Archive for November, 2011

29 November, 2011

Peace of Mind

srilanka08-1019Two years ago I was in Sri Lanka, getting ready to return home to ordinary life. Life that had to go on, life that would, with all its accompanying routines. As I sat in the home I had grown up, surrounded by all the things that my mother had left behind, quite as though she had just run out for a moment, I felt a deep sense of dread about leaving. I saw no point in life. I did not know how or when I would ever stop grieving. My brothers were both worried about me for they understood that while they would continue to live in the place where she had lived, continue to be comforted by the many rituals of our Buddhist faith, I was going to a place where I would be alone with my grief. One of them offered to have his wife apply to study for her doctorate at one of the universities near my home. “We could live there,” he said, though I knew that living here was not something either of them would want to do for any length of time, their lives were in Sri Lanka. The other brother, an anti-Apple brother, but a musician to whom I had once boasted about my acquisition of an iPod, said “I will put some sermons on a CD for you. You can download them onto your iPod. They will help you.” They did. There was nothing else that I could listen to but those sermons. I don’t know that I understood each one, but there was something calming in the warm and, often, merry voice of the priest whose name I did not know.

Today, my father sent me this sermon and it turns out that it was delivered by the same priest whose words had helped me through the worst year of my life, publication of my first novel notwithstanding. Then, as now, I am often in the position of having to set aside what I am feeling in order to be light, rock, beacon or hope to the people I love. And as I do those things I have often wondered when I might find that illusive state of being called peace of mind. Below, the sermon:

‘RIP now while you can still enjoy it’
WORDS OF WISDOM from Ven. Ajahn Brahmavanso on his 60th Birthday

Achieving peace of mind is a lovely way of describing the meaning of life. It is something that everyone aspires to. However, peace of mind is often like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow – it tends to be elusive for most people. I would like you to reflect on the times when you were the happiest. You would probably find that your happiest times were when you experienced a deep sense of contentment or peace of mind. But when you reflect on these experiences, you realize they didn’t occur because everything around you was perfect. On the contrary, you realized that peace of mind occurred, in spite of your surroundings not being perfect, in spite of difficulties problems and imperfections of life.

That is my first important point. Don’t think peace of mind only comes once you have fixed up all your problems and finished all your business. All your worrying, all your striving and struggling.., has it ever got you where you really wanted to be? You can’t control the world and change it the way you would like it. Therefore, you can only find peace of mind and achieve the meaning of life by embracing the imperfections of life. How do you do that?; by knowing that imperfection is the nature of the world. So make peace with imperfection. Another thing you can’t change is the past and yet lingering on the past, people worry about and feel guilty and angry about it, but since you can’t change it, the only wise thing to do is to make peace with it. But how do you do that when there is so much unfinished business? You make it finished.

One of my favourite stories is about the abbot who was building the main hall for his monastery. It takes a lot of time and effort to make such a big building, and the building work was still in progress when the time came for annual rains retreat. The abbot told the builders to go home and come back in 3 months. A few days later, a visitor came to the temple and asked when the hall was going to be finished the abbot replied ” It is finished ” the visitor was quite stunned and said ” What do you mean it is finished? There is no roof are you going to leave it like that? There is no glass in the windows, there are pieces of wood and cement bags all over the floor”. To which the abbot unforgettably replied: “What is done is finished.”

What a beautiful response that was. It is the only way to find peace in life. If you want all your building work to be finished before you stop to find peace, all your jobs out of the way, all your letters and emails replied to, you will never find peace of mind, because there is always more to be done. As I have often said, the only place in our modern societies where you find people resting in peace, is in the cemeteries, but then it’s too late to enjoy it. So I say RIP now, while you can still enjoy it. I’m making the observation that you only find peace, when you realize that what’s done, is finished. The past is gone; let it go. One of the signs of true spirituality – of whatever tradition – is forgiveness and letting go. I was once asked how many times you should forgive, and I replied, ”Always one more time,” that is, forever.


Forgiveness is one of the most beautiful acts that humans are capable of. In South Africa, Just after apartheid had been dismantled and Nelson Mandela had been made president, instead of seeking revenge, instead of punishing all those people who punished him, Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Anybody who had done a crime was able to go to this commission and confess, what they’d done. As long as they were truthful, no matter how horrendous their crimes, they would be given amnesty and forgiveness. It was a brilliant way of dealing with the past. One of the moving events of that commission was a policeman recounting, in the presence of the man’s widow, how he had tortured and killed her husband, a black African activist from the ANC. Can you imagine this scene? There was a woman whose husband had disappeared…, probably in the middle of the night, and she suspected what had happened, but didn’t know the true story. Now she was facing a man who was confessing in detail, how he had tortured and killed her husband, the father of her children, the man she loved. Apparently this white police officer was shaking and trembling as he recounted the details of what had happened. At the end of her testimony the widow rose from her seat and went towards him. The guards were supposed to stop her but they froze. She went up to him put her big black arms around him and said “I forgive you.”

Not just the two of them wept, but apparently the whole room.

This sort of beautiful act is one of true spirituality. Both the victim and the perpetrator would move on and become better people. They would learn real compassion, gain real wisdom, and find a real way of moving forward. Now if that woman could forgive the murderer of the man she loved, then each one of us – if we really put our minds to it – is capable of forgiving anything.

I was once counselling a woman who was dying of cancer. I asked her what was the worst thing she’d ever done, an act she might carry to her grave and feel terrible about. She told me she had kissed a man who was not her husband. I said ” If that’s the worst thing you’ve done, you’ve lived a pretty good life.” When she saw my reaction, she realized for the first time, that it wasn’t all that bad. To me it seemed like a small thing, but she had been eaten up inside. It was such a release for her to tell someone.

When you keep things to yourself, even the smallest things can become huge. When you acknowledge them, especially if you tell a good friend, you can see that they’re no big deal and you can let them go. The way to forgiveness is to realize that you’re worth forgiving and so is the other person. That realization is step number one. That black woman in South Africa saw something in that policeman who had killed her husband, something she could respect, something worth saving, so she forgave. Remember, there’s no such thing as a murderer; no such thing as a thief; only a person who has stolen; no such thing as a cheat, only a person who has cheated. If you understand that, you understand why forgiveness is possible: there’s something more to any person than the bad acts. And that’s true of each of one of you. No matter what you’ve done, there’s always something inside of you, that is worthy of forgiveness.

Worrying about the future

Another thing which stops inner peace is worrying about the future. People often think they need to worry about global warming, the credit crunch, the wars, the natural disasters, AIDS, and the cancers. But it’s only worthwhile thinking about things you can do something about. If you can’t do anything, why worry? In addition, you can’t predict the future; It’s totally uncertain.

On one occasion when I was just a school kid, my mother told me I was going to the dentist the following morning. I told my mum ” Mummy don’t send me to the dentist; you don’t love me; you’re sending me to the torturer.” But try as I might, I couldn’t get off it. When I went to bed that night, I was worried and didn’t sleep well. The following morning my mother had to drag me to the dentist, and I was screaming and crying. But I eventually got to the surgery, my appointment had been cancelled. All that worry, all that crying for no reason. That was a very important experience for me. I learnt, there’s no point worrying about the future, when you don’t know what’s going to happen. Life is completely unpredictable. When you understand that, you can have peace of mind in the present moment.

You can have peace of mind, even when you’re dying. Why not? No more worries about taxes, global warming or anything else, because you’re soon, about to depart, The problems of the world become irrelevant. When there are no problems, you become peaceful. And because you never know how much time you’ve got left, you might as well be peaceful now. This was Ajahn Chah’s great teaching to me, when I was sick in hospital. He came to visit me and gave me the sort of teaching you remember for the rest of your life. He told me ” Brahmavamso you’re either going to get better or you’re going to die.” That really didn’t hurt at first, because it wasn’t what I had expected. It wasn’t the usual bedside manner of your best friend. But when I started to think about it, I realized that it meant the sickness wasn’t going to last. That was such a relief. Sometimes, you meet people who have understood this; They are dying and supposedly in agony, but they still tell jokes. They’re happy and peaceful.

You must also make peace with whatever you have to do in life, with your duties and responsibilities. Peace of mind is not achieved by always trying to do what you like. On the contrary, you find peace of mind, by making peace with whatever you are called to do. Whatever your role, whatever your duties, you can always have fun, enjoy it, put happiness into it and make peace with it. You can make peace and have fun with anything, anywhere. Peace of mind is not found by searching for a deep cave, in a perfect monastery; in a wonderful place high in the Himalayan Mountains. If you’re looking for peace that way, you are looking for what Ajahn Chah called, a tortoise with a moustache. People look for the impossible and of course, they can’t find it. There is no such thing as a tortoise with a moustache.

You find real peace of mind, by accepting your life as you have it now, even in the midst of great tragedy. What a wonderful thing that is. How do you find this peace? Let go of all the past and guilt, by forgiving, don’t worry about the future, and learn to appreciate the moment. Do your duty and put fun into whatever you have to do.
Peace of mind is as free as the air: Drink it, enjoy it, and take it with you. It’s always there, if only you look in the right place.

Ven. Ajahn Brahmavanso

7 November, 2011

Who Takes Care of the Student Athlete?

img_9544Two days ago the vast state of Pennsylvania woke up to news of a fresh scandal involving allegations that a coach at Penn State University sexually assaulted and abused at least eight student-athletes in his care. You can read more about the case here. Below, a few snippets form the case:

Sandusky, 67, faces 40 abuse charges, including 21 felonies. Sandusky, released on $100,000 bail, is charged with abusing eight boys between 1994 and 2009, with some incidents said to have taken place in a Penn State athletics building. He retired from Paterno’s staff in 1999.

Athletics director Tim Curley is going on administrative leave at his request, according to a statement from the school board of trustees late Sunday. Senior vice president for business and finance Gary Schultz will step down and go back into retirement. The two face charges they perjured themselves before a grand jury and failed to notify law enforcement authorities of child sexual abuse allegations against Jerry Sandusky.

A student athlete is defined as “a participant in an organized competitive sport sponsored by the educational institution in which he or she is enrolled. The term student-athlete is used to describe the direct balance of a full-time student and a full-time athlete.” The NCAA has clear guidelines (sometimes observed in the breach), regarding the management of the student (who is also an athlete), and the degree to which a coach can and cannot be involved in the conduct of the student’s life outside the time allocated to coaching that student in a sport and the playing of that sport.

I had reason to look into those guidelines with regard to the management of high school athletic programs here in the Lower Merion School District and I was shocked to discover that many of the laws governing that relationship between coach and student at the NCAA level were being violated by one of the coaches at the high school. Agreed, the NCAA guidelines do not cover high school athletes, however, it stands to reason that whatever limitations are places upon college coaches who are dealing for the most part with adults, ought to be far less severe than guidelines in place at high schools for coaches dealing with minors, particularly those coaches who are working with children of the opposite sex, even more so if the child’s health is at risk.

How is it possible, for instance, that there are clear guidelines for teachers who see students perhaps once a day for an hour – and never img_5691send them emails using a personal email address not associated with the district whether school is in session or not, or invite them to dinner in their homes or make mixed CDs for them, or abuse their parents, or demand that they do not participate in other school sanctioned activities, or bully them one at a time into agreeing to continue participating in a class of the teacher’s choice – but none for coaches who spend several hours with students within and outside the school environment? In all fairness, this particular school district (Lower Merion), is taking this discrepency very seriously. After all, we live in an area where you can’t sneeze without a gesundheit from a trigger-happy lawyer.

11/10/11 – Addendum:The documents released by the grand jury in the case against Sandusky describes the testimony of Steven Turchetta, the assistant principal and the head football coach at the high school that Victim 1 attended:

Turchetta characterized Sandusky as very needy within the mentoring relationship he established with Second Mile students. Sandusky would often want a greater time commitment than the teenagers were willing to give and Sandusky would have “shouting matches” with various youth in which Turchetta would sometimes be the mediator. Turchetta would also end up being Sandusky’s point of contact for a youth he had been unable to reach by phone the previous evening. Turchetta testified that Sandusky would be “clingy” and even “needy” when a young man broke off the relationship he had established with him and called the behavior “suspicious.”

As the administration in general and principals and athletic directors in particular within the schools that belong to this district deal with these matters, they would be wise to reflect on the events unfolding in our own backyard at PSU. In the end, the adults in charge are to blame. In the end, the particular adult who broke the rules of engagement isn’t the only one to take the fall, and with good reason. The people who supervise the coaches and the people who supervise the people supervising the coaches are all culpable. Schultz and Curley are history and there are calls that the board of trustees fire Graham Spanier, the president. head coach, Joe Paterno and Graham Spanier have both been fired. Underlining all of this is a gigantic financial price tag that the university will have to fold into a budget that is supposed to deliver services to students. That’s usually the way things shake down. It would be a pity if this school district (which is beleaguered by people who rush to lawsuits before trying to get school staff and district administration to do the right thing), refuses to take the complaints of multiple parents seriously and ends up precipitating exactly the kind of negative publicity, financial burden and demoralizing school environment that are part and parcel of lawsuits.


5 November, 2011

Whose Wars are These?

0000-166The wars that permeated my childhood were those that were internal to my country, Sri Lanka. Therefore everybody was involved. There was no refuge from it, no matter your social status, particularly if you were male. You could be killed going to market, you could be abducted from your dorm-room, you could be left to burn with a tyre around your head, you could be shot, you could die with dozens of others in a suicide attack. Everybody knew where everybody else stood, where their sympathies lay, what hue colored their politics. More than that, everbody knew someone who had died and most of us knew more than a few. We did not have a particular love for living in a state of war, far from it. But they were the circumstances of our history for nearly three decades, and we lived or died along with the fortunes of our country.

I would like to believe that the fact that America’s wars have been waged overseas is the reason why this kind of intimacy with mayhem and loss does not pervade every home here. I would like to imagine that it is universally mystifying to Americans that America could be fighting two major wars and the vast majority of people could go on with their lives knowing not one soul who has been dispatched to kill and die, nor any who returned injured or in a casket. I know only three. The husband of my college room-mate, the son of a Veterinarian in the town I used to live in, and a fellow-writer and photographer whose concerns mirror mine; none of them untouched by their years of service, one of them lost entirely. How strange it must have been for these three young men to return home to people fretting about organic apple cider and home-made iced-tea, about peanut-free classrooms and special activities for those who do not celebrate any one of the national holidays. “Americans and their damn bottles of water,” one of them quipped to me. “What a joke. Like they really imagine they might suddenly die of thirst.”

How strange that when I posted a link to an essay by one of those veterans, Elliott Woods, on Facebook, nobody clicked it. This is what I said in my note:

Just read this piece of reporting by Elliott Woods. Between poppy palaces and narchitecture and 100 minefields still waiting to explode in greater Kabul, between 15,000 troops and upto 1.5 million Afghans killed during the reign of the Soviets and the advent and departure of the Americans is a story that too few of us know. Even those of us who in one way or another contribute to the “donor money” that accounts for four-fifths of the $14 billion GDP in Afghanistan.

I decided to see if it were the case that nobody was paying attention or if nobody cared. I followed up with a joke about Facebook cut and pasted from some online source for a thousand and one jokes. There were the comments I had been missing. Yes, nobody cared. We care about the here, the now, and the herenow does not involve Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, vast swaths of Africa or most of the rest of the planet and certainly not those who were forced to go there to commit the acts no mother raises her child to perpetrate, and who must then return to our midst, shattered and frayed, this generations particular brand of invisible men.

How strange that Marine Lance Cpl. Scott Olsen went down in a hail of enemy fire aimed at him by American policemen during the img_4139course of a peaceful protest in the streets of Oakland, California. After two tours of duty in Iraq with the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment in Iraq’s Anbar province, site of some the war’s fiercest battles, this young man who had been just 14 years old when we experienced the events of 9/11, lay on the streets on Tuesday, the 25th. Why? Because he had divined that much of the economic inequity in America was fuelled by the military industrial complex. That, and the fact that nobody gave a damn where he had been and what he had done or seen, just pass the cocktail shrimp and Muscat.

According to a report released by the Center for a New American Security, from 2005 to 2010, service members took their own lives at a rate of approximately one every 36 hours. Scroll down on the report and we find the statement that the “VA estimates that 18 veterans take their lives every day,” and then goes on to state that they have no way of knowing the accurate number because of their inability to track the veterans.

Long ago when I used to watch The News Hour on PBS for my one hour of not doing, the segment used to end with a silent screen on which appeared the names of the newly dead Americans. I don’t know that they still do it, I don’t watch anymore, but I do know there is a searchable database on the PBS website which lists the dead, from 1 on the page 1-25 of 4885. That list stopped on August 2010. I no longer know how many people have died. I remember writing about the 2000th soldier, Staff Sgt. George T. Alexander Jr., back in 2005 for the local paper in Waterville, Maine.

Michael Meade, in an interview done by John Malkin which appears in The Sun (November, 2011), speaks, among other things, about the distinction between warriors and soldiers:

“I work with veterans coming back from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I am perosonally against war, but I also understand the sense of exile and the alienation felt by people returning from all the battlefields of life. I’ve been working with veterans for years and watching the struggles of souls trying to find a way home. in a sense they are some of the most exiled people in modern culture. There is a burden of tragedy that they’re carrying for all of us.

Mass culture distorts our instincits and inclinations. Some people are natural fighters so they become soldiers. But soldiers are the opposite of warriors: soldiers do what they’re told; warriors do what they feel is best for everybody…A warrior isn’t looking for war. A warrior looks to be of service to something beyond him or herself. What’s happened is that the culture uses that willingess to serve its own narrow ends…When you take the willingness to sacrifice and aim it in the wrong direction for the wrong reasons, you get damage, and not just to the individual. That damage is inherited by future generations. For healing to occur, the truth has to come out, and by ‘truth’ I don’t mean which side was right. That’s the small argument. The truth is that souls were hurt, and healing is required for the individuals as well as the collective.”

That burden of tragedy – of wars waged, of warriors forced into the servitude of soldiering – that burden belongs, surely, to all of us in whose name these things were perpetrated, not just the servicemen coming home to places that are unreconcilable with the places they’ve been in, places filled with people who don’t recognize them and in some ways never saw them to begin with. What is a human being to do, ever, about war? What is an artist to do? What can a writer say? If my words cannot move anybody to see more clearly, listen more closely, of what use are they?

It is the 5th of November. I know why I felt compelled to write about war and veterans today. I write about them because I’m thinking about a beautiful, talented writer who is my friend. I have never met anybody in her family. I know nothing about her brother. She never spoke of him until I emailed her to tell her that I had lost my mother and did not know how I would go on. She told me about him then, about his time in Iraq and the fact that he had, upon his return, unable to reconcile himself to all that he had witnessed and participated in, killed himself. Today marks the seventh anniversary of his passing. I have nothing to offer her or to any other family that has gone through this particular kind of loss, except my attention to the whole of their experience, the whole of their grief.


3 November, 2011

I am over at The Rumpus with a review on Steve Almond’s new collection of fiction, God Bless America(Lookout Books/UNC Wilmington, October 2011). You can read the whole post here. Below, a short excerpt:

God Bless America, a collection that should be seen as part of a body of work intent on eviscerating and then forgiving our pitiful culture of excess, this social milieu in which we—our bodies bent to their “awful purposes”—run amok with the faintest grasp on reality and even less on our own motivations. We spout platitudes on the one hand, like Billy in the title story, about this “land built by opportunists,” and face painful truths on the other, as Sophie does in “Not Until You Say Yes”: “Nothing was ever done, it was always suffering some improvement. Were human beings really such factories of discontent?” Yes, we are, and Almond is a writer who is as painfully aware of the ludicrousness of our predicament as he is a believer in the possibility of our salvation.

The Books:

The Books:

On Sal Mal Lane

In the tradition of In the Time of the Butterflies and The Kite Runner, a tender, evocative novel about the years leading up to the Sri Lankan civil war.

A Disobedient Girl

A Disobedient Girl is a compelling map of womanhood, its desires and loyalties, set against the backdrop of beautiful, politically turbulent, Sri Lanka.