Remembering the Civil War

Plaque

“Reunited – One Country Again and One Country Forever.
–President McKinley, Atlanta, Dec 15th 1898

Let no one deceive another
or despise anyone anywhere,
or through anger or irritation
wish for another to suffer.
— The Metta Sutta, translation by Ven. Thanissaro Bhikkhu

A few years ago I had a business trip in Tennessee and visited the nearby Chickamauga National Military Park in northern Georgia.

Unlike the statues that glorify the antebellum South and the Confederacy, the war museum focused on a spirit of reconciliation and highlighting the horrors of war because the Battle of Chickamauga was incredibly bloody even by standards of that war. A lot of young men died that didn’t need to.

A lot of the Confederacy statues that exist now and are subject to controversy were erected decades after the Civil War, often during a revivalist movement in the 1910’s and 1920’s, which not coincidentally was also one of the most overtly racist periods in American history. The 1920’s had many race massacres and extra-judicial lynchings and the Jim Crow laws had reached their peak.1 There is a definite connection between those statues and the horrors of post-WWI racial discourse.

It’s important to remember the Civil War and the South but for the right reasons, not the wrong ones. The Chickamauga Museum shows how reconciliation and respect for the sanctity of life is much more admirable than war heroes who represented and dying and dubious cause.

Civil War monument

If people wish to remember the Civil War (and we should) it’s important that they ask themselves why they are doing it?  By this they are truly known.

The Buddha strongly warned against divisiveness: divisive speech, factionalism, and so on.  Buddhism is all about harmony.  You don’t have to necessarily like other people, but in following the Eightfold Path, particularly Right Intention, you also give up any ill-will or intention to harm them.  It’s also the spirit of the Metta Sutta quoted above.

Reconciliation and harmony are much more powerful and beneficial in the long-run than divisiveness and elevating one group at the expense of others.  In the famous Dhammapada the Buddha said:

5. Hatred is never appeased by hatred in this world. By non-hatred alone is hatred appeased. This is a law eternal.

6. There are those who do not realize that one day we all must die. But those who do realize this settle their quarrels.

If we wish to uphold any ideals, this is the ideal we should uphold.

P.S.  Speaking of the power of reconciliation (sorry for reposting this again Facebook followers).

1 Somewhat tangentially related, but definitely read about the Harlem Hellfighters of WWI. This was the famous, decorated all-black regiment that fought in the trenches of France, but faced unjust conditions at home.

Staying Buddhist in Crazy Political Times

Hi guys,

With all the nonsense happening in the past weeks in the news, I wanted to share some advice from the Buddha:

This video was also inspired by a book I got from Powell’s City of Books during our family trip to Portland, Oregon last year.

Enjoy and please be safe out there!

P.S. Here’s a really great essay by Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi on the subject too.

The Backbone of Buddhism

Karma Yeshe Rabgye's book The Best Way to Catch a Snake, spends a large portion deeply exploring the Noble Eightfold Path, which I admit I was pretty ignorant of. In particular, the second aspect of the Path, Right Intention, also known as Right Resolve, is held up as the "backbone of Buddhism" because it can be said that the essence of all Buddhist religion can be found here.

In particular he cites a sutra from the Pali Canon called the Magga-vibhanga Sutta (SN 45.8) wherein the Buddha reviews the Noble Eightfold Path.

Of Right Intention/Resolve he says (translation by Ven. Thanissaro Bhikkhu):

"And what is right resolve? Being resolved on renunciation, on freedom from ill will, on harmlessness: This is called right resolve.

Here, there are three aspects worth exploring:

  • Renunciation – this means living a life with the heart of a monk/nun, not coveting the things of this world. It doesn't matter so much whether you are a real monk/nun or a layperson, what matters is the heart. As the Dhammapada explains verses 9-10: "Whoever being depraved, devoid of self-control and truthfulness, should don the monk's yellow robe, he surely is not worthy of the robe. But whoever is purged of depravity, well-established in virtues and filled with self-control and truthfulness, he indeed is worthy of the yellow robe."
  • Freedom from Ill-Will – this means giving up any and all grudges, dislikes or thoughts of ill-will towards others. Easier said than done.
  • Harmlessness – this is not just letting go of all ill-will but also resolving to harm no one by word or action.

Much of Buddhism can be summed up in these three principles. 🙂

What’s Mindfulness Meditation For?

I saw this advertisement on my Facebook feed recently and did a double-facepalm.

People often assume that Buddhist meditation, specifically mindfulness meditation, is a practice to calm the mind, attain peace and by extension happiness. Peace of mind and happiness are central to Buddhism, but it’s also important to understand how Buddhism approaches the issue, and where mindfulness meditation actually fits into that.

Buddhism approaches the issue of life from the perspective of dukkha, which is a Buddhist term for things like stress, unease, dissatisfaction, pain, strife, etc. It’s a pretty big term, but as mentioned in a recent post, describes a lot of things in life. Further, while some aspects of dukkha are just a part of life (you can’t control the weather for example), a lot of it is self-inflicted because we are infatuated with ourselves, and always expect things to go our way. When someone else gets promoted and we don’t, we get mad, jealous and resentful. Maybe they were the better candidate (objectively speaking), but we don’t see it that way because we naturally tend to see things from our self-centered world-view.

Or, we inflict dukkha on ourselves because we tend to indulge in things we shouldn’t, or we indulge in something without moderation. Chocolate is good. Too much chocolate will give you indigestion. This is not because we are necessarily stupid or anything. A lot of smart people still inflict a lot of dukkha on themselves. Instead, it’s because people want their happiness “fix” without realizing that there’s often a hidden cost. At the very least, you’ll get dissatisfied again and chasing happiness once more, but oftentimes there’s the upfront cost too that you had to do to get that “fix” in the first place.

This is why meditation alone won’t bring peace. Meditation will calm your mind, and give you some clarity, but if you still live a lifestyle geared toward chasing happiness (either physical gratification, or more cerebral/emotional gratification) you’ll be unhappy again soon. Ironically, using meditation to make you happy will just repeat the cycle of chasing after happiness, and when that fades, chasing after it again. It’s just another fix, but a more cerebral one.

The Buddhist approach to getting out of this endless cycle of chasing happiness, temporary gratification, sense of loss, and chasing again is to not get yourself in that cycle in the first place. This requires a kind of dedicated, lifetime training of the mind not to knee-jerk react whenever we encounter something we want (e.g. craving), or something we don’t like and want to avoid (e.g. aversion).

This training requires a kind of three-pronged approach:

  • Conduct – Buddhism spends a lot of time talking about personal conduct. This means curtailing the more egregious behavior we do, using guidelines like the Ten Wholesome Acts.1
  • Practice – Buddhism has a wide array of practices to help cultivate wholesome states of mind, and to help facilitate conditions to help continue following or advance along the Buddhist path.
  • Wisdom – This helps create the right frame of mind for the other two. Or, the other two help give rise to wisdom. They go hand in hand.

The nice thing is that these three things are kind of mutually reinforcing, so it’s best to start building all three of them.

Mindfulness meditation falls under “practice”, because the intention is to train your mind to be able to step back and think rather than react blindly to things you encounter. This can lead to happiness over time because you avoid self-destructive behavior (i.e. maintain conduct) and maintaining wholesome conduct does further and further create peace of mind, because you are not wracked with guilt, regret and such.

But mindfulness meditation is only a small part of the Buddhist path. It is a holistic path that covers many aspects, and if you don’t follow the path in entirety, you’ll only gain temporary benefits.

1 The Ten Wholesome Acts are:

  1. Abstain from destroying life
  2. Abstain from taking what is not given
  3. Abstain from sexual misconduct (adultery, abuse, etc)
  4. Abstain from false speech
  5. Abstain from slander
  6. Abstain from harsh speech
  7. Abstain from idle chatter (gossip, inappropriate conversations, etc)
  8. Abstain from greed
  9. Abstain from ill-will
  10. Abstrain from wrong views (e.g. view that don’t align with the Dharma)

The key with the Ten Wholesome Acts are to treat them like a gold-standard to work towards. You may not get them right the first time (or first hundred or so), but you keep at it. Like rehearsing for a play.