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Sharon Salzberg

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No Place To Hide: A Buddhist Perspective on Birthers

Posted: 05/03/11 08:31 PM ET

As surely everyone knows, a few days ago President Barack Obama released to the press the long form copy of his birth certificate. The long form had the same information as the short form, which he had released years ago, and reiterated the same truth. Anyone who comprehends that Hawaii is in fact a state in the United States of America knows that same truth -- Barack Obama is a natural born citizen, and a legitimately elected President. I agreed with New Yorker editor David Remnick , who, while appearing on television, directly named the questioning of the president's birth place as a conscious form of race baiting, and I considered that day a very sad day in this country, illuminating a great deal of divisiveness, bigotry, and ignorance.

Strangely, on that same day, for the first time in my life I received a message of hate via email. It came in on my website account, with the subject line, " Stinking Jews." The first line was, "We don't need Jews in Buddhism," and went on to describe Jews as greedy, stinking, and ghouls.

I'm not sure on what authority the writer was stating that Buddhism doesn't "need" any Jews. A lot of Buddhists (and Jews) would be very surprised to hear that Jews should be excluded from exploring the ethical teachings, the meditation methods, and the compassionate dimensions of Buddhism. I remembered during his inaugural address, President Obama called this a nation of Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus and non-believers. I was standing there in the freezing cold, in that crowd of millions, and murmured, "What about Buddhists?" At the very same moment, the man standing next to me, a total stranger, murmured, "What about Buddhists?" Later, on a political website I enjoy following, the same point came up, and someone commented, "Well, between Jews and non-believers, he covered an awful lot of American Buddhists."

And on the day President Obama released his long form birth certificate, and I received the hate filled email, while I was meditating I had quite a Martin Neimoller moment. Neimoller's well known poem, describing the dangers of political apathy, recalled his experience in Nazi Germany:

First they came for the communists, 
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a communist.


Then they came for the trade unionists, 
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a trade unionist.


Then they came for the Jews, 
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a Jew.


Then they came for me
 and there was no one left to speak out for me.

Being born Jewish, I personally don't make it past the third line to face the loneliness and terror of the last. But everybody in this country, even if you are not a communist or trade unionist or Jew or person of color or immigrant should take heed: hatred fostered doesn't tend to die out; creating an "other" whose life isn't seen as meaningful sets a fire that can burn wild and devastate many, including yourself; fear is easy to fan and hard to quell. Staying silent in the face of bigotry resolves nothing -- eventually there will be no place to hide. We can confront lies with the truth without demonizing anyone, and we have to, or ignorance gets stronger and stronger. We can stay connected to the dignity of our being no matter what trash comes our way, and we need to, for our own sake and to model a possibility for others. When we see someone else getting knocked down and we feel privileged and immune, we need to remind ourselves to guess again -- life just isn't like that, all tidy and static, without cycles of vulnerability and change. We don't know whose turn will be next, while we do know that without a legion of truth-tellers, it will be someone's.

 
 
 

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