A Matter of Perspective: the Confederacy and Buddhism

Recently I read an article by the BBC about the American Confederate flag:

Confederate flag

For readers who are not familiar, the Confederate flag above was used during the Civil War (南北戦争, 남북 전쟁) by the South, the Confederacy. As the BBC shows, when the Civil War ended, the flag was mostly forgotten until the 1950’s, when it was used again by those who opposed civil rights for black people. Since then, it has become a controversial symbol in American culture.

According to the article, people who support the flag usually want to honor Southern culture and their ancestors who fought in the Confederacy:

Our Heroes and Our Flags 1896

But for other people, the flag reminds them of this:

Family of African American slaves on Smith's Plantation Beaufort South Carolina

So the BBC raises a good question: who’s right?

The debate reminds me of something I learned from the Buddhist book, Living Yogacara (「はじめての唯識」 in Japanese) by Rev. Tagawa Shun’ie. In that book was a famous Hossō Buddhist (法相宗) poem that I posted previously here:

At the clapping of hands,
The carp come swimming for food;
The birds fly away in fright, and
A maiden comes carrying tea —
Sarusawa Pond. (trans. A. Charles Muller)

For the bird, the carp and the maiden, it’s the same sound (a clapping hand). But the meaning is completely different for each one. Each one has been conditioned with different experiences, so each one interprets the symbol differently. It’s foolish to say they’re all wrong, because it is real for them. But it’s also foolish to say they’re all correct because they don’t see the other person’s viewpoint. They see only a “limited” version of reality.

So it is with the Confederate Flag. On one level, it is just some cloth, some colors and patterns. It’s 2013 not 1863 anymore. But people infuse it with meaning. The meaning they give it says a lot about that person, more than the flag itself. What is that person’s motivation? What is their beliefs? What is their intention? Do they even understand their own motivations?

This is true not just with the Confederate Flag, but any controversial flag, or any controversial symbol. When a person chooses to use that symbol in public (sporting games, public rallies, etc), what is their intention and what is their beliefs? If their intentions are peace, reconciliation, harmony and respect for life, then it is wholesome. If their intentions are to create division, strife and “tribalism” then it is unwholesome.

When I visited the great state of Tennessee recently, I was a little surprised to see the Confederate flag because you never see it in Seattle. Washington State didn’t even exist during the Civil War. Also, I have ancestors from the North and from the South,1 so I don’t feel too strongly either way. But when I saw it at the Battlefield Museum at Lookout Mountain, I didn’t find it offensive. The message of the museum was to remind viewers of history: both sides fighting for their country, but also that the war was over and that the nation had long-since healed. It was only one chapter of Southern history.2 But when I see people flying it for political reasons now, I question their intentions.

So, a flag is just a flag. But the person who carries it may have wholesome or unwholesome intentions. Each person should question their own intentions and beliefs and ask themselves “what is my real intention? Why do I think the way I do?”

This is a hard thing to do (like looking in the toilet after you did something), but it teaches you a lot too. 😀

1 Some of my ancestors came to America from Europe during the Civil War or after, so they were not involved much anyway.

2 Americans, North and South, fought as one nation in WWI, WWII, and so on.


Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

3 thoughts on “A Matter of Perspective: the Confederacy and Buddhism”

  1. this is particulary applicable to the rising sun flag which was used during the second world war. I think that many foreigners have negative feelings when they see it, especially in Asia (not just China and Korea), as people remember what it symbolised 60 or 70 years ago. with some things it takes more time than others to forget and with flags they are particularly powerful as they symbolise a whole way of thinking.


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