I think a lot about art for peace and scholarship for peace, and what it might mean to design a sustainable future. Lately it’s been a mostly private investigation, but I may explore these ideas more publicly in the coming weeks.
Today I want to share a quote from an open letter by world renown artists, fellow Buddhists, Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock. The letter is meant to inspire and provoke artists, but the encouragement is food for thought for us all. They share 10 points, ending with the hope that we live in a state of constant wonder. They begin with this:
FIRST, AWAKEN TO YOUR HUMANITY
We are not alone. We do not exist alone and we cannot create alone. What this world needs is a humanistic awakening of the desire to raise one’s life condition to a place where our actions are rooted in altruism and compassion. You cannot hide behind a profession or instrument; you have to be human. Focus your energy on becoming the best human you can be. Focus on developing empathy and compassion. Through the process you’ll tap into a wealth of inspiration rooted in the complexity and curiosity of what it means to simply exist on this planet. Music is but a drop in the ocean of life.
It’s such an amazing feeling – freedom. Freedom from my own thoughts of limitation. Freedom from an old path. Freedom from what no longer serves me.
I’ve felt this freedom in recent days, swelling in a joyful crescendo this evening. To celebrate and reaffirm my recent decisions, I started tossing and recycling items long outdated. Tomorrow I get to cart them away.
There’s new space in my garage where anchors used to be. There’s new energy and mental clarity where there was once clutter and dread. It’s wonderful.
Even an individual at cross purposes with himself is certain to end in failure. Yet a hundred or even a thousand people can definitely attain their goal, if they are of one mind. ~Nichiren
Although many quote this passage from Many in Body, One in Mind to highlight the second half, I reference it most often for the first. More than once, I’ve found myself wavering about a decision. I have clear thoughts about where I want to go, but take steps at cross purposes with my own desires. It’s like stepping on the gas and the brake the at same time. You don’t go anywhere, and if you do, it’s a jerky, unpleasant experience.
When I talk about leading through art, one exemplar comes immediately to mind: Herbie Hancock. Many of a certain age are at least familiar with the jazz great, but may not realize the complex ways in which he weaves faith, daily life and art. To that end, I’d like to share the first in a set of his Norton lectures.
Harvard University declares an annual Charles Eliot Norton Professorship of Poetry. Poetry, in this case, is broadly imagined, and professors represent various of the fine arts. In 2014, Herbie Hancock became the first Black American to receive the honor, and he titled his lecture series the Ethics of Jazz. (It’s worth noting here, Toni Morrison is the 2016 Norton Professor and her lecture series opens March 2, 2016.)
Hancock’s opening lecture is titled the Wisdom of Miles Davis. He begins by introducing himself, first by familiar labels – musician, spouse, teacher and friend. But then he posits a question:
What is the single factor that connects all those aspects of me? It’s the fact that I’m a human being.
He goes on to explain that this, being human, is not a trivial matter. He encourages us to make the most of that human experience, and purposely seek a life of expansion rather than stagnation:
Most people define themselves by the one or possibly two things they excel at and are recognized for – perhaps a job or a hobby. There’s a tendency to live inside these self-made walls and not be open to the myriad opportunities that on the other side of the fortress…
To develop wisdom that will foster creativity in every aspect of life, it’s essential to entertain the idea of being open to possibilities. Second, explore how you perceive yourself, and recognize and investigate opportunities that lie outside of your comfort zone.
He continues, moving now to explain his choice of ethics as the foundation of the series. Ethics, he confirms, is a system of morals:
The study of right and wrong. Good and bad. The wise and empathetic. How we use our power to protect the rights and self respect of all people. It’s how we behave in the world among society – our brothers and sisters. And the values we hold dear and enable us to collaborate and interact with curiosity, compassion and righteousness. Without a moral code, the world would be overflowing with selfishness, apathy, greed, cruelty, environmental problems, violence…
He slows down here to note the irony, and goes on to proclaim our planet is on a slippery slope. Despite this, most people, regardless of race, religion or creed, “want to create ethical societies.”
Over the course of his life, Hancock has connected the values inherent in jazz with his Buddhist faith. He promises to share the lessons he’s learned in this multi-decades long project through autobiographical accounts.
A couple of things to listen out for as you watch this first one:
Don’t play the butter notes.
Listen to what you can leave out.
What other lessons does he share? What will you apply in your daily life?
The past couple of days and today especially, my thoughts have turned to the three poisons. They are a subject of daily inquiry as I reflect upon what is good and how to create more of it in society.
In Nichiren Buddhism, the three poisons are greed, anger and foolishness. In brief, greed is the desire for excess – more than one’s share, to the detriment of others. Anger is grounded in ego. It’s the distorted belief (and behavior) that one is better than others, and is often brought on by lack of self-confidence. Foolishness is ignorance of the true nature of oneself. It’s unawareness or disbelief in the potential for enlightenment.
I believe all of what ails society can be traced to one or more of these poisons. Today’s session was on property and efficiency, and featured writings from Plato, Locke, Khaldūn and Bolívar. For various reasons, Bolívar’s Angostura Address was the most impactful for me. Two lines from his fiery speech:
Hence, legislators, your task is all the more difficult in that you have to reform men perverted by the illusions of error and unhealthy desire. <and>
…purify the corrupted aspects of our republic, denouncing ingratitude, selfishness, coldness of affection for the country, idleness and negligence on the part of citizens, and condemn the causes of corruption and pernicious examples...
In both cases I see the three poisons alluded to as corrupting influences. He seeks to provide an antidote through the reformation of government.
The seminar method of discussing these texts is an interesting one. Each of the participants pulls out very different things as inspiring, or problematic or food for thought. Our constant task is to make sense of what we’re reading and discern the lessons for leadership locked within.
Tomorrow we continue with a double session. More to come.
And so concludes the first full day of the Aspen Seminar. I’ve done a few group events over the years, but this one is the first one where such significant bonding occurs so quickly. We’ve had a few meals together and several hours of pointed conversation, and that’s been enough for individuals to connect while the whole group creates its own personality. It’s fascinating really.
Today’s session was on human nature. Our readings included Aristotle, Hobbs and Darwin. We discussed each text to understand what the authors said, whether or not we agree with their argument, and how we can apply the text to our leadership contexts.
At one point I talked about the importance of cultivating the potential inherent in each individual. My point echoed a key idea in Nichiren’s cherry, plum, peach, damson teaching. In brief, each plant is valuable in its own right, and need not strive to mask its uniqueness nor work to be like another plant in order to reach its full potential.
Our inquiry was essentially: what is the inherent quality of humans? Before a corrupting influence, who are we and how do we behave? The essence of the oak tree is contained within the acorn. An acorn is never going to be something else other than an oak tree, although circumstances can prevent it from growing or hamper it from reaching its full potential.
Your leadership style rests in part on what you believe to be true about human nature. Like Mencius, I believe humans are inherently good. The leader’s role, then, is recognizing the potential we each have, and cultivating it. Of course not everyone agrees with this, and again it’s the disagreement that makes the Conversation worthy to take place.
Is it possible? Has spring finally sprung in Georgia?
After many false starts, has winter finally melted away? Flowers and trees have long thought so. Dogwoods are in bloom and a healthy layer of yellow dust has blanketed cars and outdoor furniture.
Folks with allergies walk around with puffy pink eyes and hints of congestion interferes with small talk about the weather.
Despite these outward signs, the morning 40s have persisted. We’ll warm up a bit by late afternoon, only to plummet once the sun goes down. That’s someone’s definition of spring time, but that’s not how we do it in the Deep South.
Yet today? There were no April showers! There were no morning 40s! The sun shone beautifully all day as did I in my dress! I’m excited. It’s time. Maybe I can finally pack away these sweaters!
Those who believe in the Lotus Sutra are as if in winter, but winter always turns to spring. ~Nichiren
One of my projects-in-progress is a review of Nichiren Daishonin’s gosho to women. Nichiren was a Buddhist monk who came of age in 13th century Japan, and a gosho is an honorable writing (go is an honorific prefix and sho means writings).
Nichiren wrote many letters and treatises in his lifetime, and the extant among them were translated and published with background about the recipient when it was known. English versions of his writings are in two volumes published by the Soka Gakkai International: Writings of Nichiren Daishonin Vol 1 and Vol 2.
Over the course of several years, I read all of the writings in volume 1 in chronological order. I thought it would be an interesting project to reread them in a new way, through a different lens. For instance, I know some people who have undertaken the study of all writings to Shijo Kingo, a samurai and physician, and arguably one of Nichiren’s greatest disciples.
What can you learn about the practice of Buddhism and finding happiness in this world viewed through Nichiren’s encouragement to this one man? He received quite a few letters, and through them we learn about mastering your anger (Kingo has a famous temper); doing your best at work, even when your co-workers gossip about you (Kingo served Lord Ema and almost lost his estate due to this very thing); the importance of perseverance, and other timeless lessons.
A woman who embraces the lion king of the Lotus Sutra never fears any of the beasts of hell or of the realms of hungry spirits and animals.~Nichiren, The Drum at the Gate of Thunder
At a time and place when women were considered inferior to men, and indeed, were sometimes thought incapable of attaining enlightenment at all without first being reborn as men, Nichiren was decidedly more feminist. Basing his teachings on the Lotus Sutra, which celebrates the limitless potential inherent in all living beings, Nichiren praised women for their steadfast faith, and encouraged them with the same life-affirming wisdom he shared with men of the time.
All of the offenses committed by a woman in her lifetime are like dry grass, and the single character myo of the Lotus Sutra is like a small spark. When a small spark is set to a large expanse of grass, not only the grass but also the big trees and large stones will all be consumed. Such is the power of fire of wisdom in the single character myo. Not only will all offenses vanish but they will become sources of benefit.~Nichiren, The Drum at the Gate of Thunder
Today I read The Drum at the Gate of Thunder, written to the lay nun Sennichi. This gosho is one of 46 written to women included in volume 1. Some women received multiple letters – Sennichi received five as did Shijo Kingo’s wife, Nichigen-nyo. I may share some of my notes as I work through the gosho.
Someday let us meet at Eagle Peak, where Shakyamuni Buddha dwells. Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. With my deep respect, Nichiren. ~Nichiren, The Drum at the Gate of Thunder
It is important to remember that aging and growing old are not necessarily the same. ~Daisaku Ikeda
I cringe whenever my peers claim they’re getting old. Of course years pass and we physically age, but a lot of what they are claiming is more about mindset than time.
A friend argued that maybe those people are beaten down by life – they’re getting weary, not getting old. Perhaps.
My favorite models in life are my aunts and uncles. Three of them are active on social media and in real life. Here’s a picture:
Auntie Jessie, who will be 85 this year, called to wish me a happy birthday Wednesday. When we spoke around 9:30 p.m., she was just getting home after a full day, that started, of course, with yoga in the morning.
I’ve actually never heard her say I’m getting old. Years ago, she told me she knew she’d be around because longevity runs in our family. This was despite the fact that some of her siblings died at or near retirement age. She simply keeps living life to the fullest each day.
I logged into Facebook recently and noticed a conversation between two of my uncles. Live the life of your dreams starting now, wrote Uncle Grisby, age 78. Let the past be the past. Uncle Arnsel, 71, agreed, writing: I wouldn’t tamper with my life. I don’t want to miss out on what I have NOW!
I agree. There are many past choices I would not make today, but I chose them based on everything I knew about myself and life at that moment. Those choices were also my teachers, and the decisions I make today incorporate the learning of the past. To erase the lessons may erase the past hurts, but doing so would also erase the wisdom that comes in healing.
But what if you’re still suffering from past choices? What if getting old really just means your dreams are slipping away?
If you want to understand the causes that existed in the past, look at the results as they are manifested in the present. And if you want to understand what results will be manifested in the future, look at the causes that exist in the present. ~Nichiren
Nichiren implies here that not only are the lessons from the past contained in the present moment, but the power to change the present and create a new future are here as well. Youth does not spend its time looking backward, constantly lamenting what if? Youth looks forward, on to the next dream, a new goal, a different adventure.
What is youth? It is the inner strength not to stagnate or grow resistant to change but to stay open to new possibilities. It is the power of the spirit that refuses to succumb to complacency and strives ever forward. ~Daisaku Ikeda
Uncle Grisby was born on leap day, and yesterday he celebrated his 78th birthday. He shared this advice along with the following photo:
Start every day with a smile!!!
Here’s to growing older, while maintaining the spirit of youth.
In 2010, I wrote a long letter of encouragement to a friend in faith who was mired in self-doubt at the time. I subsequently shared it with a mutual friend Tia, who graciously reminded me of it today. Perhaps I’ll do some revising and share it more fully. For now, here are a few excerpts:
With regards to cause and effect, you must remember that every single thought, word and action is a cause. All the minutes and seconds you spend in worry and doubt are causes for failure. Every single moment. Whatever is in your heart becomes your prayer and that is what becomes manifest. You must guard your heart and really challenge yourself to stop that negative thinking when it appears. It’s going to appear (you’re human), but how you react when it appears is a function of your faith…
How difficult you find something to be is always in direct proportion to your capacity to respond to it – or in proportion to your thoughts about your ability. So basically, we only think things are hard if we don’t think we are strong enough or smart enough or good enough to tackle them.
No matter what is going on, it always goes back to the fundamental darkness that we are not worthy, or smart enough or good enough. But the truth is, you have everything you need in order to be successful. Your challenge is simply to make use of the tools in your environment.