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Buddha Buzz Weekly: New Workshop Series Blends Buddhism and Constitutional Law

Nothing is permanent, so everything is precious. Here’s a selection of some happenings—fleeting or otherwise—in the Buddhist world this week.

American Bar Foundation Sponsors Workshops on Buddhism and Constitutional Law 

The American Bar Foundation and the University of Chicago are sponsoring a series of weekly conferences on comparative constitutional studies and Buddhist legal thought, according to Buddhistdoor Global. On Thursday scholars from around the world met to discuss research on historical and contemporary intersections of Buddhist traditions and national legal codes.

While the intersection of secular law and religions such as Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity has been heavily researched in recent decades, Buddhism has mostly been left out of the conversation, researchers said. Organized by Dr. Tom Ginsburg, Professor of International Law at the University of Chicago, and Dr. Ben Schonthal, professor of Buddhism and Asian religions at New Zealand’s University of Otago, the workshops are funded in part by a grant from the National Science Foundation. More information about registration can be found at constitutionalbuddhism.org

Archaeologists in India Discover Earliest Known Female-Led Monastery

Archaeologists in the eastern Indian state of Bihar discovered the remains of an 11th- or 12th-century Mahayana Buddhist monastery that was headed by a woman, the Hindustan Times reported. “Monasteries have been discovered at many locations in this area, but this is the first setup located at the top of a hill,” lead researcher Anil Kumar, an archaeologist at Visva Bharati University said. “Seems the Mahayana Buddhists set up the monastery far from the hustle and bustle of the human population to practice Mahayana rituals in isolation.” Unlike in other historical Buddhist monasteries that have been excavated, all the cells had doors, suggesting that the monastics were either all women or a mix of women and men, according to the Times of India. Two burnt clay seals with Sanskrit writing and 8th- or 9th-century script indicate that the monastery’s name was “the council of monks of Srimaddhama vihara.”

UN Assigns Korean Festival of Light “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity” Status

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has added the Korean festival of light, Yeondeunghoe, to their “Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity,” Buddhistdoor Global reported. Popularly known as the Lotus Lantern Festival, the event celebrates the birth of the Buddha, and festivities focus on sharing the light of wisdom, compassion, and peace with the world. The annual festival, however, was canceled last year for only the third time in modern Korean history to prevent the spread of COVID-19. By adding the event to the Intangible Cultural Heritage list, UNESCO aims to protect the tradition.

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Love, Wisdom, and Dr. King

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Americans remember the civil rights icon whose words inspired a nation. “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” he said in his most celebrated speech, delivered from the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963. While he dreamed of a future where people are not “judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” Dr. King also had in mind a more just and loving world. A few lines later, he alludes to Isaiah 40:4: “I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.”

For decades, scholar and award-winning author Charles Johnson has worked to bring attention to King’s spiritual and philosophical concerns, which often have been overshadowed by the impact of his nonviolent civil disobedience and political organizing. In 1998, some eight years after his novel Middle Passage won the National Book Award for Fiction, Johnson published Dreamer, a fictional account of the last two years of Martin Luther King’s life. (He was named a MacArthur fellow that same year.) Already having earned a doctorate in philosophy and a longtime student of Buddhism, Johnson recognized the rigor of King’s thinking and has sought—through Dreamer and other writings and talks—to restore this philosophical dimension of King’s work to his public image.

Here, Tricycle speaks with Johnson about his writings on Martin Luther King Jr. and what Buddhist practitioners, or any spiritual seeker, can learn from King’s message and vision. 

At what point in your life did you realize that your interest in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. might be more intense than the average person’s? How did that interest lead you to write a novel about the last two years of his life? Even though I grew up in the 1960s, and even though I remember the day Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, it wasn’t until the 1980s that I realized how little I knew about this man at the center of a civil rights movement that changed America, despite the fact that I invoked his name often. I felt the private man we call Martin Luther King Jr. had over time become a cultural object difficult to grasp in his individuality, in his humanness, and in the minutiae of his daily life, and this troubled me because those are the very foundations from which a public life arises. As a storyteller, the best way for me to correct these gaps in my knowledge was to make King the subject of my fourth novel, Dreamer, but I also co-authored with civil rights photographer Bob Adelman The Photobiography of Martin Luther King Jr., delivered many speeches across America on his eponymous holiday, and composed a short story and essays about his vision after seven years of research. By the time I was done, I’d devoted a fifth of my life to King’s memory and achievements, and I felt I could discuss his philosophy—he was a theologian and philosopher—as well as I can the positions of Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Descartes, Marx, or Heidegger.

You have noted many times throughout the years that most Americans have an incomplete picture of Dr. King. What do you think is the most detrimental misconception that people have about him? I feel any life in its totality is impossible to know. But what Malcolm X’s daughter once said of her father is also true for King: We selectively take pieces of him. So far too many Americans just see King as a civil rights leader for just black people. His vision was, of course, greater and more expansive than one with only political concerns.

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The Monk Who Got Addicted to His Phone

In the award-winning documentary Happiness (2014), acclaimed French filmmaker Thomas Balmès captures the life of an 8-year-old monk in Bhutan named Peyangki. With his new documentary Sing Me a Song, released on January 1, 2020, Balmès returns to Bhutan to follow the now-teenaged Peyangki and creates a nuanced portrait of a young man learning about the world beyond his monastery. 

Several years have passed since the Bhutanese government began lifting bans on TV and internet use in the country, and now the daily rituals of monastic life compete with the powerful lure of smartphones. Disinterested in study, Peyangki privately forms a relationship on social media with a singer from the capital city of Thimpu and aims to leave the monastery in search of “the one he dreams of night and day.”

While other documentaries like The Social Dilemma (2020) sound the alarm on social media manipulations and their real-world consequences, Sing Me a Song offers a unique perspective: that of a young monk’s coming of age in a new era of connectivity. Caught between tradition and modernity, Peyangki’s journey, occasionally crushing and painful, has universal resonance.

Tricycle caught up (virtually) with Balmès at his home in Normandy, to talk about the tension between technology and tradition, the impacts of connectivity on society, and the power of film to hold up a mirror to our addictions.

Peyangki at a night club in the city | Courtesy of Participant

In your documentary Happiness, Peyangki seemed to embody the Buddhist teaching about “child-mind”—approaching experience with a sense of wonder, without expectation.  When you returned for the new film, what differences did you observe? I have to say that when I came back to shoot Sing Me a Song, the first thing I observed was this scene of the young monks in the monastery, praying and playing [on their phones] at the same time. And I felt most of them had their brains turned off. The innocence that was there earlier, when shooting Happiness, that was lost. 

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Ram Dass in Review

Over the course of a nine-decade cultural mash-up, Ram Dass morphed from a member of Boston’s upper-class nobility named Richard Alpert into one of the world’s most iconic and widely read spiritual teachers. 

Being Ram Dass, published posthumously in January 2021, is his 17th and final book.

Being Ram Dass
by Ram Dass with Rameshwar Das
Sounds True, January 2021,
$29.99, 496 pp., cloth

His breakthrough title, Be Here Now, was written a half-century ago and has sold over 2 million copies. The counterculture work resonated with young people experimenting with a lifestyle inspired by Ram Dass and his partner in crime, psychedelia, and academia, Timothy Leary. From the ivy-covered towers of the Harvard Psychedelic Project, Leary admonished “Turn on, Tune In, and Drop out,” inspiring bands of young seekers to throw down limits and live life on its own terms. Richard Alpert joined the colorfully clad current; he hit the road on a spiritual search and ended up in the foothills of the Himalayas where he met his Hindu guru Neem Karoli Baba who bestowed upon him the new moniker Ram Dass—“servant of God.”

When Ram Dass died in 2019, there were few stories about his vast and fascinating life that had not been told . . . and told . . . and told.

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Is Ram Dass Still Here Now? 

I knew Ram Dass for more than fifty years, longer than practically anyone in my life. He was my spiritual friend. There is a term for that in Sanskrit, kalyana mitra, which means more than a friend: a mentor, guide, inspiration for inner life.

I never knew Richard Alpert. I met him as Ram Dass at the first talk he gave when he returned from India in 1968. 

I was in my junior year at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, where Richard Alpert had earned his master’s degree around 14 years prior. I expected to hear about the annals of LSD from one of the members of the intrepid advance team of Timothy Leary and Alpert. Instead of the former Harvard professor, in walks a guy with a long beard in a white dress, barefoot in the frozen mud of New England in March. 

Forty or fifty people were sprawled around a lounge at the College of Letters. At 7:00 p.m., Ram Dass started speaking about his transformation in India. He had just spent six months learning yoga and meditation in the Himalaya foothills, keeping celibate, mostly in silence. Through those practices, he had built up a lot of spiritual energy. Ram Dass’s words and thoughts flowed like a spring freshet after snow melts and the ice breaks. The concepts he wove were exhilarating, like shooting rapids in a canoe. 

Ram Dass speaking to a weekend group at Willenrica, his family’s farm in Franklin, New Hampshire, 1969. | Photo copyright Rameshwar Das.

After a while someone turned out the lights, and there was just his voice coming out of the darkness, responding to questions. Ram Dass spoke until 3:00 a.m. Something shifted in me—the subtle sense of identity I had lived with since childhood, my self-image, my point of view. 

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