A Bridge Over Troubled Water, December 10, 2020

When flood waters are rising, there isn't time to think about building bridges. The bridges need to be in place beforehand, ready for all contingencies. That means being prepared for the worst, taking dangers seriously, and moving quickly, skillfully, wisely, and prudently, but with urgency, which the Buddha described as acting as if one's hair and turban were on fire.

We shouldn't be surprised by the multiple dangers threatening us and our world at present. Scientists have for decades been warning us about greenhouse gases and climate change. Three Mile Island and Chernobyl exposed the danger inherent in nuclear power plants, and Fukushima catastrophically demonstrated their susceptibility to a natural disaster. For years, experts have predicted an impending pandemic and urged world leaders to be prepared for it. We have long been aware of industrial pollution of water, soil, and air in every corner of the Earth. History has shown repeatedly that "progress" entails habitat destruction and mass extinction. Even a cursory examination of unregulated capitalism reveals the tendency for it to become predatory and to leave millions destitute. A little critical thinking helps to stop dictator wannabes and to distinguish propaganda from fact. We know right from wrong, and we know the danger of corruption, injustice, and racism.

It's time we stopped assuming that everything will be OK, that it'll work out somehow. We must wake up to the reality that things are not right. Too long have we fallen back on magical thinking to assure us that the worst scenario is a long shot. We have lost the bet, and that long shot is the realilty, not just in terms of climate catastrophe, as United Nations Secretary General António Guterres declares, but in so many other ways–economically, socially, and politically.

(Throughout this report, clicking on any thumbnail of an article will open that article in its original website.)

Click this photo to visit the UN website for the entire speech at Columbia University. (28 min.)
Click this photo to hear the entire speech from the BBC "State of the Planet" program. (8 min.) Click this photo to hear the complete BBC podcast, "State of the Planet." (53 min.)

Perhaps you have already seen this video which has gone viral. It is a chilling visualization of deaths which is already tragically out of date.
It is sobering to realize that all the usual causes of death–from old age, illness, accident, or by an enemy's hand (murder or war (murder on a grand scale)) --are on-going, with the addition of the horrendous, staggering, ever-rising death toll from the Covid 19 pandemic. The mind cannot grasp the growing figures and somehow manages to adjust to the rising number of infections, hospitalizations, and death tolls in the day's news, with a blank numbness. Evidently, most people can get used to anything and cease to be shocked anymore. Some people, reportedly, even as they are dying from Covid-19, curse their care-givers and insist that the virus is a hoax. Others of us feel a great sense of relief and comfort at the mere mention of clinical trials of vaccines, despite the fact that it may be years before there can be adequate vaccination programs, reaching all segments of society, and getting to poorer countries, especially those disrupted by social unrest or war. This is not to mention those American families who are facing food insecurity (1 in six ), the homeless, those without health insurance, and the very predictable resistence by anti-vaxxers who cling to their conspiracy theories and anti-science biases.

These are indeed days to meditate on death and never before have loving-kindness and compassion been more needed, for ourselves, our friends, strangers, our enemies, and our earth.

In addition to meditation, however, we need skillful actions, to defang the beast of predatory capitalism and to replace the cruelty with caring, responsive, protective alternatives. Looking back at the most recent darkest hour, when much of the world was on its knees after the horrors of the Great Depression and World War II, humanity was fortunate to have some inspired and inspiring leaders who created institutions that gave new purpose and renewed hope in the gloom.

In order to cross these troubled waters, it is obvious that we need a bridge, but the current gang of world leaders is offering no support. If we look at recent history, one woman stands out. Eleanor Roosevelt was called "First Lady of the World" by President Harry Truman. It was her vision which stimulated her husband, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, to initiate the programs, including the Federal Theatre Project and the Federal Art Project in the Works Progress Administration, which was part of the New Deal which helped bring the United States out the Great Depression. After the war, she was instrumental in formulating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. At a time like this, it is a leader of her stature that the world truly needs.
The Story of Ferdinand is a charming book, about a bull who would rather smell flowers than fight in bullfights. Both of us remember reading and treasuring it in our childhood. It was written in 1936. Hitler banned it. Eleanor Roosevelt loved it. You can borrow it at:

We were not in the States for the TV series "Kojak," created by Abby Mann, and begun with the pilot based on the 1963 Wylie-Hoffert murders, the brutal rape and murder of two young professional women in Manhattan. Because of sloppy, prejudiced, and corrupt police work and the prevailing disregard of suspects' civil rights, the crimes were pinned on a 19 year old black youth. After obtaining a false confession through beating, sleep depravation, via the old good cop - bad cop routine, the young black lad was all but convicted until a second investigation by different detectives exonerated the suspect and identified the real killer, a white man who was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

"Kojak" is a gritty police drama, with a focus on systemic racism, institutional prejudice, and the civil rights of suspects and witnesses a la Miranda rights, as declared by the US Supreme Court in 1966. In every episode of the series, Lieutenant Kojak maintains integrity, empathizes even with deluded murderers, and uses critical thinking to solve elusive cases.

Watching "Kojak" brings into focus the relevance of "Black Lives Matter" and "Say Their Names." It makes us wonder whether the situation in the States (and in the rest of the world) has not changed very much since the 70s or has reverted. The series reinforces the need to speak the truth and to stand up against injustice. It helps us to recognize the danger of lies, the threat of Trumpism, and the menace of Fake News, and to see the peril posed by the sick and skewed Supreme Court, as fascism grows menacingly in the United States and around the world.

Click the image to see and hear the music video.
For most of the thirty years from 1970 until 2000, we lived and worked outside the United States. Thus, we missed not only that generation of TV, including "Columbo" and "Kojak," but also an awareness of police in schools. Certainly there was no police presence in our schools in Michigan and Ohio. In fact, during the 60s, schools seemed the safest places anywhere. For her Thanksgiving special, Samantha Bee reran a segment on SROs (School Resource Officers), which greatly surprised us. Of course, we knew about Columbine, which occurred just before we left Japan, and we were aware that some schools had police "protection," but we had not realized that the percentage of schools deploying sworn law enforcement officers as increased from 1 percent in 1976 to 48 percent in 2016 and that 68% of high school students attend schools with SROs. It was distressing to learn that the policy of SROs is actually both racist and ineffectual in stopping the mass killings, which is its raison d'etre.

One of the lessons in Merit, our Buddhist ESL textbook deals with death. Marie, one of the pilgrims, receives a phone call from her father in Paris, informing her that her nephew Pierre has been killed while riding his bicycle. This has been one of our most succesful lessons. When we have asked individual students to "act out" the dialog, even a class of young novices surprised us with remarkable emotion, sensitivity, and empathy. The lesson includes several meditations on death--three as clozes, and one as a sorting exercise. The entire lesson can be read here.

The first 21 lessons of this textbook are freely available for teachers to use.

If you are interested, please send a request to buddhist@brelief.org, and we will allow you access to our Dropbox.

Our only stipulation is that we would like to receive feedback and comments--how you use the lessons, what you think of them, and how they can be improved.

Over the past ten years, we have often mentioned Merit. For all that time, it's been a work in progress, as we've added material and made adjustments, as we taught different groups of students--monks, nuns, and novices--in a variety of classes and programs. In 2019, however, we tackled that mass of accumulated material anew and reorganized it into what may possibly be an almost final version. Twenty-one lessons are in finished form and we'd like to make them available to interested teachers. Although it is presented as "A Buddhist ESL Course," we must admit that it is very different from most other ESL texts. There are some grammar exercises, but the book does not offer a graduated course for students to master English. Rather, Merit assumes that the students already have a good grounding in English and a solid background in Dhamma in their first language. We reckon that they need practice in reading, speaking, and listening, and could benefit from exposure to Buddhist traditions other than their own. Through the framework of a pilgrimage to the Buddhist holy sites, the lessons introduce Buddhist themes and ideas and life experiences, that Buddhists, both members of the Sangha and laypeople, might naturally discuss. Students are guided through a variety of exercises which involve processing information through sorting, matching, and using logic to develop critical thinking skills.

We are also compiling a selection of Buddhist stories from the Jataka, the Jayamangala Gatha, Verses of the Elders, the Jatakamala, and the Dhammapada, which we hope to have published. Most of the Jatakas come, of course, from our Jataka Tales of the Buddha, and we've retold the others in the same manner. We are considering a companion series of exercises for a teacher who wants to use the stories as ESL lessons. One of the stories is a little-known Jataka, "The Value of Friendship." The story explains not only the importance in having good friends in a crisis, and also the value of a cooperative.

Ewen has written an essay about good friendship which we would like to share with you.
Spiritual Friendship
By Ewen Arnold

I've had quite a lot of time on my hands recently, and this is one of the things I've been thinking about!

I want to start with some stories. The first is probably the most famous story about spiritual friendship.

"At one time the Buddha was living among the Sakyans. Ananda approached him and said, 'This is half of the holy life, Lord: admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie.' The Buddha replied. 'Don't say that, Ananda. Don't say that. Admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life.'" (Adapted from Access to Insight, Upaddha Sutta)

Here's a story Ajahn Brahm tells about his teacher, Ajahn Chah. Ajahn Brahm was seriously ill in hospital in Northern Thailand, I think it was with Cholera, but I'm not sure. He became excited when he heard that his teacher, the famous Ajahn Chah, was coming to see him. Ajahn Chah came and stood at the end of the bed. He said, "Either you will get better or you'll die." And then he left.

Read the entire essay

We have been blessed with many good friends, for whom we are truly grateful. Foremost, we remember Sayadaw U Khe Min Da, the Burmese monk in Moji, Japan whom we first met in 1986. As often as we could we meditated with him at the Burmese monastery in Kyushu, and, very often, he visited us in Kansai. Twice, we brought him to Michigan as well. Every moment with him was a lesson in the Dhamma. Sayadaw passed away in 2011. His body was donated to a medical university for research. He was a truly remarkable monk. We also remember U Ko Ko, the accountant in Rangoon, who introduced us to many monastics all over the country and taught us so much about Burmese Buddhism and culture.

Among those to whom we are indebted, we must include our Danish friend, Tove Neville, who shared much of her knowledge of Buddhism and Buddhist art with us.

Ken always refers to Pat Leimbach as his mentor; she meant so much to him throughout his high school and college days. Pat was one of the busiest people he has ever known, but she always had time to help a friend, and she never forgot anyone she met. Visakha felt privileged to meet her and to have her visit us in Flint.

Visakha was fortunate to have two special friends during her Peace Corps stint in the Philippines. The first was Fr. John Meaney, an insightful Irish priest with a love of literature and a grand sense of humor, in her first assignment in Baroy, Lanao del Notre. The two of us were lucky enough to meet him together both in the Philippines in 1978 and again in Ireland in 1979 when he was on sabbatical with his family.

The second, Haji Mohammad Sarip, skilled artist and wood carver, lived near Lake Lanao, in Lanao del Sur. Haji introduced her to the richness of Maranao culture, including their great epic poem, the Darangen which is a UNESCO Intangible cultural heritage and Torogan, traditional Maranao royal architecture. Maranao daily life is full of art, where even the most ordinary utilitarian objects are decorated cherished things of beauty. The marvel is that the Maranao maintained their identity, culture and aesthetic despite pressures from the West for over three hundred years. Haji also taught her much about Islam which augmented, rather than supplanted, the Maranao culture which he so expressed in his work and life.


The Blessed One said: "A person of no integrity is ungrateful and does not acknowledge the help given to him. This ingratitude is second nature to rude people. It is the mark of a person of no integrity.

"A person of integrity is grateful and acknowledges the help given to him. This gratitude is second nature to fine people. It is the mark of a person of integrity.

"There are two people who are not easy to repay--your mother and father. Even if you were to carry your mother on one shoulder and your father on the other shoulder for one hundred years and to look after them by bathing and massaging their limbs and they were to defecate and urinate on you, you would not be repaying your parents. Even if you were to establish them in abundant wealth of the seven treasures and in sovereignty over the entire world, you would not be repaying your parents. Why not? Mother and father do so much for their children! They care for them, nourish them, and introduce them to this world. However, one who rouses his unbelieving parents and establishes them in the Dhamma, rouses his unvirtuous parents and establishes them in virtue, rouses his stingy parents and establishes them in generosity, and rouses his foolish parents and establishes them in wisdom, is, to that extent, repaying one's mother and father."

--Anguttara Nikaya 2, 31-32

We have been blessed all our lives: good and loving parents, safe homes, close siblings, friends, neighbors, pastors, and teachers. Looking back, it's amazing and humbling to remember all the good people whose lives have intersected with ours. There's nothing like harsh, uncertain times to inspire us to reflect on the blessings of the past and to recall the faces, the words, the laughter, the shared adventures, and the mutual support in important causes (good trouble!) of friends from the past.

Of course, it isn't just the past that we treasure – there are many who are dear to us now, even though we are separated by thousands of miles or isolated because of the pandemic. Living in the land of Serendib, we are making new friends even now and are grateful for the contact possible through the internet. There are some good folk we've lost touch with, and our hearts ache with the awareness that we may never learn what has happened in their lives. All we can do is share merit whenever we can and spread metta widely, sure that it can reach everywhere.

In Sri Lanka, we do not celebrate Thanksgiving, but, this year, we were very happy to join a Zoom meeting with Ed, Ken's eldest brother, Joyce, his eldest sister, both in their 90s, many nephews and nieces, and Hiroshi and Michiko in Japan. It was fun, and we look forward to another at Christmas.

We truly love the postal system for helping us to stay in touch with friends who are not always hooked into a computer. Not long ago we got a letter out of the blue from old friend Duncan. For some months now we haven't gotten any emails from our friend Pedro; the last we'd heard was that he was homeless. Despite everything, he managed to send us donations to be used charitably. Here is an envelope that managed to find its way into our mailbox the other day. It took one month to reach us from the United States, but despite the mistake in the address, it arrived! Proof that he was thinking of Buddhist Relief Mission, despite his own difficult situation. Congratulations and a hearty thank you to the postal workers involved along the way and our hopes that our friend Pedro stays well, peaceful, and happy by the power of the Triple Gem. Sadhu! Sadhu!! Sadhu!!! (Just as we were posting this, we received an email from Pedro. Hooray!)

In a recent letter to Ewen, our mutual friend, Steve, who is in prison in Michigan related an experience which we would like to share with you.
Letter from Steve to Ewen, Excerpt

I had an interesting internal dialogue with myself the other day on the ego. As you may imagine, men walk around here like they are ready to chew bars of steel and spit out nails. Then you have the short, small framed men who understandably glom onto the group of larger men and/or gang members. Once they feel a part of the group they've attached themselves to, it's as if they've grown half a meter and gained 70-90 kilos. There is one such young man I know, who we will simply call "Fred." Our interaction is infrequent because we have differing objectives while in prison. I admit that it would only be a guess, but I think that he's merely trying to get through this experience as safely as possible. I walk around here amiably and open to conversing with most people. I honestly can't say for certain, but my experience leads me to believe this is the reason for his apparently low opinion of me.

Anyway, he is doing something in a manner which is more difficult than it has to be. I consider the fruitfulness of offering up an easier method as I watch him completing his task. I figure, "What the heck, let's give it a shot." The young man sadly proves my suspicions correct. His remark that, "It's just mopping, Dude," was simply dripping with contempt. I'm grateful for my practice because the internal dialogue began immediately, and I didn't just react with an equally snide remark myself.


We are always pleased and sometimes a little surprised by the reactions we get to our reports. Last month, our friend, Alessandro from Italy, inquired about Calvin in Washington State. We forwarded his letter to Calvin, who responded by informing us with more details about his situation since being released from prison and the house he is remodeling.
Letter from Calvin, Excerpt

My stay at the Olympia Zen Center, (OZC), right after being released in December from incarceration was supposed to be limited to about three months or so. The priest at the center, Eido Frances Carney, and I have known each other ever since she visited the prison I was at in 2002 and graciously offered me the opportunity to stay at the center as part of my re-entry process. The center is located adjacent to the Chehalis Trail which runs from the Woodard Bird Sanctuary in the north near Olympia Washington and meanders through forest and communities for dozens of miles. Since the center was several miles from the nearest bus stop I would walk the trail almost every day to catch a bus to go into the cities of Olympia or Lacey. I was not familiar with either of these municipalities so it took some time to familiarize myself with the landscape as I sought support from various social services. At the same time I was trying to adjust to the technology that had developed in my absence over the past 27 while in prison. Just learning to use a cell phone was daunting and adjusting to being tethered to this device was more than disconcerting. But of greater concern to me was the pressure I felt to secure housing with limited resources and as an ex-felon. Every day I passed huge homeless encampments which were also a new experience for me. Inside I knew that I was just a step away from living among the shadows as the affluent latte society that appeared oblivious to the suffering at their doorstep went blissfully by. The weeks passed swiftly and adjustments came slowly. Just going into one of the mega stores cause me anxiety.


It's always encouraging to read good news. Here are two items from Aljazeera.
The first is an article about the preservation of storks in India. The second is a TV program about planting a "Green Wall" across the Sahel in Africa.

Recent Activities

In our last report, we announced our 45th wedding anniversary in October. We created a flyer informing a few friends of our intention to celebrate by donating goods to the Sangha Ward of Kandy Hospital. Very generous donations came in, and the the offering was completed.Click the photo to see more photos of the flyer, the wheelchair, the teaset, and the mats. To all our donors, we intone, "Sadhu! Sadhu!! Sadhu!!! November 13, 2020, was the three-month death anniversary of Neil Mendis, .Dushy's father. Dushy asked us to arrange dana for monks at a monastery in Kandy. On that date, dana was offered to eight monks at Thapovana Monastery, near the entrance to Udawattakele Forest Preserve. Click the photo of Neil to see more photos of the dana and of the monastery.

Our support for Ven. Nanda continues. Lily delivered dry rations several times to her hermitage. Nimal took part in the painting of the stupa she recently erected and for which Buddhist Relief Misison provided the white paint. We also donated the remaining volumes of the Sutta Pitaka and a bookcase for her library. Click the photo to see more photos of the donations.

The Kandy Cancer Home, is a non-profit facility in Kandy where patients from out of town can stay while they are undergoing treatment at Kandy Hospital. It is entirely dependent on private donations. The matron has granted Buddhist Relief Mission permission to offer high tea to the residents on the fifteenth of every month. Matron also regularly informs us of any medicine and supplies they need. Click the photo to see photos of the High Teas in October and November.

We invite donors to use this as an opportunity to wish for the recovery and good heath of those who are ill or to honor the memory of loved ones.

October 15 was Ven. NandoBatha's birthday. Bodhisukha School in Kolkata held a Founder's Day celebration via Google Meet. Many students and teachers joined the conference, which included songs and awards. As honored guests we gave short speeches reminiscing our relationship with Sayadaw and the school.

Bodhisukha School, Kolkata

In this photo, click each face to read the text of the respective speech given on the occasion.

Jataka Tales of the Buddha
An Anthology
Retold by Ken and Visakha Kawasaki
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