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.

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While People Go About Their Day…

http://www.bbc.com/news/av/world-middle-east-40400543/dodging-is-snipers-on-mosul-frontline

Buddhism teaches a concept called śūnyatā sometimes translated as emptiness. This means:

  1. All phenomena, both physical and abstract, arise due to external causes and conditions. Things don’t just pop into existence on their own. 
  2. Thus, all things, both abstract and physical, are impermanent because they’re sustained by those external causes and conditions until such time as they are not. 
  3. Also, because of #1, all things relate to one another either directly or indirectly. 

While watching the BBC video above on the ongoing battle for Mosul, I couldn’t help but think how we are all connected by this conflict. What happens in one part of the world affects us all in some way. What we do in our daily lives affects others in some way halfway across the world. 

It’s important to consider one’s actions snd how they mighy affect others. Also, it is important to hold others around the world  in our thoughts as we go about our day. 

Finding Common Ground

….A lot of people want to separate the left and the right, think that everyone on the right is like Trump, and they’re not. They have grown up where they’ve grown up, experienced what they’ve experienced and see the world the way they see it. But if you can sit down and have a good conversation with them instead of calling them stupid or condescending to them, you can actually accomplish some things over time.

https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2017/jun/02/w-kamau-bell-interview-richard-spencer-racism-america

I really like this article above. It’s so easy these days to get caught up in heated arguments with political opponents, and forget that they’re people too. 

One of the teachings in Buddhism is that of right speech, which the Buddha explains like so in the Pali Canon courtesy of the Magga-vibhanga Sutta (SN 45.8):

“And what is right speech? Abstaining from lying, from divisive speech, from abusive speech, & from idle chatter: This is called right speech.”

— trans. Thanissaro Bhikkhu

This is because the Buddhist religion is grounded in goodwill toward all beings as shown in the famous Metta Sutta:

Whatever beings there may be,
weak or strong, without exception,
long, large,
middling, short,
subtle, blatant,
seen & unseen,
near & far,
born & seeking birth:
May all beings be happy at heart.

— trans. Thanissaro Bhikkhu

You can’t just wish goodwill toward those who agree with you. Goodwill includes all beings from all walks of life, and all inclinations.

Further, in the Buddhist teachings, people do not exist in isolation. People need one another. All living beings need one another in some manner or form, thus the further one tries to assert their own way, the further they isolate themselves and the further they sink into unease, despair and conflict. 

In other words, people need communities, not cliques.

But all of this starts with right understanding.  Being able to see yourself in other people and other beings is the first step to wisdom, and that will gradually change your point of view from one of cliques and antagonism, to one of inclusiveness.

Love Conquers All

This is another great article by the BBC, and the video is worth watching.  This is a former white-supremacist talking about how he had a change of heart due to the kindness of others.

It reminds me of a famous quote from the Dhammapada, translation by Ven. Acharya Buddharakkhita:

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

My belief is that many such people who dehumanize and abuse other people are really suffering from self-hatred, but are unable to see it.

One of the things I’ve learned from Yogacara Buddhist thought is how the mind projects itself onto the world around it.  Thus, a mountaineer and an artist will view the same mountain differently even when standing right next to one another.  In the same way, the recurring mental habits in one’s mind create a feedback loop that in turn distorts the world around them according to their disposition.

If a person is filled with self-hate and obsessed with rage, frustration and a sense of inferiority, they will inflict pain and humiliation on others, living by an us-versus-them mindset.  This will in turn reinforce the existing mental habits over and over.

But at the same time, the Buddha taught not to get caught up blind reaction toward such people.  The first instinct is to fight back and punish such people.  Fight violence with violence in other words.  However, as the article above shows, it may be more effective to rely on a combination of truth (not paranoia and lies) and goodwill to counteract such people.  If those people can find personal healing, they may change their ways.

As the Lotus Sutra teaches, all beings are capable of becoming buddhas, they just need the right trigger.

Why The Hell Won’t They Listen?

This is something I’ve been meaning to share for a while.  I found this article by the BBC a few months back about how our minds are naturally tend to be biased toward anything that confirms our already-held beliefs.  This is a well-known psychological phenomenon, but what’s interesting is that the article shows how simply telling someone to be objective and unbiased isn’t enough.  You have to actually get someone to see the other side of a viewpoint before they will break out of their mental shell.

This is of course nothing new to Buddhism.  The Buddha taught that all living beings suffer from an array of mental distortions.  These are called kleśa (क्लेश) in Sanskrit, or in Japanese bonnō (煩悩).¹

It’s like wearing a pair of sunglasses for a really long time.  After a while, you forget you’re wearing them, and you just see the world as filtered through the sunglasses.  If you were to take off the sunglasses, even for a moment, you would be surprised and maybe a bit disoriented at how the world looks.  In the same way, Buddhists strive to undo these mental distortions they project onto the world around them, so they can see things as they are.

But what is the source of these distortions?  Ignorance, particularly regarding one’s own self.  As the BBC article shows, people are inherently biased toward themselves.  They form their world-view from limited information and personal experience, and selfish needs regardless of whether that’s accurate or not.  An attack on one’s views, even if they’re wrong, is an attack on one’s self.  People crave validation, sometimes even at the expense of truth.

However, if one were to see the limitations of one’s own self, and their own viewpoint, they may be able to break out and consider possibilities they never considered before.  That is the first step toward wisdom.

¹ I mention the Japanese word here only because you do here it mentioned in Japanese conversation every now and again.  “People are bonnō” and other such comments.