Becoming a Buddhist
Becoming a Buddhist
“When we take refuge in the Buddha, we mean the qualities of the Buddha that are inherent within us. We are taking refuge in our own intrinsic enlightenment.”
Many people these days are reading books about Buddhism, practicing Buddhist meditation, and applying Buddhist principles in their work and personal lives. If you are one of those who is interested in the dharma, you may come to a point where you want to decide whether you really are a Buddhist or whether you are not.
The formal decision to become a Buddhist is marked by the refuge ceremony, in which you take refuge in what are known as the three jewels: the Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha (the community of Buddhist practitioners). Some people who take the refuge vow wonder afterwards if they made the right choice, so it’s important to consider seriously whether becoming a Buddhist is what you want to do with your life. Taking refuge is not a temporary situation. Once you take the refuge vow, it’s supposed to last forever.
Taking refuge is about how we are going to lead our lives. We take refuge because we have looked everywhere for a place we could be content, where we could reduce our anxiety. But when we looked at our world, we realized that there is no place for us to find harmony, or to understand the nature of things.
We take refuge in the Buddha because we are taking the same journey as he did. The Buddha lived in a palace and had good food and drink. If there had been movies then, he would have watched them all. He did everything there was to do, yet he realized that something was still not quite right. So like the Buddha, we ask, “Where is our life taking us?” and, like the Buddha, we look inside to understand the mind.
When we take refuge in the Buddha, we take the Buddha as an example. The Buddha is not a god—this is not a theistic situation where Buddha is better and we are worse, or he is the boss and we are the servants. In fact, Buddha is us. We are Buddha, but we have not yet realized our full buddhahood.
The Buddha realized that there is really no self. When he looked at the self, that self we hang on to so tightly, he realized that it does not really exist. From a greater point of view, he not only saw beyond personal ego, he also overcame the notion of external phenomena altogether. The Buddha realized the egolessness of both self and other. He actually overcame the whole world of duality—samsara and nirvana, existence and non-existence, eternalism and nihilism.
So we look at the Buddha with respect and appreciation for showing us how to live our life. When we take refuge in the Buddha, we take shelter from confusion, chaos and suffering. We are overcoming our discursiveness and our conflicting emotions. It is very personal. Nobody else can identify that thought for you; nobody else can deal with that emotion for you. You have to work it out for yourself.
When we talk about taking refuge in the Buddha, we mean the qualities of the Buddha that are inherent within us. The Buddha possesses wisdom, compassion and power: wisdom so we know what we are doing, compassion so we have a soft heart and care about others, and power so we can continue the journey. We call that buddhanature. We are taking refuge in our intrinsic enlightenment.
This leads us to the dharma, which is the second aspect of taking refuge. What’s important is not so much who the Buddha was but what he expressed—the truth, the dharma. The Buddha’s message that there is no self was “a fearless proclamation of the truth.”
When we begin to meditate, we discover that we’re always thinking about things such as who we know, where we’ve come from, what we’re going to do. We realize that our idea of who we are is all in relationship to other. We have created this individual identity in relationship to other.
So at a certain point, when our mind begins to relax and our thoughts begin to disappear, we may become a bit frightened. Our sense of boundary begins to dissolve. There is no one to talk to. There is no one there. We realize we’re just holding on to an idea of who we are; we are holding on to a conceptualization. In fact, everything we engage in is conceptualization. The process of meditation helps us realize the truth of the dharma. So can we be that fearless? Can we look at what is there—or what is not there?
When we take refuge in the dharma, we are not following some prescribed path. We really have to look inside our own mind, and the dharma helps us to do that. Truth is constant, so the dharma provides some stability in our life. The dharma acts as our protection; it protects our mind and it protects our heart.
Finally, we take refuge in the sangha, the people who are on the path with us. Those who are in the sangha are warriors, because they are trying to overcome samsara. Members of the sangha support one another and care for one another. They are not perfect, but they inspire us because they are people who want to deepen their practice of mindfulness, awareness and compassion. The sangha is also a container. When we practice together, the sangha helps our discipline. We realize that there are other people around who are going through the same thing. That gives us a feeling of encouragement.
We are talking about taking a special path. But this path has been traveled by great practitioners before us, and it is now up to us to travel it. We must understand this is completely possible; there is no reason at all that we cannot travel this path. Yes, we all have our own individual situations or karma—some of us tend to be a little bit more lazy, some of us tend to be more uptight. We all have various tendencies. But the truth remains the same. It is unchanging within us.
That is the beauty of the dharma: it is completely available. We don’t need any particular credentials in order to understand it. On the other hand, we do need to hear, meditate and contemplate. We do need to understand what we are doing. We do need to correct our misunderstandings.
Taking refuge does not mean that we take Buddha’s words as the unquestioned truth. We must question the words of the Buddha. We need to ask, “Is this real? Does this actually work? Does it make sense?” The Buddha didn’t say, “I am going to save you.” He said, “You have the ability to make your situation better. You have all the capabilities. It is up to you.” Ultimately, that is the truth in which we are taking refuge.
Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche is holder of the Buddhist and Shambhala lineages of his father, the late Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. In 1995 he was recognized as the incarnation of the great nineteenth-century Buddhist teacher Mipham Rinpoche.
Ani Pachen, Warrior Nun of Tibet
Ani Pachen, Warrior Nun of Tibet
Called to lead her clan in rebellion against the brutal occupiers, Ani Pachen survived twenty-one years in Chinese prisons. Now she campaigns for Tibetan freedom, a living symbol of her people’s indomitable spirit.
The California coastal fog rolls in as thick as wool socks over the Big Sur coastline between Cambria and Cuyucos. The high hum of traffic along Highway 1 offers counterpoint to the roaring bass of the Pacific Ocean. A small group of people walk along the narrow shoulder of the road.
The conclusion of this day’s thirteen mile walk will mark the midpoint of the March for Tibet Independence, which started in San Francisco and will conclude in front of the Chinese consulate in Los Angeles. The small group of walkers includes several Tibetan monks and nuns in their maroon and saffron robes, a few Tibetan refugees, and a handful of young North American supporters of the Tibetan cause. When they complete their trip in L.A. they will have walked more than 525 miles.
Carrying placards asking drivers to “Honk for Tibet” and the Chinese to “Free the Panchen Lama,” they stride purposefully into downtown Cuyucos, a sleepy, frayed-around-the-edges seaside community several tax brackets removed from its tonier cousins Monterey and Carmel to the north.
In the lead is a bandy-legged nun who leans on a carved wooden staff as she walks. She is self-contained, but you can tell by looking at her face that she is tired. She is 67 years old and her crooked gait is from twenty-one years of abuse and torture in Chinese prisons. She is Ani Pachen Dolma, known as “The Warrior Nun,” who led her clan in armed rebellion against the Chinese invaders in the late fifties. The sister is fierce.
“Today, I am very homesick as I walk,” she says. “This land reminds me of the province of Kham, my home in Tibet. Watching the horses around here makes me remember what it was like to ride and race back home. I don’t think that I could ride now, today. But it is nice to think of home.”
Home for Ani Pachen was Gojo, in eastern Tibet. She was born there in 1933 into the ruling Pomdha Tsang family, which shared a regional leadership role with nine other families. Her life from the beginning was different from that of other young Tibetan women.
“My father taught me to ride and to shoot,” she says. “I used to race horses when I was a teenager. They didn’t have separate races for girls. I raced my horse against men.”
The people of the Kham region are legendary for their equestrian skills. During festival times in Kham, hundreds of people would gather for days of prayer and play—dancing, sharpshooting and trick riding. Among Tibetans the Khampas have a reputation for being tough, fearless, and maybe a bit wild. When I ask Ani Pachen if she ever had a wild streak, her response is to punch me hard in the arm and laugh. Her eyes are bright and her gaze is deep and direct.
“I raced my horse against men,” she reminds me.
Today, though, it’s a white passenger van that ferries the weary crew to St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in nearby Morro Bay, where they’re greeted by a big pot of sweet tea brewing on the stove and a potluck supper prepared by the parishioners. They’ll sleep that night on the floor of the church’s community room.
As marchers and parishioners socialize, off in a corner Ani Pachen is discretely massaging her feet. She has already had to stop for several days along the route because of pain in her ankles and feet, and sometimes she’ll ride in the van for a while. But there is no question about her determination to make it to the Chinese consulate.
“I am walking to make people understand about Tibetan independence,” she says. “I am walking so that people understand what we have suffered. I am walking so that people understand that the Tibetan culture is in danger of dying.” Her own story is that of the Tibetan people—the cruelty of their oppressors, the enormity of their suffering, the strength of their spirit.
“When I was young I really wanted a religious life,” she remembers, “but my family wanted me to marry.” She fled her home when her family tried to arrange a marriage, and returned only when the family relented. Dividing her time between household activities and studies at the monastery of Gyalsay Rinpoche, she devoted herself to meditation practice and Buddhist studies.
But if Ani Pachen had managed to avoid marriage, she still bore responsibility as her family’s only child. Her father requested that she return from the monastery to train to become his heir as chieftain. If she was not to be a wife, she would be a warrior.
By now it was 1954, the fourth year of Chinese occupation of Tibet. These were years, she recalls, of broken promises, harassment of the Tibetan people, and ever bolder attempts by the Chinese to control and the eradicate the Tibetan culture.
Then over the following year, word filtered to Ani Pachen’s father and other leaders in eastern Tibet of growing horrors being wrought by the Chinese communists in their effort to subjugate the Tibetan people. The Khampa leaders realized they could not stand idly by and allow the Chinese to run rampant. Instead, they resolved to fight.
“In 1958, the Chinese forces occupied the Zining and Amdo areas, and advanced forward to Derge in Kham,” Ani Pachen recalls. “People were imprisoned. All those who tried to protect Tibet’s religion, the people who mattered, were killed or arrested. We decided to unite and fight. All of the chieftains in Gojo decided to fight the Chinese in unison under the command of my father and two other men.”
In the war councils that followed, Ani Pachen sat at her father’s side. When he fell ill and died before the year was out, she wished only to return to her meditation practice. But she was pressed by her father’s allies to assume his position of leadership.
She hesitated. What finally compelled her to take up arms was not the thought of losing land or possessions. Instead, she decided to accept leadership of the rebellion because of her fear that the teachings of the buddhadharma would be destroyed in Tibet.
They never really stood a chance against a modern army. But it was their home, they knew the land well, and the people of Gojo, several thousand farmers and nomads, resisted the invading Chinese for more than a year. Facing defeat, she recalls simply, “We made a decision to go upcountry. The Chinese followed and we were captured.”
At every stop along the way from San Francisco to Los Angeles, Ani Pachen will tell her story. There are no big crowds, just small gatherings in church basements like this one. As she speaks her face remains impassive. Her litany of suffering is delivered in an understated monotone.
“I was twenty-five years old when I was imprisoned for twenty-one years,” she says. “I went into prison a young woman and came out an old woman. No one in my family survived but me. When they arrested me they bound my hands and feet and hung me upside down and interrogated me. They beat me continuously. I would pass out and they would throw water on me and beat me some more. They shackled me for a year. They put me in a hole in the ground and forced me to live in my own feces. All other prisoners suffered the same.”
Ani Pachen tells her story in the book, Sorrow Mountain, co-authored by Adelaide Donnelly. The Dalai Lama wrote the forward, and Richard Gere, who was instrumental in the project, wrote the preface. It’s a moving and fascinating story, but one that Ani Pachen recounts without any ownership or interest in herself. She wants to protect the dharma. She wants to know the whereabouts of the Panchen Lama. She wants anyone who will listen to know that an entire culture is being demolished.
“Tibet’s greatest crime was in practicing the dharma,” she says. “Here many people are concerned about the endangerment of animals. This is good. But I am talking about an entire culture. Tibetan culture is on the verge of extinction.”
Eventually sent to a labor camp, she was accused of leading other prisoners in reciting mantras and praying. “They said that they knew that I was telling the other prisoners that the Dalai Lama was going to come back,” she says. For not “reforming her mind,” the Chinese authorities added another three years to her sentence. Finally, after twenty-one years, including eleven in Lhasa’s notorious Drapchi prison, Ani Pachen was released in January of 1981.
What of the jailers? I ask her. What of those who tortured you? How could you forgive them?
She smiles. “It is just karma,” she says. “I felt terrible for those who imprisoned me. In jail I simply took on their suffering. I took on their pain.”
Ani Pachen reaches her hand out and fingers a medal that hangs from my neck. On one side is Green Tara, protectoress of the Tibetan people; on the other side is Padmasambhava, also known as Guru Rinpoche, the great Indian yogi who brought Buddhism to Tibet.
“I am very close to Guru Rinpoche,” she says. “During my years in prison I would meditate and think of him sitting on top of my head, on my shoulder, in my heart. I would recite mantras. I would practice.”
After her release from prison Ani Pachen went to the countryside and eventually escaped from Tibet into Nepal. From Kathmandu, she took a bus to Dharamsala, India, home of the Dalai Lama and seat of the Tibetan government-in-exile.
“The only thing I wanted was to see His Holiness,” she says. “When I had my audience with him I felt that I could die afterwards without any regrets. It had been my dream since my time of imprisonment.”
The next morning Ani Pachen rises early and is saying her prayers while the van is being loaded. In downtown Cuyucos the group stands by the side of the road as the Tibetans lead morning chants. Afterwards, everyone sings the Tibetan national anthem. The day’s walk begins. Moving with assurance, Ani Pachen brings up the rear. The hills are rolling out in front of her and there are thirteen miles to cover before she will tell her story again. Anyone who believes the battle for Tibetan independence is over should meet this gentle and fierce warrior. They will know that it is not.
The Innermost Essence
The Innermost Essence
The maha ati is of the greatest simplicity. It is what is. It
cannot he shown by analogy; nothing can obstruct it. It is without
limitation and transcends all extremes. It is clear-cut nowness, which
can never change its shape or colour. When you become one with this
state the desire to meditate itself dissolves; you are freed from the
chain of meditation and philosophy, and conviction is born within you.
The thinker has deserted. There is no longer any benefit to be gained
from "good" thoughts and no harm is to be suffered from "bad"
thoughts. Neutral thoughts can no longer deceive.
People often try to discriminate between "good" thoughts and
"bad" thoughts, like trying to separate milk from water. It is easy
enough to accept the negative experiences in life but much harder to see
the positive experiences as part of the path. The state of
non-meditation is born in the heart when one no longer discriminates
between meditation and non-meditation and one is no longer tempted to
change or prolong the state of meditation. There is all-pervading joy,
free from all doubts. This is different from the enjoyment of sensual
pleasures or from mere happiness.
From "The Innermost Essence" by the great Dzogchen teacher Jigme
Lingpa (1730-1798) and translated by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. Shambhala
Sun, September 2000.
Jerry Brown: Zen and the Art of the Possible
Jerry Brown: Zen and the Art of the Possible
In American politics, an enterprise too often characterized by adultery, dyed hair and spin doctors, and in which obvious intelligence has long been held suspect, Jerry Brown remains a maverick original. The son of former California Governor Edmund “Pat” Brown, Jerry Brown studied for the priesthood at Sacred Heart Novitiate before leaving to major in Latin and Greek at U.C. Berkeley. He graduated in law from Yale and in 1969 won his first election, to a seat on the L.A. Community College board of trustees. Just a year later, he was elected California’s secretary of state, and in l975 became the youngest governor in California history.
Brown’s eight-year tenure as governor was unconventional. He lived an austere lifestyle, dated Linda Ronstadt, and occasionally repaired to Zen retreats with Buddhist friends. He led the country in the introduction of progressive legislation and the appointment of women and minorities to high office, often in the face of considerable opposition. He made three tries for the Democratic presidential nomination, the last against Bill Clinton in 1992. For two years he hosted “We The People,” a syndicated radio program featuring interviews with prominent thinkers.
In l998 Jerry Brown re-entered politics. He was elected mayor of Oakland and embraced the daunting task of leading this needy, workaday city of 380,000 toward rejuvenation. Not surprisingly, Mayor Brown has ruffled plenty of institutional feathers. Using the “Strong Mayor” city charter he championed, Brown has addressed the city’s longtime pattern of cronyism, reformed the school board, made sweeping changes in the police department and city hall staff, and worked to revivify the weary downtown core.
Now sixty years old, Brown enjoys a communitarian lifestyle in an unpretentious, multi-purpose warehouse adjacent to Jack London Square on the downtown waterfront. I met Mayor Brown at his office in Oakland City Hall, where on the desk one notices prayer beads and a sign reading, “The Buck Stops Here.” —Trevor Carolan
You have been known throughout your career as someone willing to bring big ideas into the political sphere. But nowadays you’re a “non-ideological centrist,” devoted to what Andy Warhol used to call “bringing home the bacon.”
Bringing home the bacon, exactly! That’s what people in the city want—lower crime, a vital downtown center, exciting opportunities. They want more shops instead of one major store, which is all Oakland has today. They want better schools, where their kids can get ahead. So you’ve got to deliver that. And in a capitalist society, you get a flow of capital entering because there’s a return equal to or better than other opportunities elsewhere. That’s the framework we’re in and I’m working with it.
If you read Dialogues, the book of interviews I’ve done with people whose ideas have impressed me, you won’t find many who have an obvious “left” ideology. They’re activists like Gregory Bateson and Ivan Illich, people whose ideas cannot be pigeonholed. I can still read Bateson’s Steps Toward An Ecology of Mind and learn from it, because there’s plenty left to understand. This is part of my pursuit—I study these people to understand my own life, the world that I live in, and my role in it.
From your long political experience as scion of a famous political family, governor of California, presidential candidate, and now mayor of Oakland, what is your understanding of the place of spirituality in politics?
Spirituality is one of those words that feels good, but what is it really pointing at?
Perhaps some sense of belief and commitment, a sense of the sacred? How do you try to keep your politics consistent with the idea of a higher way, a virtuous way, in the Taoist sense?
I don’t think politics is distinct from other activities that involve a lot of people. It’s the same whether you’re running a store, building a dot-com business, or being the mayor—there’s simply a lot of activity. To me, the spiritual path is being very clear about what you’re doing, being very clear in asking, “What is it I’m engaged in now?” And from that clarity I make whatever decisions I have to make.
So for me the path would be the clarity. I went to hear Krishnamurti several times and he would say, “Just observe.” That’s very much like sitting meditation.
And close cousin to the practice of mindfulness. You discuss this with Thich Nhat Hanh in your book Dialogues.
Yes. As a matter of fact, Thich Nhat Hanh visited Oakland last year and we had a “Day of Mindfulness.” I issued a proclamation as the Mayor on the eightfold path. It’s worth looking at.
Do you think it’s possible, or even desirable, to govern from a spiritual point of view?
Spirituality has to entail awakeness—an awareness and respect for other people. A politics based on that would have to exhibit compassion and concern whenever there’s suffering that could be avoided. So from either a Christian or a Buddhist perspective, there is a basis for justice, mercy, compassion. The difficulty in cases like Sri Lanka or Bosnia is that religion hasn’t always been the peacemaker it theoretically should be. Nevertheless, I believe that the practice of zazen meditation, or the practice of remembering, of being more aware of good works—all these should call politics to a higher vocation.
You are one of those relatively rare people in politics who has a deep and long-standing interest in religious and philosophical issues. What were some of the important influences on you when you were growing up?
My grandmother used to read Bible stories to me from a picture book—Moses, Delilah and Samson, all the different Bible stories. Later, at school in the fifties, G.K. Chesterton was very much in vogue. Growing up within the Catholic educational framework, one learned there was a right and a wrong and a higher path one should be following. That’s obviously what propelled me forward to the seminary.
At the seminary we read the lives of the Jesuit saints, Thomas a Kempis, and the New Testament. After that, coming out of Berkeley and going to law school, there was a whole other set of influences. Paul Goodman’s book, Compulsory Miseducation, which critiqued education as a conformity-building structure, really had an influence on me.
When did you first encounter Buddhism?
I heard a speech by Aldous Huxley at a symposium on the mind in San Francisco, in which he talked about a different kind of education. He said our education system was cognitive and hyper-rational, and that it left out the most important part of the human being. I went up to him afterwards and asked him what he was talking about, and he said, “Read Zen Flesh, Zen Bones.” I might have heard about Zen before then, but since Aldous Huxley was saying so, I looked into it and it certainly had an influence on me.
That’s a beloved little book by Paul Reps and Ngoyen Senzaki. What attracted you to it?
Just reading those koan stories. They had a flavor that rang true. There was a zest to them that I appreciated.
How serious would you say your engagement with Buddhism has been?
I’d say that when I went to Japan it was very serious, because I practiced every day for six months and did four sesshins [traditional one week period of intense zazen]. This was at Kamakura; I did two sesshins under Yamada-roshi and two under Father Lasalle, a Jesuit at a Jesuit retreat house there.
What prompted you to study Buddhism in Japan?
I had visited Tassajara, I knew Richard Baker Roshi and Gary Snyder, and I’d read different things. Then in l986 I went on a trip to China with a non-profit foundation and we passed through Tokyo. I visited a group of Jesuit priests living there and I asked if any of them knew anything about Zen. There were two people interested in Zen, Fathers Hugo Lasalle and Heinrich Dumoulins, both elderly people. I had a conversation with Father Lasalle and he said, “Philosophy is dead. Theology as we’ve known it is dead. What people want is experience—experiencing God.” He suggested I talk with Yamada-roshi, so I went to see him at the hospital where he worked as an administrator. Yamada-roshi said, “Well, come and practice.”
At that time I had the opportunity to take six months to do something different, so I said, okay, I’ll do it. I found a place to live in Kamakura, and every night I’d go and join the loose community of practitioners under Yamada-roshi. Father Lasalle would come by sometimes, too. In dokusan Yamada-roshi would always say “You yourself are totally empty,” and his saying that had an authority. He was speaking as someone who evidently had had a kensho. He had that clarity.
What interested me was emptiness as a practice, as opposed to an idea. The principal foundation of the Jesuit order—it’s right in The Spiritual Exercises—is detachment, and the evil in Jesuit spirituality is inordinate attachment. Ignatius in his Foundations uses the word “indifference.” Whether your life is long or short, whether you are rich or poor, whether you experience honor or dishonor—it should all be a matter of indifference to you in order that you can follow the will of God.
That’s something I always found difficult. It sounded cold. The Buddhist practice of emptiness seemed to make this non-attachment natural, whereas in the Jesuits we were told to fight the self. Adere contra—go against oneself; immolatio sui—immolate the self. We were supposed to war against the self and all its attachments. Buddhism offered another type of insight.
How much meditation do you do now?
I haven’t been sitting lately, not like I should be. I have a cushion right in the middle of my room; it’s sitting there, but I’ve sat infrequently. It’s an intention, but not a strong enough intention! But definitely an intention.
You visited Mother Theresa in Calcutta in 1987. What effect did this experience have on you?
I spent about three weeks working there, mostly at her home for the dying, the Kalighat. I was very impressed and moved by the volunteers who came every day, by their presence and their serving attitude. People from around the world just showed up and helped bathe people, fed people, wash down the floors. It was a very good feeling to be involved in that.
I experienced Mother Theresa as a person of really clear authority, something I hardly ever encounter. She was someone who spoke in such a way that I was inclined to listen, to follow. I felt this woman was speaking out of some enlightenment, some clarity in her way of seeing. When she said that this person lying on the floor from the streets of Calcutta is Jesus, and what you do for him, that is Jesus, well, it was not only supremely Christian, it was supremely compassionate. She manifested her being and was grounded in a way I’ve seen in very few people.
How do you evaluate the influence of religion in U.S. politics today?
Religious identity groups are a part of the business of politics, which is to create enough loyalty and appeal to build the 51% you need to win. Given the diversity of America, this can involve minorities, ethnic groups, and religions. So religious identity is part of the mundane process of coalition-building and creating a successful political marketing plan.
The liberal side is not generally characterized by overt religious activity, although there’s certainly a tradition—from Martin Luther King, Jr. to the Jesuits opposing the School of the Americas—of a left religious commitment. On the right, the fundamentalist Christians are maybe 20% of the population grouped around certain ideas and practices. They are in opposition to some of the practices of contemporary society, such as pornography, homosexuality, abortion, but not in opposition to others, like free markets, technology, genetic engineering and nuclear power. They are a cohesive group and there is power there.
Mikhail Gorbachev is one of the many people who have said that the most important politics is now taking place at the municipal level. Do you agree with this assessment?
In some part that is true. However, we have trading regimes, international alliances, and global environmental treaties that are very important. You cannot solve global warming or the destruction of the oceans or the protection of the ozone layer just by local action. Even though everything always seems local, because we’re in a body, standing on our own two feet somewhere, there is a role for international work and national work, for all these different levels of organization.
Having said that, we need to recognize that there is a difference, a vitality, in a city. There are schools and neighborhoods. There’s West Oakland. There’s Thirty-first and Martin Luther King Boulevard. These are concrete images: you can see the people and encounter them and their issues.
Being mayor is different than being governor, which is a more derivative position. The governor proposes a law on, say, increasing the penalties for crime—“You should serve three more years in prison for robbing a house at night”—and goes and makes speeches about it. That’s what governors do. As a mayor, you take action in a far more immediate way. You look at the number of commercial burglaries in the last three weeks in an area of Oakland, compare the statistics from the three weeks before, and then talk to the police chief about what we’re going to do. You get specific. You think about more police, more jobs, the schools, housing blight, all the different issues.
And how do the citizens get more involved so they can influence the political process?
In Oakland, we get involvement through community policing and through parent involvement in the schools. We also have community involvement in development proposals—all the immediate neighbors are asked their point of view on whether a building should be demolished or a new business permitted. People can join political organizations or neighborhood committees, and of course there are bond proposals and elections to city council and school board. There is a lot of citizen participation at the local political level.
And when special interests play such a large role in the political process, how do citizens ensure that public resources are allocated fairly ?
The term “special interest” obscures the fact that the political realm is where decisions are made by many people regarding money, taxes, buildings, or criminal prohibitions. In a capitalist society, money has an impact. It’s about money. If money isn’t the most important thing, it’s right up there. Therefore, anyone with a lot of money is going to have an impact, and usually their request is to be able to make more money. Now, if more money is added, that’s theoretically a good thing. However, other people who don’t have exactly the same interests, like a union or a homeowner group, may fight and say you’d better give us some money. As an example, there’s a building here that was constructed seventy years ago. The Gap came along and said we want to tear it down and put up a new ten thousand square foot store. Now most people in the city wanted that, but some people didn’t. So you get these contests, and I find that at the local level the citizens have a lot of clout.
When you were campaigning for mayor you spoke of “America’s unfinished agenda.” What did you mean by that?
Fostering conditions so that people of different ethnic and racial situations can live in harmony, as well as alleviating the harsh consequences of market capitalism and setting the framework for an economy that works within the environment explicitly, thereby becoming increasingly more sustainable.
You’ve made schools a key part of your work in Oakland.
Never before in the United States, maybe anywhere in the world, have we offered so many hours of organized educational instruction. Yet if you look at the number of hours people spend in front of the television, if you look at the way people allocate their resources, you have to ask seriously what this education is for. Is it just to make people happy hyper-consumers, or is it to teach people to think and to express themselves?
Today education is generally about getting a job and making the most money you can. I’d like to see some special schools here, like a performing arts academy or a vocational school teaching technical repair skills. I’d like to see effective reading programs. I’d also like to see a college-prep military academy—because of the discipline involved and the Pentagon money that could be brought into Oakland.
I also understand that education is one of those terms that people invoke very easily to cover a multitude of questions. Not that long ago, when I was in college, it meant a liberal education. It was supposed to teach the whole person and it was based on the concepts of time and eternity, which were Catholic ways of talking about the material and the spiritual.
Andrei Sakharov observed that we always prefer dead heroes to living men and women who may have made mistakes. What do you make of this?
When someone’s dead, it’s easy to remember them in a more positive light and minimize the flaws that most human beings have. There’s a pervasive tendency to transmit a history that is more favorable than it really was. In Japan they don’t like to talk about the rape of Nanking, or the germ experiments in Harbin, or the Bataan Death March. In America, the history books don’t like to talk about the massacre of the Indians, or really get into the slavery issue or the war against the Filipinos. There’s a rosy glow in all countries that conditions the history books, and this conditions our view of dead heroes.
In your inaugural speech as mayor of Oakland, you acknowledged that you have flaws and have made your share of mistakes.
Today, with all the debunking and flaw-finding that generates news stories, we have the view that leaders are always flawed—Eisenhower, all the big heroes, whoever it is. People in politics are dealing with power. They are possessed of ambition. They are maneuvering and they’re competing, and that will generate plenty of less-than-ideal, Mother Theresa-type behavioral traits. Okay, that’s inherent. Politics doesn’t look at all like the hagiographies I read when I was at the Jesuit monastery, where all the saints were perfect, no venial sins even. Of course, the world is not a monastery, but I don’t know if there were perfect people in the monasteries either. I doubt it. In that environment, there are plenty of vices along with whatever virtues you can find.
What keeps you going in politics after all these years?
There’s a certain zest in political life. It engages me. I’ve also been around the political life since my father first ran for office the year after I was born. There’s a skill, a practice, a knowledge that I’ve acquired. If I were to go and work as a lawyer, I’d be nowhere near the professional or the practitioner that I am of political work.
So what is political? It’s being able to see different points of view. It’s being able to articulate in a way that can martial action. That’s what I’m doing, although it’s frustrating at times. When I worked in radio it was satisfying intellectually, but at the end of every day, then what? Sometimes just talking isn’t enough.
There are folks you meet in stores here who say they supported you in part because of your radio show; that you sounded like a man who was honestly searching for answers.
That’s good. As mayor, though, I feel there’s more action. I can actually engage developers, police chiefs, neighborhood activists; I can help get a swimming pool built, increase recycling, create a charter school, bring a new restaurant to downtown, as we’re going to do next door to City Hall. That’s energizing. It is a pleasure to be engaged in that, as opposed to just talking.
You’ve had a lot of political success and become a national celebrity. I imagine Sixty Minutes never did a story before on the mayor of Oakland. John Updike has expressed the view that celebrity has a peculiarly corrosive quality. What’s your take on this?
Well, celebrityhood is certainly distracting. It offers an opportunity to make yourself feel good—which, I might add, can be very deleterious to the path of enlightenment!
Also, you have experienced defeat a number of times. What can you tell us about the experience of defeat?
In some campaigns, when the stories in the press aren’t that pleasant and you’re losing, defeat can almost be a relief. Maybe it’s like death: you get sick, you suffer and suffer, and then you say, I’m ready to die now. Losing can be very unpleasant, but after a few years you forget about the pain and say, “I’m back fighting.” I came back. I wasn’t quite sure what mayor was going to be like, but I find I’m very happy to be here. The old images of Oakland as a city of crime and danger are pretty overrated now. We’re strategically located and, increasingly, a fairly exciting place to be. The flow of money has now directed itself into Oakland. It’s coming. We may be able to attract more people of talent because the housing is a little cheaper, the weather is a little better, the openings are more abundant. Oakland will continue to transform itself. I feel very grateful for the opportunity.
Trevor Carolan is a freelance writer and former municipal councilor in North Vancouver, British Columbia.
Noble Heart of All Existence
Noble Heart of All Existence
"Compassion is not a path that is taken because it leads somewhere else," says Douglas J. Penick. "Everything that we encounter , all that we experience, is this path."
You see, I have made a great discovery: I no longer believe in any thing. Objects don’t exist for me except insofar as a relationship exists between them or between them and myself. When one realizes this harmony, one reaches a sort of intellectual non-existence—what I can only describe as a sense of peace—which makes everything possible and right. Life then becomes a perpetual revelation.” —Georges Braque
Throughout most of human history, people lived in small communities among people with whom they had life-long associations and intimacy. Plagues, mass starvation, warfare, the destruction of whole civilizations—all these events passed by unknown to those who were remote from them.
Today we live in transient groupings among people we have met only recently, if at all. However, we are constantly and instantly aware of myriad forms of suffering wherever they occur on the globe. Daily we see the faces of the casualties of war, the wracked and wasted bodies of the starving, the cries and tears of the murder victim’s family. These images of suffering around the world are more familiar to us than even the gravest difficulties of our neighbors.
So increasingly, as our own condition is more isolated and the face of distant suffering becomes more intimate, we feel our own powerlessness. Our spontaneous longing to relieve the pain of even one of the people we see on television or in the newspapers becomes an experience of bitter frustration.
In time, our powerless becomes a jaded apathy, and then a kind of weary resentment. So we look for ways to distance ourselves from the pain and suffering of which we are made aware. We come to see the victims as members of a mindlessly aggressive society, or of a culture irretrievably attached to faulty agricultural methods, or of an ethnic group that simply won’t sustain normal family patterns.
We live with a feeling of powerlessness to offer any meaningful assistance or solace in the face of such large scale suffering. Surrounded by unchangeable horrors, we feel burdened by and resentful of our own innate sympathy. In such circumstances, the experience of compassion as real and available becomes deformed, and confidence in the power of compassion fades.
In ordinary usage, according to the OED, “compassion” means, first, “suffering together with another, participation in suffering; fellow feeling, sympathy,” and secondly, “the feeling or emotion as moved by the distress of another and the desire to relieve it.” However, Buddhism understands compassion as something far more extensive than merely a feeling or emotion, with all the itinerant qualities which those words imply.
In the vajrayana Buddhist tradition of Tibet, it is maintained that the complete and entire basis of our life in this world is compassion. According to this view:
In the infinite expanse of the natural state
Free from the limits of conceptual mind,
All the realms of life and death and their inhabitants
Arise spontaneously from the radiance of Great Compassion.
In Tibetan, the word for compassion, nyingje, means “noble heart,” and this refers not simply to one’s own heart but to the heart of the world as well. It is called “heart” because compassion is at the core of all our responses to external and internal phenomena. It is the basis of why our minds always move outside ourselves, why our perceptions lead us out into the world of phenomena, and so why we are spontaneously moved by the sight of beauty and suffering, the smell of early spring or rotting garbage, the memory of the taste of lemonade, the sound of thunder in the afternoon.
Compassion, as mind’s innate movement outward, is the underlying momentum of our emotional and perceptual experience. If we examine even our most self-absorbed thought, we always find it is prompted by the vivid awareness of something outside ourselves. Even when we are concerned with pain in our own body, that pain is somehow viewed as “other,” as something alien to our “real” self. In fact, no matter what the emotional twist, all our thoughts begin with the sense of “other.” So, at the core, our heart places others before ourselves. Thus, because our mind is naturally inclined to concern with others, it is called “noble.”
At the center of all our mental functioning then, as the natural basis of all our instincts, impulses, and more elaborated motivations, is this primal awareness of other, this “noble heart.”
In Tibetan Buddhist traditions, there are three aspects to the experience of compassion. There is compassion which has no reference point, which is free, omnipresent, ever-expanding and continuous. There is compassion which is occasioned by awareness of the causes of suffering. And there is compassion occasioned by awareness of the specific suffering and pain of others.
When, even for a moment, we let our hearts open to the simplicity of the elements themselves and the long history of concerns of those who have preceded us, we may glimpse the limitless compassion which is itself free from concepts or views of any kind.
In any given instant, no matter what our own individual suffering, if we sit still and look around us it is evident that we are always the recipients of an infinite array of man-made and natural phenomena. We have the solidity of earth within and below our bodies; we have the cooling clarity of water; we have the warmth of fire and the movement of wind; we have an infinity of space articulated as sky or imagination. We have the perceptions of sight, sound, touch, taste and smell, all as vivid as a shimmering rainbow of light. We have unending primordial awareness. And through all the realms of life and death, there is the ceaseless pulse of life force.
We have no existence apart from this array, nor are we independent from the ways of thinking, feeling and knowing about our world which have been developed by countless others before us. We carry out our daily lives in reliance on language evolved and wisdom discovered by others; inspiration fostered by others; laws enacted by others; information, opinions and expressions derived from others; art created by others; technologies created by others; machines and houses made by others; energy produced by others, and food grown by others. There has never been a minute in our lives in which we have not relied on the efforts of many other people.
Further, it is not possible to act in such a way that others are not influenced or affected. Even our most private thoughts and feelings inevitably influence our moods and our behavior. Sadness hangs in the air; private irritation turns into a more general atmosphere of tension; enthusiasm is infectious. However we are stirred up moves the air around us and touches even strangers. When we see a dog stretch in the sun, an old man stumble, a child lose her temper or lovers touch, we too are moved and we carry that movement into whatever comes next.
Thus, regardless of whether we are kind or ruthless, selfish or generous, we live in an immeasurable ocean of phenomena that arise from our interdependence with an inconceivable range of other phenomena. We might wish to have individual autonomy and to be independent of the world we find ourselves in, but this is not in any way realistic.
When we open our hearts and rest in the free expanse of what is given in our lives, we meet the vast mind of primordial compassion which goes far beyond any individual preoccupation, belief or fear. All our unique and individual efforts are simply part of this endless and anonymous outpouring. We sense our unconditional linkage with this world and with all who dwell and have dwelt here. Complete openness in this way is the experience of compassion without reference point.
Even as the expanse of great compassion is without limit or bias, the experience of it is not necessarily comforting. Though we may recognize that we are completely reliant on this world and its history, the world will not necessarily confirm us, give us what we want, or bring everything we have striven for to a successful conclusion. Even though we may find ourselves unaccountably happy in unsought moments, still we may not be able to find meaningful work, make those who love us happy, or keep our children safe. Except momentarily, we will not be saved from death, nor will we be able to save anyone else from death.
While we sometimes experience the vastness and variety of the world we live in, more frequently we experience it as the fear, claustrophobia and frustration of living. We feel utterly adrift in chartless space. We feel trapped, burdened and insecure within the concreteness of our experience. We can easily imagine very different circumstances both for ourselves and those close to us, and we struggle to make them tangible. If we do obtain what we desire, we then must struggle to keep it, as well as to maintain our own happy state of mind.
From clinging to our survival, and to the specific ideas we believe support it, come all the cruel fantasies of those who wage aggressive war and the pitiful terrors of those who are war’s victims. From this single source comes the predatory search for wealth, the sufferings of poverty, the longings of passion, and the ceaseless dissatisfactions of restlessness.
And with these emotional states comes the logic devoted to their perpetuation. Thus our inner lives become circumscribed by the vicious defensive logic of warfare, the economic logic of need, the lonely logic of relationships, the calculating logic of ambition. And we live a life of anxiety and confusion as we try to find our way amid the competing claims and conflicts of these logics.
Caught by anxiety about our own future, we only appreciate those beings, things, and expressions which further our version of survival. The rest of the world seems shadowy, threatening or possibly helpful, depending on its congruence with our own conceptions. We daily doubt the value of our world and our life in it.
Regardless of their many qualities and potentials, we can regard other beings only in relationship to the logic we have adopted as necessary to our happiness. Thus the world becomes populated with a great number of beings whose view of life is inimical to us, and with a far smaller group whose explicit goals and aspirations we share. We even judge rain, sunlight, wind and stones according to their utility in our scheme of things.
These causes of delusion and mass suffering are as old as our history and are woven into the fabric of the world we know. They do not represent so much a departure from the limitless expanse of great compassion as an attempt to limit it. The sufferings we experience and those we cause all arise from the effort to reduce and categorize the overwhelming diversity of experience into the single framework of our own survival and posterity.
In a glimpse of the vastness and depth of the great compassion without reference point, we see mirrored the terrible and ferocious pettiness which has masqueraded as individual grandiosity and reasonableness. We see our own inescapable, craven clinging. We see how we are prisoners of our own individuality. It is in this way that compassion for the causes of suffering evolves from compassion without an object.
Generally, our most direct experience of compassion is occasioned by the awareness of suffering itself. When we hear of the illness of someone we love, when we see a wounded animal, and even when we hear of someone whom we despise suffering the loss of a child, we feel that pain well up in our heart. Here we experience the utter spontaneity of compassion, which rises up past all distinctions and differences, predilections and conceptual frameworks.
However, our habitual second thought, particularly with respect to those who are not close to us, is to draw away from the sight of others’ suffering, just as we try to distance ourselves from our own experience of pain. Just as we feel isolated within our own pain, we tend to isolate others in theirs. In doing so, we tend to justify ourselves by referring to a body of conventional concepts and secret fears; we try to secure our own “needs” and “preserve our boundaries.”
But no matter what conceptualizations we may make use of in these circumstances, we cannot quite ignore that this life is filled with disappointments, sorrow, sickness, death and continuous sufferings of many kinds. This fact cannot be escaped or avoided, no matter how we may invoke the decency of our aspirations, the excellence of our successes, the virtue of our goals, or the reality of our powerlessness.
We can cut through the morass of reflexive ego-clinging in many ways, but the essence of how we do it is always the same: putting the needs and concerns of others before oneself. This is accomplished in simple acts of courtesy, as well as in many kinds of attention, generosity, care and consideration. Parents routinely put the lives and aspirations of their children ahead of their own satisfactions; people often make sacrifices to take care of friends and parents. These kinds of actions, which go on continuously and unremarked, are the essence of social life. Acting in this way, we constantly discover that we do not need to rely on compulsive ego-centered logic. There is a vast range of possibilities alive right before us, revealed in the light of how we take care of the simple world around us.
Compassion that is occasioned by suffering itself brings us into this world ever more fully. We cannot escape what arises in our hearts, even if we are unable to prevent the sufferings around us. The wellsprings of primordial compassion rise in us constantly to dissolve the limits we have set for ourselves and our view of the world.
As a practical matter, the three aspects of compassion arise inseparably. What we feel in the face of real suffering makes us feel a wave of deep connection which goes beyond any specific circumstance, and, at the same time, highlights a feeling of separation which we strive to understand and justify. Every moment of our life reflects this vast, luminous, unsparing pulse, free and freeing from all limits of any kind. Inseparable from the ever-changing dance of phenomena, it is completely stable. Unwavering, it arises in all the displays of temporary circumstance.
In this world, where continuing isolation, uncertainty, conflict and hardship vie in our minds with the loftiest aspirations and longing, compassion is the path which represents the innate unity of relative appearance and ultimate truth. As such, compassion is not a path which is undertaken because it leads somewhere else. It does not lead to an escape or transcendence of the world, nor does it lead to some form of worldly happiness per se. It is a way of living which does not require the rejection of our daily experience nor the rejection of our yearning for ultimate reality. Everything that we encounter, all that we experience, is this path.
Compassion has been cultivated as a concominant element in many spiritual paths. The approach presented here, while rooted in the view of vajrayana Buddhism, regards compassion as the pervasive ground of human nature and experience altogether. It is, in that sense, the ground of all that is enlightened in society everywhere.
Douglas J. Penick began studying with Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche in 1971. He is the author of Warrior Songs of King Gesar, published by Wisdom, and wrote the librettos for the operas “King Gesar” (Sony) and “Ashoka’s Dream,” composed by Peter Lieberson.
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