Freedom from Suffering

April 26, 2009

Sunday morning at Journey
Santa Fe, NM

On April 8th of this year The New Mexican carried a front-page headline and story, which included a message from the family of Lobsang Lhalungpa the Tibetan teacher who had been killed by a driver from the Santo Domingo pueblo. Probably it was a case of drunk driving and the matter was in court in front of Judge Michael Vigil where the defendant was being sentenced for vehicular homicide. The son of the deceased teacher said to the defendant:

“Because of the events of April (29), 2008, you are forever linked to my father. I hope one day you will take the time to learn more about him and our culture. My family and I bear no ill will towards you, your family or your community. I hope you look upon these, your new circumstances, as an opportunity and not another excuse to perpetuate your illness.”

On the same day the same paper carried an editorial by Rich Lowery under the headline “Entering [an] era of ‘excuse-me’ diplomacy.” Lowery called Obama’s effort to improve the US’s moral position in the world (by trying to reduce our own nuclear arsenals) a misreading of human nature, a “gambit,” as if it were a trivial gesture in a world insensitive to morality. Lowery said that Obama’s actions “won’t change them.” The call for nuclear disarmament was, he said, “childish and dangerous.”

Now here on one day were two diametrically opposed views of the way to fix the world. On the one side was the call to stay armed, to keep the nuclear stockpile and above all stay dominant in a world of snakes and sharks. On the other side was a simple family statement of disarmament. You have killed my father, said the son of the Tibetan teacher. Maybe you will now take the time to learn more about him and our culture. The tragedy gives you an opportunity to open up your heart and mind. The father had been a well-known Tibetan teacher. You killed our leader, said the son; now if you do not go into complete defense, you have new circumstances. (The driver was going to jail.) In effect, you are on your own, but you don’t have to defend yourselves against us.

The point of Rich Lowery’s piece is that in order to get North Korea to disarm we have to increase our armaments. Disarmament is childish. Power will dictate the result. The point of the Lhalungpa family’s statement was that the defendant had no one to defend against except himself. Nor did his family have to defend itself. Nor did his pueblo community. You are all free from our family and us. We carry no ill will.

While this was going on, the widow of Lobsang Lhalungpa sat in the courtroom quietly weeping. Her son did not say that his family would not feel their grief. No words or actions could ever make his mother not feel a lonliness that must have been overwhelming. But what the son was saying to his mother and his family, to the court, and to the defendant, was that armament, dominance, being right is not the same as being free.

How might the world have changed if Able’s family had said to Cain, or if Ishmael’s family had said to Isaac’s family, “we bear you no ill will!” How the world would have been different, if, instead of a template for justice and revenge, the template had been “brother, it’s too bad, but your worst enemy is yourself.”

How the world would be different if Israelis were not now settling scores from the Holocaust, and Palestinians were not settling scores from 1948, and the Azeris were not settling scores from 1895, and the Armenians not settling scores from 340AD. Today the Armenian lobby sends me daily emails encouraging pressure to force Obama to recognize the Turkish genocide of 1915. They are spending time, money, endless resources, on proving who was wrong, how many millions were killed, and the enormity of the injustice. How the world would be different if they would spend that time and money on schools, refugee resettlement, engaging the Azeris in a mutual attack on air pollution or treating children suffering from the trauma of war. Getting it right has not meant for them, yet, getting themselves competent and prepared for the new century and certainly they are not free. They carry their past on their backs like a heavy weight, as a turtle carries its shell.

Here in this town, I once attended a lecture by a Jewish scholar who took listeners back to the sixth century BCE, to prove the first occupation of the ground of Israel by his ancestors. The energy of that speaker, his time, his intelligence, his charm and his wit, were directed to construction, or re-construction of land titles more than 2,600 years ago. Land titles! As if land titles were the key to being Jewish or even the key to spirituality of any kind at all.

But foes of the Jews have—all over the world and especially among the Arabs—taken the bait and justified the construction or re-construction of ancient land titles in favor of the sons of Ishmael and so their time, too, their intelligence, charm and wit has been caught up in proving the facts of 2,600 years ago rather than building water systems between the settlements, or schools in Gaza.

Years ago, I was conducting negotiations in Tbilisi Georgia. It was in the cold of January, maybe about 1990. I would rather have been home watching the Super bowl; my Broncos were playing and that was an issue of some significance. Instead, I was in a cold room in Tbilisi, wearing every bit of clothing, coats and shirts that I had with me, talking with a dissident leader by the now-familiar name of Zviad Gamsakhurdia.

Gamsakhurdia was a radical dissident and our meetings were quiet and out of sight. We talked for three days about how the preceding April the Russians had invaded the central square of Tbilisi to break up a peaceful demonstration. In the dark of night the soldiers of the Soviet empire had rolled in with heavy tanks. Something around 20 innocent Georgians had been mowed down in the public square. Nine months later, everyone in Tbilisi was still in a rage. A “massacre,” they said, “genocide,” they said.

Over three days, shivering in that cold because the Russians were attempting to tamp down Georgian fury by turning off the heat, we discussed the strategies of interest-based bargaining, finding possible ways to avoid a civil war and then eventually war with the Russians. Between chattering teeth we talked about finding the higher ground, seeking out the ultimate “why” questions, discovering where interests lay in common.

At the end of these three days, Gamsakhurdia, wrapped up in his great coat, leaned over and said to our team, “Yes, my friends, all that, but what about justice and revenge?” Would the Americans help with that?

We did not go much farther with that negotiation. I do not do justice and revenge. It is not my specialty. As a result, the world fell apart, the Broncos lost, and Georgia fell into civil war. Rich Lowery and Gamsakhurdia would have agreed. The only way to deal with the Russians would be through acts of violence and the use of force. So I went home.

Within the next few years Gamsakhurdia at first became a popular hero in the independence movement, he was elected head of the Supreme Soviet Council. He was high on a wave of popular resistance to the Russians. But before long Gamsakhurdia himself became intolerant, impatient, still angry; he began to lose even his allies and gradually became known to his own people as a dictator. The pursuit of justice and revenge seemed never to quite satisfy him or his people. After a time there were riots in the streets in the streets of Tbilisi against him.

Gamsakhurdia escaped to the countryside and led a civil war against his countrymen who did not agree with him. These now included Eduard Shevardnadze the former foreign minister of the Soviet Union. Eventually, the radical dissident lost.

In the subsequent ten years, the Russians at first backed out of Georgia. But power was Gamsakhurdia’s game, and if that was the game it was inevitable that the Russians would come back in. Those who had followed the Gamsakhurdia’s tactics (along the lines of the tactics now advocated by Rich Lowery), succeeded in continuing a contest of military arms, climaxing last summer in the Russians—to all practical effect—claiming back the territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia which had formerly been a part of Georgia. And so the slogans remain the same.

Today, the Russians are locked in a battle with NATO over who will dominate and control Georgia and the Ukraine, and the basis for this determination, they think, will be Lowery’s basis: “Who is strongest?” “Who has the right to control these territories, and who has been hurt the most and therefore needs mostly to gain justice and revenge?”

On the one side, the Russians demonstrate their power, and therefore their righteousness, because according to the lingering feudal mind of which Lowery is a part, power is the signpost that points toward righteousness. On the other side, the Georgians demonstrate their victimhood and therefore their righteousness and if you are so unfortunate as to meet with the leaders of the Georgian side they will take you through the centuries of time in which they have been oppressed by the Russians. But if you are so unfortunate as to be talking to the Russians they will take you through the centuries during which they have strengthened public order from Lvov to Vladivostock. This has been civilization at the end of the sword, and according to Putin and to Lowery that is the way it works.

Or doesn’t work. It is now 19 years since my meetings with Gamsakhurdia, and the situation in Georgia, the search for justice and revenge, has resulted in almost no change. Gamsakhurdia is dead. Corruption is rampant. Georgia runs the continued risk of becoming a failed state.

If you are beginning to see any similarities between these struggles and the one currently going on among us in America between liberals and conservatives, or even between liberals and liberals divided over whom to prosecute—or, if you are alive to the possibility— between those who are divided over right and wrong in our current local disputes, you will see the point.

Who among all these players, the Russians, Georgians, Israelis and Palestinians, is free? All suffer enormous, undeniable pain. All have causes that deserve attention and compassion. But who is free?

Who is the most likely to be able to move forward? To shape a positive future?

In the District Court in Santa Fe this month, who has the Lhalungpa family freed by its statement that it was not seeking justice and revenge?

They have, of course, freed the defendant and his family and the pueblo from fear of a long term feud between themselves and the Tibetans. But, most importantly, they have freed themselves.

Now there are struggles among us every day, right here and now, that present us with pain and suffering and our attempts are very often to find out who is right and who is wrong and who is responsible. In these struggles one may choose the Rich Lowery/Gamsakurdia response and gear up to seek justice and gain revenge as Gamsakhurdia would say—or one may choose the Lhalungpa response and prepare oneself, at least personally, for freedom.

So, now, that is the work that lies ahead. Call it the search for freedom. It is an internal thing.

But the personal work is, in a way, as important as it is, is the lesser work.

Let us look for a moment at the greater work, the larger thing that we are all about.

We have suggested, in our conversations within the community of this congregation—in which some of you have participated—that as we go forward we might attempt to be guided by certain principles, or agreements. We might try to keep in mind—when tempted by justice and revenge—another standard. Something like the following:

To Assist My Process and that of Others

I will not Preoccupy Myself With Enemies

I will not be Violent

I will Work Together with Others to Build A City of Light

Not to be preoccupied with enemies could be meaningless, a slogan, only. None of us is violent, at least not overtly. So why make a big deal out of this?

Because history may be calling us to a breakthrough moment and we may have a chance to shape something important if we seize the chance.

Two thousand five hundred years ago the Buddha taught that Nirvana is achieved by the recognition of no self, detachment from the illusion that you are your opinions or that you are separate. Just when all across the planet trade was expanding and private goods and personal ideas were taking hold of the public consciousness, the Buddha taught No Self. In the West, and probably in the East as well, that idea has been widely rejected.

Five hundred years later, Jesus, confronted with the concentration of his own people upon their own specialness and the barbarity of those not chosen, taught that the Kingdom of God is alike unto a field in which grow both wheat and tares and it will not serve to pull up the tares. You don’t get to the Kingdom by stamping out evil. Rather, the Kingdom is present within you, now, and that is where you look for it. And find it.

Let the tares be.

Resist not evil, he said.

They crucified him. The message wasn’t accepted very well here, either.

Roughly a thousand years later, Rumi wrote

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right doing

There is a field. I‘ll meet you there.

Ideas, language, even the phrase each other

Doesn’t make any sense.

From the Islamic tradition came a message akin to that of both Buddha and Jesus. But the West rejected that message, too, and so too did the East and even most of Islam.

In the 1590s, five hundred years farther on, Mary Sidney in England wrote in the midst of endless patriarchal wars carried on by a woman queen:

Shall never we this blade

Which we with our blood have bloodie made

Lay down?

In the 1630s, Anne Hutchinson in Boston amongst the patriarchs of the new church taught that women and men alike may experience their own direct connection to the unity of the whole that we call God. The sexes shall not be a boundary to the spiritual experience. Unity is not a principle to parcel out or to franchise.

Governor John Winthrop and the new Boston church leaders were furious. They thought that unity can be dangerous if it is in the hands of an uppity woman and they banished her. She and her family settled in Rhode Island and then were all murdered by Indians.

In the 19th century, Lev Tolstoy chose the new form of mass communication and wrote brilliant novels vividly displaying the absurdity of war, the pain of separation in search of empire and possessions, for any purpose. The world ignored him, too. We proceeded to engage in two wars of mass immolation and self destruction as if to prove the Russian, and Hutchinson, and Sidney, and Jesus all wrong. They weren’t thinking about the Buddha but they would have disagreed with him, too. Not realistic, they said. Too idealistic, they said. Strength is what wins.

In the early 20th century, T.S. Eliot in Little Gidding, after the horrible slaughter of the First War turned the finger inward again:

All manner of thing shall be well

When the tongues of flame are in-folded

And the fire and the rose are one.

Now readers of poetry, and novels, and history began to take notice of the concordance of all these generations of sources and to wonder if the unity principle had some application after all, some power to ward off the slaughter of machine guns and poison gas, the illusion of empire and specialness. More than just a few teachers or poets began to talk in the same language. Separation is illusory.

Carl Jung built a whole construct of psychology upon this thought, translating into modern language the wisdom of these who had preceded him. The language was new but the message carried a similiar truth to that of Eliot, and Tolstoy and to Hutchinson and Hildegard von Bingham, and Pelagius and Jesus and Buddha. Only now, Jung was not burned for his heresy, nor even labeled sacrilegious or apostate. The modern world was more than ever ready for this new formulation:

To embrace the shadow, put your arms around the need for justice and revenge and pursue it inward. The inward path, he wrote, is to experience wholeness in one’s own self and to withdraw our natural tendency toward projection of blame. To embrace the shadow is the way of the sages to freedom.

So when today when we say we will try to lift our preoccupation with blame, to remove the violence of the spirit and to work together with others to build a city of light, we are saying that—as important as our daily battles are—we are engaged in an even greater work. It is the greater work because it is the work of centuries, the slowest, most painful and still the most meaningful work.

Throughout the last two thousand five hundred years a cry has been emerging in cultures that did not accept the possibility, nor have ever, as a rule, followed the possibility, that human evolution is not only of weapons and wealth but also of the spirit.

And yet in spite of these failures, in spite of the lingering tendencies of Rich Lowery and his ilk, the frequency of the alternative teaching is increasing, and the acceptance is spreading, and Buddhists are in Santa Fe, and Jungians are in Santa Fe, and poets and playwrights and Unitarian ministers and all these are tapping into a central perception that separation is illusion. That projection is a false solution. That my way or the highway is the road to self destruction and not to security, at all. Figuratively, the ice caps are melting and we are all in this together.

We are, as a species, gradually and inexorably inching toward the awareness that not only are the leaders and outstanding illuminati among us confronted with this quantum leap in human evolution, not only the “thems” and others are confronted with the opportunity for freedom, but we all have that chance.

And what that means is some recognition that one’s own opinion, above all, one’s own separate, right idea, one’s own justice, as Gamsakhurdia would have said, is illusion. The result of the separation is suffering. It is perhaps a metaphor for that suffering that in the end, after being president, after leading a civil war, after searching all his life for justice and revenge, the last chapter in the story of Gamsakhurdia was that he took his own life.

Whether one talks about the freedom from self of Buddhism or the Kingdom of God of Jesus, the dissident rabbis and priests or the poets, or psychologists, they are all pointing to a leap in consciousness necessary for us to survive, a new leap in human evolution. And we don’t have much choice about whether to go for it.

In modern terms, the next step in evolution either will be, or will not be, a rise in consciousness from one’s sense of individuality and separation to one’s experience of our ultimate, inevitable, undeniable interdependence.

When we say that we will work together on any project without becoming preoccupied with enemies, (or that is not preoccupied with the meanness, or selfishness, or injustice worked upon us by our adversaries), that we will work without violence, even violence of the spirit, we are saying that we accept the challenge to attempt in our own times and in our own ways, to take the next evolutionary step. We will join with the forces for positive evolution. And for intellectuals and liberals, academics and the wealthy, the secure and the strong, the hardest part of those simple statements will actually be not the enemies part, or the non violence part, it will be the working together part.

And that is the Great Work of which you here, in this congregation, are a part.

When you declare that you will not be preoccupied with enemies and will work without violence and that you will work together with others in a spirit of good will, you seek to carry forward the work of the teachers, the courageous women, the poets and even modern psychologists to get on with the work to build a city of light, wherever you are.

And if you do, we as a species have a chance to survive.

It is not much better than a chance.

But if you do not try, it is not even a chance.