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Bodhisattva versus white supremacist

  • A review of the situation in Charlottesville
  • Reflections on what has been said on both sides
  • Taking a Dharma perspective on hate speech
  • Ensuring our minds do not fall into discouragement and despair

Venerable Semkye was slated to speak today, but there were events in the country yesterday that I feel called upon to discuss. Yesterday in Charlottesville, Virginia—where Jeffery taught for many, many years—It started on Friday night there were hundreds of people—alt-right, white supremacists, and neo-Nazis—who came to do a big protest there because the city wants to take down the statue of Robert E. Lee. They came on Friday night. They had torches that they were carrying. They walked through the university. There were some scuffles, and I think three people were arrested, but not too bad.

Then yesterday morning they were supposed to do a rally at noon, but even before noon they were gathering there, and at least an equal number of people (hundreds) came out to counter-protest what was happening. The neo-Nazis, white supremacists, alt-right people, many of them were wearing helmets. They had shields, some had batons. They had their own flags and they had the confederate flag. They were clearly seeking to fight. So, the counter-protesters…. There was a big clash. On the news, many many videos of people slugging each other, and so on. There were some of the alt-right militias there who had rifles and guns. Thankfully, nobody shot anybody. They said they were there to help keep the peace, but they didn’t. Lots of people got hurt fighting each other with these shields and batons, and so on. Then the police disbursed it before the rally could even begin because there was so much fighting.

Some of the counter-protesters were along a street, in a mall area, and some guy—he’s 20 years old from Ohio—took his car and went zooming down the street right into this whole group of people walking in the middle of the street. He hit some people, then he hit another car which hit a mini-van. One woman died—she was 32 years old, a resident of Charlottesville—and then lots more people were injured in this thing.

The guy, after hitting the car and all these people, put his car into reverse, backed up, and tore away. The police found him, they arrested him soon thereafter.

There are videos of the whole thing. There’s one still picture of when he hit some of the people and one person’s completely upside-down, somebody else is flying in the air, somebody else is at the side of the road. It was total chaos. The governor of Virginia—Terry McAuliffe—had declared a state of emergency, thank goodness.

Then after that there was what national leaders said in response to all this chaos and violence. The dear president said he condemns violence all together, and that it’s been in the country for a long time. It’s not him, it’s not Barack Obama, and it is coming from many sides. He did not specifically mention white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and alt-right. So today there’s a whole thing in the media about that.

But thank goodness there were other people who said things. So I wanted to tell you what they said, and then I want to comment a little bit on how to take these things as Dharma practice.

Of course, David Duke—he was the former leader of the KKK who said he was supporting Trump during the election, and that’s when Trump said he didn’t know who David Duke was and he didn’t know what white supremacy groups were. So he, (Duke), said that “the European Americans are being ethnically cleansed within our own nation.” And said that the events yesterday were “the first step in taking America back.” He also said that they were doing Donald Trump’s work. And there were many of those people there carrying Donald Trump signs from the election.

So Trump did not start this, but he certainly did not call them out.

Spencer, who’s another white supremacist, said that he was beyond outraged that the police had declared the planned rally an unlawful assembly (despite the violence). He said, “I never before thought that I would have my country cracking down on me and on free speech. We were lawfully and peacefully assembled. We came in peace and the state cracked down.”

They came ready for a fight. It was very obvious.

I saw on the news, they were interviewing some people. Many of these neo-Nazi, white supremacists people are young. They were in their 20s and 30s. Some older. They interviewed one young man, and he said he came for three reasons. I can’t remember one of them. But one of them was: “We’ve got to take our country back. We’re being persecuted. The whites are being persecuted in their country and we’ve got to take our country back.” And he also came to kill Jews. He said it like that. It’s really quite horrifying. Quite shocking.

They waved confederate flags and posters that said the goyim know (goyim is non-jewish people) and the Jewish media is going down. And the others shouted, “No Trump, no KKK, no fascist USA.” So everybody was yelling at each other.

One of the people who’s a white supremacist said that Trump’s election has emboldened him and members of his own nazi group. “We are assembled to defend our history, our heritage, and to protect our race to the last man. We came here to stand up for the white race.”

The president did not mention the nazis, the alt-right, the white supremacists directly, he just condemned violence that was coming from all sides. Thank goodness there were others in the country who spoke differently, many of them Republicans. So this is quite significant. I wanted to copy out their tweets that were in the news but it didn’t come out when I tried to do it.

One senator from Colorado—Cory Gardener—he said (early on yesterday) “evil has to be called out, and this is domestic terrorism.”

I said, “Finally, somebody said it, called it what it was.”

Paul Ryan (of whom I am not a great fan) said it was “repugnant.” Good!. Thank you Paul.

Orrin Hatch, who is the conservative of the conservative, said “my brother didn’t die in World War II fighting the nazis so that we could have nazis here at home.” Bless his heart. Orrin Hatch.

And even Grassley also condemned it. He’s a strong Republican.

So some people, finally, said something.

Trump didn’t say anything until after 1pm, when he said on Twitter, “We must all be united and condemn all that hate stands for. There is no place for this kind of violence in America. Let’s come together as one.” And, “The hate and division must stop right now.” And here’s a statement that he was called out on, “We condemn in the strongest possible term this egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides. On many sides.” He said it twice. He was putting it out on everybody.

So David Duke (the KKK guy) he was not pleased with what Donald Trump said. And he said, “I would recommend you take a good look in the mirror and remember it was white Americans who put you in the presidency, not radical leftists.”

And then apparently one (or more) of these neo-Nazi sites today said, “Wow, Trump supported us, he didn’t criticize us at all.” They were saying, “Wow, Trump’s really good in this, we received no criticism from him.”

Then the counter-protesters, you had clergy, you had “black lives matter” people, you had students and other people coming there.

Most of the nazi, white-supremacist people, many of them came from out of state, they just descended on Charlottesville.

Here’s what happened this morning.

Virginia’s governor, Terry McAuliffe, attended a service at the Mt. Zion First African Baptist Church, as did Governor Ralph Northam, who is running this fall to succeed him. “The governor brought the predominantly African American congregation to its feet as he stood at the pulpit and condemned the white supremacists and neo-Nazis who came to our state yesterday. ‘You pretend you’re patriots. You are not patriots. You are dividers. You are not welcome in Charlottesville, you are not welcome in Virginia, you are not welcome in the United States of America.'”

The woman who was killed was white, and her friend (who knew her as a kid…. Her name was Heather Heyer) said that she had stood up for people being picked on at school or on the bus, she never feared fighting for what she believed in. “She died for a reason,” her friend said. “I don’t see any difference in her or in a soldier who died in war. She, in a sense, died for her country. She was there standing up for what is right.”

When I look at it, there are kind of two things. One is this whole outbreak of racism and bigotry in the country. And the second is the way our country’s “leaders” respond. Both of these things indicate something about the country, and both of these things influence us.

When we come across this kind of hatred—-which is remarkable…. When that young man was speaking about why he came, I was thinking where did he learn to hate like this? Who taught him that?

Obama, by the way, he tweeted something from Nelson Mandela where Mandela had said, “Nobody is born with hatred, they learn to hate. If people learn to hate, you can also teach them to love.” From Mandela via Obama.

To look at this kind of bigotry and prejudice, it’s horrifying. It’s very easy to either get angry, or to fall into discouragement and feel like everything’s hopeless. And this is exactly the time when we should not fall to either of those two extremes. If you think, how do bodhisattvas act in difficult situations? How do bodhisattvas act with recalcitrant sentient beings who want happiness and don’t want suffering and continually create the cause for suffering? How do bodhisattvas act? Because we’re bodhisattvas in training. We’re not there yet, but we’re training. Bodhisattvas don’t just throw up their hands and say “the world is going to hell so forget it all.” And they don’t get angry and engage in a fist fight with the people who disagree with them. And they don’t insult the people who disagree with them. They respond with compassion and they also speak out against the wrong ideas. We separate the ideas and the actions (which are abhorrent) from the people who hold them or do them. Because, those people still have the buddha nature. We cannot sign them off and say they are pure evil. They have the buddha nature. Some time in the future, maybe due to our practice, we’ll be able to lead them on the path.

We should make very strong prayers, and practice very well, so that we gain the realizations necessary to be wise, compassionate, skillful, and powerful teachers so that we can guide those people in future lives. And make prayers for that. We don’t throw them out the window and say, “May they go to hell and stay there forever.” We don’t do that. That’s completely un-bodhisattva-like. If we do that. If we get discouraged and we get angry and we get filled with hatred against those people then our mind is no different than theirs. Hate is hate. It doesn’t matter whose it is. So, instead, we train our mind to have compassion for those people. But compassion does not mean, “Oh yeah, what you said is wrong, please don’t do it again.” That’s not going to communicate. We have to speak up strongly, and loudly, but not necessarily screaming with our voice. Loudly, in the sense that we are speaking from our heart. And we say “those ideas are not acceptable. The fighting is not acceptable. These things are harmful.” And they’re not just harmful for our country. It’s not only that they don’t belong in our country. Those ideas and actions don’t belong anywhere. They are created by people who are in great suffering, who think that by creating an external enemy and destroying the external enemy they will find peace. We know that that is not the way to find peace. You destroy one external enemy, another one comes. The real enemy is our own ignorance, attachment and hatred in (our heart) and that’s what we have to counteract, and that’s what we have to help other people counteract. We don’t stick our heads in the sand. We don’t get furious. We don’t get discouraged. We act, Because there’s got to be a voice of ethical authority. There’s got to be a voice of compassion in all of this. If we get discouraged, if we get angry, there’s no compassion, there’s no ethical authority at all. And, we can’t wait for our leaders to do it. Some of them do, thank goodness. But whoever we can influence as a voice of reason, as a voice of “let’s come together and learn how to listen to each other and hear each other’s pain.” And see what we can do to alleviate suffering, all together.

It sounds lofty. It sounds impossible. But hey, bodhisattvas make aspirations for the lofty and the impossible. They say “by myself alone I’m going to go to the lower realms and rescue these sentient beings.” So if we’re going to be bodhisattvas in training then we have to build up that kind of courage inside of ourselves. And have compassion for everybody in the situation.

So in one way you can look at this and you say “this is horrible, what’s happening to the country?” In another way you could look at this and say, “Hatred has always been here. Now it’s effects are more apparent.” Many people who before looked the other way are now looking at what’s happening and saying, “No, we don’t want to live in a country like this. We don’t want to live in a world like this. We’re going to do something about it.” So sometimes…. You have to sink low before you go high. Before you have the energy to do something. So in one way, perhaps—hopefully—this will lead to something good in the country and in the world.

Audience: I went to University of Virginia for my undergraduate degree, and the education was good but the whole experience was really tainted by this racism that was just in the atmosphere. It touched everything. Including me. People would always comment about my race. There was a lot of segregation, a lot of discrimination. Anyway, the people I talked to, they sort of, they didn’t seem to have much of a problem with it. Other students or even people who lived and worked in Charlottesville. It always stuck me, how can you not care about that? How can it not just completely ruin all of the good that’s going on there? And I had visited UVA right before I came back to the Abbey, and I took a tour, and we toured the oldest library on campus—it’s called the Rotunda—and it was led by this young African American woman who’s a student, and she gave a whole history of slavery and how the slaves took care of all the grounds, and they served the first groups of students. And I had optimism that things had changed. And I was like, okay, things are getting better. But hearing this happening is not surprising at all. And saying, “Oh these are people from out of state….” No, there’s a reason it happened in Charlottesville.

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): There are many of them in Charlottesville?

Audience: Yes.

VTC: Because usually they’ve been describing Charlottesville as kind of a provincial town.

Audience: It’s pretty big. It’s a big university.

VTC: You lived there, I’m sure you know better.

Audience: Yeah. It’s a southern town. And it’s part of the culture, the racism. What I just want to add is that I agree with what you’re saying, like it has to come to the surface. Because the university, it’s built on white privilege. It’s built on glorifying Thomas Jefferson who had sex with his slave when she was fourteen and had six children. And nobody ever blinks an eye, nobody thinks of that. And as long as institutions like UVA continue to be super powerful and super elite and people aspire to them, and they don’t acknowledge the history of the country, this kind of thing is just going to continue, and people can look the other way. Until the violence erupts. It casts a very needed spotlight on the real state of race relations in that town.

VTC: There was one other comment I forgot to tell you. One guy who was a former White House lawyer—I don’t’ know if he was under Trump or a previous one—but he was a Republican, and he spoke out so strongly, he said Trump has got to fire Steven Bannon and Sebastian Gorka, and get those people out of the White House. And that the Republican party needs to declare that these people are not part of their party. He was really passionate speaking about that. So that was also something quite good.

Audience: I actually think that the rhetoric from the Republican party that fans discrimination has actually been going on for as many elections as I can remember being in this country. Under the guise of immigration and immigration reform mostly directed at people from South America, Latin America, and Mexico. So it’s no surprise that it’s been seething just waiting for the appropriate environment to sprout. Also, these actions of the president are reminiscent of what the presidents of Venezuela have been doing since Chavez and now Mercado, in that they would actually support the supporters to do violence against the people that were not their supporters. There was one particular news story that I recall where the president actually incited the violence in that he would not incarcerate or in any way prosecute any of his supporters who were caught doing violence acts against people who were against him. This is kind of sort of reminiscent of that.

VTC: Actually there’s also a court case going on… Because in one of his rallies there was one protester there and he called people to “get him out of here.” So some guy came and—I think it was a woman, maybe a man—and dragged that person out. So that person was injured. So that person is suing Trump for inciting it. And the person who dragged them out—the pro-Trump person—is also suing Trump because Trump said that he would pay the legal fees of anybody who got in trouble for taking out the protesters. So both of those people are suing him. I don’t know if either of the people will be able to win the case.

Audience: I think most Americans forget their history, that at one point the KKK, these neo-Nazi groups that they were under investigation under the FBI, and the terms “domestic terrorism” that they’ve done it before, and that it didn’t go away, it just got quiet. The blatant racism now is just there. With the election of Trump, or at least with this last presidential election what I learned was that being racist or being sexist doesn’t necessarily preclude you from holding office in this country anymore. As opposed to, at one point, there was at least a form of civility, or at least decorum, that one had to hold that office (presidential office). When you ran for the presidency or for the governorship, or for mayor, or any other public office in which you were voted for, I couldn’t imagine even in 1992 when I was seeing Bill Clinton as little kid, I couldn’t imagine any of the individuals who were running for office doing or saying any of the things that President Trump has said or done, and still hold that office. It just shocks me.

VTC: We know what we need to do. And also what we must abandon doing. So now’s the time to do it, and to really make strong prayers to be able to benefit these people now, in this life, if there’s some way we can do it, and definitely in future lives. And to benefit all of them. But really to speak out against wrong views, wrong attitudes, hateful minds. And of course it starts at home, doesn’t it? It starts with our own anger here (in our heart).

Venerable Thubten Chodron

Albert Gerome Ramos was born and raised in San Antonio, Texas. He has been incarcerated since 2005 and is currently enrolled in the North Carolina Field Minister Program. Upon graduation he plans to start programs that help incarcerated people with mental health issues, drug dependency, and those who struggle from childhood trauma. He is the author of the children's book Gavin Discovers the Secret to Happiness.