Monday, October 27, 2014

History in the Making

His Holiness the Dalai Lama made his first appearance in Alabama this weekend. For me his visit to Birmingham was the culmination of a long spiritual journey — and I got the distinct impression it was the same for many of those attending Sunday's events. Shortly before the interfaith dialogue began, a man in a rumpled jacket and jeans took his seat next to me. I turned to him to say hello and we struck up a conversation. He was of Indian descent but grew up in Canada. "I'm a truck driver," he said. "When I heard the Dalai Lama was speaking here today, I asked for this route. I parked my rig a few streets over."

The Dalai Lama's presence unites spiritual leaders at the
Alabama Theatre's Beyond Belief interfaith discussion.
More than 2000 people coming together on a Sunday morning in Birmingham, Alabama to hear the wisdom of a non-Christian spiritual teacher would have been unheard of a few scant decades ago. Indeed, the softening of racial and religious lines was almost as inconceivable as say, being able to make a phone call via a satellite in 1962, the year I was born.

How many actions both subtle and overt, conscious and unconscious, led each and every one of us to the Alabama Theatre? For various reasons, we were there to listen to the teachings not just of the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism and 14th incarnation of the Buddha of Compassion (also known as Tenzin Gyatso,) but from various religious leaders representing the great religions of the world.

On the stage with His Holiness was an Iman, a Rabbi, a Catholic priest, a Christian minster (and president of Urban Ministries) and a professor of religion and democracy. Each contributed his or her answers to moderated questions. The result was, well, impressive. All these leaders in "the God business," as Reverend Eric Andrews, president of the Paulist fathers (an order of Catholic priests based in NYC) put it, are seeking the same thing: peace, love and harmony. And while that may sound trite, if you were sitting in that beautiful old downtown theater listening, you may have felt what I did: This was not lip service.

Interfaith discussions aren't new, but to be presented by a municipality like Birmingham (once known as "Bombingham") as a means to promote peace and understanding is (hopefully) a trend that will continue. And although many spiritual leaders strive to reach across the aisle of the mosque or church or synagog, it seems the Dalai Lama is uniquely equipped to effectively unite those with differing spiritual convictions. Why? Sure he's super smart and kind and gentle, but the most amazing thing about the DL is his beautiful sense of humor. The Dalai Lama's laugh alone might be enough to stop violence in the world. His laugh is a child's laugh, spontaneous and open and filled with appreciation and pure joy. He does not take himself too seriously, which is sort of amazing considering the very serious issues he ponders everyday.

View from the Jumbotron:
Tibetan monks perform a traditional prayer before
The Dalai Lama's speech at Regions Field.
This weekend, as I spoke with friends about the Dalai Lama's visit here, I was reminded of the great example this man sets for us. In 1959, he fled his homeland in Tibet, which was under siege by Communist China. He was only 19 years old and already the spiritual and political leader of Tibet. Many loyal Tibetans, who were not so fortunate to escape to India and beyond, were tortured, imprisoned and/or put to death rather than renounce their traditions. The Dalai Lama could be angry, resentful, or even filled with hatred towards the government that oppresses his native land and people, and yet, he teaches compassion for all. "A person who creates a problem for you is God's creation," His Holiness said during his visit. "You must respect him."  In fact, we owe the presence of this great spiritual teacher to those who drove him from Tibet. Had the communists not threatened his life, he most likely would not have become the very public spokesman for peace and understanding that he is today. Incarnation or not, he is an admirable being who practices what he preaches and we are fortunate to have him among us.

"We need a sense of oneness," he said to the crowd at Regions Field, during his second talk on Sunday. "We are individuals, but without other people, we cannot survive. We depend on others. The future of the West depends on the East, the Eastern future depends upon the West. Humans must work together."

He went on to say, "I never asked for this (to become the Dalai Lama). If I make too much emphasis on being the Dalai Lama, it creates a type of prison. (If you say to yourself) 'I am something special' it creates your own prison. We are all the same. (That's why I) emphasize oneness of humanity."

What influence will the Dalai Lama have on our city? As he concluded his talk to more than 7,000 people who gathered at Regions Field, he turned his message to the young people in the audience (like Jack, who sat beside me, quietly munching popcorn and Dippin' Dots).

"Eventually, we should think with vision," he said. "This century should be the century of dialogue. The proper way to resolve conflict is through dialogue. To create a peaceful, compassionate, non-violent world, we must make this the century of dialogue."

Too often, I am so caught up in my own stuff that I don't recognize and appreciate what is right before me. But yesterday, sitting with my family amongst thousands of other well-intentioned folks at Regions Field, listening to this great man speak, I had to consider how fortunate I am to live in such a time that Christians and non-Christians can come together to celebrate peace. No matter how much hatred and violence there still is in this world today, we continue to move towards a more loving society. It will take time, of course. Patience is key. But this is not a passive patience, but an active commitment that, in time, the Dalai Lama's dream — and the dream of Dr. King, and Gandi and every spiritual and peaceful leader who has walked this earth — will be realized.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Walkers Gotta Walk

By now you'd have to be brain dead, or at least way, way off the grid, to not have heard about the phenomenon that is AMC's The Walking Dead. The series about the post-apocolpytic world run amuck with zombies — eh, Walkers, as they are called in the show— has lifted the interest of some 17 million viewers during it's Season 5 premiere. That's a lot of (live) viewers, 2.5 million more, in fact than watched Sunday's NFL  match up on network television, according to the Nielsen ratings. Why in the world would 17 million people want to watch a TV series about the gruesome end of the world as we know it? Well, I have my theories.

The Walking Dead is the latest in a popular TV series genre that throws a variety of sympathetic and unsympathetic characters into a fictional extreme circumstance to see just how far they will go to stay alive. A few years ago, ABC's Lost was a very successful example of this brand of survivalist drama. (By comparison, for its fifth season premiere, Lost, drew a paltry 11.35 million viewers, according to Although the survivors turned against each other from time to time, at least Lost had its share of philosophic overtures about the meaning of life and death. (The island outpost was called the Dharma Project, hello!) The very dark world of The Walking Dead may pose a problem for spiritual practitioners of any denomination. I mean, it is hard to find any sense of redemption in a world that's overrun by non-sentient beings. 
A zombie horde in AMC's The Walking Dead.

In the initial episodes we learned that a virus is the cause of the mayhem. At first, it's thought that it is transmitted via the bite or scratch of an infected person, but as the show progresses, turning zombie is an inevitability brought on by a little factor called death. Everyone is infected and it's only a matter of time before you die and transform into a flesh-eating wraith with one and only one response motivation: consume other beings. There is no thought to this action, no malice, nor prejudice, nor merit. It's not personal. Walkers gotta walk. Killing is a pure craving that cannot be sated. And yet, as we enter the series' fifth season, it's clear that the dead are not nearly as disturbing as the living.
The racist mob in the Universal Pictures' film
To Kill A Mockingbird.

In the world of TWD, society as we know it has shut down — literally unplugged overnight. It's hard for me to wrap my head around what our world would look (and act) like if that were to happen. Our reliance on electronic communications systems, fossil fuel, infrastructures, technology and manufacturing renders us rather helpless when those things are systematically taken away. We are all so interdependent that collapse becomes inevitable. With no one to run Google, man the latte machines, and repair the DSL, our society crumbles and what is left — humans without a system of checks and balances — is really scary. And yet, that world existed here in the South more than 50 years ago.

Over the summer (while TWD was on hiatus) Jack and I did something radical. In the evenings we put down our electronic devices ... and read a book. And not an e-book, mind you, but a real, live paperback version of a classic, To Kill A Mockingbird. I had not read the novel since I was in high school. At first Jack resisted since the book seemed like ancient history and didn't feature boy wizards or zombies, but to humor me (and extend his bedtime by 30 minutes,) he acquiesced. Now it is all I can do to keep him from reading ahead. Yes, the content contains some mature situations and language, but sharing this book with Jack has become one of the most important deliberate acts of parenting I've accomplished.

As it turns out, Jack is the exact age of Jem Finch, one of the central characters. The story is told by Jem's younger sister, Scout, which makes the tale highly relatable to my inquisitive 12-year-old. Harper Lee's portrayal of the children's loss of innocence is one of the most beautiful accounts I've read in literature. As their father, Atticus, defends a black man (Tom Robinson) accused of raping a white woman, the children see a side of their tranquil southern town they didn't know existed.  In the late 1930s (when the story is set) the penalty for such a crime was sure and certain death—and often not via the US judicial system.

In one poignant scene, Jem and Scout seek out their father, who is sitting vigil in front of the jail where Tom Robinson is being held the night before the trial. They witness a lynch mob threaten Atticus if he doesn't step away from the door to allow them to take the alleged assailant. Driven by fear and hatred, the mob is bent on taking justice into their own hands. As a group, they set aside their individual humanity and assume a sense of collective righteousness. Things seem dire until Scout innocently speaks to one of the mobsters (the father of a classmate), and reawakens his humanness by reminding him that he, too, is a father. The mob disbands without completing their intended mayhem. The following day, Atticus explains what happened:

"Every mob in every little Southern town is always made of of people you know—doesn't say much for them, does it? ... It took an eight year old child to bring 'em to their senses didn't it? That proves something—that a gang of wild animals can be stopped, simply because they're still human."

Harper Lee published To Kill A Mockingbird four years before the passing of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibited discrimination in public facilities and education. This amendment to our nation's constitution encouraged humans to "do the right thing," and was necessary to forward the civil liberties of Americans regardless of their ethnic background or skin color. Without the this Federal law, would people have integrated schools and businesses? Maybe. It certainly would have taken more time though. And, arguably, the sense of society we enjoy today would not have unfolded as it did without a higher power (our judicial system) setting the rules. Many people in this country wanted to uphold "liberty and justice for all," but may have needed a law to back them up.  Fear of consequences from those who wanted to maintain segregationist status quo might have silenced a lot of well-intentioned folks had it not been for the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

It seems humans create the power (in this case, our democracy) to help us do the very difficult things we cannot accomplish as individuals. We may not always agree on the rules established by our federal, state or local governments, but as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the passing of this essential piece of legislature, it seems these entities are necessary to maintain a healthy and altruistic human nature.

Left to our own devices (and not mobile ones), humans will do some horrible stuff to each other in the name of survival. And that's what was demonstrated during the record-breaking season five premiere of The Walking Dead. Mankind, sans any sense of kindness, has turned upon itself, like the Ourovoros Ophis, the tail-eating snake, which appears throughout ancient cultures as symbol of the endless cycle of life and death — what the Buddhist call, samsara. Eternally, the snake consumes itself and must begin again. At this rate, it's hard to imagine what in the world will be left to consume by the series' sixth season.

I believe humans are, by nature, compassionate, but we need support to demonstrate compassion when things get tough. Sure, our world is far from perfect, but to think we would be better off without structure and a check-and-balance system is as crazy as the Governor believing his dear little, flesh-eating, zombie daughter will be restored to her Shirley Temple-like self. Perhaps that's the reason why millions of people tune in to The Walking Dead on Sunday nights. We need to be reminded of what can happen if we lose our humanity, and to be grateful for what we've got.