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22 Mar
2018
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Lost in Translation

I have always been a little uneasy about the part of the Buddha’s life story where he leaves his young wife just as she has given birth, to go off on his own personal “quest.”

But now I’ve just run across this footnote in Turning the Wheel of the Truth: Commentary on the Buddha’s First Teachingby Ajahn Sucitto:

“Many fables that present the life of the Buddha tell of his marriage and sudden nocturnal departure in a highly dramatic way that was designed to emphasize the great renunciation of the young seeker. Most of us these days would view nocturnal departures as anything but renunciation, so unfortunately this legend has cause the Buddha to be seen more as a jerk than one who negotiated his way out of the jam that his parents had put him in.”

Ah. That does put things is a bit of a different light.

Here’s the text that the footnote refers to:

“…When was he born? Traditions vary, placing his birth date anywhere between 573 B.C.E. and 483 B.C.E. Modern research suggests 480 B.C.E.

“What is more commonly agreed upon is that he was born as the son and heir of Suddhodana, an elected chief of the Sakyan republic. This republic occupied a fragment of southern Nepal on the Indian border, and probably extended into what is now the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. The son was named Siddhattha Gotama (Skt.: Siddhartha Gotama).

“Although a lot is made in subsequent legends of his early life, the Buddha only referred to it a few times. The Sakyan republic was not a grand kingdom; it was a vassal state of another small kingdom occupying the northeast of Uttar Pradesh. So he was a nobleman in a small republic.

In his teens he was bound into an arranged marriage for dynastic reasons. This marriage was anything but a love affair–it’s unlikely that the couple had even laid eyes on each other before the wedding. However that’s the way it was done in those days; the important thing was to bring forth a son as a guarantor for the future of the family. After thirteen years, the couple managed to do that, and so, after some protracted and painful negotiations, Siddharttha got permission from his family to take leave and pursue a spiritual quest as one ‘gone forth.’

Siddhattha’s departure meant that he gave up everything. He relinquished inheritance, statehood, livelihood, family network, friends, and caste–all the elements that in Indian society gave him a place in the cosmos–which included not only this world and life, but also a future birth.

“So with ‘going forth’ he had put aside his ascribed place in the cosmic order to find a new one for himself. Relinquishment made life starkly simple–a ‘gone forth’ person had to survive on what he or she could glean, and put everything else aside to focus on developing his or her mind, soul, or spirit. Whatever you think of his domestic policy, you can’t fault Siddhartha in terms of putting his life on the line.

“He wasn’t entirely alone in this–there was a whole movement of samanas (religious seekers) doing the same kind of thing–sometimes following a particular teacher and sometimes forming groups and adhering to an ethical code of harmlessness, celibacy, truthfulness, and renunciation.

“To be a true ‘gone-forth one,’ however, the essential factor was to wander free from the ties and comforts of home life. This was life with the veils and wrapping pulled off. It was life among wild animals, thieves, and outlaws–life lived on the hard earth at the roots of trees; seeking alms-food from villages; and looking for something to wear, often pulling rags off the corpses whose jackal-chewed remains littered the charnel grounds.

“It was life held like a brief candle-flame in the vast stormy night of sickness, danger, and death. Only a few ventured into this way fo life, some of dubious sanity, some quiet saintly, but all were held in a mixture of fear and awe by the ordinary folk of town, clan, and family.”

20 Mar
2018
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On Doing What Needed to Be Done

Last summer I was thrilled and inspired by New Orlean’s Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s speech given just before the Confederate statues were taken down. (I posted an excerpt here.)

And now I’m even more thrilled that Mayor Landrieu has written a book about these events. It’s titled In the Shadow of Statues: A White Southerner Confronts History.

Wow.

Here’s an excerpt from the prologue:

Here I was, mayor of a major American city in the midst of a building boom like no other, filled with million-dollar construction jobs, and I couldn’t find anyone in town who would rent me a crane. Are you kidding me?!

…The people of the city of New Orleans, through their elected government, had made the decision to take down four Confederate monuments, and it wasn’t sitting well with some of the powerful business interest in the state. When I put out a bid for contractors to take them down, a few responded. But they were immediately attacked on social media, got threatening calls at work and at home, and were, in general, harassed. This kind of thing normally never happens. Afraid, most naturally backed away. One contractor stayed with us. And then his car was firebombed. From that moment on, I couldn’t find anyone willing to take the statues down.

I tried aggressive, personal appeals. I did whatever I could. I personally drove around the city and took pictures of the countless cranes and crane companies working on dozens of active construction projects across New Orleans. My staff called every construction company and every project foreman. We were blacklisted. Opponents sent a strong message that any company that dared step forward to help the city would pay a price economically and even personally.

Can you image? In the second decade of the twenty-first century, tactics as old as burning crosses or social exclusion, just dressed up a little bit, were being used to stop what is now an official act, authorized by the government in the legislature, judicial, and executive branches.

This is the very definition of institutionalized racism. You may have the law on your side, but if someone else controls the money, the machines, or the hardware you need to make your new law work, you are screwed. I learned more and more that this is exactly what has happened to African Americans over the last three centuries. This is the difference between de jure and de facto discrimination in today’s world. You can finally win legally, but still be completely unable to get the job done. The picture painted by African Americans of institutional racism is real and was acting itself out on the streets fo New Orleans during this process in real time.

In the end, we got the crane. Even then, opponents at one point had found their way to one of our machines and poured sand in the gas tank. Other protesters flew drones at the contractors to thwart their work. But we kept plodding through. We were successful, but only because we took extraordinary security measures to safeguard equipment and workers, and we agreed to conceal their identities. It shouldn’t have to be that way….

This has been a long and personal story for me. I hope that this book meets each reader wherever they are in their own journey on race, and that my own story gives each of them the courage to continue to move forward. I hope that this book helps create hope for a limitless future. Now is the time to actually make this city and country the way they always should have been. Now is the time for choosing our path forward.

***

Amen!

19 Mar
2018
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Reading Outside the (Color) Line

One of the (many) things that has changed in my life since participating in the Waking Up to Whiteness program (which I posted about here) is that I’ve started to notice how much of what I read is written by white people, about white people. Which is understandable — since I’m white. But so limiting!

Now I’m really making a conscious effort to break out of that pattern. To which end: I just started reading Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

I picked it because the New York Times recently listed it as one of “15 remarkable books by women that are shaping the way we read and write fiction in the 21st century.”

(Asymmetry, by Lisa Halliday, which I just finished reading and posted about here, was also listed. Click here for the compete Times listing.)

In the past, I probably wouldn’t have even noticed this novel. Which would have been a shame, because it’s TERRIFIC!!!

Here’s a sample from the first few pages:

The man standing closest to her was eating an ice cream cone; she had always found it a little irresponsible, the eating of ice cream cones by grown-up American men, especially the eating of ice cream cones by grown-up American men in public. He turned to her and said, ‘About time,’ when the train finally creaked in, with the familiarity strangers adopt with each other after sharing in the disappointment of a public service. She smiled at him. The graying hair on the back of his head was swept forward, a comical arrangement to disguise his bald spot. He had to be an academic, but not in the humanities or he would be more self-conscious. A firm science like chemistry, maybe. Before, she would have said, ‘I know,’ that peculiar American expression that professed agreement rather than knowledge, and then she would have started a conversation with him, to see if he would say something she could use in her blog.

“People were flattered to be asked about themselves and if she said nothing after they spoke, it made them say more. They were conditioned to fill silences. If they asked what she did, she would say vaguely, ‘I write a life-style blog,’ because saying, ‘I write an anonymous  blog called Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black’ would make them uncomfortable.

“She had said it, though, a few times. Once to a dreadlocked white man who sat next to her on the train, his hair like old twine ropes that ended in a blond fuzz, his tattered shirt worn with enough piety to convince her that he was a social warrior and might make a good guest blogger. ‘Race is totally overhyped these days, black people need to get over themselves, it’s all about class now, the haves and the have-nots,’ he told her evenly, and she used it as the opening sentence of a post titled ‘Not All Dreadlocked White American Guys Are Down.'”

14 Mar
2018
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The More You Learn…

I just finished reading Asymmetryby Lisa Halliday, and now all I want to do is to read it all over again.

I won’t attempt to write a review. The New York Times has a wonderful one here. So does NPR, here. And The Atlantic, here. Instead, I’ll just say that the experience of reading this book has taught me way more than I ever thought possible about a situation that I thought I already knew way too much about, and about a totally different situation that I knew I knew nothing about, but didn’t know just how much of this “nothing” I knew nothing about.

*** The book is written in three sections. The first is titled: Folly. It begins like this:

Alice was beginning to get very tired of all this sitting by herself with nothing to do: every so often she tried again to read the book in her lap, but it was made up almost exclusively of long paragraphs, and no quotation marks whatsoever, and what is the point of a book, thought Alice, that does not have any quotation marks?

She was considering (somewhat foolishly, for she was not very good at finishing things) whether one day she might even write a book herself, when a man with pewter-colored curls and an ice-cream cone from the Mister Softee on the corner sat down beside her.

“What are you reading?”

Alice showed him.

“Is that the one with the watermelons?”

Alice had not  yet read anything about watermelons, but she nodded anyway.

“What else do you read?”

“Oh, old stuff, mostly.”

They sat without speaking for a while, the man eating his ice cream and Alice pretending to read her book.

Two joggers in a row gave them a second glance as they passed. Alice knew who he was–she’d known the moment he sat down, turning her cheeks watermelon pink–but in her astonishment she could only continue staring, like a studious little garden gnome, at the impassable pages that lay open in her lap. They might as well have been made of concrete.

“So,” said the man, rising. “What’s your name?”

“Alice.”

“Who likes old stuff. See you around.”

*** The second section is titled: Madness. It begins like this:

Where are you coming from?
Los Angeles.
Traveling alone?
Yes.

Purpose of your trip?
To see my brother.
Your brother is British?
No.
Whose address is this then?
Alastair Blunt’s.
Alastair Blunt is British?
Yes.
And how long do you plan to stay in the UK?
Until Sunday morning.
What will you be doing here?

Seeing friends.
For only two nights?
Yes.
And then?
I fly to Istanbul.
Your brother lives in Istanbul?
No.
Where does he live?
In Iraq.
And you’re going to visit him in Iraq?
Yes.

*** The third section is titled: Ezra Blazer’s Desert Island Discs. It begins like this:

Interviewer: My castaway this week is a writer. A clever boy originally from the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of East Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, he graduated from Allegheny College swiftly into the pages of “Playboy,” “The New Yorker,” and “The Paris Review,” where his short stored about postwar working-class Americans earned him a reputation as a fiercely candid and unconventional talent. By the time he was twenty-nine, he had published this first novel, “Nine Mile Run,” which won him the first of three National Book Awards; since then he’s published twenty more books, and received dozens more awards, including the Pen/Faulkner Award, the Gold Medal in Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, two Pulitzer Prizes, the National Medal of Arts, and just this past December–“for his exuberant ingenuity and exquisite powers of ventriloquism, which with irony and compassion evince the extraordinary heterogeneity of modern American life”–literature’s most coveted honor: the Nobel Prize. 

***

Somewhere in the middle of the first section, I underlined this: The more you learn, thought Alice, the more you realize how little you know.

Right.

26 Dec
2017
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I Find Myself, Again, Always….

One more passage from Calvino’s Invisible Cities, before I enter the silence tomorrow at the Forest Refuge:

Kublai: I do not know when you have had time to visit all the countries you describe to me. It seems to me you have never moved from this garden.

Polo: Everything I see and do assumes meaning in a mental space where the same calm reigns as here, the same penumbra, the same silence streaked by the rustling of leaves. At the moment when I concentrate and reflect, I find myself again, always, in this garden, at this hour of the evening, in your august presence, though I continue, without a moment’s pause, moving up a river green with crocodiles or counting the barrels of salted fish being lowered into the hold.

Kublai: I, too, am not sure I am here, strolling among the porphyry fountains, listening to the splashing echo, and not riding, caked with sweat and blood, at the head of my army, conquering the lands you will have to describe, or cutting off the fingers of the attackers scaling the walls of a besieged fortress.

Polo: Perhaps this garden exists only in the shadow of our lowered eyelids, and we have never stopped: you, from raising dust on the fields of battle; and I, from bargaining for sacks of pepper in distant bazaars. But each time we half-close our eyes, in the midst of the din and the throng, we are allowed to withdraw here, dressed in silk kimonos, to ponder what we are seeing and living, to draw conclusions, to contemplate from the distance.

Kublai: Perhaps this dialogue of ours is taking place between two beggars nicknamed Kublai Khan and Marco Polo; as they sift through a rubbish heap, piling up rusted flotsam, scraps of cloth, wastepaper, while drunk on the few sips of bad wine, they see all the treasure of the East shine around them.

Polo: Perhaps all that is left of the world is a wasteland covered with rubbish heaps, and the hanging gardens of the Great Khan’s palace. It is our eyelids that separate them, but we cannot know which is inside and which is outside.

***

Friends: I will return from retreat on January 31 and hope to post again during the first week of February.

Till then, may you all be safe, healthy, and happy!

22 Dec
2017
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Till the Period of Sojourn is Over

Note: This will be my last post until I return from 5 weeks of silent retreat at the Forest Refuge in Barre, Mass.

To accompany you as you embark on your own expedition into 2018, I offer this passage from Invisible Cities, by Italo Calvino:

Thin Cities  4

The city of Sophronia is made up of two half-cities. In one there is the great roller coaster with its steep humps, the carousel with its chain spokes, the Ferris wheel of spinning cages, the death-ride with crouching motorcyclists, the big top with the clump of trapezes hanging in the middle. The other half-city is of stone and marble and cement, with the bank, the factories, the palaces, the slaughterhouse, the school, and all the rest. 

One of the half-cities is permanent, the other temporary, and when the period of sojourn is over, they uproot it, dismantle it, and take it off, transplanting it to the vacant lots of another half-city.

And so every year the day comes when the workmen remove the marble pediments, lower the stone walls, the cement pylons, take down the Ministry, the monument, the docks, the petroleum refinery, the hospital, load them on trailers, to follow from stand to stand their annual itinerary. 

Here remains the half-Sophronia of the shooting-galleries and the carousels, the shout suspended from the cart of the headlong roller coaster, and it beings to count the months, the days it must wait before the caravan returns and a complete life can begin again.  

19 Dec
2017
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Benefit and Happiness

Last night our Book Discussion of Bhikkhu Bodhi’s In the Buddha’s Words focused on chapter IV, which features teachings related to “The Happiness Visible in This Present Life.”

What really caught my attention was this excerpt from the Kutadanta Sutta (one of the teachings of the Buddha):

“…when King Mahavijit was reflecting in private, the thought came to him: ‘I have acquired extensive wealth in human terms, I occupy a wide extent of land which I have conquered. Let me now make a great sacrifice that would be to my benefit and happiness for a long time.’ And calling his chaplain, he told him his thought. ‘I want to make a great sacrifice. Instruct me, venerable sir, how this may be to my lasting benefit and happiness.’

“The chaplain replied: ‘Your Majesty’s country is beset by thieves. It is ravaged; villages and towns are being destroyed; the countryside is infested with brigands. If Your Majesty were to tax this region, that would be the wrong thing to do. Suppose Your Majesty were to think: ‘I will get rid of this plague of robbers by executions and imprisonment, or by confiscation, threats, and banishment,’ the plague would not be properly ended. Those who survived would later harm Your Majesty’s realm.

“‘However, with this plan you can completely eliminate the plague. To those in the kingdom who are engaged in cultivating crops and raising cattle, let Your Majesty distribute grain and fodder; to those in trade, give them capital; to those in government service assigned proper living wages. Then those people, being intent on their own occupations, will not harm the kingdom. Your Majesty’s revenues will be great; the land will be tranquil and not beset by thieves; and the people, with joy in their hearts, playing with their children, will dwell in open houses.

“And saying: ‘So be it!,’ the king accepted the chaplain’s advice: he gave grain and fodder to those engaged in cultivating crops and raising cattle, capital to those in trade, proper living wages to those in government service. Then those people, being intent on their own occupations, did not harm the kingdom. The king’s revenues became great; the land was tranquil and not beset by thieves; and the people, with joy in their hearts, playing with their children, dwelled in open houses.”

***

Dear Congress: please take note!

16 Dec
2017
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In Defiance of Tragedy

In reference to the wonderful discussion we had in my CDL Waking Up White group this week, I offer this (challenging) excerpt from the book we discussed (and will continue to discuss), Ta-Nehisi Coat’s We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy.

“I don’t ever want to lose sight of how short my time is here. And I don’t ever want to forget that resistance must be its own reward, since resistance, at least within the life span of the resistors, almost always fails. I don’t ever want to forget, even with whatever personal victories I achieve, even the victories we achieve as a people or a nation, that the larger story of America and the world probably does not end well. Our story is a tragedy. I know it sounds odd, but that belief does not depress me. It focuses me. After all, I am an atheist and thus do not believe anything, even a strongly held belief, is destiny. And if tragedy is to be proven wrong, if there really is hope out there, I think it can only be made manifest by remembering the cost of it being proven right. No one–not our fathers, not our police, and not our gods–is coming to save us. The worst really is possible. My aim is to never be caught, as the rappers say, acting like it can’t happen. And my ambition is to write both in defiance of tragedy and in blindness of its possibility, to keep screaming into the waves–just as my ancestors did.”

12 Dec
2017
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And When We Have Achieved This…

“White people in this country will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this–which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never–the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.”
— James Baldwin

5 Dec
2017
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This Is Possible

Last night our Dharma Book Group had a great discussion about this line from In the Buddha’s Words, by Bhikkhu Bodhi:

“For Early Buddhism, the ideal householder is not merely a devout supporter of the monastic order but a noble person who has attained at least the first of the four stages of realization, the fruition of stream-entry.”

We don’t talk much about stream-entry in our weekly sangha, so I thought it might be helpful to post this explanation of what that is, again by Bhikkhu Bodhi from In the Buddha’s Words:

“The stream-enterer abandons the first three fetters: identity view, that is, the view of a truly existent self either as identical with the five aggregates or as existing in some relation to them; doubt, about the Buddha, the Dhamma, the Sangha, and the trainings; and the wrong grasp of rules and observances, the belief that mere external observances, particularly religions rituals and ascetic practices, can lead to liberation.

“The stream-enterer is assured of attaining full enlightenment in at most seven more existences, which will all take place either in the human realm or the heavenly worlds. The stream-enterer will never undergo an eighth existence and is forever freed from rebirth in the three lower realms–the hells, the realm of afflicted spirits, and the animal realm.”

To which I would like to add these words from the Buddha:
If this were not possible, I would not ask you to do it.