a moment of time. Time is not our destroyer, for time loves us into being within the space that God gives us within Herself.
-All quotations are from: Kazuaki Tanahashi, Peter Levitt. The Essential Dogen. Shambhala, 2013.

Other sources:

Caldecott, Stratford. The Radiance of Being. Angelico Press, 2013.

 

  

Chatral Rinpoche Passes Away (with some thoughts on Thomas Merton)

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On Jan 5 the Himalayan sage Chatral Rinpoche passed away at the age of 102. Rinpoche was a long time ascetic, practitioner of dzogchen (a Nyingma meditation tradition), and spiritual teacher. He studied with many of the masters considered “greats” within the 20th century Vajrayana Buddhist world, and taught many of the leading teachers of today at some point in their lives. He was a man of enormous spiritual “weight”, an old elephant, a true sage. With his passing there is a feeling the earth just got dangerously lighter.

Here are some words from Harold Talbott, who travelled with Thomas Merton in Asia. From a Nyingmapa website:

“In Asian Journal, Merton refers to the Dzogchen Nyingmapa lama Chatral Rinpoche as the person he would choose as his teacher.

Talbott: He was Merton’s man. Chatral Rinpoche really gives the flavor of the Tibetans. I wouldn’t dream of studying with him, or anybody remotely like him, because he is totally and completely unpredictable. He is savage about ego and he will put you on the spot and I am not prepared to up the ante to that degree.

Tricycle: Why did you choose to introduce Merton to him?

Talbott: I wanted to make sure that Merton met all the outstanding lamas that I could dig up. In Dharmasala he met Avalokiteshvara-the Bodhisattva of Compassion-in the person of the Dalai Lama and I think okay, I’m doing my job, I’m getting him the whole spectrum of the force field. But of course that will an opportunity for me to hide behind Merton’s skirts and also meet Chatral Rinpoche who I’m terrified of.

He could throw stones at you- as he does do-and so I will use Merton as the front. We caught up with Chatral Rinpoche down the road from Ghoom in Darjeeling. He was painting the nuns’ house and he put some planks on some bricks and we sat and talked with the help of an interpreter. Chatral Rinpoche started by saying “Ah Jesus lama; you know I have never been able for the life of me to get a handle on Christianity so I’m real glad you came this morning.”

Tricycle: Did he know who Merton was?

Talbott: No. But he explained his perplexity about Christianity. He said, “The center of your religion is a man who comes back to life after death and in Tibetan Buddhism when you have one of those people, a rolog, or a walking corpse, we call our lama to put him down.

So I want to know what kind of a religion is Christianity which has at its center a dead man coming back to life.” So Merton explained the Resurrection in tantric terms about the overcoming of fear and the utter and complete power of liberation which is the center of Christianity. And this satisfied Chatral Rinpoche.

Tricycle: Freedom from fear?

Talbott: Freedom from all kinds of constraints and restraints. A man has died and he has come back in a glorious body and he has freed us from fear of death and fear of life. That’s freedom.

Tricycle: Because it’s eternal.

Talbott: No. If the universe is a place where a man can live again in a glorified body and teach the truth, then the world is a free place. And Chatral Rinpoche says, “At last I understand Christianity.Thank you very much.” And Merton says, “I would like to study with you.” And Chatral says “Right, we can work together. And so you’ve got to do your own ngondro (the preliminary practice of Dzogchen, which usually takes a Tibetan about a year).

We’ll get you a hermitage in Bhutan and that is where you should do your retreat. And I challenge you: see, I’m not enlightened yet, so let’s work

together and see which one of us can get enlightened first.” And so Merton said, “it’s a deal.” And so then we split and Merton says, “That’s the greatest man I ever met. That’s my teacher.” But they weren’t his exact words.

Tricycle: In Asian Journal he says if he took a teacher, that’s who it would be.

Talbott: Yes, but he would never have left the Church.”

Merton is a truly inspiring man: a devout Christian capable of revering and learning from the sages of other religions. My reading of the above meeting is that Chatral Rinpoche may have been testing Merton when he referred to Jesus as a “rolog”, a kind of Tibetan zombie, to see where Merton was coming from. If Merton has gotten offended or launched into a hyper-intellectual explanation he would have been revealed as coming from a place of ego or intellect, not heart practice. Instead Merton was unoffended and met Rinpoche skillfully, explaining the resurrection in a way which held true to the Christian view of it yet presented it in a way a man like Rinpoche could understand and value. Bravo, I would say. Having practiced the ngondro myself I have doubts that an orthodox Christian could practice them (they involved worshipping gurus and spirits) but I think Merton and Rinpoche would have worked out some way to work together if only they had had more time together. As it stands Merton was electrocuted in an accident in Thailand shortly after their meeting.

Rinpoche was a vegetarian and an advocate for animal rights. He was also concerned about nuclear weapons, and wrote the following prayer. It might be fitting to post it today, given the recent activities in Iran and North Korea. Here is an excerpt from the prayer (omitting a lengthy intro addressing the buddhas and spirit beings Rinpoche revered):

  

 We are beings born at the sorry end of time;  

 An ocean of ill-effects overflow from our universally bad actions.  

 The forces of light flicker,  

 The forces of darkness, a demon army, inflames great and powerful men.  

 And they rise in conflict, armed with nuclear weapons  

 That will disintegrate the earth.  

 The weapon of perverse and errant intentions  

 Has unleashed the hurricane.  

 Soon, in an instant, it will reduce the world  

 And all those in it to atoms of dust.  

 Through this ill-omened devils’ tool  

 It is easy to see, to hear and think about  

 Ignorant people, caught in a net of confusion and doubt,  

 Are obstinate and still refuse to understand.  

 It terrifies us just to hear about or to remember  

 This unprecedented thing.  

  

 The world is filled with uncertainty,  

 But there is no means of stopping it, nor place of hope,  

 Other than you, undeceiving Three Jewels and Three Roots,  

 (Buddhas, Teaching and Spiritual Community, Lama, Deity and  

 Dakini)  

 If we cry to you like children calling their mother and father,  

 If we implore you with this prayer,  

 Do not falter in your ancient vows!  

 Stretch out the lightning hand of compassion!  

 Protect and shelter us defenseless beings, and free us from fear!  

 When the mighty barbarians sit in council of war  

 – barbarians who rob the earth of pleasure and happiness  

 – barbarians who have wrong, rough, poisonous thoughts.  

 Bend their chiefs and lieutenants  

 To the side of peace and happiness!  

 Pacify on the spot, the armed struggle that blocks us!  

 Turn away and defeat the atomic weapons  

 Of the demons’ messengers,  

 And by that power, make long the life of the righteous,  

 And spread the theory and practice of the doctrine  

 To the four corners of this great world!  

 Eliminate root, branch and leaf – even the names  

 Of those dark forces, human and non-human,  

 Who hate others and the teaching!  

 Spread vast happiness and goodness  

 Over this fragile planet!  

 Elevate it truly with the four kinds of glory!  

 And as in the golden age, with all strife gone,  

 Let us be busy only with the dance of pleasure, the dance of joy!  

 We pray with pure thoughts-  

 By the compassion of that ocean the three supreme refuges  

 And the power of the Realm of Truth;  

 The complete sublime truth,  

 Achieve the goal of this, our prayer  

 Magically, just as we have hoped and dreamed!

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Father Louis (Thomas Merton) and Chatral Rinpoche

Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, the well known postmodern Lama and film maker (eg. the Cup) had this to say about Chatral Rinpoche (here):

“…make no mistake: Many lamas like myself, who make the loudest noises, display the most jarring images, and travel every inch and corner of the world, have achieved next to nothing compared to this man who appears never to have done anything except for keeping his meditation mat from ever getting cold. And if he did manifest in action, this is the man who spent 99.99% of what he had rescuing the lives of animals. So for ignorant beings like us to try and express the great qualities of this enlightened being is like trying to measure the depth and width of the sky.”

“In my limited life I have seen very few anti-hypocritical beings, and he was one of them. He meant business, there was no negotiation, and of course he never traded one single word of the dharma for money. Time and again, he refused to bow down to the mighty.

He made a lot of us hypocritical beings shudder. Just knowing he was alive and breathing somewhere between Siliguri and Pharping made our hearts quake. Even though we never got to see him, especially towards the end of his life – and I myself was refused an audience 20 times or more – his mere presence on this earth shattered hypocrisy.”

 

Learning To Love Donald Trump

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Donald Trump. A few years ago  many of us had heard little of him, and he was easy to avoid (a desire even scant acquaintance inspired). When I visited my grandparents in North Miami Beach, a hell of over-development and rampant consumerism against a backdrop of magical beaches, I would grimace at the Trump Towers. They are an opulent and wasteful cancer on the coastline (one of many, admittedly), pumping ocean water 24 hours a day into elaborate fountains ornamenting massive driveways leading to a kind of hyper-real excess of the obscene, grandiose cartoon towers jutting preposterously into an innocent sky.

Recently Trump has become hard to ignore. His hate speech, pompous posturing, and fascist, fear-mongering rhetoric are by now well known. His popularity makes him terrifying to increasing numbers of people throughout the world, a living, breathing, billionaire obstacle to the progress, even the continued survival, of human civilisation.  Which brings me to my question. Can we learn to love Donald Trump?

Why do I ask? Not because I think he is inevitable, or that he will win the presidential race. I don’t think that is the case. For the record, I think the miraculous is in the offing and Bernie Sanders will win. I am curious about loving Trump because many of the beloved teachers of humanity tell me too. The Buddha advised us not to harbour hatred or animosity for any human being. If you think that does not apply to Trump, consider the following quote:

“Even if bandits were sawing you limb from limb with a two-handled saw, if you entertain any hatred in your heart on that account you are not my disciple.” (Kakucadapamma Sutta)

Then there’s Jesus. He’s also pretty clear: “Love your enemies…..anyone who harbours anger in his heart is a murderer….anyone who calls his brother “Fool!” is liable to judgement….judge not lest you be judged.” (Matthew)

The Rabbinic Jewish tradition states, “Anyone who gives into anger is an idolater….every thought of anger generates a thousand demons, even if the anger is over an ethical matter.”

So…..how do we love Donald Trump? Are we supposed to find something loveable in him? Are we supposed to rationalize away his ignorance,  malice, and self-indulgent opportunism? Are we supposed to accept him as he is?

I think not.

I think the key may lie in understanding better the nature of love. What is love, and what does it do? George Macdonald, a favorite mystic and theologian, offers some help.

Macdonald explains that 1) love is not acceptance. Love wishes to make more lovable what it loves. In other words, love wishes the loved well- not to be as he or she is. 2) Love does not abandon. Love never gives up, never closes it’s heart.

Thinking this over I was reminded of the amazing story of the conversion of Larry Trapp. Trapp was a “grand dragon” of the Klu Klux Klan who became badly disabled. When a Jewish family, the Weisslers, moved into his neighbourhood he threatened and harassed them. The Weisslers responded by reaching out to him and challenging his views, though not hatefully. They  then pursued him with kindness. They offered to bring him groceries and treated him with love. One night they visited him at his house and he begged them to take away all of his Swastika rings, telling them he wanted out of the Klan. The Weisslers took the rings and gave him one they had bought by chance earlier as a gift. Weissler left the Klan, became an informant for the police, and eventually- in a truly stunning move- converted to Judaism in a synagogue he had once planned to blow up. He died two months later holding the hands of the Weisslers, may he rest in peace.

The Weisslers demonstrated true love. They did not accept Trapp as he was, but they did love him with an ultimately redeeming love. I don’t personally know Trump, of course. Yet I am considered about the condition of my own heart, that cavernous mansion of which many rooms are unknown, and even more in disrepair. Trump is, of course, not the only issue there. In fact he’s a bit player compared to some others: ISIS, for one. Human traffickers. There’s no need to multiply the list. Yet what’s true for Trump is true for others: to love them is to hold on to their humanity even when they seem to have let go of it. It is to love them, which means to pray for them. To pray that they awaken to love, that they fill themselves with humility and wisdom, that they repent. That they go from villains to teachers.

Whether this seems true and important to us or not depends on the value we place on the cleanliness of our own hearts, and whether or not we recognize the danger of letting strange and dangerous beasts breed there. To do this is not just (or shouldn’t just be) “virtue signalling”, a technique by which we signal our superiority to others by claiming to be free of hatred and anger. I for one am not free of either: my natural propensity is to have disdain, hatred and anger for people of the moral quality of Trump or Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi. To work to let go of these emotions and replace them with love, as defined above, is an act of protest in the days of the “outrage machine” known as the Internet. It is to protest common humanity and the priority of love in the face of hatred, dehumanisation and polarisation. I think it is an internal move which is essential to both our future and the wellness of our souls.

So will you join me in prayer for Donald Trump?

If prayer is not your practice, try metta bhavana. You might just find that some part of you feels inexplicably better afterwards.   

 

Trump Tower One -Trump I
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Trump Towers, North Miami Beach.

Kosho Uchiyama: The Heart of Nembutsu

The following is a poem written by the great 20th century teacher of Soto Zen, Kosho Uchiyama. Uchiyama Roshi was a great exponent and practitioner of Dogen Zen as taught by Kodo Sawaki, his teacher. Despite his grounding in Dogen and Soto Zen, Uchiyama Roshi also appreciated Shin Buddhism and Christianity and spoke on them in his dharma talks and poetry. The “Nembutsu” is the mantra Namu Amida Butsu, “Homage to Amitabha Buddha’, a Buddha Shin practitioners believe to have vowed to save all who chant his name. Uchiyama Sensei translated the Nembutsu as ” I practice (butsu) returning (namu) to the totality of heaven and earth (amida)”. Enjoy.

 

The Heart of Nembutsu

I eat food from the whole heaven and earth
I drink water from the whole heaven and earth
I live the life of the whole heaven and earth
Pulled by the gravity of the whole heaven and earth
I become pure and clear, one with the whole heaven and earth
The whole heaven and earth is where I return

– Zen Teachings of Homeless Kodo

The Many Things Are Good Friends

Shunryu Suzuki and Lurianic Kabbalah

I had an insight into Kabbalah today while reading the words of a Zen sage, Shunryu Suzuki (1904-1971). Suzuki Roshi (as he is called by his North American students) was instrumental in bringing Soto Zen spiritual practice to the United States. I have some slight connection to his lineage, having practiced Zen meditation with students of his lineage- Peter Levitt and Norman Fischer. Like many people in North America who have practiced Buddhism (perhaps most) I have read Suzuki Roshi’s beloved book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. Today, however, I was reading a lesser known book of his called Branching Steams Flow In The Darkness. It is a transcription of Suzuki Roshi’s teachings in the 70’s on an ancient Japanese poem called the Sandokai, which can be translated as “The Interpenetration of The Ultimate and the Relative.” This, like all of Suzuki Roshi’s teachings, is marked by gentility, humour, maturity, and an enticing combination of nuance and directness. As I read it I am struck both by how I resonate with many aspects of his teaching and not with some others, which don’t fit my own deepest intuitions. In any case, as I read it today I was struck by something which shot like an arrow through my mind and hit a surprising and seemingly distant target: a teaching by Rabbi Isaac Luria, the 16th century Ashkenazi-Israeli Kabbalist known as the Arizal, who reshaped Jewish mystical teachings in his brief life (1534-1572). The Arizal was also much concerned with what could be called the “interplay of the ultimate and the relative” or the interplay of the being of God, “The Endless One Blessed Be” and the being of phenomena- “materiality” or “the shell (kelipa) which conceals divinity”.

The passage from Suzuki Roshi I was reading is this one: “Kai means to shake hands. You have a feeling of friendship. You feel that the two of you are one. In the same way, this one great whole being and the many things are good friends, or more than good friends because they are originally one.”

According to the Kabbalah of the Arizal, when the Holy One, Blessed Be created the universe it burst into a million fragments racing madly away from eachother. From an original point which was so unified, so whole, that it transcended our mode of existence entirely, came being and being implies beings. These quanta of being raced away from eachother, sparks of light becoming enclosed in the “husks” (klipot) of materiality. These energetic threads thus spun forth to become a great web of interdependent moving, humming, transforming strands of materiality concealing divine light within. With the birth of phenomena of greater and greater complexity came, paradoxically, greater and greater individuality for each compounded phenomena. This apparent individuality is the essence of the Arizal’s idea of klipa as understood by the Alter Rebbe ( R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi, 1745-1812, founder of Chabad Hasidism). Klipa conceals Divine Oneness because it appears to be independent phenomena.

In the world of the senses- the sensual universe which reveals materiality to us- we perceive a complex field of disparate objects with no obvious relation to each other besides contingent functional relationships. Our toaster and our running shoes appear to be unrelated inanimate objects with separate origins and purposes. It appears that way to me even when I consider the existence of the running shoe a miracle (why does it, or anything, exist at all?) or reflect that every moment, according to Torah, the whole of creation is willed into being by the Creator. The individual objects in my perception still seem alienated from each other. But perhaps they shouldn’t.

Rashi ( R. Shlomo Yizhaki, 1040-1105), commenting on the story of the Garden of Eden, asks why we are told that Adam was formed “from the dust of the earth”. He answers “To tell us that we all have a common origin- no descendant of Adam can claim higher rank.” In a similar way, all material phenomena- the running shoes, the oven, the flower on the table- are all united by a deep internal bond. A familial bond.

According to Lurianic Kabbalah all of the phenomena of our world were born from the same “singularity”- the singularity of Hashem’s willing of the Creation to arise in the womb created by tzimtzum. In that sense all things, no matter how high or low, are one family, deeply intimate with eachother, sharing an infinite bond and identical internal signature in their hidden recesses- much like human beings. This was what I was struck by while reading Suzuki Roshi’s comment “the great whole being and the many things are good friends…because they are originally one”.

If we reflect on this we can remove the illusion of being an alien in the universe, trapped in an expanse of lifeless, impersonal objects. We can contemplate the truth of the kinship of all things, that they are “all good friends”. Our apparent individuality is a common inheritance from a common parent.

We are united in our common origin in a way deep beyond our imaginations. In the end, paradoxically, even the fact of our individuality, as well as its nature, unites us as something we share.