A Half-Hour of Words With Ashoka and Havel

Dec 21, 2011 by

Heart Etching by Douglas Imbrogno

I start the new day with a single egg, whose yolk is what color? How would you describe the color of a freshly cracked yolk there in the red frying pan, staring up at you? Yellow as a summer sun? And two slices of bacon, a simulacrum of the thing, and not a bad vegetarian invention, thank you, Morning Star®.

After that, a little morning Dhamma with my double cappuccino. Catching up on articles in the Summer 2011 edition of Tricycle, I come upon this piece, “To Uphold the World.” An excerpt from a Bruce Rich book about  Buddhist emperor Ashoka, who after his empire’s bloodiest battle of expansion and conquest had had enough.

Started posting — after his triumphant slaughter at Dhauli — another kind of message to the world, a secular Dhamma, inspired by the Buddha’s buddhadharma. Erecting 60-foot pillars around his sprawling kingdom, some of which can still be seen today. In an “ethical leap” for the protection of all living things, the king announces his “debt to all beings,” a halt to killing of not just those opposing the empire, but to almost all killing of animals for ritual and food.

Plus the creation of hospitals and services for both humans and animals. Plus, tolerance for all sects of religion since all share an “essential doctrine.” And so forth. I have long admired Ashoka and it’s always good to be reminded all that is human is not lost. Even if as the author states:

“We live in an epoch that in important ways demonstrates a lesser respect for life than we find in the Ashokan ethic.” And: “The richer the world economy becomes, the more the collective imagination of those who rule seems to atrophy. Ultimately, all common goals collapse into nothing more than efforts to increase production and trade.”

There is (and this is about as simple as you might put it) “a collective failure to imagine alternatives.”

I sip my coffee, rock in my chair beside our wildly decorated Christmas tree, which perhaps unlike those schematically, color-themed trees of more ordered families, bustles with a melange of lights and mismatched ornamentality.

I read on because the author finds his way to Vaclav Havel, who just now died, and who was a writer who became a politician who saw both worlds. The one of imagination, of re-imagination, of realpolitik and the reality of politics. Who spoke to the urgency of an ethic for the global polity, whose “reduction of life to the pursuit of immediate material gain without regard for its general consequences,” in Havel’s words, has exacerbated — and is an underlying cause of — what he sees as the fundamental problem of our time: “lack of accountability to and responsibility for the world.”

That about says it all and far better than anything I could write.

I take my coffee cup from chair to computer. Sit down and stare at the screen. It and my mind both sit blank for five minutes. I wonder which of my many projects to fiddle with in the half-an-hour before I go to work. Then decide to just start writing one half-hour’s worth of words.

And, so, my time is up.