Strength of Mind: Self Immolation

Malcolm Brown photograph of the self immolation.

Thích Quảng Đức was a Buddhist monk who on June 10, 1963 led a procession of monks to an intersection a few blocks from the South Vietnamese presidential palace, assumed the lotus position where an associate poured gasoline over his head. He recited a homage to Buddha and subsequently lit himself on fire in protest.

I never fully comprehended why a man of faith would willingly take his life. Indeed, in Buddhism, life is precious and its destruction is to be avoided.  But then again, my own world view is that of a Western Christian, and Christianity’s view on suicide is very clear. Buddhism doesn’t work with absolutes.  According to one author, Buddhism sees human birth “as incredibly precious, an opportunity not to be wasted. That the human predicament includes stress and suffering is the First Noble Truth; the Second, Third and Fourth Noble Truths guide our relationship to that suffering.”

But I see here, Quảng Đức was not escaping from suffering or stress.  He was drawing the worlds’ attention to the ignoble condition of the Buddhist population in South Vietnam – a country that was then 90% Buddhist and ruled by a Catholic minority, intolerant of the Buddhist world view. “Not to be wasted” is not the same as “having ended.” It makes sense in a way: Catholics are very black and white about life and death, about subservience to authority and hierarchy; Buddhists tend to be more complacent, willing to accept their lot. Where Christianity is very much ordered around the ten commandments – concrete rules not to be violated – Buddhism is ordered around four noble truths, guides without much in the way or explanation.  In Christianity we’re taught “right from wrong;” In Buddhism the meaning of Right includes an ethical, and a balanced, or middle way.

So, why would the practitioner of a religion teaching life as incredibly precious and the destruction of which is to be avoided, self immolate in protest? The middle way.

The idea that he wasn’t escaping suffering, but rather he was embracing suffering in hopes of bettering the lot of those of his countrymen.

What was shocking to the rest of the world – his ability to remain in lotus.  In The Making of a Quagmire, David Halberstam wrote “…As he burned he never moved a muscle, never uttered a sound, his outward composure in sharp contrast to the wailing people around him…” He had accepted his suffering, embraced it.

The Four Noble Truths liberate people from suffering.  Here they are from Lionsroar.com

1. Suffering

Life always involves suffering, in obvious and subtle forms. Even when things seem good, we always feel an undercurrent of anxiety and uncertainty inside.

2. The Cause of Suffering

The cause of suffering is craving and fundamental ignorance. We suffer because of our mistaken belief that we are a separate, independent, solid “I.” The painful and futile struggle to maintain this delusion of ego is known as samsara, or cyclic existence.

3. The End of Suffering

The good news is that our obscurations are temporary. They are like passing clouds that obscure the sun of our enlightened nature, which is always present. Therefore, suffering can end because our obscurations can be purified and awakened mind is always available to us.

4. The Path

By living ethically, practicing meditation, and developing wisdom, we can take exactly the same journey to enlightenment and freedom from suffering that the buddhas do. We too can wake up.

So, by immolating himself, he was actually freeing himself and his countrymen from suffering.  Reread that passage from David Halberstam: “…As he burned he never moved a muscle, never uttered a sound…”  Suffering people do not sit still. He had let go of the samsara, that belief that he was separate from others.  He gave up this existence and its suffering: to be sure, he believed in reincarnation – that he would return to the earth in another form, and not to be sent to an afterlife to sit before judgement.

The Catholics in charge of the country could not comprehend why he had done what he did because they believed in an absolute prohibition on suicide, and in the certainty of sitting before God’s judgement.  When Quảng Đức’s action did not yield immediate results, several other monks self-immolated as well.  Interestingly enough it was not the leadership of South Vietnam who came to understand, but rather the rest of the world, horrified by what was now happening, pushed the government to action.

Now that I’ve described my understanding of what happened on that day, I want to share a video taken of the event.

At a time where public protest was not the norm, at a time video recording was a novelty – if not luxury – there is a video recording of it.  Think of what a video recorder in 1963 would have looked like – as the first 75 seconds of the movie show, it must’ve been large and bulky, and judging from the angle, frowned upon by the authorities.  We see the thousand or so protesters encircling the monk, jostling perhaps for a better view, and the authorities pushing them back.

I can’t help but to think how this man was about to light himself on fire for these people, people who clearly had not reached the level of enlightenment he had – likely people with less strength of belief as his, or less commitment.  The protest was allowed to continue, even as the police would have seen the gasoline being poured over his head; perhaps it wasn’t immediately obvious to them that was, in fact, gasoline.

The most powerful moment of that recording occurs at about 2:07 – the moment he lights the match.  It’s as if everything else STOPS. The jostling stops. The police turn away from the throngs of people to face him, to a man their arms and hands by their sides: Respect? Awe? Disbelief?

By 2:25 or so you can see clearly how accurately Halberstam reported his lack of movement: it’s not for another 30-seconds of the video before his now charred remains fall over. Halberstam notes just how quickly a human body will burn, so bearing in mind the footage has been slowed down, in real time some the gathered crowd would have begun immediately bowing on hands and knees and this would have been over in a matter of seconds.

As with any telling of story, I’m quite sure there is so much nuance and fact missing from the account.  That’s not really what this post is about though. It’s about the strength of mind and purpose,  of self control and selflessness, of belief to be able to make a decision you believe to be the middle way – one coming from a place of enlightenment – even if it means putting yourself in harms way, giving yourself up for the good of the majority.

I will remember this lesson just how much the mind controls our perception of the world, how it controls our sensations. How it can allow a man literally burn to death without so much as flinching. I will remember this the next time I am faced with a challenge I don’t believe I can complete.

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Nobody Builds Walls Better Than Me

In April 1945, Harry Truman became the 33rd President of the United States by virtue of the death of Franklin Roosevelt.  He had been Vice President for all of 82-Days.

He had been on the ballot for Vice President through the apparent willingness of Roosevelt to allow others’ back room wrangling and cloak and dagger maneuverings at the Democratic National Convention.  This was a man who had been barely re-elected Senator amid concerns with his connections to “machine politics” back in Missouri.  Yet, the sitting Vice-President had been cast aside in favor of the Senator from Missouri.   He had no enemies, and could probably be manipulated.

In the time he was Vice-President, he had met with FDR exactly twice.  He had to be told of the existence of the atomic bomb after having become President, and even then only several weeks.  He had never been briefed on FDR’s and Churchill’s conference with Stalin at Yalta.

He was seen as an inexperienced “every man,” ill-prepared and perhaps ill-equipped to rise to the Presidency.  The American public voted for Roosevelt despite this fact, never apparently realizing just how poor his health actually was, and without understanding it was Truman for whom they were actually casting their ballot.

4-months after ascending to the Presidency, on August 6, 1945, the first of two atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima, Japan.

72-years later, the American voting public elected Donald Trump President of the United States.  By contrast, the Republican Party not only didn’t try to engineer his election, but actively worked against it.  This is a man displaying little of the temperament nor comport one may expect of the leader of the free world; if Truman were ill-equipped and ill-prepared to be President, after having been a judge, county commissioner, Congressman, and Senator, it can easily be argued Trump is ill-equipped to be a judge, county commissioner, Congressman, or Senator.

And yet, Truman – despite some fits and starts – demonstrated a resolve and force of character that allowed him to will himself to acquit himself well.  His was a history of hard work, faithful service to both his constituents and family, and fully determined to succeed.  He had failed businesses behind him, but the point was he always saw to it to comport himself properly.  He was straight to the point, did what he believed correct, and expected those around him to be as well. He treated those around him with respect, and was humble.

America was lucky.  An accidental President happened to become what the country needed at the time he was needed.  In 2016, America chose perhaps another accidental President, fitting none of the qualities which could be said of Harry S Truman.  No one around Trump considers him to be humble, a student concerned with details, or frankly as someone possessing force of character or resolve.  Despite the perception he speaks plainly and speaks his mind, I’ve found his pronouncements opaque and not only contradictory of his previous statements, but sometimes internally contradictory.

Despite Truman’s past using derogatory racial and religious terms, he behaved in ways that projected respect – perhaps not by modern standards, but certainly by standards of the day.  I don’t find the same to be true of Trump. Believe me, this isn’t to dismiss Truman’s use of the expressions; it is to say that he could perhaps have made for a greater President had he not harbored those beliefs, but he did keep those beliefs private. There was no TMZ, no Facebook Live, no Twitter.  These beliefs were uncovered only in his secret diary, not on a 10-year old, previously unreleased video. The world probably didn’t know that he called New York a “kike town” quite the same way we knew how Trump saw himself the ladies man.  We didn’t know what we were getting in 1944; we did in 2016.

We voted for this man knowing full well what monstrous weapons the US military has at its disposal, and while the Libertarian candidate was mocked for his apparent ignorance of the tragedy of Aleppo, Syria, we voted for a man who has demonstrated little understanding of world affairs, suggesting that the US should have just taken Iraq’s oil.

Where Truman put careful consideration into his actions, where he wanted to avoid conflict with others, we have Trump who apparently chooses to rule through “controlled chaos.” Trumps plan is to set up situations where personalities duke it out, which presumably will determine the winning ideology.

David McCullough’s biography of Truman demonstrates what decisions a President makes and what role those decisions play in the world.  The American public had no idea what power they were giving Harry S Truman on the day they cast their ballots for Franklin Delano Roosevelt back in 1944.  With one telegram, Truman authorized the dropping of the first atomic bomb on Japan – a weapon so mindbogglingly devastating, the world had no way to truly comprehend what had just happened.  On November 8, 2016, we willingly gave Donald John Trump that authority, knowing just how awesome that responsibility is.

My hope for Donald Trump, for the United States, and for the world, is that somehow he figures out how to be the thoughtful leader Harry Truman came to be.  My hope is that Trump comes to understand just how awesome his responsibility is, just how powerful his words as President are, and to not wield that awesomeness recklessly.  To this point, we’ve become a society where it’s actually okay for Neil Cavuto to gloat that his networks’ brand of news is now favored, as though there is a “right” editorial slant.  We’re less than three days into the Trump era and I think less “Harry Truman” and more ” Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho.” Maybe if we demand more, we’ll get more, but I’m more convinced than ever that we just don’t care enough to demand more.  We’ve given up the idea of a leader who really is an “every man,” for that of a Billionaire who appeals to our base instincts and presents as an “every man.”

When Vice-President Truman was led to the White House residence, it was Eleanor Roosevelt who had informed him of FDR’s passing.  When Truman had asked if there was anything he could do for her, she asked him the same question, adding, “For you are the one in trouble now.” President Trump, you have a great weight to overcome: that of history.  You are the one in trouble now.

2016 The Year In The Rearview

Be sure to be thankful for the past year.

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Lemmy From Billboard.com

One of my all time music idols passed away last December 28 – Lemmy Kilmister passed away from an aggressive form of cancer days after having been diagnosed.  2016 was not  to be an auspicious year on that front: David Bowie, Maurice White, Prince, Keith Emerson, Greg Lake.  Just a tough year for the classics…and some of the names of my childhood.

The most bizarre Presidential election cycle of my lifetime came to a close in November…in the most unlikely ways.  I’m still letting the phrase “President-elect Trump” sink in.  He may well be President before I can swallow that phrase.

The mother of one of my oldest and dearest friends succumbed to the cancer that she had willed at bay.

As we close the year, I’m anticipating the flood of “So long 2016…” and “may 2017 suck less than 2016” posts all over social media.  With all of this, by and large, 2016 has been an amazing year for me. I learned some things about the power of goals and endurance.  I learned some things about humility and being willing to step out of my comfort zone and try something different.

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2016, a year of goals

On January 2, I set out amongst the snow and slush, making my way on an 18-mile round trip walk to a nearby dam. It took me a little more than 4-hours to make the trip.  Tired and exhausted, it was awesome. It also helped set the stage for more than a few workouts this year – up and down the stairs, along the trails came to be known as the “Pain Cave” in my strange little circle of compatriots.

I began with a goal of 50 Obstacle Course races by age 50 – something I may still strive toward, as that’s my real passion and interest – but my short list of a handful of races, eventually became a goal of 46 races for my 46 years.  I honestly had no idea how low I had set my target and why would I?

On February 13, I ran the first race of the year; a 5k in 17-degree weather.  A couple of weeks later, I jumped into a pool of ice water to raise money for a kids’ camp.

It wasn’t until May that I dared try anything longer than a 5k – although the day before I ran 2 5k races – and it was kind of important that I do that because somewhere along the line I had joined a Ragnar Relay team and I had never run more than a 5k at one time.  I guessed at a 10k pace time for Ragnar, and tried to match it a couple of weeks before hand.  I did well enough – not great, but well enough – that I agreed to take on a longer set of legs for the relay, and I’m glad I did.

328 racing miles on the year.  I did so much more than I ever could have imagined.  Ragnar.  Ragnar Trail. Killington Spartan Beast.  A half-marathon.  11-races in July.  An overnight marathon relay so far into the New Hampshire darkness I saw the International Space Station traverse the sky.  I met some really cool folks.  I made stronger connections with old friends.  I ran 4 races with my daughter.  I either lost 20 pounds and gained 5 or lost 15 – I prefer to think of it as having lost 15.

Completed the #22Kill Challenge, did “The Murph,” a round of T25 and of “Insanity.” Lots of stuff going on for a pudgy, middle aged guy.

Interestingly enough, that icewater fundraiser I mentioned earlier, set the stage for another key aspect of the year for me: we gave more to charity this year than we ever have, and over a wide breadth of causes.  We had international guests for 2-months this summer; what an amazing experience. We welcomed yet another dog into our home – but this time we swear, no more.

So, 2016 didn’t see us get suddenly wealthy or even progressively so.  BUT it sees us through together, healthy.  Our bills are paid.  My daughter has completed her college studies a semester early and will be going to Europe for a couple of months in celebration.

Before complaining about how crummy 2016 was to you, maybe take some time and think about all the ways 2016 was pretty good to you.  365.25 days can’t all be bad.  I can’t wait to see what 2017 has waiting; I’m ready to go.  Happy New Year my friends.

Some Stats:

9 Pairs of sneakers

  1. Reebok (3)
  2. New Balance (3)
  3. North Face (1)
  4. Asics (1)
  5. Saucony (1)

66 Races (9 Obstacle Courses)
64:33:24 Hours:Minutes:Seconds Racing
Raced in 5 States (MA, NH, CT, RI, VT); Ran in  9 (NY, NJ, NC, FL)

 

To The American People

“To the American People: Christmas is not a time or a season but a state of mind. To cherish peace and good will, to be plenteous in mercy, is to have the real spirit of Christmas. If we think on these things, there will be born in us a Savior and over us will shine a star sending its gleam of hope to the world. “

Calvin Coolidge, Presidential message, December 25, 1927

 

On Being Uncomfortable

Two recent news stories caught my attention in that they highlight a major dysfunction in our society.

At Hampshire College, in the small Western Massachusetts college town of Amherst, someone burned the American flag on campus in the days after the Presidential election, so the school then put up a new flag.  This was lowered it to half-staff, in solidarity with those fearing a Donald Trump presidency (by some accounts) and in mourning for racial violence victims…which sparked backlash from others, and thus they removed the flag from campus entirely.

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“Two Minute Warning” Spider Martin, March 1965

Meanwhile, in Pearl, Mississippi a billboard showed up bearing Spider Martin‘s iconic “Two Minute Warning” (The photo was taken moments before troopers tear gassed and beat protesters) with the label “Make America Great Again.”  This has caused consternation and perhaps even outrage: the headline is Mississippi residents unsure of controversial billboard’s intent, the mayor wants it removed, the governor calls it “divisive.”

So, at the highest academic levels we either don’t know how to or simply refuse to have a conversation about politics, and at the highest government levels we apparently don’t understand the first amendment protections around freedom of speech.  As a populace, we’re not sure we know what to think: we engage more with “fake news” than with “real news.”  Perhaps that’s more of an indictment of our “Info-tainment news than it is an indictment of Facebook algorithms.  

At some point in life you have to take a stand and engage that which is uncomfortable. Life isn’t all about “safe places” and avoiding difficult conversations. The school was wrong for lowering the flag to half staff – that’s not a way to protest the results of an election, it’s a means by which one honors disasters or deaths. Just that act was an affront for which the school would appropriately be chastised. Among their students are veterans or members of military families, but one doesn’t have to be a veteran to be offended by such a violation of flag protocol or by removing the flag altogether.

“Mr. Brady, it is the duty of a newspaper to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Finley Dunne

The way one would properly fly a flag signalling distress (in extreme danger to life or property) is upside down, but even that isn’t an appropriate expression here. I’m sure they could argue that there’s an extreme danger to life of minorities or other dispossessed folk (I’m not entirely sure that would have intellectual validity) but they’ve not even chosen that expression.

In response for having their hand slapped, the school took their ball and went home.  Their chosen means of expression was the removal of expression, to deny any solidarity with the country.

This is a school in the business of educating future leaders and they decide to take the flag down because they can’t control vandals, don’t wish to heed those who have appropriately identified their breach of flag protocol/etiquette and last don’t wish to have a dialogue about constructive means by which opposition can be expressed. They can’t separate the president-elect of the United States from the office of the President from the symbol of the United States. It was more important to avoid the conversation than it was to have the conversation.

They could have taken the stand that our nation was larger than any disagreement among us, flown the flag at full staff – protecting it if they deemed necessary – and engaged the campus in a campus-wide discussion about the campaign, what it means, and what needs to happen going forward in a way that the school could support.  I would argue this conversation should have been going on well before November 8 if they were truly interested in a diversity of thought.

From the schools’ president: “we have decided that we will not fly the U.S. flag or any other flags at Hampshire for the time being. We hope this will enable us to instead focus our efforts on addressing racist, misogynistic, Islamophobic, anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic and anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and behaviors.”  The rationale equating the flag – and the country – with those things is extremely dangerous, and yet the Hampshire College board fails to see it that way.  Symbols are extremely powerful, but so are symbolic actions.

“Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” Cesar Cruz

The billboard was meant to be controversial, specifically designed to cause conversation, and response:  Mississippi overwhelmingly went for Trump, and has a troubled racial history.  The message is provocative because the message conveyed could be any number of things: were this the point of view of the Klu Klux Klan, it would be hate speech; in this case it’s the work of an artist with the express purpose of discussing what we mean when we use a phrase like “Make America great again.”

And so it goes that we have become uncomfortable with being uncomfortable.  In the meantime, we’re faced with a Vonnegutesque warning: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” Schools have pretended that to be educated means not having to confront opposition to your ideas, not having to defend your ideas, and that ideas contrary are to be avoided or just not engaged.   We’ve pretended that making anti-discrimination national policy is equivalent to ending the conversation.  We’ve pretended that racial diversity and ethnic diversity is the only diversity that matters, that engaging other opposing ideas is dangerous and that diversity of thought will somehow expose us to danger rather than strengthening our understanding of each other.

Let’s stop pretending that conversation is a bad thing to be avoided, that ideas different from your own can hurt, and that it’s more important to be convinced you’re right than it is to find common understanding. That somehow engaging a conversation is more trouble than it’s worth.

28 Days of Inspiration – Day 27

Nana Asma’u

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Nana Asma’u by Heba Amin

She was an Islamic scholar and set the precedent of modern African feminism.  She had the advantage of being the daughter of one of the most powerful men in one of the most powerful caliphates in the region, but she made the most of the opportunity to empower women.  She leveraged her considerable intellect to create educational opportunities and careers for women that still exist.

She was a princess, but she spent her life educating women – Muslim and non-Muslim, wealthy and poor.  She was an adviser to her father, and believed that seeking education was a religious duty of both men and women and that to deny women this right was to challenge the will of God.

As an educator, she wanted her people to be as educated as possible, and trained other women to help her do this. She wrote instructive poems that the teachers would memorize and then pass on to their students in the villages to which they traveled. These women wore distinctive clothes identifying them as trained teachers, and they were to receive the highest respect while instructing both men and women on general as well as religious topics. As these teachers walked the country-side – enduring harsh environments to do so – they were empowering the citizenry with knowledge in a time of turbulence and war. To be sure, if women were educated they could then pass along knowledge to their families.  Women in Nigeria were literate at a time when universal literacy was unheard of.

150 years ago (she lived 1793-1864), she was leading a cause for educating the masses and specifically women. Those in The West who know of her, recognize her as an early feminist. West African Muslims praise her efforts in augmenting the rights of women to learn and be active members in society.  She chose to spend her life advocating for women’s right to education – indeed, she saw it as a tenant of Islam that women should be educated, and should know how to read.

28 Days of Inspiration – Day 26

28 Days of Inspiration

Cliff Young

He didn’t know he wasn’t supposed to be able to run a 544 mile ultra-marathon.  Hell, he was a potato farmer – what did he know about endurance running?  He showed up one day at the starting line of an 875K race and won.

In fact, he took significant time off the world record for similar races.  He was 61-years old in 1983 when he won this race.  Take a look at my times this year, I haven’t come close to winning a solo race of any distance. He didn’t just win, he CRUSHED it.  544-miles at aged 61.  I’ve spent the past year running races, slowly building up distance from a 5k in February to a half-marathon in October.  I’ve run training runs, pushed myself as much as I can.  Cliff Young ran the inaugural  Westfield Sydney to Melbourne Ultra-marathon…and won.  I must be a loser – I’ve been running my butt off this year and I’m struggling to get mediocre times on some fairly modest courses.

The lore will have you believe he’d never run, just strolled up to the starting line – oblivious to the challenge ahead of him – wearing overalls and rubber boots.  A real naif.  He didn’t understand ultra running so he didn’t know he was supposed to run for 18 hours and sleep for 6.  A great story to be sure.  But incomplete at best, and misleading at worst. Take a look at the video below.

So far as I can tell, he really WASN’T a runner and he really WAS a farmer.

But this wasn’t his first attempt; he didn’t just show up and decide to run.  Perhaps in 1982 when he attempted a 1,000 mile effort one could argue he had no clue – after all then he had only trained for a few months.  Upon failing half way through he wrote he and his support team were inexperienced.  You don’t just stroll up to a starting line in work boots and spend 6 days running a 550-mile race without having done SOME work.  In this case he had been training.  He knew the challenge before him.  He had a plan and he worked that plan.

Merriam-Webster defines “Inspiration” as “something that makes someone want to do something or that gives someone an idea about what to do or create : a force or influence that inspires someone.” I tend to think watching the results of another’s hard work and effort toward a goal is far more inspirational than hearing a story that’s been sanitized, cleaned up and repackaged.  Cliff was ridiculously inspirational but not because he showed up one day out of the blue and laid waste to a field of other runners en route to finishing an ultra-marathon, but because he worked his ass off as a 60-year old to position himself to be able to do that.

He wasn’t some rube fresh off the farm who decided to run an endurance course because he had time on his calendar.  He planned this.  He worked for this.  It’s unlikely that a 61-year old man is going to win an ultra marathon, but that’s the inspirational part of it. He worked and trained.  We don’t need to embellish the story; we don’t have to make up or gloss over the reality.  The facts are remarkable on their own.

Be inspired because he had a goal, worked his ass off for it and made it happen.  There’s nothing inspirational about flukes or luck; there’s everything inspirational about someone deciding they’ve got a goal that they’re going to make happen. Cliff’s story makes for a great tell, but bear in mind his wasn’t the story of unexpected glory, his was the story of hard work paying off.