Out of a living silence

A contemplative shares thoughts that emerge in moments of quiet reflection

Archive for January 2010


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It is not only because I am a sentimental old fool that I get a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes every time I hear Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr’s “I have a dream” speech. The speech brought me to tears even when I first heard it as a young man of eighteen on August 28, 1963. It is a speech I never tire of hearing. My only mild complaint about that particular speech is that it has overshadowed dozens of other brilliant speeches that Dr. King delivered. As a pacifist, I have always especially appreciated his powerful critique of American conduct in Vietnam—and of war in general—as a method of solving problems. It always seemed to me that Martin Luther King, Jr presented not only the best of Christianity but the very essence of the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.

As a pacifist living in a country that has been at war or on the brink of war almost my entire life and in which arguably the most often-heard religious tradition is Christianity, I have long been interested in Christian attitudes toward war. Perhaps the best-known scholastic attempt to arrive at a set of criteria for when conducting a war is within the moral guidelines of the Christian religion is the so-called Just War doctrine of Augustine of Hippo and Thomas Aquinas. In December 2009 on the PBS News Hour, David Brooks and Mark Shields took a look at President Barack Obama’s speech when he accepted the Nobel Prize for peace. In the context of that discussion, Shields offered a quick summary of Christian Just War doctrine and showed that few of the criteria for just war are met in the current American occupation of Afghanistan. Among the criteria of a just war are the following:

  • “The reason for going to war needs to be just and cannot therefore be solely for recapturing things taken or punishing people who have done wrong; innocent life must be in imminent danger and intervention must be to protect life.” The operations in Iraq obviously failed to meet that criterion, but so do the operations in Afghanistan. The government of Afghanistan does not pose an imminent threat to the United States, nor do the Taliban. While members of al-Qaeda might like to carry out further attacks, it is unlikely that they will be able to do so from Afghanistan. Qaeda is not a nation but a nebulous network of individuals. Fighting such a network with the kind of military equipment and personnel that are usually used when nations fight other nations is doing very little, if anything, to protect anyone from imminent danger.
  • A war is potentially justified according to Christian teachings only if arms are not “used in a futile cause or in a case where disproportionate measures are required to achieve success.” Presumably the purpose of sending military personnel to Afghanistan in the first place was that it was believed that the masterminds of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in 2001 were hiding somewhere in that country. The mission was to find Osama bin Ladin and bring him to justice. Repeatedly during his campaign to be elected president, Barack Obama criticized President Bush for getting distracted from the mission of pursuing Osama bin Ladin. So far, more than 1500 Americans and coalition allies have died, along with several thousand Afghan civilians. It would be hard to argue that the use of tanks, missiles, bombers, fighter bombers and nearly 70,000 troops is proportionate to the needs of bringing a handful of men to justice.
  • “The anticipated benefits of waging a war must be proportionate to its expected evils or harms.” It is difficult to quantify such things as benefits and harms, especially “expected” as opposed to actual harms. Still, it is difficult to imagine that the amount of benefit could outweigh the loss of life, the destruction of infrastructure, and the enormous monetary cost of waging this war.

President Barack Obama has shown signs of being aware that the way to an African American’s being in the White House was paved by the work of Rev. King and those who marched by his side during the 1960s civil rights campaigns. That President Obama admires the legacy of Rev. King is evident in what he says. It is heartbreaking, therefore, that President Obama does not heed the peaceful Christian message of Rev. King. It is impossible to know for sure what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr would have to say about President Obama’s campaign in Afghanistan. I imagine he may have said something similar to what he said in his famous 1967 speech called Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence:

Now, it should be incandescently clear that no one who has any concern for the integrity and life of America today can ignore the present war. If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read Vietnam. It can never be saved so long as it destroys the deepest hopes of men the world over. So it is that those of us who are yet determined that America will be—are—led down the path of protest and dissent, working for the health of our land.

Rev. King went on to say this:

As if the weight of such a commitment to the life and health of America were not enough, another burden of responsibility was placed upon me in 1964; and I cannot forget that the Nobel Prize for Peace was also a commission—a commission to work harder than I had ever worked before for “the brotherhood of man.” This is a calling that takes me beyond national allegiances, but even if it were not present I would yet have to live with the meaning of my commitment to the ministry of Jesus Christ. To me the relationship of this ministry to the making of peace is so obvious that I sometimes marvel at those who ask me why I am speaking against the war.

One can only hope that President Obama is using this national holiday to read and reflect on the speeches that Rev. King delivered on the issues of peace and justice. It is not too late for the president to deliver some of the promised change we can believe in, but time is fast running out. As Bob Dylan said: “It’s not dark yet, but it’s gettin’ there.”

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Monday, January 18, 2010 at 17:05

Posted in Faith and practice

Confessions and confusions of a Buddhist Quaker

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A while back I was inteviewed (in English) on a Dutch Buddhist radio station. The interviewer, Fred Gales, had done his homework well and was interested in asking questions about my dual religious membership in a Quaker meeting and in a Buddhist organization. His questions provoked me into thinking more carefully about just how I manage to balance and reconcile these two approaches to religious practice, and about why I don’t experience any conflicts on account of pursuing two paths at the same time. Thinking about all these things has made me review pretty much my entire life (yet again) in a search for clues that might help solve this mystery.

Sometime in the 1980s, during my Zen years, there was an open house event at the temple I belonged to. An outsider observed that our Zen group seemed to be a very happy bunch of people who were very quick to smile and laugh. The Zen master, Samu Sunim, replied by saying “We don’t have much fun around here. And because we don’t, we make the most of the small opportunies to do so.” That statement, I have realized many times, could be used as a fairly accurate description of my whole orientation to life. Growing up in a post-Protestant family with no religious affiliations exposed me to a culture of general skepticism about all religious claims but with a cluster of attitudes that bore all the marks of Protestant influence. Doing things just for fun was not encouraged, but at the same time I was led to believe that if one enjoys one’s work, then one does not really need to play very much. Work itself is recreation enough. I have no idea whether that is what my parents intended for me to get out of my childhood, but that is what I did in fact get out of it.

The emphasis on work and on constant self-criticism (which Socrates called the examined life, and which Buddhists call being mindful) led me naturally into an abiding love of Stoicism; my first philosophical love was an anthology of writings by the Stoics. If there had been a guild of Stoics in my neigbhorhood, I surely would have joined it. A time went by, the closest I could find was a community of Quakers, and, a few years later, a community of Buddhists. Both communities reinforced childhood patterns of preferring plain utility to ornamentation and frills, tools to toys, of gravitating to simplicity in clothing, fewness of possessions (except books, and those always educational in nature) and a ferocious selectivity in friends and companions. Neither community demanded adherence to creeds or dogmas or doctrines. Both placed an emphasis on thinking carefully before speaking and acting, on living a life of service, on self-reliance and on open-mindedness, pluralism and relativism. One of my Buddhist mentors, Sangharakshita, once said words to the effect that a dedicated Buddhist never takes a holiday; a Buddhist’s principal work is being a Buddhist, and from that work one can never take a day off. Very much the same can be said of a Quaker (and, I believe, any spiritual tradition.) If one is not leading the examined life every hour of every day of one’s life, then one is not leading the examined life. This does not mean that one never stumbles or fails; it means that one is rarely unaware of one’s shortcomings and never complacent. In all these practical ways, being a convinced Quaker is indistinguishable from being a practicing Buddhist.

Despite an overall similarity in attitudes and spiritual practice, there are differences between Buddhists and Quakers in community structure. And on this score I have to say I am much more attuned to the the community of Quakers than to any Buddhist community I have known. Among Quakers all people, in principle, are clergy; there is no laity. There is no concentration of authority or of power. Everyone is a teacher, and everyone is a disciple. No one is considered more authoritative than another simply because of gender, age, ethnicity, education, economic status, or familial prestige. There are no masters, gurus, lamas, swamis, cardinals, bishops, or priests to be reckoned with in a Quaker community, no one to prostrate before or bow to. (In early days, many a Quaker spent time in prison for refusing to remove his hat or to scrape and bow before a man considered to be of higher station.) Because everyone is to be honored and revered, no one is to be treated with special veneration. That attitude is so deeply ingrained in me that I have never felt perfectly at home in Buddhist communities that have people (nearly always males) who hold exalted offices and whose words are held to be especially sacred. In community structure (or lack therefore) the Quakers speak to my condition, and the Buddhists are always slightly off-putting.

In the language in which they express their teachings, on the other hand, I feel perfectly at home with Buddhists. I can speak Quakerese, but I am aware that I speak that language with a detectable accent. I can use all the usual Quaker words and expressions, but in my heart I know I mean something else when I use them than most Quakers mean when they use them. I translate every Quakerism into Buddhist idiom, whereas I rarely need to translate Buddhism into any other idiom (except when the topic of conversation comes to rebirth, in which case I find myself translating that into the unrepentant materialism of my scientific upbringing).

Somehow, despite the potential confusions of being both a Quaker and a Buddhist, I never find myself wondering which I am, or whether I am more one than the other. When I do feel confusion (and I do feel it plenty), it is when I ask myself whether I should be anything at all other than a human being who was given a name by his parents. Why wear any other label at all? Why have a name brand? Why belong to a Quaker meeting? Why be a member of a Buddhist sangha? Asking myself these questions makes me aware of a decided lack of authenticity, a recognition that I am not yet following the advice that Polonius gave to Laertes in words my mother encouraged me to memorize, and which she spoke to me on many occasions during my adolescence and my adulthood:

This above all: to thine ownself be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.

In this both the inner Buddhist and the inner Quaker knows I have fallen short. But why?

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Sunday, January 10, 2010 at 17:31

Posted in Meditation