By Peter VandenBerg (Quang Dinh)
It seems that many Americans today feel at least some ambivalence toward our nation’s future. Do you know anyone who thinks that everything here is hunky-dory? Most of us have many complaints, especially about the state of the economy. Most of us experiencing stress and pressure in geometric proportion to that which we saw as little as ten or twenty years ago. Is there a light at the end of the proverbial tunnel? I see that there is.
About five years ago, I made an important discovery. I had been suffering from depression and anxiety for many years. Anti-depressant medication only helped a little. My moods got darker as the economy worsened; I saw factories closing and houses left to crumble in town after town. Crime worsened, drug and alcohol abuse threw gasoline on the bonfire, and towers were falling into rubble. I saw no end to the chaos until I started to meditate.
Most of my life I thought I knew what meditation was. I had been told that praying was talking to God, and that meditation was listening to the answer. One day I was led to pick up a copy of Mindfulness in Plain English and once I read through it I realized that there was much more to meditation than what I first saw the healing. When my mind was empty of thoughts, the physical part of my brain began to rewire itself and the connections that had been causing my depression were shut down, and new, much better connections began to form. Even if I was only able to sustain the meditative state for a few minutes, even just for a few seconds, the healing process would start to manifest. The more I meditated, the better I felt and the more I wanted to continue to meditate.
I am a lay person, so I’m living out in the world of jobs and bosses and paychecks. Long periods of meditation are hard to maintain. I then found that chanting would also keep my mind from straying back into the old patterns, so while at work or driving, or even just before sleep, I began a chanting regimen. I tried different chants. I tried “OM” to join with the resonating universe or “Nam myo ho renge kyo” as I had learned from Nicherin (Japanese) Buddhism. I read about Pure Land Buddhism and settled on chanting the name of the Buddha. I chant “Ami tabh a Buddha”, with two beats on the first syllable to provide the pentameter. The phrase means ‘homage to the Buddha of the Western Paradise”. I chant out loud when I can, or silently (the diamond chant). I have also chanted “Nam mo a di da phat” which means the same thing only in Vietnamese. Both these chants have a rhythm that can be applied to manual tasks, and they work very well to continue the healing process that occurred so remarkably well with meditation. Today I don’t have the worries that used to bother me so much before. If you have symptoms like mine and want to heal yourself, just try it. It’s not magic, but it will seem like it.
But what about healing the nation? Am I suggesting that every American must become a Buddhist, drop everything and meditate like monks and nuns? The answer to this complicated question must be yes and no. I am suggesting that our vast nation would benefit by some real healing, who can deny this? Using symbolism, I imagine something like the Statue of Liberty in New York City putting down her torch for a while, getting into a lotus position and just sitting. She slows, takes a breath, observes the breath, and then takes another breath. Then I imagine the crack in the Liberty Bell fusing together, the metal new and shining once again, the bell ringing chimes of freedom with perfect pitch and clarity. As a boy I was taught that the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia cracked because it rung too much, too loudly, that freedom was so desired by the colonists that the bell couldn’t take the resonance. The gaping crack became a symbol for our desire for freedom and the giant bell is displayed in a glass case, and never rung. That the ringing caused the crack is not scientifically accurate. A metallurgist will tell you that such a crack can only be caused by a flaw in the smelting, an inconsistency in the manufacturing of the bell when it was forged. Concordantly, there is a flaw in the liberation. The freedom that the American colonists fought for was not won solely from fighting and beating the British mother country, but at the terrible loss of the original settlers, called the American Indians although this name is more of a classification due to the historical mistake made by Christopher Columbus in thinking he had sailed all the way to India. Europeans stole this nation from the native peoples in the name of “manifest destiny” or what whites considered God’s will. While they were busy doing God’s will they used the same white supremacy attitude to import millions of African to be slaves. All of the states benefited by their forced labor, the north as well as the south. These are only two of the examples of karma that the United States is still paying for, and it must be remembered that slaveholders suffer a slaveholder’s mentality; when you torture others, you also torture yourself. You become dependent on taking, and this is very bad karma. When you take away someone’s home, destroy his well being and his ability to feed his family, you destroy a culture, but you also inherit the remnants. We see this today in our modern culture. We admire the “noble red man” just as we follow new fashions and must originated in the African American Culture. This is often confusing to a student of history, not to mention those whose culture we have usurped.
We have been a nation for 234 years. This is not a long time when compared to other countries around the world. We are a product of the British Empire, which took is form of government from philosophers such as John Loch, who applied democratic ideals first brought about in Athens, Greece more than two thousand years ago. Our founding fathers (and mothers) picked up on the philosophy and tried to make it a reality. Bed Franklin’s portrait on our currency is there to remind us of this. The idea was one of equality, and monarchy and rich aristocracy was tempered. Equality means freedom, the same concept that we fought our birth was to achieve. But can anyone today say they feel as free as the Indians who were here before us, not to mention the freedom of tribal life pre-colonial Africa? We have no king in America, but there is a rich aristocracy that controls us and I wonder if they are feeling the stress of the economic condition as well. I wonder if the slaveholder mentality has been passed down to the present generation, even though we have made strides to finally recognize non-whites as participants in our democratic equality.
In the 1940’s the world was witness to a major turmoil that bore witness to yet more genocide. A large percentage of the Jewish people were expunged, as were millions of Armenians and Rom. Many nations lost citizens and soldiers. Our American nation joined the fight against fascism and in 1945 could claim victory. Our economy prospered and we were respected for our accomplishments. In our minds, we were the “good guys”. Subsequently in the 1950s we fought in far away Korea, this was a struggle to preserve Democracy against the threat of Communism, and the Korean theatre was the scene of the conflict because the superpowers were hesitant to start another world was, given the technology that was now unleashed. The United States did not win the war in Korea and the conflict was unresolved. History repeated itself in the next decade, but the staging was done further south in Vietnam. These faraway lands were so unknown to most Americans, and most of us could not fathom why we were fighting there. What could victory bring us? The Vietnamese people were incredibly resilient, and the United States was again not victorious. Our invasions had only changed how the world viewed us. We were no longer the “good guys”. We weren’t the “bad guys”; we didn’t know what we were. We were in limbo.
We did become aware of Far Eastern culture at this time. I can’t justify the violence but I like to imagine the goodness of Buddhism somehow was transferred to us because today, many thousands of Americans have discovered the benefits of meditation. Buddhism is spreading very quickly throughout our nation, not as a substitute for any other religion, but as a companion. It is not difficult to find correlations between the faiths. The precepts of Buddhism ask us to refrain from killing, lying, stealing, consumption of alcohol and illegal drugs and forgoing harmful sexual practices. This sounds much like the Ten Commandments of Judaism and Christianity. When Islam is included, the three monotheistic religions point to the wide pantheon of eastern religions with distain. But Buddha said nothing for or against other forms of religion. He saw that the mass progression all led to the same place. When asked about the after life, he simply replied “it does not further.” I take this to mean that he asks us to see ourselves in our present situation, and choose to better ourselves to achieve nirvana, rather than rely on a future heavenly reward, real or imagined. It is not hard to see that Christians, Jews and Muslims all seek the nirvana of their own paths, and it is also available to them. Hindus and other eastern religions already know this. Religions in conflict with one another are an oxymoron.
We are embracing the teachings of Buddha in this country as never before. It is healing us. The light at the end of the dark tunnel is not an oncoming locomotive after all, but the shining hope that our future is yet bright and has always been there waiting for us to emerge. Ben Franklin’s tower still stands but is no longer a modern tower of Babel. This new ideal is a place where economic problems lose their potency, because our desires no longer eclipse our joy of living. Our present economic concerns are an elusion, propagated by our desire for more material wealth. Of course we have less today. We need to have less today. It is our karma. The healing is occurring; we can all step into a beautiful brilliant place that is prepared for us. Our struggles will be over, our desires dissolved. Again, if you are hurting and you want to get better, chant the Buddha’s name. Try it. It really does work. There is more that must be done, but this is a first step.
In Franklin’s tower there hangs a bell. It may have one more ring in it you can’t tell. One watch by night, and one by day. If you get confused listen to the music play. Roll away the dew.
–Except from Franklin’s Tower, by Jerry Garcia.