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Vietnamese Monk Ven Thich Nhat Hanh

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We are not who we were very long ago. A lot of new ideas have emerged from Buddhism and other traditions emphasizing compassion, equality, nonviolence and critical perspectives on materialism and capitalism. When news of Thich Nhat Hanh’s death spread around the world, I saw far more people than I’d have expected say how he affected them, through a talk, a book, a retreat, an idea, an example.

It was a reminder of the huge impact Buddhism has had in the west as a set of ideas that has flowed far beyond the limits of who belongs to a Buddhist group or has a formal practice. You could think of Buddhism in this context as one tributary of a broad new river of ideas flowing through the west, from which many have drunk without knowing quite where the waters came from.

A Vietnamese monk who founded meditation centers on four continents and published dozens of books, Thich Nhat Hanh was one of the great teachers who came from Asia in the 20th century, along with Zen monks from Japan and Tibetan rinpoches.

He stood out because he came to the west as an explicitly political figure, arguing against the war in Vietnam (though the Dalai Lama’s opposition to the Chinese occupation of Tibet is certainly political too). His death seemed to me not an ending but a reminder that something far grander than this great teacher began sometime in the last century and continues to spread.

We are not who we were very long ago. A lot of new ideas have emerged from Buddhism and other traditions emphasizing kindness and compassion, equality and egalitarianism, nonviolence, critical perspectives on materialism and capitalism, and what I once heard the Zen priest Paul Haller at the San Francisco Zen Center call “the practice of awareness”.

They constitute a shift in what we ask of ourselves and others as profound as it is subtle. That subtlety consists of its incremental nature and of its realization as personal beliefs and actions in everyday life – that sometimes add up to more concrete changes in laws and institutions. You have to go back to how widely accepted various forms of cruelty and domination were half a century ago, from corporal punishment in public schools to domestic violence and systemic silencing and exclusion, to recognize how much has changed.

A lot of us have had the experience, in recent years, of going back to old novels and films and even songs to find that we no longer overlook or accept their casual cruelty. Of course the new ideas are corruptible, and charismatic leaders, including in Buddhist lineages, have abused their power – but I was amused to find that corporate attempts to co-opt mindfulness sometimes backfire when they make employees less tolerant of harmful policies.

This river of new ideas is a confluence of many other tributaries, of feminism, anti-racism and ecological ideas, and it has as one of its key principles a vision that everything is connected. Of course not everyone has changed; Bipoc (black, indigenous, people of color) people in the US are far from achieving equality by most measures; and many of these ideas exist more as aspirations than everyday practices.

But none of this means the ideas and ideals don’t matter, and the backlash by the right is a backlash against something they see as transformative and threatening. I’ve called contemporary conservative thinking “the idea of isolation”, obsessed with control through separation and segregation, with borders and anti-immigration rhetoric, with policing racial and gender categories, and marriage inequality both as a denial of marital rights to same-sex couples and of male domination within heterosexual marriage.

It’s anti-environmental, because the foundational truth of ecological science is that the world is made of pervasive, interconnecting systems, not discrete objects. With that comes a mandate to act with responsibility toward the consequences that is at odds with the conservative ideals of individual freedom and unfettered capitalism.

Hanh died on January 22, 2022. On January 25, the Save the Redwoods League announced that it had transferred title to a 523-acre stretch of redwood forest to the Intertribal Sinkyone Wilderness Council, a coalition of 10 tribal groups on the north-west coast of California. The place that had been dubbed Andersonia West “will again be known as Tcih Leh Dun (pronounced tsih-ih-LEY-duhn), meaning “Fish Run Place” in the Sinkyone language,” the press release notes.

You have to know that the Save the Redwoods League was founded 104 years ago by wealthy white men who were both eugenicists and elitists to understand how vast a transformation has taken place. Most of that transformation has been in the past few decades.

I remember reading an academic paper on the scurrilous past of the Save the Redwoods League in the mid-1990s, when the environmental movement tended to ignore or oppose indigenous presence in the lands they sought to conserve and was complacent or oblivious about its own past. The League was co-founded by Madison Grant, who headed the American Eugenics Society, was vice-president of the Immigration Restriction League, and is notorious for the pseudo-scientific book The Passing of the Great Race. The other founders held similar views.

The law professor Joyce Alene tweeted a few weeks ago, on Martin Luther King Day: “The moral arc of the universe is not going to bend itself.” People – famous, powerful, unknown, humble – bend it, often in increments or ways too small or subtle to measure. They add up.

“In the 1990s I watched the environmental movement slowly shift from its fantasies of “virgin wilderness” to the recognition that nearly every place on Earth was or is indigenous homeland and therefore environmental protection and human rights were not separate concerns (and that access to nature and to clean air and water were also racial-justice issues).

“The ideas that fed the shift came from indigenous struggles and indigenous intellectuals and allied scholars and activists. Those struggles are far from over, but the premises with which many of us operate are far different than they were. These usually begin as changes in consciousness and new narratives. They end as changes in law, policy, everyday practices and stuff as tangible as land ownership.

“This year, that includes an old-growth forest under indigenous management, with trees more than eight feet in diameter that “tower among Douglas fir, tan oaks, and Pacific madrones over a vibrant understory of huckleberry, manzanita, and ceanothus”.

The Guardian



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BRICS emerging as strong rival to G7

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It was in the fitness of things for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to hold a special telephonic conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin recently for the purpose of enlightening the latter on the need for a peaceful, diplomatic end to the Russian-initiated blood-letting in Ukraine. Hopefully, wise counsel and humanity would prevail and the world would soon witness the initial steps at least to a complete withdrawal of invading Russian troops from Ukraine.

The urgency for an early end to the Russian invasion of Ukraine which revoltingly testifies afresh to the barbaric cruelty man could inflict on his fellows, is underscored, among other things, by the declaration which came at the end of the 14th BRICS Summit, which was held virtually in Beijing recently. Among other things, the declaration said: ‘BRICS reaffirms commitment to ensuring the promotion and protection of democracy, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all with the aim to build a brighter shared future for the international community based on mutually beneficial cooperation.’

It is anybody’s guess as to what meanings President Putin read into pledges of the above kind, but it does not require exceptional brilliance to perceive that the barbaric actions being carried out by his regime against Ukrainian civilians make a shocking mockery of these enlightened pronouncements. It is plain to see that the Russian President is being brazenly cynical by affixing his signature to the declaration. The credibility of BRICS is at risk on account of such perplexing contradictory conduct on the part of its members. BRICS is obliged to rectify these glaring irregularities sooner rather than later.

At this juncture the important clarification must be made that it is the conduct of the Putin regime, and the Putin regime only, that is being subjected to censure here. Such strictures are in no way intended to project in a negative light, the Russian people, who are heirs to a rich, humanistic civilization that produced the likes of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, among a host of other eminent spirits, who have done humanity proud and over the decades guided humans in the direction of purposeful living. May their priceless heritage live long, is this columnist’s wish.

However, the invaluable civilization which the Russian people have inherited makes it obligatory on their part to bring constant pressure on the Putin regime to end its barbarism against the Ukrainian civilians who are not at all party to the big power politics of Eastern Europe. They need to point out to their rulers that in this day and age there are civilized, diplomatic and cost-effective means of resolving a state’s perceived differences with its neighbours. The spilling of civilian blood, on the scale witnessed in Ukraine, is a phenomenon of the hoary past.

The BRICS grouping, which encompasses some of the world’s predominant economic and political powers, if not for the irregular conduct of the Putin regime, could be said to have struck on a policy framework that is farsighted and proactive on the issue of global equity.

There is the following extract from a report on its recent summit declaration that needs to be focused on. It reads: BRICS notes the need to ensure “Meaningful participation of developing and least developed countries, especially in Africa, in global decision-making processes and structures and make it better attuned to contemporary realities.”

The above are worthy goals that need to be pursued vigorously by global actors that have taken upon themselves the challenge of easing the lot of the world’s powerless countries. The urgency of resuming the North-South Dialogue, among other questions of importance to the South, has time and again been mentioned in this column. This is on account of the fact that the most underdeveloped regions of the South have been today orphaned in the world system.

Given that the Non-aligned Movement and like organizations, that have espoused the resolution of Southern problems over the decades, are today seemingly ineffective and lacking in political and economic clout, indications that the BRICS grouping is in an effort to fill this breach is heartening news for the powerless of the world. Indeed, the crying need is for the poor and powerless to be brought into international decision-making processes that affect their wellbeing and it is hoped that BRICS’s efforts in this regard would bear fruit.

What could help in increasing the confidence of the underdeveloped countries in BRICS, is the latter’s rising economic and political power. While in terms of economic strength, the US remains foremost in the world with a GDP of $ 20.89 trillion, China is not very far behind with a GDP of $ 14.72 trillion. The relevant readings for some other key BRICS countries are as follows: India – $ 2.66 trillion, Russia – $ 1.48 trillion and Brazil $ 1.44 trillion. Of note is also the fact that except for South Africa, the rest of the BRICS are among the first 15 predominant economies, assessed in GDP terms. In a global situation where economics drives politics, these figures speak volumes for the growing power of the BRICS countries.

In other words, the BRICS are very much abreast of the G7 countries in terms of a number of power indices. The fact that many of the BRICS possess a nuclear capability indicates that in military terms too they are almost on par with the G7.

However, what is crucial is that the BRICS, besides helping in modifying the world economic order to serve the best interests of the powerless as well, contribute towards changing the power balances within the vital organs of the UN system, such as the UN Security Council, to render them more widely representative of changing global power realities.

Thus, India and Brazil, for example, need to be in the UNSC because they are major economic powers in their own right. Since they are of a democratic orientation, besides pushing for a further democratization of the UN’s vital organs, they would be in a position to consistently work towards the wellbeing of the underprivileged in their respective regions, which have tremendous development potential.

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Queen of Hearts

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She has certainly won the hearts of many with the charity work she is engaged in, on a regular basis, helping the poor, and the needy.

Pushpika de Silva was crowned Mrs. Sri Lanka for Mrs. World 2021 and she immediately went into action, with her very own charity project – ‘Lend a Helping Hand.’

When launching this project, she said: “Lend a Helping Hand is dear to me. With the very meaning of the title, I am extending my helping hand to my fellow brothers and sisters in need; in a time where our very existence has become a huge question and people battling for daily survival.”

Since ‘Lend a Helping Hand’ became a reality, last year, Pushpika has embarked on many major charity projects, including building a home for a family, and renovating homes of the poor, as well.

The month of June (2022) saw Pushpika very much in action with ‘Lend a Helping Hand.’

She made International Father’s Day a very special occasion by distributing food items to 100 poor families.

“Many are going without a proper meal, so I was very keen, in my own way, to see that these people had something to keep the hunger pangs away.”

A few days later, the Queen of Hearts made sure that 50 more people enjoyed a delicious and nutritious meal.

“In these trying times, we need to help those who are in dire straits and, I believe, if each one of us could satisfy the hunger, and thirst, of at least one person, per day, that would be a blessing from above.”

Pushpika is also concerned about the mothers, with kids, she sees on the roads, begging.

“How helpless is a mother, carrying a small child, to come to the street and ask for something.

“I see this often and I made a special effort to help some of them out, with food and other necessities.”

What makes Pushpika extra special is her love for animals, as well, and she never forgets the street dogs that are having a tough time, these days, scavenging for food.

“These animals, too, need food, and are voiceless, so we need to think of them, as well. Let’s have mercy on them, too. Let’s love them, as well.”

The former beauty queen served a delicious meal for the poor animals, just recently, and will continue with all her charity projects, on a regular basis, she said.

Through her charity project, ‘Lend a Helping Hand,” she believes she can make a change, though small.

And, she says, she plans to be even more active, with her charity work, during these troubled times.

We wish Pushpika de Silva all the very best, and look forward to seeing more of her great deeds, through her ‘Lend a Helping Hand’ campaign.

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Hope and political change:No more Appachis to the rescue

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KUPPI on the current economic and political crisis: intervention 1

by Harshana Rambukwella

In Buddhist literature, there is the Parable of the Burning House where the children of a wealthy man, trapped inside a burning house, refuse to leave it, fearful of leaving its comfort – because the flames are yet to reach them. Ultimately, they do leave because the father promises them wonderful gifts and are saved from the fire. Sri Lankans have long awaited such father figures – in fact, our political culture is built on the belief that such ‘fathers’ will rescue us. But this time around no fathers are coming. As Sri Lankans stare into an uncertain future, and a multitude of daily sufferings, and indignities continue to pile upon us, there is possibly one political and emotional currency that we all need – hope. Hope is a slippery term. One can hope ‘in-vain’ or place one’s faith in some unachievable goal and be lulled into a sense of complacency. But, at the same time, hope can be critically empowering – when insurmountable obstacles threaten to engulf you, it is the one thing that can carry you forward. We have innumerable examples of such ‘hope’ from history – both religious and secular. When Moses led the Israelites to the promised land, ‘hope’ of a new beginning sustained them, as did faith in God. When Queen Viharamahadevi set off on a perilous voyage, she carried hope, within her, along with the hope of an entire people. When Martin Luther King Jr made his iconic ‘I have a dream’ speech, hope of an America where Black people could live in dignity, struck a resonant chord and this historical sense of hope also provided inspiration for the anti-Apartheid struggle in South Africa.

This particular moment, in Sri Lanka, feels a moment of ‘hopelessness’. In March and April, this year, before the cowardly attack on the Gota Go Gama site, in Galle Face, there was a palpable sense of hope in the aragalaya movement as it spread across the country. While people were struggling with many privations, the aragalaya channeled this collective frustration into a form of political and social action, we have rarely seen in this country. There were moments when the aragalaya managed to transcend many divisions – ethnic, religious and class – that had long defined Sri Lanka. It was also largely a youth led movement which probably added to the ‘hope’ that characterized the aragalaya. However, following the May 09th attack something of this ‘hope’ was lost. People began to resign themselves to the fact that the literally and metaphorically ‘old’ politics, and the corrupt culture it represents had returned. A Prime Minister with no electoral base, and a President in hiding, cobbled together a shaky and illegitimate alliance to stay in power. The fuel lines became longer, the gas queues grew, food prices soared and Sri Lanka began to run out of medicines. But, despite sporadic protests and the untiring commitment of a few committed activists, it appeared that the aragalaya was fizzling out and hope was stagnant and dying, like vehicles virtually abandoned on kilometers-long fuel queues.

However, we now have a moment where ‘hope’ is being rekindled. A national movement is gathering pace. As the prospect of the next shipment of fuel appears to recede into the ever-distant future, people’s anger and frustration are once again being channeled towards political change. This is a do-or-die moment for all Sri Lankans. Regardless of our political beliefs, our ideological orientation, our religion or class, the need for political change has never been clearer. Whether you believe that an IMF bailout will save us, or whether you believe that we need a fundamental change in our economic system, and a socially and economically more just society, neither of these scenarios will come to pass without an immediate political change. The political class that now clings to power, in this country, is like a cancer – poisoning and corrupting the entire body politic, even as it destroys itself. The Prime Minister who was supposed to be the messiah channeling international goodwill and finances to the country has failed miserably and we have a President who seems to be in love with the idea of ‘playing president’. The Sri Lankan people have a single existential choice to make in this moment – to rise as one to expel this rotten political order. In Sri Lanka, we are now in that burning house that the Buddha spoke of and we all seem to be waiting for that father to appear and save us. But now we need to change the plot of this parable. No father will come for us. Our fathers (or appachis) have led us to this sorry state. They have lied, deceived and abandoned us. It is now up to us to rediscover the ‘hope’ that will deliver us from the misery of this economic and political crisis. If we do not act now the house will burn down and we will be consumed in its flames.

Initiated by the Kuppi Collective, a group of academics and activists attached to the university system and other educational institutes and actions.

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