Browsing the blog archives for September, 2011

The Dangerous Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu?

Robert V. Taylor

How dangerous is His Holiness the Dalai Lama? The South African government in denying him a visa to attend Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s 80th birthday celebrations appears to believe he is a danger to freedom loving people. His life, like that of Tutu’s, points to a very different message of the inter-connectedness of all things and people.

The South African government has rejected the Dalai Lama’s visa application, according to The Times of India, as “incomplete.”  With one of the world’s most progressive constitution’s the “New South Africa” has enshrined the rights of freedom of expression and those of women, children and gay and lesbian people in its constitution. The Dalai Lama’s pending visit tests the spirit, intent and letter of the values of that constitution.

The denial of his visa is a reminder of the old apartheid South Africa in which freedom of speech and association was ruthlessly denied. In the nineteen seventies the then Minister of Justice responded to concerns about the house arrest – or banning – of those whose voices were at odds with apartheid.  He said that those under house arrest had as much freedom “as a goldfish in a bowl.”  Is the new South Africa beginning to act like the old one?

Tutu and the Dalai Lama are iconic figures because they are moral leaders who will not be silenced in speaking truth about the well-being of all people. Tutu’s Ubuntu – that a person is only a person in the context of other people – is very much related to His Holiness’ emphasis on the intertwined nature of all human life. Both are passionate advocates for freedom and compassion. Their personal friendship and affection is longstanding.  

© 2011 Zapiro (All Rights Reserved) Printed with permission www.zapiro.com

The recent cartoon from The Times of London points to the real reason for trying to silence the Dalai Lama in South Africa which is pressure from the Chinese government. If that is true it is ironic that the new South Africa, free of the colonialism of apartheid would subject itself to a new colonial master.  The dangerousness of the Dalai Lama lies in the South African fear of ruffling trade and diplomatic relations between China and South Africa.

The courageous lives and leadership of Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama would be affirmed by an equally courageous decision to grant His Holiness the visa now. The freedom and compassion of these iconic Nobel Peace Laureates would be matched by the act of issuing the visa now.

Compassion, kindness, reconciliation, justice and the oneness of the human family are the messages of Desmond Tutu and His Holiness. It is moral, inspirational and practical leadership that they invite others to exercise. In a time when there is vacuum in such leadership the world needs to keep hearing from these two leaders.

It is not too late to grant the visa and allow the Dalai Lama to present the Inaugural Desmond Tutu International Peace Lecture on October 8th the day after he lights the candle on Tutu’s eightieth birthday cake.  The light of their messages may be dangerous to some but the world longs for more of it.

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Watch His Holiness and Archbishop Tutu talk about compassion – click here

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The Compassion Wars?

Robert V. Taylor

The Compassion Wars are here and they’re ugly. The loud cheering about health insurance and booing of gay soldiers is chilling. This is not the generous hearted spirit of America at its best. Where is the compassion that leads to hearts cracked open to discovering our common humanity and oneness with one another?

Self-compassion is a journey that leads to compassions for others. I’ve come to believe that we are each hard wired for compassion. So how does that square with what I witnessed in recent Republican presidential debates from the candidates and the audiences?  How does it affect your practices of compassion?

In early September at a GOP debate sponsored by CNN and the Tea Party in Florida one of the candidates, Ron Paul, was asked if an uninsured man with cancer should be allowed to die. The crowd whooped it up cheering the question.  Ron Paul suggested that it was a choice of personal responsibility on the part of the man and that charity could always step in to help him.

I’m all for personal responsibility and the debate on whether there should be universal health care coverage are still unsettled.  But the cheering on of the death of another person because of their lack of insurance reflects hardened hearts.  Would the cheerleaders cheer on their own death or that of a loved one if they were in that situation?

Compassion invites you to be at one with another person by knowing that you could be in their shoes. Our lives are all bundled together, intertwined. Compassion leads to asking if life is just a game of Russian roulette or whether we want the best for another person.

When Stephen Hill, a gay soldier serving in Iraq asked the GOP field if they would circumvent the repeal of Don’t’ Ask Don’t Tell (DADT) if elected as President the audience at the FOX News-Google debate booed him.

In both cases none of the candidates offered leadership by suggesting it is inappropriate to cheer the death of a person or to boo someone serving his country.  Their silence was breathtakingly disturbing.

To boo another human being for whom they are or their circumstance is to say, “You don’t count as a person. You have no value as a human being.” Is this an expression of a new mob rule in which those we do not approve of are discarded to a human trash pile?

It feels like a declaration of war on compassion. To respond with equal fire power is not the compassionate response.  So how do you respond?

In your personal life one expression of compassion is to detach from negative or life-draining energy while whole-heartedly hoping for the best for the person from whom you detach.  When the death of others is cheered or a group of people are booed you might detach from the negative energy as you deal with your anger and amazement.  But detachment is very different from disengaging.

Disengagement is not the answer! When I disengage I cede the ground of compassionate oneness, of wanting the best for all people to those who would consign others to the trash basket of life. To mindfully engage is vital because your life and that of others is stake.

Every intention of yours is important. Every time you give voice to the questions and hopes of compassion your voice joins that of others. Your voice, your imagination and your compassionate life matter just as those who have been cheered and booed matter.

Detach but do not disengage! How will you be part of the human circle expressing compassion for all? How will you compassionately speak to the cheering and booing ones engaging in the oneness of the human family that includes those gay and lesbian soldiers and the dying uninsured?

So how will you engage with compassion?

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Check out the Charter for Compassion!

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At Ground Zero

Robert V. Taylor

Robert V. Taylor

I was unprepared for what I would see as I headed to spend a few days on the site of Ground Zero in November 2011.  Visiting the site again this week I am apprehensive about its impact. I wonder if a violent rupture is making way for transformed hearts about how we engage with the human family.

     As I walked from the subway station past St. Paul’s Chapel its wrought fences were a billboard of hand drawn posters from people across the United States and the world expressing love and support for the efforts underway. 

     The walk from Broadway in lower Manhattan to Ground Zero is just one city block long. Walking towards Ground Zero had an ominous steely grey quality to it.  Approaching the site I was struck by the quiet chill in the air of an otherwise frenetic, bustling city. 

     I knew this part of the city well from my years of living in the New York. I had stayed at the high rise hotel opposite the once World Trade Center. In 2000 I participated in a meeting on the 98th floor of the World Trade Center, finding it difficult to focus on the meeting when the panoramic view of New York Harbor and the Statue of Liberty kept luring the eye. I had enjoyed the July Fourth fireworks displays in the harbor the early 1980’s. Now, a once bustling area was a scene of carnage.

     Thousands of people stood pressed up against the high wire fences enclosing Ground Zero. They looked like the pilgrims I had seen at various holy sites around the world, reverent and filed with awe. But theirs was a desolate awe. The smoke and noxious fumes floating upwards from the rubble and still smoldering ruins had none of the fragrant smell of incense. It was like a funeral pyre.

     I was there to be alongside my friend Rand who had been volunteering seven days a week as a chaplain working alongside the workers at Ground Zero. He led me through a secure entrance onto Ground Zero. Taking in the carnage I wondered what evil imagination had planned such destruction. Within a few minutes there was complete silence on the site. Part of a body had been recovered from the rubble. Excavation activities stopped and workers lined up in silence as the remains were carried from the debris. This was no ordinary work site. The reverence for the dead and those who loved them was sacred. I was walking on holy ground.

Firefighters at Ground Zero 2001

     Over the course of those two days I spoke with endless numbers of firefighters and police officers. They had each known colleagues who had died in the attacks. Most of them had been on the site for weeks without a break. Many of them were experiencing respiratory problems caused by the toxic fumes from the smoldering remains of the buildings that had collapsed. At the fire house on the edge of Ground Zero there were wreaths and flowers alongside the photographs of the fire officers who had died on September 11.

     The remarkable firefighters and police officers on the site revealed a richly textured face of human compassion and selflessness. Darkness and light seemed to wrestle with one another at Ground Zero. In those working there I experienced hands literally reaching out, delicately working in the rubble. Hearts were offered as if lighting a wick of hope.  Like lighting candles in the dark, their actions seemed to cry out to the darkness, “We beg to differ.”

     At the end of the second day, as I made my way past an exit area from the fenced-in Ground Zero work site, past police officers and sniffer dogs, I paused.  I stood with scores of onlookers pressing up against the fence, looking in from the outside at where I had spent two days.  I thought of Chanukah, the Jewish Festival of Lights.

     Chanukah is celebrated in the northern hemisphere at the darkest time of the year. The nine branched menorah, also known as a Chanukah, is placed in windows by way of pointing to the Light of the Holy One. The timing of the festival in the midst of winter reinforces the image of moving from darkness to light. Many of those who observe Chanukah understand the candles as offering a spiritual light enabling people to overcome difficulties, allowing them to move from places of personal darkness towards light.

      In the Jewish mystical tradition light is synonymous with the Divine. Robin Levinson observes that one such powerful image is of the overwhelming energy of God’s light shattering the vessel that held it and scattering it into countless “holy sparks” that spread across the entire universe. So we find the mystical tradition of “raising holy sparks” connected with the mandate to Jews of tikkun olam – repairing the world.  

     Looking down at the Ground Zero site that afternoon in 2001 each team of workers was like the nine-branched menorah. This was no place for working as a solitary individual. Together they were shedding light, differing with darkness, repairing a rupture in the world.  As I walked away with that image flooding my imagination I was crying. 

St. Paul's adorned with love offerings from around the world

The tears streaming down my cheeks were a common sight around Ground Zero. I wondered if others were coming away wondering how to be part of “holy sparks” of the Creator’s light. More than a cathartic response to the emotional intensity of Ground Zero, the tears were in recognition and acknowledgement of the internal shift on my spiritual landscape that came from being present at the site. Like most sacred places of pilgrimage the pilgrim comes away changed and transformed in some way because of being present in the presence of the sacred.

     I returned to historic St. Paul’s Chapel where George Washington was inaugurated as President of the United States. It had been transformed from a place of worship into a respite center for the workers at Ground Zero. A place of worship was revealing the meaning of service.

     Inside cots were set up for workers to nap on, food was served to them from the kitchens of New York’s finest restaurants, massages were offered to exhausted and stressed workers many of whom had not seen home in days.

     That night as I travelled on a train to rural Connecticut I realized that I was leaving a place where terror had ripped the veil of American innocence. I was heading to the bucolic beauty of a conference center alongside a river surrounded by the resplendent beauty of the colors of the last changing leaves of fall.  My destination felt both like a dislocation from the reality of Ground Zero and a reminder of human beauty coexisting with it.

Ground Zero Reimagined

     On the train ride I remembered some lines from Yeats – “I have spread my dreams under your feet. Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.” I wondered, as I still do, how we will tread softly on the dreams of the Holy for the entire human family.

     Perhaps the answer lies beyond the memories of the carnage of Ground Zero in the other story of Ground Zero. It was a story of people uniting in their common humanity across boundaries of religion, place or race. Selflessness was unassumingly assumed. Holy sparks of light were present in the determination to overcome the darkness of what had happened. Anger, loss and grief were giving way to oneness discovered in service and generous hearts at work.

     I don’t know your memories and experiences of Ground Zero but mine were transformative. 9/11 and Ground Zero still beckon with the invitation to oneness that takes us beyond our own memories and into the well-being of all. We’re still invited to be holy sparks for goodness and repairing the world.

Join the conversation – share your experiences of Ground Zero and 9/11 below

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Silencing the Dalai Lama?

Robert V. Taylor

Robert V. Taylor

The attempt to silence His Holiness the Dalai Lama is an exercise in futility akin to trying to block the flow of eternal spiritual truths. Yet this is what the government of South Africa is trying to do. Their refusal to grant him a visa to give a lecture in Cape Town in honor of his friend Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s eightieth birthday is ironic at best and, at worst,  hostile to free speech and religion.

     These two iconic human beings are honored in much of the world for their willingness to speak truth to power out of the spirituality of their respective Buddhist and Christian traditions. Tutu’s fearless defense of the voiceless and the inclusion of all people is an expression of the abundantly generous love of the God he believes in. The Dalai Lama’s insistence on the inter-connectedness of all beings arises from his Buddhist tradition.  He says that his religion is one of kindness. These two Nobel Peace Prize Laureates share a common spiritual and pragmatic insistence on the power of forgiveness over retribution.

     There is nothing kind, inclusive or generous about the obfuscating responses of the South African government as they dither about whether to succumb to China’s pressure to keep the Dalai Lama out of South Africa.

     In 2009 the Dalai Lama was denied a visa to give a lecture in South Africa with News24 reporting that the government admitted its move was made “in order not to jeopardize ties with China.”  The Sunday Independent reported that the South African Embassy in New Delhi had not received the Dalai Lama’s visa application. On August 22, 2011 the Ministry of Home Affairs spokesman was quoted by Phayul News saying, “The Dalai Lama’s visa issue is not only administrative but political and diplomatic in nature.” In others words the South African government is considering colluding with China in an attempt to silence His Holiness’ voice in South Africa.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu

Archbishop Desmond Tutu

    The irony lies in the history of apartheid giving way to a robust democracy in 1994. Many members of the current government were silenced by the apartheid regime under which freedom of expression and association was unknown. It was Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s voice against apartheid that could not be silenced at home or on the global stage. Calling for the end of apartheid and for justice he insisted that the human family is made not for separateness but for togetherness. He calls it Ubuntu – we are only human beings in the context of others human beings.  

     The long fought for freedom of expression, association and democracy in South Africa is called into question by not granting a visa to His Holiness to deliver the inaugural Desmond Tutu International Peace Lecture in honor of his good friends eightieth birthday on October 7.

     Driven by the spirituality of their respective traditions Tutu and the Dalai Lama tirelessly work for freedom, reconciliation and the inclusion of all. In addition to the Tutu invitation the Durban based Gandhi Development Trust intends to honor His Holiness in South Africa with the 9th Mahatma Gandhi International Award for Reconciliation and Peace.

Robert V. Taylor, His Holiness the Dalai Lama & Archbishop Tutu

Dumisa Ntsebeza, Chair of the Desmond Tutu Peace Center in South Africa, expressed a generous hope saying, “Althoguh uncertainty over the visa has proved challenging…the Peace Center is confident the visa will be granted.”

     Archbishop Tutu and The Dalai Lama will not be silenced by any government. The question is why, given the remarkable history of South Africa’s journey, it would even consider trying to keep the Dalai Lama’s voice out of the county?

      It is a futile flourish that the old apartheid government would have been proud of.  Perhaps it is the South African government that is need of reconciliation – the reconciling of a country’s liberation and constitution with a visa that will welcome one of the great religious and human rights crusaders to its country. What is to be feared from the voices of these two Nobel Laureates celebrating their voices and those of humanity in the quest for spiritual and human freedom?

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9/11/2001 – Stuck or Transformed?

Robert V. Taylor

Robert V. Taylor

What memories of September 11, 2001 do you have?  Was there some transformative power at work that continues to reveal itself in you today?

I was up early that morning in Seattle, made coffee, returned to bed and then uncharacteristically turned on the TV. The first plane had hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center. At first glance I thought it was a surreal stunt.  And then the second plane hit the South Tower.  I reached for the phone and called key staff members telling them what had happened and said, “We’re having an interfaith service; can you meet at the Cathedral in 90 minutes?”

Interfaith services took place across the United States in the days following the events of 9/11. The terror that lived in most of our hearts because of the attacks in New York, Pennsylvania and Washington DC was compounded by the stories of attacks and hatred directed to members of various religious communities.  These attacks came not from abroad, but from within the United States. 

As we tried to make sense of what the terrorist attacks, committed in the name of Allah meant, many were also grappling with internal attacks on the founding American principle of religious freedom.  President Bush’s suggestion of a religious crusade ricocheted in the hearts of many. It invited the question of whether the violence inherent in a crusade was a descent into greater darkness accompanied by the erosion of the values of liberty and justice that characterize America’s story and ideals. 

In the complex mix of emotions unleashed within us, the “other” became a scapegoat for many.  We always have the choice of accepting or rejecting the practice of scapegoating.  The Sociologist Keith Doubt believes that the scapegoat takes on symbolic significance as we develop a collective understanding of the scapegoat resulting in prejudice, which in turn leads to legitimizing violence under the “cloak of righteousness.” He says that when we scapegoat, human rights become invisible and moral actions become paralyzed. 

I kept asking myself, “Where is the light that shines in the darkness?  What is that light revealing to us?” 

Anxiety, horror, anger, uncertainty, bewilderment and fear were all combustible elements living side by side. For the hundreds of thousands who attended interfaith services across the United States and elsewhere that week there was a flickering hope, a refusal even, to have the dream of a common humanity shattered by a few. 

Unnamed and unspoken by most, these gatherings of prayer, lamentation and hope embodied a refusal to scapegoat.  They clung to a belief that the darkness of jettisoning human rights and moral paralysis invited a descent into further darkness instead of seeking the possibility of light in the midst of darkness.

Images of some of the traditions of the human family

In the largest of these services in Seattle, participants came knowing that in the six days following September 11th there had been attacks in that city on members of the Sikh and Muslim communities while synagogues required protection at Rosh Hashanah.  Fear had led to threats and actions of violence aimed at people because they were not part of the Christian majority or because they looked different.

At the interfaith service in Seattle I said, “When I light a candle, I say to the darkness, ‘I beg to differ.’”  We can beg to differ with the darkest darkness.  That night a sea of lit candles filled sacred spaces and then shed light on the streets of Seattle as people walked together in the streets, moving from one sacred space in the city to another. We begged to differ with the darkness whether it was coming from abroad, from our own leaders, from within our own community, or residing among our own unresolved and complex reactions. 

The power of people coming together refusing to succumb to fear and darkness pointed to a powerful ancient truth that, “the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.”  The light is revealed in our shared humanity, in our oneness and in the Holy or sacred discovered in all. It is a very different engagement with being human than the obsession with crusades reported by The New York Times.

Is the invitation of the tenth anniversary of 9/11 revealed in what it means to discover our oneness as a people together?  What it means to find God revealed in the many sacred traditions practiced in the United States and among the human family? What it means to refuse to scapegoat and deny the rights of others? And in the truth that our humanity is revealed when we work together for the well-being of all?  

Is the transformative gift of the 9/11 observances discovered in knowing that we need each other as members of the human family now more than ever? That is a power that no hatred or violence can scapegoat.

Join the conversation! Share your memories, reactions or transformative experiences below

Click here to watch Robert’s video conversation The Life-Giving Power of Darkness

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