Sunday, January 13, 2008

Dear Tathagata:

Note: India in 2007 celebrated the Buddha’s death 2,550 years ago. Tathagata is another word for Buddha.

Dear Tathagata:

Two thousand five hundred and fifty years ago, it is said, you died. As all that are born, do.

And you died not without suffering; you were in pain. You said to your faithful disciple, “Now I am frail, Ananda, old, aged, far gone in years. This is my eightieth year, and my life is spent. Even as an old cart, Ananda, is held together with much difficulty, so the body of the Tathagata is kept going only by supports.”

Saying that, Tathagata, you died.

But before that you had seen the spectacle of human pain, of disease, of aging, of death – not by your eyes alone but by the totality of your mind. You had understood their causes, their behavior, their effect – and also the way out of there entrapment of suffering.

You saw in that pain a great truth, the truth of dukkha. (Dukkha is the deep dis-satisfaction, or suffering that is present in the minds of the unenlightened.) But the dukkha you saw was not just your own, but that of others. It was the dukkha of the human family. Indeed, it was the dukkha of all beings, not just humans. And you taught us how to respond to that dukkha.

So, as I said above, Tathagata, you died.

But as you were no ordinary being, we use the phrase “attained Nirvana” to describe your death. As you were phenomenal, many go one step further and even use a more elevated phrase: Parinirvana. And some still go even one step higher in the exercise of word-building and say you attained “Mahaparinirvana.”

Since you lived so long ago, you’ve moved into history, you’re a “topic” in high school world religion classes, an exhibit in many museums.

Your figure has become ubiquitous worldwide, we see your peaceful face on advertisements, your meditative posture on lawn statues and fireplace mantles everywhere.

We’ve become comfortable with your images, but not with your teachings. Why is that?

Because as wise as they are, they are not convenient. They are, in fact, mightily inconvenient.

Great beings in our times here in India, and elsewhere in the world, have read your teachings with absorption and some have trued to do their very best to do what you taught, to walk on the path you trod. His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Mohandas Gandhi and Mother Teresa are three who come quickly to mind.

And simple humans, pilgrims from far and near, visit the places in India and Nepal associated with your name. For them you are not in the past, you are alive – every moment.

Between your birth at Lumbini and your death at Kusinara, for decades you walked on dusty tracks, on thorny paths, amidst beauty and squalor.

You mortified your flesh, fasted, meditated, and then after you became enlightened, as a wandering teacher you were a guest of the rich and the abject poor, the famous and the ostracized. Those distinctions of high and low, strong and weak, created by human ingenuity for the exercise of power and vanity, made no difference to you.

None at all.

How could they? For you knew that they were all – all those people – afflicted by dukkha and the causes for further dukkha, ignorance of self, ignorance of others, ignorance of reality.

But that was then, many many years ago, and the purpose of this letter is to say something about how I, a visitor, see life as it’s being lived in India by today’s people. And to ask you a favor.

Some of your words show that the beauty of India was not lost on you, and India is still an amazingly colorful country with many riches – material, cultural and spiritual. (And of course you’ve added your own color with your wonderful teachings.)

India today is a country whose material wealth is growing exponentially. But it is not spreading nearly fast enough “horizontally” because of tendencies to want to own, not share; to dominate, not cooperate. Exploitation is everywhere.

In your days there also were the exploiters and the exploited, and you spoke the same simple truth to all of them. You spoke as you felt, Tathagata. And you felt as you saw. And you saw it all.

I read in today’s newspaper a column in which the issue of “access” for the masses was discussed. The access is included in a parliamentary edict that gives the right of information to everyone, regardless of social, financial or cultural background or standing. It is a way those with the power are trying to close the chasm between the haves and the have-nots. Many see it as just a token.

It reminded me of you, and how in simple language that all could understand you intervened to give women and the (so-called) lower castes a sense of their equality. And in so doing you also told them of their equal vulnerability to the fires of dukkha that could consume them.

You gave them both – women and the oppressed classes – access. Access to the causes of dukkha and the way out of it.

You wanted to spread the light of your wisdom and you did. You broke through the walls of the privileged priesthood, which kept wisdom concealed in Sanskrit. Communicating your messages in Pali, the more common people’s language, you did just that.

But here remain some very difficult contradictions here in your country, Tathagata.

Tensions persist between the Hindu and Muslims, there is always fear of a flare-up, triggered by terrorists or fanatics. Much blood has been shed. And whether in Delhi, Varansi, the Punjab or Tamil Nadu, it is always the innocent who suffer.

The Sikhs remain homeland-less and unsatisfied.

A state of “war” all but exists in Sri Lanka.

Firearms have spead across the country -- illegal arms are carried by violent men who motivate even women and children to use them. Here in Bihar there have been bombings of trains and train stations in the past two months.

Women and children, living on the edge of starvation and deprivation remain exploited physically and sexually.

We have the “highs” of power, of wealth, of intellect alongside the “lows” of squalor, deprivation, destitution. It is said that in India only one in ten has use of a toilet.

Tragedy exists in the villages where several hundred farmers have taken their own lives, unable to bear the burden of debt.

Domestic violence continues to increase and child marriage, an old scourge, persists.

Your country has countless abandoned women, left behind not by seekers of truth as you were, but by self-seekers. Women are trafficked, girls abused, and yes, female fetuses aborted.

India’s leaders continue to take the physically, psychologically, socially, economically and politically voiceless for granted.

Leprocy, polio, tuberculosis, AIDS and other deadly diseases continue to run rampant among your people. There is great suffering in the villages, where most of your country’s 1.2 billion people live and time has all but stood still.

Even though you spoke out against animal sacrifice, practitioners of the major religions continue to slaughter animals with their sacrificial knives. A recent newspaper article quoted a statesman who said “Only goats are sacrificed, not lions.” I believe what he was saying is that those who are weak must realize that to survive they must become strong. Obviously he was not speaking of goats.

And all this in your country, the country of the Buddha!

India has nuclear weapons, Tathagata, and there remains great unrest in and with neighbors Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nepal and China. It has been said that just 10% of the world’s nuclear arsenal is enough to create such a holocaust that nuclear “winter” will set in, with the light of the sun going out over the entire planet for an extended period of time. This is what the world has added to it’s arsenal since your time, Tathagata, the power to easily self-destruct.

It was recently written in The Hindu that Planet Earth is no longer “able to afford humans.” We are disemboweling the earth, heating its climate, removing its tree cover, making its creatures lives miserable. The Himalayan glaciers are melting, as a result some of your country’s eastern islands are sinking. Parts of Scandanavia, near the North Pole, had no snow this Christmas.

Steven Hawking has spoken about humans moving to other planets! I can’t help but think, Tathagata, “Poor Mars, what has it done to deserve humans?”


So, here’s the favor I am asking you, Tathagata.

Teach us how to conserve what we have inherited, not exhaust what is non-renewable.

Teach us, from wherever you are, to take others’ dukkha seriously, forgetting our own.

Teach us, so that we really understand, that self-grasping and self-cherishing are nothing more than paths to suffering, and that happiness may only be obtained by putting others’ interests in front of ours.

Teach us, from wherever you are, to see ourselves in others, others in ourselves.

Teach us to heal, not to hurt.

May I ask that of you?

You became a Buddha, and have attained enlightenment, but may I ask you to please take human form and return, if not as a Buddha, as a Bodhisattva at least?

While for some you remain alive, the vast majority of your people, and the world’s people, need you again.

But I can’t help but wonder, if you were to come to us, would we listen? Would we heed your words? Follow your example? I don’t know the answer to that, Tathagata, honestly I don’t.

We have all traveled a long way indeed, on a very degraded road from the time you spoke your last words to Ananda.

Being here in India, in Bodhgaya, where you found your enlightenment, I can’t help but feel we need you back again, so very badly.

Tathagata, my gratitude.