Upon Receiving an Honorary Doctorate Degree
First, thanks to Professor Jackson for his kind words, and to the college for this truly unexpected honor [an honorary doctoral degree]. The last time I was on campus was for my own graduation back in 1969, which was special for a very different reason. At that time the Vietnam War was at its height, and graduation meant the end of draft deferments for men, which meant we were eligible to be drafted and sent to fight in Vietnam. A few months earlier, however, two other seniors (Harold Henderson and Paul Smith) and I had decided (after much discussion and soul-searching) that the Vietnam War was immoral, illegal, and just plain stupid, and that we would refuse to cooperate. So we sent our draft cards back to our local boards, and after graduation I worked with the Draft Resistance movement in San Francisco, while waiting for an induction notice that I would refuse, which would probably lead to a felony conviction and a few years in federal prison. But just a couple weeks before that would have happened, the Selective Service changed their method of selection into a lottery according to birthday, and ironically all three of us had low numbers, so none of us was ever drafted.
As the Vietnam War began to wind down, however, something else began to happen for me. Yes, the war was a big mistake and needed to be resisted, but that wasn’t enough. I felt that something else needed to change: me! This led to some years of intensive Zen practice/meditation, and then to graduate studies in comparative philosophy, which eventually developed into what, in retrospect, has been my life-work: participating in the conversation/dialogue between Buddhism and the modern West [which is no longer just the West]: What do they have to offer each other? What do they have to learn from each other?
Looking back on this path some 40 years later, it seems to me that their highest ideals are not only complementary to each other but they actually need each other. The highest ideal of the modern West has been social transformation: that we can restructure how we live together to make our societies more socially just. Historically this can be traced back to the interaction of Judeo-Christianity with ancient Greece. On the one hand, the Hebrew prophets were fulminating against exploitive rulers; on the other side, the classical Greek realization that society can be restructured – in the modern era this has led to democracy, human rights, anti-slavery campaigns, the civil rights movement, feminism, gay rights, etc.
The highest ideal for Buddhism has been quite different: the traditional focus is on individual transformation, the personal concern to ‘wake up’ – literal meaning of ‘the Buddha’ – to realize who we are/what the world really is, which involves realizing that we’re not really separate from each other. As Nisargadatta put it: “When I look inside and see that I am nothing, that’s wisdom. When I look outside and see that I am everything, that’s love. Between these two my life turns.” Wisdom and compassion: the two pillars of the Buddhist path.
One way to express the relationship between Buddhism and the West is that both are concerned with freedom – not two different types but really two sides of the same coin. Because even if we live in the most democratic and economically-just society possible, if my mind is still largely motivated by what Buddhism calls the three poisons – greed, ill will, and delusion – especially the delusion that I can pursue my own well-being with indifference to others’ – then in the most important sense I am not really free. And from the other side, you might be the most enlightened person on earth from a Buddhist perspective, but if you live in an unjust society, where the many are exploited for the benefit of a few, then you’re not really free either, because your own life is not really separate from others.’
Today we are also concerned about ‘sustainability,’ which wasn’t something that we thought much about back in 1969 – but now, of course, that’s become an essential issue, maybe the most essential issue. Today our sphere of moral concern is now extending to include other species, and even ecosystems. Speaking now as an alumnus, I want to commend the college for its serious efforts to reduce its carbon footprint and become more sustainable. But, frankly, it’s become apparent that our individual efforts and even such group efforts by themselves aren’t going to be enough. As Bill McKibben, of 350.org, has said: if even 10/15% of us do everything to reduce their carbon footprint “the trajectory of our horror remains about the same,” but if 10% of us also work all out to change the system, that’s more than enough. [Orion March/April 3013].
One of the big issues now on college campuses, including Carleton, is whether or not to divest the endowment from investments in the fossil fuel industry. It’s a complex issue, of course, but the bottom line, it seems to me, is that to invest in fossil fuel stocks is to profit from their profits, from what they are doing – in effect, then, it’s to support and encourage what they do, even as climate scientists are estimating that most of the oil, coal and gas in the ground will need to stay there, unburned, if we’re to avoid tipping points in temperature that may render the earth a place where none of us would want to live, where none of us would want our grandchildren to live. So I also want to commend and thank the students and parents, faculty and alumni and staff who are encouraging the college to consider its larger responsibility, in these critical times when the decision we make today may have serious consequences for a very long time to come.
Finally, I was planning to end by wishing all you graduates ‘good luck’ but then I realized that’s not a very Buddhist benediction: it would be more Buddhist to say something like “may you have good karma” – but that’s the point: karma isn’t something that happens to you, it’s something you create. When what we do is motivated by the three poisons (greed, ill will, delusion), bad things tend to happen; when we’re motivated by generosity, loving-kindness, and the wisdom that acknowledges our interdependence, then our lives tend to flow more smoothly, more harmoniously. So, in that spirit: may you all create good karma – which will benefit both yourselves and your world, because your own individual well-being and that of the world aren’t really separate from each other.