Sunday, November 23, 2008

One Voice: Obama's Change and Buddhist Self-Transformation

(As appeared in Bangkok Post, Friday, November 14, 2008, the first of a two-part series on Obama campaign from a Buddhist perspective)

Although he didn't say it, the real change that Obama was rallying for was the change of the people, by the people and for the people. Photo from

The world has just emerged fresh from eagerly following Barack Obama’s historic campaign. Apparently, conventional wisdom believes Obama’s success is derived from his campaign’s key message --- change.

This concept of change is no stranger to Buddhists. And because the Obama’s campaign has superbly provided us with a common reference point, this moment seems most ideal to explore “change” in light of something closer to home, that is, change in light of Buddhism while the Obama experience is still fresh in our mind.

Today’s installment is an inaugural article in a 2-part series on the Buddhist perspective on the Obama campaign. After this week’s discussion on this campaign’s fundamental theme, we would turn the table around and explore the Buddhist values we could see in Obama himself.

Yes, why not? After all, a transformational figure in the political circle is hard to come by anywhere in the world. So, please stay tuned for additional treat next week!

Not Just Any Changes, but Change with a Higher Purpose

Before we discuss Buddhist’s concept of change, let us explore what the Obama camiagn has been advocating. Simply put, Obama portrayed himself as the agent of change.

At first glance, this positioning alone should provide a good momentum for the Obama campaign already, given the economic, social and political mess America got itself in.

Why, then, does it have to be “change we can believe in?” The Buddhist concept of change can provide an explanation.

Buddhist’s Implication of Change

The concept of change in Buddhism is known as the Law of Impermanence. And it is best explained together with the truth about suffering. Let us first look around to see what kind of suffering the world is now facing and we will get the picture.

A quick way to get a grasp on the truth of suffering is to turn on a prime time’s news program. At any hour, there is always a breaking news on crisis: wars, terrors, riots, financial market collapsing or otherwise. Not all sufferings are man-made. Equally devastating are the natural disasters of all imaginable kinds: flood, hurricane, earthquake, wild fire, tsunami, etc..

What those natural disasters and man-made crisis have in common is that they are all about changes, most of them sudden, which in turn bring suffering.

Even if it may not seem to bring immediate, physical suffering, change still has in it the air of uncertainty. This in itself brings anxiety and fear. In other words, at the very least, change brings mental suffering.

Therefore, it would not be an overstatement to say that, sub-consciously at least, we humans are wired to be afraid of changes because it does to bring suffering.

Unless of course it is a change deliberately enacted by ourselves for a higher purpose.

But what is the change that Obama felt that people could believe in? We’ll come back to that later. Let us first look at the type of change that people do not want to be in because this change for the worse is actually the catalyst for the drive towards change for the better.

Change is inevitable, and is one with suffering

In Buddhism, change is more of a rule rather than exception. Even without someone announcing that he would bring change, change would still happen according to Buddhist view. This is because the Law of Impermanence says that all conditioned things will eventually ceased to exist.

To be specific, Lord Buddha once said,

“…Whatever is impermanent (anatta) is subject to change (anicca.)

Whatever is subject to change is subject to suffering (dukkha)…”

Rather than focusing on what changes and why, Buddhism focuses on how we can best deal with changes that are, by nature, inevitable. Dealing with aging, sickness, death, and parting with loved ones are clear examples of the inevitable.

In fact, the core essence of Buddhist Enlightenment is nothing more than the true understanding of the nature of change. Why is that?

It is because change goes hand in hand with suffering. The understanding of the cause of suffering means we could refrain from causing any more suffering to ourselves.

For novice mindfulness practitioner, this means the end of suffering in the now. For those who have fully Enlightened, this understanding of the nature of change would liberate them of suffering forever.

The Real Meaning behind Obama's Call for Change

Coming back to the “change” Obama talked about in his campaign, we will see that it parallels with the Buddhist idea of how one can liberate oneself out of suffering. If we pay close attention to Obama’s various speeches, we will see that the real change he is aiming for is not merely a change of policies.

Obama’s plan of policy changes is at best an instrument to get things done. Even the new policy itself is subject to change, too, as Obama made clear he wants to hear the feedback from the public so that he could always improvise his policy to make it serves the need of the people better.

This “hearing from the public” is the key to Obama’s message of change, the change that he said the American people could believe in. It is the change Obama asked the public to make of themselves.

Time and time again, Obama was asking for pubic co-operation and sacrifice. Basically he asked for an end to the blaming game, negative emotions and aggressive gestures that came with partisanship. Obama himself rose above that and he inspired the public to follow suits. “There is no liberal America nor conservative America, black America or white America, but only the United States of America.”

Moreover, Obama’s call for change is not just ideological. Obama presented a way to make it tangible by making an urgent call for social service and volunteerism in every sector.

In other words, the real change that Obama was rallying for was the change of the people, by the people and for the people.

It is the change that Obama knows people can believe in because it is a call for people to believe in themselves!

"..I'm asking you to believe. Not just in my ability to bring about real change in Washington....I am asking you to believe in yours..." (source:

One Voice

This is why the key essence of Obama’s call for change is similar to that of Buddhism measure to achieve the end of suffering. Like Obama’s vision, Buddhist’s change has to first start from an individual's faith within that he/she could bring about the change him/herself.

Moreover, Buddhism calls for selflessness and life-long service to others, with the aim of helping others out of suffering. Mahayana Buddhism in particular believes that it is only by devoting ourselves to help others that we would be liberated ourselves. Theravada Buddhism believes that it is only by striving to change ourselves to a higher moral plane that we could go on to transform the lives of others for the better. But, if we read between the lines, we will realize that these two approaches are in fact the same.

The same goes with Obama’s concept of change and that of Buddhism’s. They are both about changes that are founded upon powerful faith in humanity.

And this, dear readers, is the change we should believe in. Because, you guessed it, Yes, We Can!

The Mindful Candidate

(Bangkok Post's Real Time's Cover Story, November 21, 2008)

Photo from

Obama's Campaign in Buddhist Light

It is my belief that Barack Obama's successful presidential campaign, which was based on the concept of "change we can believe in," and its underlying message are synonymous with Buddhist self-transformation.

In Buddhism, people who are transformed become selfless and dedicated to serving others. This is what many people felt when they watched the broadcast of Obama giving his somber, determined victory speech in Chicago on election night.

Priceless Learning Opportunity, Politically or Otherwise

Something in the back of our minds said that we were witnessing history, and that we seemed to have arrived at the dawn of another chapter in a more principled humanity. In the candidate himself, there is a powerful lesson that we can learn from. It is not just for politicians who dream of running a successful campaign that results in a landslide victory; the lesson is equally valuable for the rest of us.

It would be ideal, though, if the world's politicians could learn the underlying message that Obama delivers, and the values that drove him and shaped his character.

Why the World Paid So Much Attention?

As we now know, the global following of Obama's campaign was unprecedented. The American press attributed it to their country's position as the leader of the consumer economy: whatever America decides, the repercussions will be felt by the world.

This is straightforward enough. In fact, Lord Buddha also taught that every being and phenomenon in this world is interconnected, hence the need for us to always have good will and act accordingly towards one another for continuous peaceful co-existence.

But in addition to that, a Buddhist view offers another explanation for the Obama phenomenon; it was not merely the result of economic dependence on America. For those who believe that what are important in this world are power and money, we beg you to consider the following facts and think again, as there are more profound things that Obama offers.

Let us first admit, there was something else about Obama that we were drawn to. And it was not just his charisma or his inspired oratory. What was it?

Mindful Candidate Always Stands out

Looking at Obama's historic campaign, what strikes us most is how consistently mindful this candidate has been. By mindfulness, Buddhism refers to the ability to be totally aware of the nature of things as they are, in the present moment, without pre-formed judgment or emotional partiality.

Obama, as we saw, was always able to remain calm and composed in any situation. He seemed to be able to always be mindful of his thoughts, his words and his deeds. At least he never lost his temper and showed hatred or anger like most politicians do in the midst of a tough political campaign. The only time he allowed himself to show his human side is only when he talked passionately about the well-being of his family.

Even when the political process got heated with the opponent's campaign throwing aggressive comments at him, Obama refused to retaliate in a similar manner. Repeatedly, he made it clear he would not take, in his own words, "the low road."

Mindfulness Leads to Clean Politics

By being constantly mindful, Obama was able to look at issues objectively. The result is a proof that human beings feel more comfortable with objectivity than with mud-slinging, name-calling politics. For example, Obama preferred to refer to the current problems in his country as resulting from "failed policies" rather than "failed individuals."

This brings to mind a Christian saying, "Hate the sin but love the sinner." Buddhism has a similar teaching which encourages us to address mental defilements as separate, conquerable entities from beings, who, in fact, suffer from unknowingly harbouring such defilements.

Obama also went out of his way to show his constant respect for fellow human beings, even when he has been the target of disappointing or harmful words and actions by some of them. In other words, we know that he values forgiveness and unity because he actually practices them.

Accepting the congratulatory phone call from McCain, Obama was able to say, "I need your help. You are such a great leader in many areas." Obama also praised McCain for waging such a tough campaign, and he did not lie: McCain did deliver a tough campaign, which probably forced Obama to try harder to sharpen his own thinking, coming up with even more thoughtful measures to better serve the public.

McCain must have felt exactly the same. McCain's sincere, heartfelt and gracious concession speech on election night, despite more than a year of gruelling campaigning as a political foe, is a testament to how Obama's mindful leadership and humility won over McCain's tough, war-veteran heart.

The greatest test of a true leader is perhaps the ability to find positive traits of one's foe and the courage to graciously mention them in public. And that was what Obama did on election night, "(Senator McCain) fought long and hard in this campaign, and he's fought even longer and harder for the country he loves. He has endured sacrifices for America that most of us cannot begin to imagine. We are better off for the service rendered by this brave and selfless leader."

Obama's Values in a Buddhist Perspective

Obama was able to achieve this formidable feat simply because he believed in the virtues and capability of every human. How could a politician achieve such an ethical mindset?

From a Buddhist point of view, it is because Obama has a firm grasp on the fundamentals of dhamma, the nature of things, as well as karma, the law of cause and effect of action. Obama himself stressed throughout his campaign that he himself was not perfect and that he expected to make mistakes as president. This is a fundamental understanding of human nature and of dhamma.

And how did he plan to address this common-man drawback? In Obama's own words: by being humble and listening to advice and criticism of others. "I will listen to you, especially when we disagree."

Humility, notably, is another admirable trait of this mindful candidate, stemming from his encompassing awareness of how things actually are. For example, in his victory speech, Obama appeared somber rather than self-satisfied, arrogant and triumphalist. He told the hyped-up Democrat crowd that they should accept this victory humbly, especially so because he simply followed the footsteps of one great Republican president, Abraham Lincoln.

That reference to Lincoln alone is enough to make people realize that what really matters is the shared humanitarian values and not antagonistic divisions along party lines.

Another important aspect we can learn from Obama's campaign is how he could inspire people. He could easily have taken advantage of the poor condition of the US economy to rev up the negative emotions of the crowd towards the current US administration, but he refused to do so.

Instead, he inspired people to sacrifice themselves, to do more together and for each other so that they all would be lifted out of this troubled time together, Democrats or otherwise.

This is the understanding of the law of karma. Everything in life is related to what we do now in the present moment. Lamenting and blaming each other for things past would not help us out of current suffering.

The American press also gave Obama lavish praise regarding his steadfast refusal to run a "negative campaign" against his opponents, even sometimes at his own cost. Lesson learned: mindful leaders who set their minds solely on the benefits of the people will sacrifice themselves and bravely sustain the low blows while continuing to hold on firmly, never losing sight of their original purpose. In short, it is selflessness.

Obama's call is not just idealistic, but an earnest call for action. By performing good deeds, good karma, together for society, Obama believes that good effects would naturally follow.

What breeds mindful leaders?

How could a relatively young presidential candidate have so much wisdom on life? A wisdom, we may add, that is usually associated with respected old sages. Looking at his formative years through a Buddhist lens, we understand why.

Despite growing up with a loving family, Obama has experienced hardship first-hand. There were times when his mother had to rely on food stamps to feed the family. Obama himself recalled in a voice stirred with emotion how she had to spend the last few months of her life studying health insurance forms to make sure her medical expenses were covered. This is why the young Obama was so driven to provide affordable healthcare to all.

Hardship, or, in Buddhist terms, suffering, apparently drove Obama to strive to work hard in all areas for those who are less privileged. He could have had a bright career in prestigious law firms of his choice given his educational and professional experience, but he chose to go into politics because he wanted to work for the benefit of others rather than for himself.

In Buddhism, understanding suffering is the first requirement towards acquiring wisdom. Having goodwill to all and living life to serve others mindfully is integral to Buddhist Enlightenment. In Thailand, HM the King exemplifies such virtues. Elsewhere, Mahatma Gandhi comes to mind.

Want to have that kind of Obama-like leadership? It's not beyond our human capacity. To be able to achieve this level of maha sati, Great Mindfulness, Buddhism prescribes vipassana practice with a detailed step-by-step guidance for anyone who cares to learn.

Mindful Leaders are Transformational Leaders

Academically, Obama's type of leadership is known as transformational leadership. It is when the leader and followers inspire each other to rise to a higher moral level by sacrificing themselves for society, for a cause higher than themselves.

In practice, transformational leaders are mindful people who transform themselves before going on to transform the life of others. By being constantly mindful, research shows that transformational leaders function better than other leadership models in time of change or crisis.

The author had the privilege of being at Harvard Law School at the same time as Barack Obama, although Obama was a year ahead and we were in different programmes. We might have occupied adjacent cubicles in the library or even taken the same international law classes together. Certainly, we went through similar "suffering" for a period of time.

Gruelling study aside, the author also recalled how classes were cancelled as students staged sit-in protests, demanding that a tenure position be given to an African-American female faculty. It was a cause Obama was known to support.

Although we do not have evidence if Obama indeed had some mindfulness training at Harvard Law, we do know that mindfulness meditation is now a regular fixture at the school. The initial workshop was so successful it has grown into a full-fledged programme called Harvard Negotiation Insight Initiative, aiming, among others, to train people to listen mindfully to others, which is doubtlessly the required basis of successful negotiations.

If a predominantly Christian country can incorporate this Buddhist wisdom into its top law school's curriculum and, in effect, producing great leaders, so can we. Yes, we can. (Sorry, couldn't resist it!)

Wakeup Call for World Leaders

It may seem incredible that a person with such a humble beginning as Obama could have made it this far. Yet, when looking through the lens of Buddhism, it should not come as a surprise. This is a mindful and humble candidate with a deep understanding of dhamma running a thoughtful and honourable campaign, encouraging people to be selfless and join forces to create good karma for the purpose of lifting others out of suffering.

It is precisely because of this that people all over the world were drawn to this campaign. It is not only about the economy, but also because the human mind responds naturally to inspiring virtue. The world cannot have enough of transformational leaders.

Mindfulness, non-aggression, the understanding of true nature of things, recognition of the Buddha-nature in every human and tangible, action-based selflessness for the benefit of others, the campaign could not have been more Zen-like than this.

What a Buddhist Country can Learn from an American President-Elect

As a Buddhist country, we should be happy to see mindfulness in action on a global scale, and Obama's embodiment of Buddhist values should be a powerful wakeup call to us. A mindful candidate can surely achieve great things for society.

This, inevitably, brings us to ask ourselves if this kind of clean, honorable campaign and mindful, selfless and focussed politician who enters politics to serve others is too much to ask for in a traditional Buddhist country like ours.

Where and how should we start? How about some wise words from Obama himself as quoted in Time magazine,

"We need to start over," he said, "speak gently, listen carefully, find solutions and keep our words."

Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama participated in a Compassion Forum. Photo: AP

Mindful advice is always context-free. Surely, Obama's insightful advice on how to work with people in solving problems can be applied everywhere and anywhere, not just to the current American political and economical mess. The answer depends on how soon we could say, "Yes, we can!"

To make sure we reach that day sooner than later, perhaps it would help to at least mindfully refrain ourselves from the usual politics of, "No, we can't!"


**Note** After this article appeared in The Bangkok Post, a thoughtful American reader who has moved to Thailand who goes by the name, "thaiexodus," kindly shared a thoughtful Zen koan with the author via email.

The gem of this wisdom is too valuable to be kept in private so the author has asked the permission to be shared with other readers.

Co-incidently, there is a photo from the official web site of Barack Obama that seems to go well with the koan, so the author took the liberty to include it together as follows.

Here is the koan:

"...All people are Buddhist, first and foremost, regardless of their professed religious beliefs..."

"But Barack Obama is a Christian of the Protestant faith!"

"Is it not the Buddha nature which causes a person to seek, and to embrace a religious philosophy?"

Photo from

Friday, November 7, 2008

Zen Mother Knows Best

The author, one-day old, in mother's arms

At the opening of Tiger Woods Learning Center in 2006, Bill Clinton commented that in the background of every great man is a boy who was terrified of his mother.

Well, may be "terrified" is too terrifying a word to describe the special and complex relationship between a great man and his mom, but I guess we all understand what the former president wanted to convey. Behind every great man, there is a mother who is very strict in disciplining her child. When they grow up and become successful, however, those men give all the credit to no one else but their disciplining mother. His Majesty the King and Gandhi are two such examples.

Today's article is an attempt to celebrate such mothers who have risked terrifying their children to make sure that their lot would grow up to become a hard-working person with integrity who dedicates one's life to serve others.

Admittedly, at first the author would like to keep this article for next year's Mother's Day. But life is so full of uncertainty, as the Law of Impermanence would remind us. There is nothing that guarantees that we would still be here tomorrow, let alone next Mother's Day. Therefore, let us pay tribute to our mothers as soon and as often as we can. Having said that, mom, this week's article is for you!

The woman behind Ikkyu's Enlightenment

Anybody who has been around since 1975 must have been more or less familiar with the cartoon series, Ikkyu-San. The series, based on a true story, enjoyed a tremendous success. A lot has been discussed about Ikkyu the young novice who went on to achieve Enlightenment, but very little has been said about his mother except how much the little Ikkyu was attached to her and how much influence she had on him.

Ikkyu was born in 1394 to Emperor Go-Komatsu and Iyono Tsubone, a court noble who was a descendant of the aristocratic Fujiwara clan. However, both mother and child were forced to leave the court to the countryside where Ikkyu went to stay at a local Zen temple at the tender age of five to begin his study. His mother also took up Zen practice seriously.

We would have no idea how dedicated and successful Lady Tsubone was in her Zen training if we had not found the following piece of writing. It was her last testament to Ikkyu in the form of a letter. To the uninitiated, the letter may sound like what is popular known today as "tough love." In fact, those people are right. Zen "love" is almost always tough love, as exemplified in an apparently stern relationship between the Zen master and his/her disciples. The letter reads:

"... To Ikkyu:

I have finished my work in this life and am now returning into Eternity. I wish you to become a good student and to realize your Buddha-nature. You will know if I am in hell or whether I am always with you or not.

If you become a man who realizes that the Buddha and his follower Bodhidharma are your own servants, you may leave off studying and work for humanity. The Buddha preached for 49 years and in all that time found it not necessary to speak one word. You ought to know why. But if you don't and yet wish to, avoid thinking fruitlessly.

Your Mother,

Not born, not dead

First day of the 9th month

P.S. The teaching of Buddha was mainly for the purpose of enlightening others. If you are dependent on any of its methods, you are naught but an ignorant insect. There are 80,000 books on Buddhism and if you should read all of them and still not see your own nature, you will not understand even this letter. This is my will and testament..."


Understanding Ikkyu's mother's last words

Even with absolutely no prior Zen training at all, one is already moved by the way a mother took the trouble to leave her caring, final words to her young son in order to make sure he grows up to be a decent man, achieve Enlightenment and serve others.

If, like the author, the readers also identify with Ikkyu as someone who was first introduced to Buddhist mindfulness practice by one's own mother since childhood, this letter would certainly take on a much deeper meaning.

Recognized for its profound Zen message, the letter was included in a Zen Koan collection. A Koan is a question, dialogue, or statement generally containing aspects that seems to be beyond rationality yet could be understood via intuition derived from Buddhist mental development.

Let us attempt to understand the meaning behind Lady Tsubone's last words together in a Zen-style question and answer.

What does "returning to Eternity" means?

It is the return to "nothingness," that is, to return to nature, to be one with nature. Being one with nature means there is no "self" which indicates the state of Enlightenment.

Why comparing Lord Buddha to servants?

The sentence likely refers to the stage when one practices Zen/mindfulness enough to realize that all human beings are but the same continuing process of nama and rupa interaction, with nama being the psychological elements and rupa being the physical elements. Lord Buddha once said that the level of metta, loving-kindness, he had towards his son Rahul and his arch enemy Devadatta are the same, meaning Lord Buddha saw both as beings that equally strive to be free from suffering.

Why saying Lord Buddha found it not necessary to speak one word?

Zen teaching believes that a dhamma transmission does not have to be verbal. Zen usually refers to the story of Lord Buddha lifting up one flower without saying a word (as a way to teach dhamma). Phra Maha Kassapa, considered the first Zen Patriarch, was the only one who understood as he smiled to that gesture. With that, the first Zen transmission was complete.

Why one should avoid "thinking fruitlessly"?

Thinking is one of the five enemies that prevent one to attain the continuous concentration required to develop the highest level of wisdom in Buddhism, Bhavanamayapanna.

What is "not born, not dead"?

According to Bodhidharma, the Indian monk who went to China and made Zen popular, this indicates the state of Nirvana.

What does "dependent on its methods" mean?

Zen strips all practice methods as prescribed in the scripture to its core, zeroing in only on the state of being totally aware in the present moment.

Historical records did not indicate whether Ikkyu was actually "terrified" by his mother's last words, but history did record how successful Ikkyu later became in life. By not wanting to disappoint his strict mother (who, in her dying breath, sounded absolutely Zen-like in her wish for her son's spiritual development), Ikkyu went on to impose an even stricter discipline on his own Zen practice.

While some people considered Ikkyu to be an eccentric monk towards the later part of his life, nobody disputed his satori, Enlightenment. He left quite a legacy, both in a written form and otherwise.

The ever-impermanent world calls for immediate action. Consequently, do not make your mother wait until her last moments before she could be assured that you will be doing fine because you have finally become spiritually mature. There is nothing a mother wants more than knowing that her child will be taken care of properly after she was gone. Get immediate mindfulness training in a retreat now before it is too late. Think of it as the most valuable gift you can give to your mother. It is special because only you can give it to her. No one else could.

P.S. I love you, mom!

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Forgiving the Unforgiven

bird, like flying in the air by

It is undeniable that we humans have a deep yearning for peace. Yet, in this contemporary world, one does not seem to be able to get away from hatred and anger at all.

Simply turn on prime time news and hatred and anger would be staring at us in the face, be it from a national or global story. It is as if we are condemned to a life sentence in a maximum-security jail full of hatred and anger with no chance for parole.

The keyword here is "as if."

Today the author would like to share with you, dear readers, three Zen stories that could perhaps enlighten us on the topic of forgiveness.

Forgiveness may be one of the most difficult acts of giving, but it is worth every effort to try. This is because, to continue on the prison-term analogy, we are but the prisoners of our own minds.

If and only if we can forgive and let go of our anger and resentments, then and only then, will our life prison term would be lifted. Finally, we will be free.

The Tao story of potatoes

The first story is from "The Tao of Forgiveness" by Derek Lim. Tao? Yes. Some scholars believe that Tao did influence Zen during the latter's formative years in China. Practitioners, however, came to realize that Tao is Zen and vice versa. Anyway, here is the story.

Once there was a sage who asked his disciples to carve out names of the people they cannot forgive on potatoes, one potato for each name. Then, the disciples were asked to put all their potatoes in a sack and carry it with them at all times for one week.

The longer time went by, the heavier the potatoes seemed to have become. To make the matter worse, those carved potatoes also started to rot and smells bad. It was such an unpleasant experience for the disciples.

At the end of the week, the master asked,

"So, what did you learn?"

At once they disciples told the master that they now realized that holding on to grudges only brought negative things to them. Asked how they should go about correcting it, the youngsters said they should strive their best to forgive everyone that used to cross them and made them angry.

The master then asked,

"What if someone crosses you again after you unload this present load of potatoes?"

The disciples suddenly felt terrified at the thought of having to start all over again with new potatoes, week after week.

"What can Tao do if there are still other people crossing us? We cannot control what other people do to us!"

At which point the master replied,

"We haven't even reached the Tao's realm yet. So far we only discussed the conventional way to approach forgiveness, that is, to strive to forgive. Striving is difficult. In Tao, there is no striving."

Seeing the disciples completely at a loss then, the master further suggested,

"If the negative feelings are the potatoes, what is the sack?"

The disciples finally grasped it,

"Ahh the sack is something that allows me to hold on to the negativity. It is my inflated sense of self-importance!"

And that was the lesson of this story. Once we learn how to let go of the sack, whatever people say or do against us would no longer matter. The Tao of forgiveness is the conscious decision to get rid of the sack/self altogether, not just the potatoes/negative feelings.

Derek Lin concluded that, by recognizing that in fact there is no "self"' to be hurt, we could bypass the frustration arising from our constant striving to forgive others. This is because we were not angry with them to begin with!

With the understanding of Tao/Zen, life suddenly becomes effortless, elegant, and natural. Get rid of the sack, and there will be no more rotten potatoes. Want to be able to get rid of your sack? Go to a retreat!

What Clinton learned from Mandela on forgiveness

The second story is a story told by Bill Clinton on what he learned from Nelson Mandela on forgiveness. In one meeting of the two men, Clinton asked,

"I wonder what you must have felt towards your jailers when you were walking out of that prison after those 27 years. Weren't you angry at them?"

"Yes, I was angry. And I was a little afraid," answered Mandela. "After all, I've not been free in so long."

"But," he added, "when I felt that anger welling up inside me, I realized that if I continue to hate them after I got outside that gate, then they would still have me."

With a smile, Mandela concluded,

"I wanted to be free, so I let it go."

Very Zen-like, Mr Mandela!

Learning from a prisoner who practiced Zen

Mandela is not the only jailbird that knew the secret of forgiveness. The following is a story of a prisoner in Branchville Correctional Facility, Indiana, USA.

The man, known by his ordained name as brother Ananda Abhaya Karuna (he took ordination precepts as an inmate), found himself being able to forgive and achieve so much more in life through the practice of Zen Buddhism, most notably through Zen meditation.

Being a long-term prisoner, he said he has come to know anger intimately. The prisoners, according to brother Ananda, are conditioned to see themselves as unforgiven. In this frame of mind anger arises and there is a notion that forgiving others is a weakness. Society does not forgive, they reasoned. Why should they?

One lesson that brother Ananda realized is that resentment is always about the past, but it takes place in the present. It also intensifies over time every time we relive that experience in our mind. To deal effectively with the anger present in the here and now about things and people that existed there and then, brother Ananda said we must examine and challenge the usual pattern of how our thoughts create anger in our mind.

Once realizing that we are merely punishing ourselves by continuing to fight imaginary enemies (thoughts of past events) in our mind, we would come to realize that the cause of such punishment is simply because we refused to forgive.

Like Mandela, brother Ananda discovered that when a prisoner does not let go of resentments and anger through the act of forgiveness, the prisoner becomes his own keeper. That, according to brother Ananda, is certainly one way of defining hell.

Liberate yourself from your personal captivity

Are you harbouring grudges over something or someone? Do you know anyone who does? Tell them it is time they free themselves from this unnecessary, self-created suffering. Learn to forgive those that you felt that you could never or should never be forgiven.

How about starting with forgiving yourself? In light of Tao's potatoes story, it would be like killing two birds with one stone. By forgiving yourself, you begin to let go a little bit of that "self" that is known as the sack. Eventually, with all the sack gone, nobody can "put potatoes in" or irritate and hurt you anymore.

Your freedom, in fact, is just a breath away.

Fly, baby, fly!

Remember, it always takes great courage to fly to freedom.

Until next week, let us stay mindful and forgiving!