Observing from beyond the solar system, a cultural outsider looks in.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

A Beginner's Research on Tibetan Buddhism and History

In one of those synchroncities that sometimes occur in life, shortly before I began to hear about the current unrest in Tibet, I had begun to read a book called The Essential Dalai Lama: His Important Teachings, edited by Rajiv Mehrotra and published by Penguin Books. The book is a compilation of essays and lectures on Buddhism by the Dalai Lama. It is a relatively thin book, under 300 pages, but I have yet to finish it a couple of weeks later, because each of the essays in the book is so full of meaning and deserving of further thought that I cannot read too much of it at once without stopping to absorb and ponder it.

I am not a Buddhist. I am someone who has a great deal of interest in spiritual questions about the actual nature of reality, but because of a questioning mind I have been unable thus far to accept any religion. As such, I am by no means an expert on this subject, but I want to convey some sense of what I believe is the deep importance of preserving the Tibetan culture. I have the impression that many Americans are unfamiliar with that culture and think of Tibet as far away and unimportant to them. I want to express why I think it is imperative that we support Tibet.

Buddhism seems to be a mental discipline at least as much as it is a religion. A person following the Buddhist path seeks to achieve victory over the enemy within, which is ignorance that distorts the perception of reality and leads to harmful behavior and suffering for oneself and others. An early step on this path is to learn to control one's passions, emotions, thoughts, and desires so that one causes no harm. The ultimate goal is the liberation from suffering of all sentient beings in the universe through attainment of Buddhahood.

To quote the Dalai Lama:

Buddhism teaches that the mind is the main cause of our being reborn in the cycle of existence. But the mind is also the main factor that allows us to gain freedom from the cycle of birth and death. This liberation is achieved by controlling negative thoughts and emotions and by promoting and developing those that are positive.

-The Essential Dalai Lama p. 68

What if the United States could be transformed from a militaristic culture continually attacking other nations and causing much harm into a peaceful nation that only seeks a better future for all?

It seems like such a very distant goal sometimes, yet that is exactly what happened in Tibet within two or three centuries after the introduction of Buddhism there. Buddhism taught an ethic of caring for others and wanting to bring about their happiness. It was widely adopted, and Tibet went from a warrior culture to a peaceful, spiritual culture in a relatively short period of time. I learned this incredible fact from the second in a series of video lectures On Tibet by Robert Thurman, President of Tibet House U.S. I rented it from Netflix.

Through training our minds we can become more peaceful. This will give us greater opportunities for creating the peaceful families and human communities that are the foundation of world peace. With inner strength, we can face problems in the familial, societal and even global levels in a more realistic way. Nonviolence does not mean passivity . We need to solve problems through dialogue in a spirit of reconciliation. This is the real meaning of nonviolence and the source of world peace.

This approach can also be very useful in ecology. We always hear about a better environment, world peace, nonviolence and so forth, but such goals are not achieved through the application of regulations or United Nations resolutions; it takes individual transformation. Once we have developed a peaceful society in which problems are negotiated through dialogue, we can seriously think about demilitarization -- first on the national level; then on the regional level; and finally on the global level. However, it will be very difficult to achieve these things unless individuals themselves undergo a change within their own minds.

-The Essential Dalai Lama p. 35

Surely a culture that has made this much progress on creating a really civilized nonviolent society is worth preserving. I would even venture to argue that if world peace would be the ultimate worldly outcome of widespread adoption of Buddhist philosophy, then from a purely material world perspective, it almost doesn't matter if the more subtle metaphysical aspects of Buddhism are true. (Of course, from a spiritual perspective it probably matters greatly.)

Who is the Dalai Lama?

His Holiness the Dalai Lama is the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people and the head of the Tibetan Buddhist religion. He is also their political leader, and, as I found out from an A&E Biography of him, he is actually the King of Tibet, a country which from a real-world political perspective at this time exists only in exile. (The land that was once the country of Tibet and is still home to most of the Tibetan people is now politically a part of China, since their invasion and occupation starting in 1950.)

"Dalai Lama" is a title, not a name. His name is Tenzin Gyatso, and he is the 14th Dalai Lama. He is believed to be the reincarnation of every other Dalai Lama there has ever been.

Buddhahood is not the exclusive preserve of the historical Buddha, but a state of insight and being accessible to all humans. Though the Dalai Lama himself is at pains to stake no such claim, describing himself as merely a "simple Buddhist monk," millions of his followers, both Tibetans and others, regard him as a "Living Buddha," a reincarnation of the compassionate --Avalokteshvara, the 14th incarnation in the line of Dalai Lamas , Bodhisattvas who chose to reincarnate to provide temporal leadership to Tibetans and to serve and teach all humanity.

-Rajiv Mehrotra

In the A&E Biography there was a fascinating story about how the 13th Dalai Lama somehow knew that there were going to be problems with China and told the Tibetan people that he would die at an earlier age than would otherwise be necessary, so that he could come back in time to be of an age to be helpful to them in the next life. He then died.

After the 13th Dalai Lama's death, the monks looked for signs of where to find his reincarnation. The young boy who would become the 14th Dalai Lama lived in a rural area and often would play a game of packing a bag and saying he was going to Lhasa, the Tibetan capital where the Dalai Lama normally lived. When the monks eventually found him, he was able to correctly identify a series of objects that had belonged to the 13th Dalai Lama and which he had never seen before in his current incarnation. This is also shown in the very fine Martin Scorsese film Kundun, which tells the story of the current Dalai Lama's early life.

The young Dalai Lama was rigorously trained in Buddhism and was crowned King of Tibet as a teenager. After the Chinese invaded his country in 1950, he at first sought to coexist peacefully with them, even making visits to China to meet with Chairman Mao. The Chinese apparently made sweet promises to him about modernizing Tibet, which he liked because he had an interest in technology.

Whatever misgivings he may have had, he was also obligated to approach them in the spirit of nonviolence. Eventually, it became clear to him that the Chinese government was bent on the destruction of Tibetan religion and culture, and he was forced to flee his homeland in 1959. Since then he has lived in Dharamsala, India, which is the seat of the Tibetan government in exile.

To Americans, it may seem strange to think of a government headed not only by a king, but one who is a religious leader as well. The current Dalai Lama is, however, a very modern man. Although he remains the leader of the Tibetan people, he's apparently a great admirer of democracy and Thomas Jefferson, and after he was exiled, he wrote a democratic constitution for Tibet that even allows for his impeachment. The concept of impeaching him apparently caused great consternation among the Tibetan people when it was first published, because they believed this would be sacrilegious.

Clearly a very intelligent person, he is not dogmatic, nor does he insist that Buddhism is the only path. In fact, he regularly meets with prominent religious leaders and scientists from all over the world. In response to a question, he once told Carl Sagan that if science was ever able to prove that reincarnation does not exist, then they would have to stop believing in it. He believes that religion must accommodate itself to whatever science has proven.

Since his exile, the Dalai Lama has traveled all over the world giving lectures and teachings and exchanging knowledge with all sorts of people. He has introduced the Tibetan religion to the world and has therefore become a teacher not only to the Tibetan people, but the entire planet.

I once attended a lecture and meditation given by him in Mountain View, California, and I think that it would be very difficult for anyone who has been in the presence of this great man to deny that at the very least he is a person full of compassion and wisdom.

The Dalai Lama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989, for his continued dedication to nonviolence.

The Situation in Tibet

The area traditionally known as Tibet is located high in the Himalayas. It is as large as the portion of the United States west of the Mississippi, and home to 6 million Tibetans. Since the Chinese invasion, it has also been settled by Han Chinese. Tibet is so high in altitude, however, that its population has evolved greater lung capacity to cope with the scarcity of oxygen. The newly arrived Han Chinese settlers do not have this greater lung capacity and therefore face health problems, including the necessity for pregnant women to go back to China to give birth. (Much of this is information I got from Robert Thurman's lecture series, which I mentioned earlier.)

Tibet has long been known as a sacred place throughout Asia, and is more recently gaining that reputation in the United States and Europe. It is thought by some to be the inspiration for the legends about a place called Shangri-La or Shamballa, a Himalayan valley surrounded by high mountains and populated by spiritually enlightened beings. I have also seen Tibet described as the crown chakra of the planet.

Given this holy reputation, I can't help but wonder whether part of the Chinese motivation for invasion and occupation was to either control the spiritual energy there, in sort of the same way that the Nazis sought power from esoteric symbolism, or to suppress belief in that spiritual energy, given the Chinese government's history of being antireligious.

Since the Chinese occupation, the Chinese government has sought to destroy Tibetan culture, buildings, and artifacts, including some Buddhist monasteries. They have modernized, but also commercialized the Tibetan landscape. They have also reportedly turned the Tibetan people into an economically deprived lower-class.

There have been various uprisings and protests over the years. The current unrest is the most significant in years. It began on March 10, the anniversary of the 1959 uprising of the Tibetan people against the Chinese government, during which the Dalai Lama fled to India. It also comes on the eve of this year's Summer Olympics, which will be hosted by China. The Olympics will shine a spotlight on China, so it is an important time to raise awareness of human rights violations by the Chinese government.

Many people have already been killed by the Chinese government in the current Tibetan uprising. The Tibetans who are joining the protests are doing so even though they realize that they risk losing their lives. It is important for America, which proclaims the ideal of freedom, to walk our talk and support Tibetan freedom.

Since the current uprisings began, I have been doing background research more than I have been following the day-to-day events. For more on what is currently happening, please see grannyhelen's excellent series of diaries.

On March 31, there is a Global Day of Action for Tibet planned in many cities throughout the world. I will be joining the march from the White House to the Chinese Embassy in Washington, DC.

If you haven't already, please sign the petition in support of Tibet and the Dalai Lama at avaaz.org.

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Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Spring Is the Time for Slinging Slime

Surprising as it might be, that title is not a description of the presidential election. Rather, it refers to the yearly necessity of cleaning out the accumulated rotting organic material and slimy stuff from my backyard pond after the winter. Yes, this is a real muckraking diary!

This may be a strange diary for a political site, but we all need a break from politics now and then, so I wanted to share with you something that brings me joy, relaxation, and renewal.

Maybe together we can answer the age old question...

If water is so darn precious, why do we let fish poop in it?

- Stephen Colbert

I have always liked water, fish, other aquatic and semi-aquatic wildlife, and beaches. Maybe that's because I'm a Pisces. Ever since I read a book about feng shui and the various elements that go into creating a balanced and harmonious environment, I have wanted to have a water feature in my home environment for the nurturing energy that flowing water brings.

When I lived in Santa Cruz, California, I was within 2 miles of the beach, so I could walk there, and I had a large aquarium in my living room.

About a year and a half ago, I moved to Baltimore, Maryland, but after seeing An Inconvenient Truth, I decided not to buy property in a low-lying area near the water. My house is not within walking distance of the Chesapeake Bay, but I did manage to find a house that came with a fish pond in the back garden. I like this house anyway, and I like the neighborhood, but the fish pond sort of clinched the deal.

Caring for a backyard pond has been a new and exciting experience, although I must admit I wasn't the best caretaker for the pond during the Edwards campaign. It got somewhat neglected during that time, but as it is a mini ecosystem unto itself, mostly it survived without getting too out of whack.

There are goldfish in my pond. They came with the house too, except for the ones that have been spawned since then. I've never added any fish to the pond, because the ones I have just keep breeding. Occasionally some of them die or disappear too. There are certainly cats in the neighborhood, and I've also occasionally seen a big blue heron, who is beautiful, but eyes my pond a little too closely. This has been a good lesson on the Buddhist theme of impermanence. It doesn't pay to get too attached to any one fish.

Over the winter, the fish stay in the pond and when it's cold enough, the pond freezes over. The fish become inactive, and mostly stay very still at the bottom of the pond. They don't need to eat during this time. It's important to keep a hole in the ice, so that foul gases from decaying organic matter and fish poop can escape. Otherwise, it would kill the fish. I can keep a hole in the ice by continuing to run the pumps for the waterfall. The movement of the water keeps it from freezing.

In the spring, it's time to clear all the decaying leaves, the ever present fish poop, and usually a couple of dead fish out of the pond. Since this is the first time I've had a pond, I'm really not an expert on that, so I've consulted various books and websites for how to do that.

The first advice that I came across for a spring clean out involved completely draining the pond, catching the fish and putting them in a temporary container, such as a kids inflatable wading pool. cleaning all the muck out of the bottom, and power washing the pond. This is probably really very desirable, but wasn't something that I felt up to doing myself the first year that I owned the pond.

What I ended up doing instead was partially draining the pond, so I could see how much muck was on the bottom, using a net to scoop out a lot of the muck, and then gradually replacing the water. I knew from owning an aquarium before that you don't want to add too much tap water to the water at one time, because it contains chlorine and will harm the fish and kill off the beneficial bacteria.

Actually, this latter strategy seemed to have worked OK, although this year I don't think I will take a lot of water out of the pond, because it probably keeps the balance better if I don't.

I've already done some of the spring clean out this year. I cut back the water irises and removed a bunch of dead leaves and debris from the water. When it gets warmer, I'll need to get some beneficial bacteria additive that I can put in the water to help the remaining muck go through its process of decay at the bottom of the pond.

The pond water is kind of green, which means there is quite a bit of microscopic floating algae in there. This isn't really bad, so long as it doesn't get out of control, because it helps oxygenate the water.

Last year, I used some algae killer chemical to control the algae, but as I was getting it out this year, I noticed the warning on the package about how it contained a chemical known to the State of California to cause cancer, and decided against using that. I'm not sure how the State of California knows so much more about the dangerous properties of chemicals than other states, but I'm willing to take their advice.

I finally turned to the Creative Homeowner Ponds & Fountains Smart Guide that I bought a while back at Home Depot or Lowe's and had never really cracked open. From that I learned...

It is normal for a pond to have excess algae growth until aquatic plants have established themselves. Submerged plants (oxygenating grasses) eventually starve out the algae by consuming available nutrients directly from the water. Surface plants like water lilies and various floating plants also consume nutrients and they cut off the sunlight needed for algae to grow. The addition of fish and snails, and the eventual unplanned introduction of algae eating insects like water fleas, also help to control algae, but to a lesser degree than plants.

The guide further informed me that when starting a new pond, I should start with...

Two bunches of submerged plants (oxygenating grasses) per square yard of pond surface area.

Well, isn't that interesting? There are some of what the guide calls bog plants in my pond, irises and water lilies, but apart from a few stray scraggly weeds, there are approximately zero bunches of submerged oxygenating grasses. I estimate that given my pond size, I should probably have at least eight. Maybe if I had that, my water wouldn't be so green.

Another thing I keep seeing recommended is snails, and although I've seen a few very small ones, I don't think I have the right number of those either.

I went out to Valley View Farms, which seems to be the main place in my area that people talk about as having a good water gardening department, but I learned that it's too early for them to have the oxygenating plants, because we could still get frost. I had gotten too excited by a few very nice days, and of course where I used to live in California, spring is already well underway.

Instead, I bought some rocks that enabled me to redo and move my waterfall. The water had previously been falling away from the house, which I didn't like because it was carrying energy away, when I looked at it from my limited understanding of feng shui.

I changed the direction of the tube coming from the pump, and moved the waterfall to the other side of the pond, so that it is now cascading over rocks toward the house. I am much more pleased with it.

I also cleaned out the pump filter, which increased the water flow.

Rocks, crystals, and plants could be added around the waterfall to improve the appearance, but this is a nice start, and I can collect the rocks from places that I visit.

Ah! The sound of water is so relaxing!

What have I learned from a little over a year of water gardening?

Don't put chemicals in the water that are known to the State of California to cause cancer. (Always good advice!)

To everything, turn turn turn, there is a season, turn turn turn, and a time for every purpose under heaven.

A fish in the pond is worth two in the blue heron's stomach.

If you give a man a fish, he will eat for a day. If you teach him to fish, KEEP HIM AWAY FROM MY POND! I have enough trouble with the blue heron.

And yes, Stephen Colbert, water is precious, even if it has fish poop in it. Just ask the squirrel that drinks out of my pond.

I leave you with some photos of ponds in a park not too far from my neighborhood. These ones are slightly larger than my own.

In a few weeks, that place will look like this:

For now, enjoy the first of the spring flowers.

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Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Congressional Poverty Scorecard - Anti-Poverty Legislation Blocked

On Monday, the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law released its 2007 Congressional Poverty Scorecard. The President of the Center, John Bouman, noted that in states with the highest poverty rates, their congressional delegations tended to score the worst.

"Poverty is everywhere in America, but it is interesting that in states with the highest concentrations of poverty, the Congressional delegations seem least interested in supporting initiatives that fight poverty," said John Bouman, president of the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law, which released the study. "This appears deeper than simply opposing spending. A member could have opposed any of the measures we analyzed that called for new spending and still could have voted to support half of the poverty-fighting measures on our list."

Former presidential candidate John Edwards was also on the center's conference call with reporters.

"We can get the national leadership and we can get the congressional leadership we need," Edwards said. "But first voters need to be educated as to who is doing the work and who is not."

Southern and Western states are doing the worst on poverty issues, according to the scorecard.

States whose delegations had the worst voting records and highest poverty rates were South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoma, Kentucky and Arizona.

Hawaii, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Vermont were the only four states whose entire congressional delegations earned all A's.

Most of the proposals that were considered for calculating the grade on the scorecard did not pass the House and Senate. The Senate in particular had trouble passing these bills due to filibusters or the threat of filibusters by Republican members. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who received a grade of A+, explained as follows:

"That's something I don't think the America people understand," said Sanders on Monday, adding Republicans are "obstructing" the work of the Senate. "A lot of these votes were not yes or no on the specific bill. They were yes or no to end a filibuster."

Edwards said that progress on poverty will only come with leadership, but added that both Senator Clinton and Senator Obama have promised him that they will make poverty an issue in their campaigns and focus on it in the White House, if elected.

The report considered bills on a variety of issues affecting poverty.

The votes we selected cover a wide range of subject areas, including affordable
housing, budget and tax, civil rights, early and higher education, health care, immigrants, labor, legal services, prisoner reentry, and rural poverty. In some important subject areas such as assets policy, we did not include any votes because we determined that no votes
important to fighting poverty occurred in that subject area in 2007.

The report considered fourteen votes in the Senate and fifteen votes in the House. Members were scored on "yes" or "no" votes and absent votes were eliminated.

The center was able to provide a score for 92 out of 100 Senators. Eight Senators received no score because they had not participated in enough of the votes. In many cases this was because they were running for President, though one was ill and one had arrived in the Senate partway through the year. They were also able to rank 424 out of 435 House members, with the few who were not scored also not voting enough times for similar reasons.

Click here to see which bills were considered and how your own Congressional representatives did.

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Monday, March 10, 2008

Announcing EENR Blog

I am late in announcing this. The new blog went up just as I had some health issues I had to take some time out to deal with, so it's actually been up for a couple of weeks.

I'm proud to announce the new blog from the EENR group, EENRblog.com. This has truly been a group effort, with many hands making light work. The entire EENR group contributed work to envisioning and creating the blog and providing content. Now we have a lot of great new members creating content too!

I especially want to thank Jamess and RedJet. James did most of the technical setup, although a few others, such as edgery, dk2, and I helped with that too. RedJet did the visual design for the blog. Many others have been keeping the blog running smoothly, welcoming new members, and coming up with ideas and content.

Here's the official announcement, adapted from one penned by edgery:

Introducing EENR (www.eenrblog.com) – a new home for Edwards Democrats, progressive activitists, and all interested in serious discussions to further a progressive populist agenda, with a side of fun of course!

Brought to you by many of the same folks (and several other familiar faces) who gave you EENR every night at Daily Kos and now the new EENR For Progress series on Sundays at DKos and Docudharma.

We've tried to set standards for discussion that reflect our desire for open communication, and those wonderful lessons we all learned in kindergarten, "Play Nice and Share Your Toys." There are lots of toys.

EENR has a nice unique feature, 12 subject sections located in the left side column. This gives us essentially twelve front pages, like a really big multi-sectioned newspaper.

Diarists can be Front Pagers in these sections, encouraging new talent to rise to the fore in different areas. Of course, we'll be promoting the best of these to the home page as well.

One thing EENR is not, however: it's not focused on the presidentials. That may be strange to some who are really focussed on that, and some of us still are. Just not at at this particular blog. Taking the Edwards Plan for One America as a blueprint, we are exploring the issues from that progressive and populist perspective.

That's not to say we won't look at local and state races to promote progressive candidates. We've added a weekly EENR For Progress: Candidate Endorsement series that will appear on Monday evenings at EENR as well as DKos and Docudharma. Our initial installment of this series featured Gilda Reed (LA-01), Larry Kissell (NC-08), and Barry Welsh (IN-06), and raised over $400 – not bad for a bunch of newbies.

EENR is still a work in progress in terms of design, though the essential elements are in place. At this point, we're not looking at adding ads (pretty controversial among our gang) though we may revisit the idea of free space for issue-oriented campaigns or endorsed candidates in the future.

I hope you'll stop by and take a look, maybe offer a few words of wisdom to spark a conversation. Oh, and a plug now and then won't go unappreciated. It's a big sphere out there, we're a little piece but hopefully one that can carve out a well-received niche.

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