dharma monkey

embrace the monkey

March 3, 2015
by Sean
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A “golden” letter from Tibet

In 2004, I had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to travel to Cambodia, where I explored the country for two-plus weeks at my own pace. I flew on Korean Air for most of the way to Phnom Penh, and when I arrived at the ticket counter at Dulles Airport, a large group of high school-aged students were in front of me chatting about their trip to South Korea. It only took a minute to realize that they were on a mission trip: the girl standing next to me in line told an adult with the group that she was looking forward to the opportunity to introduce Korean Buddhists to Jesus Christ.

Earlier that summer, I had read about the violent persecution of Buddhists in South Korea at the hands of fundamentalist Christians. Ancient temples were being burned to the ground while vandals were destroying statutes and other sacred items, all to rid the country of a religion that existed there since the 4th century CE.  While the situation has improved somewhat since 2004, the persecution (and the temple burnings) continue today.

To be clear, it was immediately obvious that this group of eager, clean-cut suburbanites were not flying 7,000 miles to foster violence between Christians and Buddhists…but still, as we made our way to the plane and the flew together to Incheon, I couldn’t help but to contemplate – deeply – the impact of having foreigners arrive in a country for the express purpose of converting people away from indigenous beliefs.  As I traveled through urban and rural areas of Cambodia, these thoughts remained in my mind.

With that bit of back story, I offer this letter from Tibet, as posted to social media this afternoon on the English-language site of VOA’s Tibetan service.  I don’t know the author, but his words reached a bit into my soul as I am a personal beneficiary of the Tibetan wisdom culture that is rapidly disappearing from the face of the Earth.  At the core of his letter is an ancient, universal message that is as old as human civilization – to quote Confucius, “Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself” – also known as the Golden Rule.

(A letter from Tibet)

To all missionaries of any kind, to all those whose desire is to turn Tibetans away from Buddhism:

This letter is not a refusal of your religion, but an expression of concern that the Tibetan people have. As most of you probably are aware, our people’s customs and culture have been threatened from many different sides. We as a people deeply believe that if you take our religion then you take our people. Tibetan and Buddhism are inseparable words, intertwined like elements combined into a compound, truly inseparable.

Have you ever been to a Tibetan place, seen Tibetan people in their own context? From the moment we awake in the morning we offer incense to our Gods. Buddhism is interlaced in the language we speak, the dances we dance, the script we write, even the decorations in our house. Tibetans and Buddhism are one.

If this is hard to understand, please look at the situation in this way. Shed your prejudices, step outside of yourself and put yourself in our place. If strangers were to come and try to change your religion, your customs, and your way of living, how would you react? What would you think? You probably wouldn’t be very excited about that.

As you believe that your ways are best, we also believe that our ways are best. like you, we also desire for people to follow the ways of the Buddha, but we believe people should truly understand the concepts and reasons before they make that decision.

It’s a curious idea that you have. My question to you is, if you believe your religion is good and infallible then why do you come to the poor and unlearned to spread your ideas. Why not go to those of high intellect and the rich? Why don’t you try to get scientists to follow your Gods?

Let us learn from each other. We are glad that you understand yourselves, but please try to understand us as a people before you decide to destroy us as a people. Please understand that, when you try to convert our people the result is a great loss of unity among Tibetans. We want to stay Tibetan. Please respect us, our religion, and our culture as we respect you, your religion, and your culture.

– by Achok Tsering, Amdo Labrang (located in today’s Qinghai Province, China)

August 2, 2014
by Sean
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If we could see ourselves in others, no matter what the situation…

I sometimes wonder what would happen if just a single individual who is firing weapons on either side of the Israel / Gaza border could see the Facebook page or Instagram account or Twitter feed of the person or people who would be hit by the bullet, rocket or shell.

Empathy_Towards_OthersWhat if they saw pictures of a young soldier spending the day at the beach under the warm Mediterranean sun, eating watermelon with his friends?  What if they saw a father, smiling with his family as they celebrated their blessings at the breaking of a fast?  Wedding snapshots, a midnight kiss, schoolmates hamming it up for a camera…a proud uncle holding a newborn nephew, #TBT pictures from a vacation, or a photo of a cherished parent on the anniversary of their death?

Would they still pull the trigger if they could see — somehow, someway — that the person on the other side of the border was simply another version of themselves?

“Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive.” — His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama

July 29, 2014
by Sean
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‘Only love dispels hate’

Looking at the front page of yesterday’s newspaper, I saw images of a bloodied child being rushed into a chaotic hospital and the family of a young soldier experiencing deep grief at his funeral. My thoughts turned to the words of a wise teacher:

“In this world
Hate never yet dispelled hate.
Only love dispels hate.
This is the law,
Ancient and inexhaustible.”
The Dhammapada

July 22, 2014
by Sean
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A lesson in compassion from behind the wheel

I left the house a bit later than usual this morning, and in a densely populated urban neighborhood, that often means congestion on the one-way streets that form a tight grid around the main arteries across my section of Washington, DC.

OK...this isn't my neighborhood, but this is a good illustration of what it feels like on some days!

OK…this isn’t my neighborhood, but this is a good illustration of what it feels like on some days!

After running a quick errand, I started heading toward the office, and as I turned onto a single-lane one-way street, I could see trouble ahead.  A vehicle was sitting in the middle of the narrow roadway with the engine in reverse, most likely trying to get the parking space that was four car-lengths behind it.  As other drivers tried to squeeze by, there was horn-honking, gesture-making and yelling by the impacted motorists.

I didn’t pay too much attention to the situation until I was within 10 feet or so of the car, at which point my mind kicked into auto pilot.  Muttering “Geez, stupid ________,” is my usual response, with the blank containing a handful of select adjectives or nouns.  Today, it was obvious that the driver was desperately holding out for that parking space, but didn’t have enough room to negotiate back to it without some clearance from the other cars.  I wasn’t in a big hurry, so I kept my mouth shut and focused my attention on getting past the obstacle, sending a few unpleasant thoughts in the direction of the person behind the wheel.

As I pulled by, however, I noticed the driver was an elderly man, dressed in a dark suit with a very wide tie and a sharp porkpie hat.  In the passenger seat was an elderly woman wearing a finely detailed off-white dress with lace gloves and a hat of her own.  I’m left to guess that the couple was on their way to the church or elementary school on the next block, perhaps for a funeral or a special classroom program.

If I had been in a hurry this morning, I would be just as guilty as those other drivers (though, admittedly, I have all but abandoned using my horn as a form of complaint during my commute).  But fortunately I wasn’t in a hurry, so I’m glad that I didn’t compound the frustration being felt by the charming elderly man and his wife, who were, in fact, infinitely lucky to find that parking space on a street packed with parked cars on either curb.

Few things are more effective in (re)awakening my own compassion than interactions or images of elderly people, as I am immediately reminded of my Grandma and my love for her.  This can instantly pull me out of a foul mood, or snap me back into the proper frame of mind when I’m in a patience-trying situation like the one above.  At a minimum, today’s experience is a reminder of the power of compassion practice: rather than thinking, “That driver is another me, and I am a version of them,” I thought, “That driver could be my grandmother; how would I want other people to respond?”

I don’t need to know who is behind the wheel of the other car, because it doesn’t matter.  What’s important is that I treat every person I encounter as if they were another’s loved one, or as if they were my loved one.  That’s the only way this crazy world is going to start getting any better.

June 7, 2014
by Sean
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We do not live in a “post-gay world.”

I am perplexed by the voices in popular media asking whether or not we, as a community, should continue to celebrate Pride in a “post-gay world.” What concerns me most is that there are people who think the “world” is “post-gay” just because SCOTUS narrowly ruled in our favor on DOMA, or because we are blessed to live in a District of Columbia where the recognition of fundamental equality for all people no longer takes a back seat to the narrow view of a dwindling minority who think their beliefs trump my right to have the local, state and federal government recognize and respect my marriage to the person I love.

I would suggest that we live in an age that is anything but “post-gay,” and we have an obligation to continuously remind our fellow citizens, from the East and West Coasts and all points in between, that the strides we have made to attain full equality before the law have not and will not be taken for granted…not now, and not in the future. When the day arrives that “the first gay X” or “the first lesbian Y” is no longer news — and is no longer used as red meat for a political fringe that seems to have an extraordinary amount of influence in our national dialogue — when that day arrives, only then can we think about putting down our flags and wrapping up our parades.

I grew up in a time and place where I felt marginalized by society and the government, simply for the way I was born. I had the means to move away from that place, but there are still many people who live there, and still many allies who are willing to fight for the cause.

Make no mistake, I am proud today of what our community has accomplished…and amazed at the speed with which generations of institutionalized homophobia is being swept away. But I am also proud because I know the future is bright for the gay or lesbian teenager in rural South Carolina who, like me some 30 years ago, is struggling to come to terms with their sexuality in a place that has the power to make them feel less than human.

Happy Pride 2014. Until the battle is completely won, we have a lot of celebrating to do.

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