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Archive for May, 2011

Today is Bob Dylan’s 70th birthday, probably the most famous singer to come out of the counter-culture folk movement of the 1960s. Some of his songs have become so ingrained in American culture that we think they are traditional songs (Blowing in the Wind I thought, when I was young, was a traditional hymn that Bob covered in his early years). There are few singer/songwriters that get to become icons in their lifetimes and leave such a rich and beautiful catalogue: Elvis Presley, Woody Guthrie, Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen and a handful of others. I know a lot of people who have told me that Bob Dylan actually opened the door to Buddhism, it is through him that many, including me, were introduced to the Beat Generation: Gary Snyder, Jack Kerouac (Dharma Bums), Allen Ginsberg, etc. Bob Dylan has opened many doors to many people, I still remember the first time that I read his book Chronicles, which I believe is one of the great American commentaries to this days. I was engulfed by his words and observations, I remember being struck by this quote the first time that I read it:

“Folk songs are evasive — the truth about life, and life is more or less a lie, but then again that’s exactly the way we want it to be.” — Bob Dylan, Chronicles: Volume One

What I enjoy of Bob Dylan is his many personae (“A folk song has over a thousand faces, and you must meet them all if you want to play this stuff.”), Bob Dylan has become a great cultural figure, maybe one of the most important. But what made me fall in love with him? Obviously his music, but mostly his politics that were wrapped in his songs. My first love in music was punk rock, but Bob Dylan is the first songwriter to wake me up! I still remember being a kid and my dad putting on a Dylan record and hearing the song The Times They Are A-Changing, those words spoke volumes to me and a generation.

Bob Dylan premiered this song on October 26th 1968 to a sold out crowd at Carnegie Hall, I always felt connected to this song and it was fitting that it saw the light of day on my birthday. The song is founded on the conviction that social change is unstoppable, history will conform to morality; its second verse sends out a challenge to the punditocracy:

Come writers and critics

Who prophesize with your pen

And keep your eyes wide

The chance won’t come again

And don’t speak too soon

For the wheel’s still in spin

It is thanks to the unexpected achievement of the civil right movement, a grass-roots movement that changed the American political landscape, this made the message of this song possible or even plausible. He was articulating the universal spirit animating this moment in history. The protest songs that made Dylan famous and with which he continues to be associated were written in a brief period of some 20 months – from January 1962 to November 1963. Influenced by American radical traditions (the Wobblies, the Popular Front of the thirties and forties, the Beat anarchists of the fifties) and above all by the political ferment touched off among young people by the civil rights and ban the bomb movements, he engaged in his songs with the terror of the nuclear arms race, with poverty, racism and prison, jingoism and war.

Dylan gave us songs like ‘Only a Pawn in Their Game’ (class rule as the root of racism), ‘With God on Our Side’ (rejecting American fundamentalism), ‘Masters of War’ (taking on the military-industrial complex); he was able to offer us a clear eyed account of a single injustice that becomes an indictment of a system and its liberal defenders. Dylan had a sharp-edged radicalism and a poetic charm that helped bring the protest genre to a more mainstream audience. When the Times They Are A-Changing record came out, at the young age of 22, the young singer-songwriter from Minnesota was crowned the “voice of a generation”. This is not what Dylan wanted, the new Woody Guthrie had other plans, he is maybe not the most known protest singer of his time but more the greatest renegade. He stated in 1964 “Me, I don’t want to write for people anymore – you know, be a spokesman. From now on, I want to write from inside me …I’m not part of no movement… I just can’t make it with any organisation…”.

In his song My Back Pages, Dylan offers us a dense critique of the movement that he had celebrated in The Times They Are A-Changing. Sneering at “corpse evangelists” who use ideas as maps, who spout “lies that life is black and white” and who fail to understand that “I become my enemy in the instant that I preach.” Alarmed by the discovery of authoritarianism at the heart of the movement for liberation (and within himself), he rebels against the left’s self-righteousness. He pours bile on the “self-ordained professor/ Too serious to fool”. He scorns what he sees as the dead culture of political activism: “memorising politics/ Of ancient history”.

‘Equality, I spoke the word, as if a wedding vow But I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.’ Most people (for Dylan it would be the whole yuppie vs hippie kind of evolution) will “evolve” to the giving-way of rebellious youth to responsible maturity. Dylan reversed the polarity. For him, the retreat from politics was a retreat from stale categories and second-hand attitudes. Dylan did break form the political landscape as we had known him, but he freed himself of outside events to explore his inner landscape. What most people might not realize is that this inner-reflection was often explored as inner studies of his reactions to outside events. A great example is ‘Maggie’s Farm’ – booed by purists at the Newport folk festival – fuses class and generational rage in an uncompromising renunciation of wage labour. Here the power of the employers is propped up by ideology (“She talks to all the servants about man and God and law”) and the state (“the National Guard stands around her door”.) The social order is experienced as intrusive, deceitful, inimical to the individual’s need for self-definition. “I try my best to be just like I am/ but everybody wants you to be just like them.”

I will leave you on this note, Bob Dylan is still to this day very much part of the musical landscape. His influence is still felt with many great singer-songwriters, his spirit has taught us so much and more is still to come. I encourage you to take some time with his music and explore your own inner landscape as these words pierce us, music has been one of my greatest teachers and Bob Dylan is one of my greatest teachers! Bob Dylan might be 70 today, he is long from leaving our communal consciousness! Music is a powerful thing! Like Springsteen said “We learned more from a three minute record than we ever learned in school.”

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What is the first images that appear in your mind when you think of racism, most people would probably have images of swastikas, slavery and Ku Klux Klan members, these are the images that have been ingrained in our minds for the subject. They are not false, the Nazis and KKK have become the images of intolerance and rightfully so. Racism, as a term, was coined in the 1930s, primarily as a response to the Nazi project of making Germany judenrein (‘clean of Jews’), the Nazis claimed that the Jewish people were a race. They were a distinct race that posed a threat to the Aryan race, the race that authentic Germans supposedly belonged. This idea that Jewish people were a distinct race gave currency by Nazi racial science. Also, what the Nazis did can now be seen as what we call ethnic cleansing. The idea of anti-Semitism, which is the longest form of racism or the oldest hatred, was coined in the 1870s by German Wilhem Marr to characterize his anti-Jewish movement “the anti-Semitism League”. Anti-Semitism had the advantage of sounding scientific instead of plain old religious bigotry.

We can all agree that it is now accepted and truly believed that it is morally wrong to judge someone by the colour of their skin, or of reliving the Anti-Semite sentiment.  This I think can be agreed upon, with maybe the exception of radical hate groups like Neo-Nazis etc. Racism can not be so clear-cut, it is much more complex and ambiguous. Let me explain, is racist intolerance just based on what we call a “race”? What about homophobia? What about Islamophobia?  It has been commonly believed that Prejudice + Power = Racism, but it is not so simple. There is also the problem of institutionalized racism, there have been many cases in England of prejudice based on class, gender, and race in the past years. This is much more widespread than we might think, I read once that people in the south of the USA after the civil war (the war that was about many issues, but slavery is definitely the one that trumps all issues) that people’s heritage played a part in the land that you were able to buy and have. This became the history of US debates and legislation that revealed the consistent difficulties in defining what the black population was. Here is where the ‘one drop’ rule was born in the Southern states:

which implied that any black ancestry, however far back, consigned an individual to the wrong side of the white/black divide, determining (disadvantaging) where s/he could live, what kind of work was available, and whether marriage or even relationships could take place with a white partner. One drop of ‘white blood’, though, did not carry the same weight in defining racial status.

Like Ali Rattansi states in the quote before, racism was clearly based on race at first, but in our post 9/11 world, it has delved into many more areas of society and daily life. This has become obvious the many protests that have occurred during the construction of Mosques in the US, of profiling in airports and the unfair deportations of American and Canadian citizens to Islamic countries or off-shore penitentiaries. Institutional racism is very much ingrained in our societies.  In the USA black men are 10 times more likely to go to prison than whites, and 1 in 20 over the age of 18 is in jail. Amnesty International reported in 2004, black defendants convicted of killing whites have been sentenced to death 15 times more often than white defendants convicted of killing blacks. I think that we can all agree that there is still a lot of work to do in terms of educating people that these outdated beliefs are wrong and completely not true, that racism is a vehicle of fear and causes only harm and that tolerance and acceptance is the only right answer. I also want to be clear, racism doesn’t only apply to whites (I know that these are the examples that are used here, but there is also prejudice against whites, we have to change our attitudes towards everyone, visible minorities included. There is a lot of healing that must be done so we can be able to live in a society that is kind and caring, no matter what we believe and look like, as long as we are tolerant and open to everyone.), this is a problem that is everywhere and must stop! Education, compassion, understanding, love, and forgiveness are the only answers that I see fit.

I am left with a question, seeing that I am a Buddhist, I ask myself, what can I do with my practice to combat ignorance and hatred like this? What is a Buddhist to do about racism? So I am asking myself WWBD or WWBS (What Would Buddha DO? or What Would Buddha Say?) about all of this. The closest thing to “races” in the Buddha’s time would be the caste system and he spoke out against it, seeing as all being have to ability to be enlightened, no matter what caste, he saw the value in all beings. Buddhism is a philosophy that is born out the idea that there are no differences between men and women in society, I must admit that it would be hard for the Buddha to approve any form of racism with that statement. The Buddha would also tell us that our Body and Mind are borrowed from the earth. We don’t own them. We also suffer from sickness, old age, death, and mental illnesses. These mental illnesses are greed, hatred, and ignorance of the true reality of the world. So-called countries, religion, gender, land, etc. are all man-made. We live temporarily inhabit our bodies, homes, land and eventually give them back to the earth. If we all realize this fact, there should be no racism, fighting or any other unnecessary activities.

In the Samyutta Nikaya the Buddha states:

From an inconstruable beginning comes transmigration. A beginning point is not evident, though beings hindered by ignorance and fettered by craving are transmigrating & wandering on. A being who has not been your mother at one time in the past is not easy to find… A being who has not been your father… your brother… your sister… your son… your daughter at one time in the past is not easy to find.

If one truly understands this, there is no need for racism and no way that one could believe this theory of hate and ignorance to have any ground. I truly believe that this path that stresses loving-kindness, and living a life a wisdom and compassion; there is no place in this world for such hatred and ignorance. I have always felt that people who hold prejudice towards any group of human beings is born out of fear because they do not understand the difference that they have with this group. It is clear that with some openness and education, we can all learn to appreciate the differences that we have with them and learn to love one another. So the next time that you see someone and are struck with prejudice or fear, take a moment to reflect why exactly you are feeling the way that your are and then think how it must feel if the shoe was on the other foot. I am sure that in no time you will see that your fears are unjustified and that you will approach the world with more openness and compassion. Also, do not be afraid to ask others when you hear ignorant comments coming out of their mouths, help them reflect on the ignorance that is in their hearts. Racism is not just based on the colour of your skin, it is from any judgments that you hold against someone without cause. We must learn to be more open to what is different if we want the world to have peace.

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