Breaking Free 9/20/20

Thoughts by Richard Bleil

The Dalai Lama recently wrote about our responsibility to take care of our planet. I’ve written of the Dalai Lama and Lord Buddha before, and I have to admit that I, myself, am not a Buddhist. However, with his gentle nature, wisdom and humor, I very much appreciate that Dalai Lama and see him as a great spiritual leader, as many people whoa re not Catholic might still see the Pope as a spiritual leader.

As I read his piece, however, instead of thinking in terms of the environment, I started thinking about Buddha himself. Born “Prince Buddha”, he was born into privilege and riches, privilege that he chose to surrender. As the story goes, he saw a piece of the struggles of the world on a trip outside of the palace grounds and realized that he didn’t understand how the rest of the people lived. He realized that the only way to understand the world was to expand his world from that which he knew by getting out of the brick security wall. The grounds guards and people certainly didn’t want him to go; he had to sneak away to do it. He didn’t understand the world until he broke free of what he thought he knew, and it was no small task.

I see this as a metaphor for our society here in America in a couple of different ways. The most direct metaphor is, of course, with international affairs. Our society vacillates between isolationist and expansionist. In 2001, George W. Bush launched “Operation Enduring Freedom” in Afghanistan, fully aware that in a matter of months our forces would be seen as heroes by bringing freedom to a nation at the end of a rifle. Confident that we knew better what the Afghan people needed than they did, we launched a ground war that continues to this day. Compare this with the current administration that espouses high fences to improve relations with other nations, imposing travel restrictions from largely Muslim populated nations and starting tariff wars to bring industrial operations back to America. The reality is that America has a long and disappointing history of making the wrong international moves. We get stuck in pointless wars by sending troops, we back “friendly” anti-government rebels who then turn on us armed with our own weapons, and turn a blind eye when we shouldn’t. I believe this is because of a world view limited by our own visions of what we believe everybody should be like. We’re stuck in our grounds, protected by our walls.

Many years ago, living in Rapid City, I heard a news story of which I was unaware from a Native American friend of mine. As it turns out, the Rosebud reservation was struggling with a spate of youth suicide, teen and younger. I saw the opportunity to help improve the stressed relationship between the reservation and the city and brought this to the attention of the police chief suggesting that we not go in to “help”, but rather, that we reach out to say that we recently had heard of this and offered to help in any way that they need. That is, I was suggesting that we let them decide if and how we can help rather than telling them what we’re going to do. He informed me that if, in fact, this were the case he would already have heard. That afternoon, I looked at the funeral homes on the reservation and, indeed, saw far too many young services which to me verified my friend’s story, and I’m not even a detective. A month later, the suicide epidemic was national news. This was an opportunity lost because the police chief refused to look beyond the concrete boundaries of his little world. The issue is emphasizing military and might rather than diplomacy. Conversation and diplomacy is something that has always taken the back burner in American politics, but until we have the courage to look beyond what we think, we’ll continue making the wrong moves.

A little more abstractly, and more to the point of the Dalai Lama’s original post, the same is true of technological advancements. Again we see the problem in an example from the current administration, fighting tooth and nail to maintain the energy status quo of fossil fuels. Although it’s an entire story, I was fortunate enough to meet General Mikael Miltstein (the spelling is probably incorrect), in charge of the defense of the entire Soviet Union, not long after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. He asked me, directly, where I stood on the then nuclear versus fossil fuel debate. Not intimidating at all. I backed my friend, though, on the peaceful use of nuclear power arguing that the emissions of greenhouse gasses from traditional coal and oil power plants have probably already destroyed our planet.

Today we see that destruction far more obviously. As our president continues to deny global warming as a problem from a stage in the midst of the burning of our entire western seaboard, it’s obvious that he is stuck in the traditional fossil fuel rut. Meanwhile, engineers are finding improved solar power methods, unique energy sources, and means to increase fuel efficiency. We have had political leaders such as Obama who saw beyond the fossil fuel grounds to see the problems with continued reliance on fossil fuels, and supported development of alternative energy and efficiency. Unfortunately, the current administration, in refusing to see beyond the grounds with which he is comfortable, has set back the progress towards a cleaner, and more energy independent, future.

It’s time to break free. We need to see beyond our grounds, and break out of our little concrete wall. It’s a big scary world out there, but if we’re truly going to become the global leaders we wish to be, it’s a task that must be done. Buddha couldn’t become Lord Buddha until Prince Buddha took the frightening step and broke out of his little world into the larger one surrounding it.

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