marriage equality

George Takei on ‘Being Gay, Being Buddhist’

George Takei, Lion’s Roar: The actor, author, and undisputed King of Social Media reflects on his fascinating personal history: his childhood and his family’s internment during World War II, his life as a gay man and activist, how far we’ve all come, and why we must press on together.

I was born to a Buddhist family — my father was Zen and my mother was Shin, and both were rather casual about it. Before Internment all I remember of Buddhist temples are the funerals and the weddings.

Then the Internment came. It was a very chaotic time. I don’t remember much religion except that my mother had created a tiny altar in our little barrack room.

But she didn’t chant every day like my grandmother did before the war, so there wasn’t much discussion of Buddhism until we came out of camp. A volunteer from Senshin Buddhist Church would come and pick my brother, my sister, and me up and take us to the temple (although my mother belonged to Nishi Hongwanji and my father belonged to Zenshuji Temple), and there I was exposed to the teachings of Buddhism. I particularly remember Roy and Terry Nakawatase, a young, personable, actively engaged couple who were teachers of the Sunday School. I remember Roy using the metaphor of the vastness of the ocean: we are all part of it, we belong to this vast oneness, and that made a lot of sense for me—that I am really one with everybody, with the whole, and that we can play a part in making that whole healthier and more understanding…

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Lesbian couple to take vows in Taiwan’s first public Buddhist same-sex union

The decision by a Buddhist master to host the event will help push awareness about sexual inequalities further into the public realm, the bride said.

Two devout Buddhist women are to hold the nation’s first gay Buddhist wedding next month as part of an effort to push for the legalization of same-sex marriages in Taiwan.

“We are not only doing it for ourselves, but also for other gays and lesbians,” Fish Huang said in a telephone interview.

The 30-year-old social worker at a non-governmental organization said that marriage never crossed her mind until she saw a movie last year.

The film portrayed two lesbians whose ill-fated relationship concluded after one died and the other was left heartbroken over the denial of spousal benefits.

“It’s so sad,” Huang said, who plans to wed her partner of seven years on Aug. 11 at a Buddhist altar in Taoyuan County.

Both brides are planning to wear white wedding gowns and listen to lectures given by Buddhist masters about marriage, accompanied by a series of chantings and blessings from monks and nuns.

Although homosexual marriages are not legally recognized in Taiwan, Huang insisted on tying the knot because she wants to make her relationship complete and raise awareness about the difficulties faced by sexual minorities.

Alternative sexual orientation and marriage have yet to be widely accepted by the general public, despite years of effort by activists to secure equality in Taiwan.

The first public gay marriage in Taiwan took place in 1996 between a local writer and his foreign partner. The event drew widespread media attention and inspired many gays to follow their footsteps.

Huang’s wedding, however, will be the first with a Buddhist theme.

While planning for her wedding, Huang found out, to her surprise, that some of her Buddhist friends were hesitant about attending the ceremony.

“They are not sure if it would break their vows and were very anxious,” Huang said.

She messaged a Buddhist master on Facebook, asking her if she could find grounds in Buddhism for condemning the practice of homosexuality.

To Huang’s surprise, the master quickly replied that Buddhism shows no bias toward homosexuality. In a demonstration of support, the master said she was willing to host the ceremony for the couple.

“It is meaningful to us that our wedding can give hope to other homosexuals and help heterosexuals understand how Buddhism views sexuality,” Huang said.

The Buddhist master Shih Chao-hwei, who is also a professor at Hsuan Chuang University, said Buddhist teachings do not prohibit homosexual behavior.

Compared with Western religions, Buddhism on the whole is more tolerant toward homosexuality because there is no concrete rule banning the practice in Buddhist scriptures, Shih said.

“It’s difficult enough to maintain a relationship … how could you be so stingy as to begrudge a couple for wanting to get married, regardless of their sexual orientation,” she said in a telephone interview.

However, Shih recognized there is disagreement on the issue both inside and outside Buddhist circles.

Shih noted that Huang and her partner could face criticism.

“The first step is always the hardest,” Shih said.

Via Taipei Times.

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Why Buddhists should support marriage equality

Marriage equality is one of the key social and legal issues of our time. I’d like to offer a Buddhist perspective.

As with so many ethical and social questions, especially those that involve sexuality, we find that religion wants to be at the core of things. The conservative Christian churches are leading the opposition to marriage equality. We can’t generalise on the basis of religion, though. Many Christians believe that Christ’s message of compassion and love, and the fact that he never made any statement on homosexuality, provide a basis for support of marriage equality.

In Australia there was an interesting exchange between the highly conservative Catholic leader Cardinal George Pell and the group Australian Marriage Equality. The AME asked to meet Cardinal Pell, and he consented to do so as long as the AME agreed that not all opposition to same-sex marriage was a result of homophobia or discrimination. The AME agreed, and came out with the following statement:

‘Just as we acknowledge that it is possible to oppose marriage equality without hating homosexuals, so we ask those who differ with us on this important issue to acknowledge that it is possible to support marriage equality without seeking to undermine, marriage, family, or religion.’

That’s a great starting point, and an all-too-rare example of dialogue as it should be.

But what of Buddhism? As with any issue, you’ll find a variety of positions; and as with any issue – and I apologise if this sounds cynical – most of those positions have little to do with anything the Buddha himself said or did.

In some cases we find Buddhist leaders who state the ethical case plainly. Ajahn Brahm has been very forward in supporting the gay community for many years, both in Australia and overseas. Master Hsin Yun, the leader of the international Fo Guang Shan order, said:

‘People often ask me what I think about homosexuality. They wonder, is it right, is it wrong? The answer is, it is neither right nor wrong. It is just something that people do. If people are not harming each other, their private lives are their own business; we should be tolerant of them and not reject them.’

On the other hand, the Dalai Lama has repeatedly maintained that homosexual acts are a violation against the precepts. At the same time, he insists on compassion and full human rights for all. His stance is solely concerned with what is appropriate behaviour for a Buddhist practitioner, not what should be made law.

His argument is that the sexual organs are designed for procreation and should be used solely for that purpose. So any form of sex that is not for procreation is out.

This is, to my mind, an extreme and unrealistic position. The Dalai Lama says it is based on certain medieval Indian scholars (Vasubandhu, Asanga – but I have never seen the passages myself). It certainly has no basis in the Suttas. On the contrary, the Suttas freely acknowledge that sex is for pleasure, and they never make a problem out of that. Buddhism is not a fertility religion, so why we should insist that sex be for procreation is beyond me.

The precept as found in the early Buddhist texts mentions nothing about whether sex is for procreation or not. What it talks about, solely, is whether the sexual relation involves the betrayal of a social contract. Here’s the text. It’s a stock passage, found for example in Majjhima Nikaya 41, and Anguttara Nikaya 10.176 and 10.211:

‘One is a person who misconducts himself in sexual pleasures. One has intercourse with a woman who is protected by mother, father, mother and father, brother, sister, family, clan, law (or custom, ‘dhamma’), or one who has a husband, who is punishable, or even with one garlanded for betrothal.’

Kāmesu micchācārī hoti, yā tā māturakkhitā piturakkhitā mātāpiturakkhitā bhāturakkhitā bhaginirakkhitā ñātirakkhitā gottarakkhitā dhammarakkhitā sasāmikā saparidaṇḍā antamaso mālāguḷaparikkhittāpi, tathārūpāsu cārittaṃ āpajjitā hoti.

Most of these are straightforward. They refer to women who are not ‘independent’ women in our modern sense, but who live under the authority of others. Typically, of course, this would have been young girls living at home, then in a family with a husband. There are significant variations, though, so arrangements were flexible.

It’s noteworthy that, while the Hindu texts say that a woman must always be under the authority of a man, here we find that living under the authority of a mother is next to father, and a sister is next to brother, with no implication that one of the other is preferable.

In some cases, it seems, women lived under the protection of the wider family. The one ‘guarded by dhamma’ is probably adopted, orphaned, or in some other way taken care of. The one who is ‘punishable’ is ambiguous: does it mean that the woman is to be punished (as a criminal)? Or does it mean that having intercourse with her is punishable? The text doesn’t make it clear. The woman ‘garlanded for betrothal’ refers to a woman who is, in our modern sense, ‘engaged’ but not yet married.

Obviously, the passage as stated above only refers to the man as agent. That doesn’t mean that women can’t break this precept! Like so many of the Buddhist texts, it is phrased from a male point of view (andocentric), and would apply equally to both genders. The assumption of the passage is that it is women who are under protection. This reflects the social reality of the Buddha’s time; it doesn’t endorse this situation, nor does it say that women can’t or shouldn’t live independently. It just says that if a woman (and presumably a man) is living in a committed relationship then one should not betray that.

This much is clear: the precept against sexual misconduct has nothing to do with homosexuality (or any other form of sexual activity as such.) It is concerned with breaking the bonds of trust with those that we love, and nothing else. While the specifics of the social relations in the Buddha’s time are different than today, it is not problematic to work out how to apply this in our own context, at least in most cases.

So if the precept does not concern homosexuality, what did the Buddha say on the topic? We are very lucky in Buddhism to have thousands of discourses, with the Buddha making observations or criticisms regarding many kinds of ethical issues. Rape, paedophilia, adultery: these and many other problems are clearly mentioned in the early texts, and the Buddha made it clear that he didn’t approve of them.

In the case of homosexuality, however, we have nothing in the Suttas. In all the thousands of discourses, not a single one regarded homosexuality as a significant issue.

There is one passage in the Cakkavattisihanada Sutta, which is sometimes cited by those who are trying to prove that the Buddha was anti-gay. The text discusses various examples of moral decay in society. One of the practices it mentions is, in the Pali, micchā-dhamma. This is about the most generic term for wrong doing that it’s possible to make in Pali. You could translate it as ‘wrong teachings’, ‘bad practices’, ‘misguided actions’, and so on. The commentary, compiled nearly 1000 years later in Sri Lanka, however, says it means, ‘Lustful desire of men for men, and women for women.’ (Micchādhammoti purisānaṃ purisesu itthīnañca itthīsu chandarāgo.) Since this has no basis in the text, it stands as a record of the attitude of a medieval commentator. There’s no evidence, so far as I am aware, that this attitude was representative of ancient Theravadin or Sri Lankan culture in general.

The Suttas essentially ignore any issues around homosexuality. Now, arguments from absence are always difficult. But the presence of thousands of discourses detailing lists of many kinds of ethical violations, strongly suggests that the Buddha tried to be reasonably comprehensive in addressing ethical concerns, and homosexuality was not one of them.

The picture in the Vinaya is a little different. The Vinaya is a legal code for monastics, and since it regulates the conduct of a celibate order, it deals with all kinds of possible sexual behaviours. It does so with a degree of frankness and candour that so shocked the early European translators that they simply omitted large chunks of text, or, with a quaint regard for the delicate sensibilities of young readers, translated them into Latin.

Homosexual acts, like just about any other imaginable sexual act, are depicted many times in the Vinaya, both among monks and nuns. In each case, the Buddha is shown as responding in his usual direct and common sense manner. Obviously, homosexual behaviour, like any sexual behaviour, is inappropriate among the celibate monastic community, so the Buddha prohibits it. However, this is done in a straight, matter-of-fact tone, and there is never a suggestion that there is anything wrong with gay sex per se.

In several cases the penalty is actually less in the case of homosexual behaviour. For example, for a monk to erotically touch another man is a less serious offence than the same act with a woman. Sex between women, likewise, is treated less seriously than between a woman and a man. There is one passage where the Buddha’s chief disciple, Venerable Sariputta, is said to have had two novices as students. But they had sex with each other. The Buddha laid down a rule that one should not take two novices as students at the same time! (This rule, like many others, was later relaxed.)

However, it would be a mistake to read this as implying that the Buddha regarded same-sex sexuality as somehow more permissible in the Sangha. The Vinaya, as a legal code, frequently makes judgements for various technical reasons, and there is no strong correlation between the moral weight of an act and the severity with which it is treated in the Vinaya. For example, building an overly-large hut is a serious offence, while bashing someone within an inch of their life is a minor offence.

So we shouldn’t read too much into the relative leniency of how some homosexual acts are treated in the Vinaya. The main point is simply that homosexuality is treated in pretty much the same way as any other expression of sexuality.

In these accounts there is nothing that really corresponds with our modern notion of sexual orientation. For the most part, same-sex acts are just that, acts. There’s no idea of a person who solely or primarily is attracted to people of the same sex.

The texts do speak of a certain kind of person, called a paṇḍaka. These are typically male, but there were females too (itthīpaṇḍikā). A paṇḍaka is forbidden to ordain, and is regularly associated with unbridled sexuality. It is, however, unclear exactly what paṇḍaka means. The descriptions of the paṇḍaka are few, and not always consistent, but there seems to have been some physical attribute involved, as well as a set of cultural behaviours. Perhaps they were some form of eunuchs who performed sexual services. In any case, the paṇḍaka is clearly not a homosexual in the modern sense of the word. They may be connected with the modern classes of Hijras and the like, who are considered a ‘third sex’ in India, including transsexuals, hermaphrodites, and eunuchs.

To sum up, early Buddhism is well aware of homosexual acts, and never treats them as an ethical problem. Homosexuality as a sexual orientation is not found.

This is completely in line with the Buddha’s take on ethics. The Buddha did not ethically judge persons, he judged deeds. People are simply people, who do various kinds of things, some good, some bad. If a person does a deed that causes harm, this is what the Buddha considered ‘unskilful’. If the deed causes no harm, it is not unskilful.

The basic problem in sexual ethics, addressed in the third precept, is betrayal. ‘Sexual misconduct’ is sexual behaviour that causes harm by breaking the trust that a loved one has placed in us. The Buddha was compassionate, and he never laid down ethical rules that caused harm or distress. Making a moral proscription against homosexuality marginalises and harms people who have done no wrong, and it is against the basic principles of Buddhist ethics.

It’s so important to keep this essential ethical question in mind. In discussions on homosexuality, as with just about any other controversial ethical issue, there is a pervasive tendency to confuse the issue. Why do we find it so difficult to look at an ethical question rationally? It is true, there are some issues that are complex and the details can be difficult to work out. But this is not one of them.

Countless times we are told, for example, that homosexuality is ‘unnatural’. Surely a moment’s reflection should show us this is not true, because there’s plenty of homosexuality in the animal world. And anyway, how is gay sex more unnatural than, say, typing on a keyboard, or wrapping food in plastic? But this is all beside the point. Being ‘unnatural’ is not an ethical issue. The issue is whether it causes harm, not whether it is natural or not. That is no more an ethical issue than is the choice, say, to eat organic or non-organic vegetables.

Homosexuality is also regularly linked with sexual ‘decadence’ in general. Homosexuals are said to be paedophiles, or promiscuous, or to cause diseases such as AIDS. Allowing homosexual relations is to licence all manner of debaucheries. This objection, too, is not valid: gays behave in all sorts of ways, just as do straight people.

Blaming gays for AIDS is one of the most cruel arguments possible. We feel compelled to look for examples that show the absurdity of these views. What of babies born with AIDS? What of those who get AIDS via blood transfusion? Incidence of malaria is much greater among poor people – are we to blame them, too? And why is incidence of AIDS among lesbians so very low – is lesbianism kammically preferable?

But we shouldn’t have to look for such examples. Like the arguments mentioned above, the whole thing is missing the point. Take the ‘worst case’ scenario, the cliché of the promiscuous, irresponsible, drug-taking, careless gay man. We might not think his behaviour is praiseworthy or wise, but does it deserve a slow, lingering, and painful death? Are we really comfortable to righteously proclaim the justice of destroying a human life, because we think that the way they have sought pleasure is irresponsible? This whole argument is inhuman and unworthy.

If there are behaviours that gay people do that increase transmission of HIV, for example, then we can try to change those behaviours, just as we would try to help any people who were inadvertently causing harm. What the marriage equality movement wants is to enable people of various sexual orientations to live in an accepted, recognised, and legal framework which supports the development of loving, committed relationships. Banning gay marriage is the very best way to ensure gays remain marginalised.

Another red herring, in my view, is the ‘born this way’ argument, which is often used by those who support marriage equality. Homosexuality, so the argument goes, is not a choice, some people are just like that and can’t change. While this is an important, if contested, fact, it misses the ethical issue. What if some gay people don’t feel like they were ‘born this way’? What if they feel like they have made a conscious choice? Whether this is the case or not, or whether there are in fact hidden biological factors involved, so what? Having sex with someone of the same gender is not a harmful deed, nor is marrying someone of the same gender. Whether it’s by biological determinism or free will, nothing harmful is done, so there’s no ethical problem.

Perhaps the single most fallacious argument against gay marriage is simply that it upsets the customs of society. Marriage has always been between a man and a woman, therefore it will damage society to do it any other way.

This argument, favoured by conservatives, once again completely misses the point. The damage is already here. Violence, trauma, and abuse is a part of the living reality of millions of perfectly good people all over the world, simply because the have, or want to have, sex with persons of their own gender. Part of society is broken, and it needs fixing.

This is the same argument that was used to oppose abolishing slavery, votes for women, property rights for all, and so on. In each case, those in the position of privilege strive to keep others from getting the same rights. And since the cost of inequality is borne by the ‘others’, it does not exist for the privileged.

When we introduce compassion into the equation, however, we recognise that society has always been imperfect. Just because something was done in the past does not make it right. Perhaps it was the case that in certain times and places our marriage customs made more sense than they do now. But that’s not the point. The point is, what is the right thing to do now? To continue to exclude, marginalise, and discriminate? Or to broaden our moral horizons, to fully accept and include all people?

If homosexuality as such is not a problem, what then of same-sex marriages? In this area we find that the Buddha had even less to say. In fact, there is no such thing as a Buddhist marriage. Buddhists have simply adopted the marriage customs of the culture they find themselves in. The most basic model, therefore, was the customs of ancient India. These have been the basis for Buddhist family customs, adapted in each society that Buddhism has gone to.

In ancient India, there were several forms of marriage. As with all things Indian, there is no insistence on one true, correct way of doing things. Some Hindu texts list a whole range of marriage possibilities, which are correlated with the levels of Indian cosmology. The highest form of marriage is the ‘Brahma wedding’, where the bride and groom, each pure in lineage and caste, is united in the most perfect of ceremonies. If the marriage is lacking in some perfections of detail, it is reckoned as pertaining to the lower classes of deities. The lowest of the auspicious weddings is the gandharva wedding, where the bride and groom simply elope. Then there are the various inauspicious unions, those of the yakkhas or rakkhasas, where, for example, the woman is abducted by force.

Along with this diversity in wedding style, there were different marital arrangements. Monogamy seems to have been common, and of course these were often arranged marriages – but ancient Buddhist texts also record a strong struggle by women for autonomy in the marriage choices. Polygamy is also common, and was the norm for kings. Polyandry is less common, but is central to the most famous of all Hindu texts, the Mahabharata. Apparently polyandry is common in Tibet.

I’m not trying to uphold the Indian marriage system as superior to that in the West. It has its own problems with inter-caste marriages, arranged marriages, domestic violence, and so on. I’m merely making the point that there has traditionally been an adaptive diversity of living arrangements that were considered to be valid forms of marriage, and that this can be seen in some ways as a precedent for the modern idea of same-sex marriages.

So there has always been a flexibility and diversity in marriage customs in the Indian sphere that stands in clear contrast with the ‘one and only’ correct form of marriage that is, in the main, endorsed by the contemporary monotheistic religions. Same-sex marriages were not, so far as I’m aware, historically acknowledged within the Indian cultural sphere. Nor am I aware of any laws against them, such as we find in the modern day. Given the wide variations in marriage customs, including many forms of marriage that would not be considered valid in modern times, it would seem that the typical Indian approach was that of tolerance and inclusion. Accordingly, when the British law that made gay sex a crime was repealed in India in 2009, some Hindu authorities applauded the move, saying homosexuality was part of the divine order.

Unfortunately, this tolerant attitude is not always the case today. One sometimes finds Hindutva polemics against homosexuality. Such discourse, sadly enough, often rails against the supposed debauched influence of ‘Western’ morals, oblivious to the fact that anti-gay attitudes were themselves imported into India by the monotheistic religions. This ambiguity has been expressed by the highest authorities in India. Goolam Vahanvati, then solicitor-general and current attorney-general, stated to the UN Human Rights Council:

‘Around the early 19th Century, you probably know that in England they frowned on homosexuality, and therefore there are historical reports that various people came to India to take advantage of its more liberal atmosphere with regard to different kinds of sexual conduct.

‘As a result, in 1860 when we got the Indian Penal Code, which was drafted by Lord Macaulay, they inserted Section 377 which brought in the concept of “sexual offences against the order of nature”.

‘Now in India we didn’t have this concept of something being “against the order of nature”. It was essentially a Western concept, which has remained over the years. Now homosexuality as such is not defined in the IPC, and it will be a matter of great argument whether it is “against the order of nature”.’

A similar situation prevails in other Buddhist countries, too. In Japan, China, and elsewhere, the early generations of Christian missionaries were shocked at the casual acceptance of homosexual behaviour among the Buddhists. They immediately set about trying to persuade the world that their own version of sexual propriety was the right one for everyone.

Sadly enough, modern generations of Buddhists and Hindus are now doing this work for them, oblivious to their own more accepting and compassionate past. When a Thai monk like Thattajiwo, one of the leaders of Dhammakaya, rails against the ‘sexual perverts’, who have called down the kammic justice of AIDS (‘the executioner of the sex-mad’) upon them, oblivious of the pit of sin they have fallen into, and the even greater sufferings that await them in future disease-ridden hells of torment, he is merely parroting the frothing excesses of Christian and Islamic fundamentalists. (Phra Thattajiwo Bhikku. Waksiin Porng-kan Rook Eet (A Vaccine to Protect Against AIDS). Pathumthani: Thammakay Foundation.) Such apocalyptic and condemnatory ‘ethics’ have no basis in the Buddha’s teaching.

So in today’s climate, what are we to do? For the Buddha, homosexuality was clearly not an issue. Nor was making laws proscribing valid forms of marriage. What was an issue, on the other hand, was compassion. The very essence of compassion is to reach out to those who are suffering, those who are marginalised. and persecuted. People whose sexual orientation varies from the majority suffer discrimination, bullying at school, violence, and emotional trauma. As Buddhists we should recognise a clear moral imperative to help wherever we can.

One might object that since the Buddha made no statement on the legalities of gay marriage, we should do the same. But the problem is a little more subtle than that. We are living in a culture where, based on certain religious and cultural ideas, certain ways of living one’s life have been made illegal. This is an artefact of the conditioned and always arbitrary course of history, not a timeless feature of the human landscape. In Australia, for example, there was no clear Federal law that prohibited same-sex marriage until 2004.

Supporting marriage equality is not to introduce something new, but simply to abolish laws that discriminate. The injustice is already in place. The harm is being done. The change is merely to remove the harmful influence of discriminatory laws, which should never have been there in the first place.

People are people, regardless of their gender, colour, nationality, or sexual orientation. The Buddha taught ‘for one who feels’. That’s the only requirement for Buddhist practice: one who feels. In the past our society decreed that marriage should not be between people of a different race, or a different colour, or a different religion, or a different nationality. Over time, we decided that these rules were harmful, and we abolished them.

Catastrophes were predicted: they didn’t come true.

What has happened, rather, is that we have become a little more open minded, and a little more aware of the suffering of others. The test of our generation is whether we can continue this move towards a more accepting and loving way of living, or whether we are to regress to a meaner, hard-hearted place.

My society, my culture, the one that I’m proud of and want to belong to, is this one. The society that is kind, questioning, accepting. Let us take up the best aspects of our own cultures, whether they be Buddhist or modern cultures, and discard all that is unjust, discriminatory, and harmful. Let us give our full support for marriage equality, for if we do not we are betraying the best part of our humanity.

This article was originally published on Bhikkhu Sujato’s blog.

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Secular prayer flags

Secular prayer flags made by students at Timberlane High School, New Hampshire

A few days ago I gave a talk at a high school about 40 minutes from my house. Some of the students had made secular “prayer flags,” which had the purpose of expressing their positive thoughts and sending them out into the world.

The prayer flags had been hung where they would brighten up a rather unattractive central courtyard, which now contained a “ger” (Tibetan yurt), designed (I think) in the geometry class. You can just see the ger in the background of the second photograph.

Some of the images were intriguing, and I wish I’d been able to talk more with individual students to discover more about what they were trying to communicate.

Below, you’ll find the text of the address I gave to the students who made these flags.

Secular prayer flag with image of Audrey Hepburn

 

String of secular prayer flags created by high school students in New Hampshire

Good morning.

It’s a pleasure and an honor to be here, and I’d like to thank you for having me. I’m delighted to hear that you’ve been putting your positive thoughts on flags and sending them out into the universe. Of course I don’t believe that your thoughts will literally be sent out on the wind, but I see great significance in what you’re doing.

To print your positive thoughts on fabric you have, of course, to have had a positive thought. And that in itself is a very significant thing to do.

How many people consciously cultivate positive thoughts? I suspect it’s not many. Most of our thinking is “accidental” and most of it is negative.

The world is direly in need of positive thinking. It’s even more in need of compassion and clarity.

The world is very much in need of idealism.

Now to some people the word “idealism” is a slur, an insult. Idealists are seen as being disconnected from reality. They’re seen as dreamers. They’re seen as impractical. They’re seen as naive.

But to me, idealism is a beautiful thing. To have a meaningful life, we have to have goals that go beyond the mere satisfying of our selfish desires.

Of course some idealists are indeed dreamers. Some idealists are impractical, and naive. But the best idealists are practical, grounded, and wise people. I think of Martin Luther King Jr. He was an idealist. He was a dreamer. He had a dream. He dreamt of course of ending racial segregation, and had much success in turning his dream into reality.

But Dr King didn’t stop at just having a dream. He attempted to live his dream. And in doing so he put himself in the way of angry mobs, policemen’s batons, and eventually an assassin’s bullet. And his actions, and those of the many courageous people who stood by him, changed this country for ever.

And lest we forget, in the year before Dr. King’s murder, marriage between black and white people was still illegal in 15 states. At the time of our current president’s birth, in 1961, there were over 20 states in which his parents could not legally be married.

There has been much progress made since those days — our current president is after all a black man — but there is much still to be done. We still need our practical dreamers. We need them more than ever.

King dreamed of ending racial segregation, but he also dreamed of ending poverty, and one of the reasons he opposed the war in Vietnam was because it diverted funds from social welfare projects.

And in the field of poverty we especially need practical dreamers. The number of people living in poverty in the United States is higher now than it was at the time of King’s death. Of course the population of the country is higher too, but the percentage of the population living in poverty was lower at the time of King’s murder than in almost every year since then, and it was lower than it is today. Yes, a greater percent of the US population lives in poverty than in 1968.

And in fact, since the recession of 2008, the poverty rate in the US has been rising dramatically.

Here are the figures for the last three years for which we have figures:

2008 39.8 million
2009 43.6 million
2010 46.2 million

2011 is almost certain to be worse.

The United States now creates more than twice as much wealth per head of population as it did in 1968, the year of Dr. King’s murder. The country is more than twice as wealthy as it was when King campaigned against poverty, and yet there are more people living below the poverty line than in his lifetime.

(In case you’re wondering where all the wealth our country has been creating has gone, roughly 82 percent of all the nation’s gains in wealth between 1983 and 2009 went to the richest 5 percent of households.)

We’ve become a more unequal society since King had his dream of ending poverty.

So on the one hand we have a black president, which I think would have stunned Dr. King in a positive sense. But on the other we have seen the problem of poverty worsen, which I think would have found not only shocking, but incomprehensible.

I mention all this because I think it’s obvious that we need more practical dreamers.

Of course if your dream is simply to be part of the richest 5%, then I wish you well.

I want to say a bit more about so-called “prayer flags.” It’s only in the west that we call these prayer flags. In Tibet, where the tradition originated, they’re called Dar Cho. “Dar” means to increase life, fortune, health and wealth. “Cho” means all beings. They are not intended to send prayers to heaven, but to symbolize the sending of good wishes into the world, much as you have been doing.

But there’s an important aspect of prayer flags that’s often overlooked. They are impermanent. They are hung out in the elements, exposed to harsh sunlight, constantly torn at by the wind, frozen, thawed, and soaked in the rain. The quickly become tattered rags. Eventually, in order to prevent them becoming litter, they are taken down and burned.

The flags — the Dar Cho — return to the elements from which they came.

And this reminds me of two things. The first is to do with the burning of the Dar Cho. Buddhists are fond of burning incense, and besides the fact that incense usually smells nice, it has a symbolic function.

When you light a stick of incense in a meditation room, the smoke doesn’t stay within the room. It drifts out, and circulates around the world. It never stops. It just keeps on going forever.

And the symbolism of this is to do with what goes on in a meditation room. There are many things that people can be doing when they’re sitting there with their eyes closed. But one of the things they do is to cultivate positive thoughts. They cultivate love, and compassion, and kindness, and patience. And here’s where the symbolism comes in. When people cultivate kindness, and compassion, and patience, those qualities don’t stay in the meditation room any more than the incense smoke does. The positive emotion that’s developed has an effect on the world.

We can even measure this. It has in fact been measured by psychologists, not specifically in relation to meditation, but more generally in relation to positive emotion. When a person is emotionally positive, this affects the people they’re in contact with. And they have an effect on those that they in turn are in contact with. And so on.

In fact psychologists have been able to measure the effects of emotionally positive people radiating out to their friend’s friend’s friends. It’s actually measurable. Of course the effect, just like the incense smoke, never stops. It permeates the entire world. But just as you can no longer smell the perfume of the incense once you’re a certain distance away, to the effect of a positive person becomes more dilute as it moves out into the world around them.

This is true for negative emotions as well, by the way. Which is all the more reason that we need to work at bringing more compassion into the world.

So there’s something to think about. The positive thoughts you’ve been cultivating will quite literally affect the entire world.

By cultivating the positive thoughts you’ve printed on these Dar Cho, you’ve become more emotionally positive. And while the writing on these flags will not literally waft on the breeze out into the world, your concerns for the world around you will affect the people you know, and the people those people know, and so on. There is no end to it.

The other thing I wanted to mention about prayer flags is that they symbolize impermanence. Just as they are impermanent, so are we. Prayer flags remind us the unavoidabiity of death. In fact everything we see reminds us of impermanence, although we often don’t want to think about it.

We generally assume that thinking about death is a bummer. That it’ll bring us down. That it’ll depress us.

But that’s not actually the case. Again this has been studied. When we fully accept that we will die, we feel challenged to make something of our lives. There’s a saying, “Very few people on their deathbeds think, I wish I’d spent more time in the office.”

And it’s true. When people are dying, they mostly wish two things. They wish they’d paid more attention to having a joyful life. And they wish they’d loved more. Take it from the dying: love and joy are the two most important things in life.

People who consciously think about death are more likely to embrace life, and to love more.

Just take a minute to picture yourself on your deathbed. If you want to avoid having regrets about how you spent your life, start right now. Think about what kind of life would be the most meaningful for you. Become a practical dreamer.

And take another moment, right now, to look at someone standing next to you. The person standing next to you will die soon. We’ll all die soon. It might not seem like it from your perspective, right now, as teenagers, but again, very few people on their deathbeds think, I wish I hadn’t lived as long.

As you look at the person next to you, aware of the fact that they’ll die soon, you might find your heart opening a little. You might feel a bit more tenderness and respect, and kindness. Try and remember that. And try and remember that in geological time scales, the life of a human being is briefer than the life of a prayer flag is to us.

A human life isn’t a long time, but it’s long enough to make a difference in other human lives.

So in conclusion, I’d encourage you to take away the following thoughts:

  • The world needs practical dreamers. In some ways things have gotten better, but in other ways they’re no better than they were — or are worse — than when your grandparents were your age.
  • Don’t let your thinking be accidental. Consciously think. Consciously cultivate positive thoughts and positive emotions of love and compassion.
  • You can have an effect. In fact you do have an effect. Your inspiration, your idealism, your positive emotions, will change our society for the better. It’s measurable.
  • And lastly, think about the fact that you’re going to die. Think about the fact that everyone you know is going to die. Let an awareness of our impermanence enrich your life. Live so that you’ll have no regrets on your deathbed. Embrace life. Live well. Love well. And leave the world a better place than you found it.
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