05/24/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Obama Zen

I was in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, on the last election day. Busy with work there, I had forgotten the date, and could not understand why I was hearing cheering from outside my guest house in the middle of the night. I learned the news of Obama's victory the next day, and was greeted with shouts of "Obama, Obama," by everyone from store clerks to street cleaners. Many in the region had viewed America's foreign policy as arrogant and out-of touch, and saw hope with a new leader. Now that I was a part of a country that had elected such a leader, overnight I had become cool.

Fortunately, Obama is delivering. In fact, it has become ever more noticeable to me what a different leader he is than any other I have witnessed in my lifetime. This was particularly showcased recently when he attended the Summit of the Americas.

Reading about his trip, it became clear to me: Obama is practicing some serious Zen. No, he did not sit cross-legged at a Zen center during his visit, but he embodied the spirit of Zen, and arguably all major religions, by extending a hand to those that have been viewed as enemies of the U.S in the past, including the outspoken Hugo Chavez of Venezuela.

Now, I am not necessarily a big fan of Hugo Chavez, nor am I against him, but the fact that Obama shook his hand was not to me, as others suggest, a statement that, "I agree with everything you stand for," but instead expressed, "I acknowledge you as a leader of your country, one that we may not always agree with, but with which we have a relationship. I see you." The Zen of Obama in this situation was to open a door, to see Chavez, and to do what he could from his side to support a healthy engagement.

There are certainly dangerous people in the world that we need to do all we can to protect ourselves from, but if the other side, in this case Chavez, is open to dialogue, why not explore it? For those who argue that Chavez is our "enemy," and should not be addressed, I think Obama showed us that the greatest enemy is not a person or country. As the Buddha said:

"Better than conquering a thousand enemies in battle a thousand times is the man or woman who is able to conquer him or herself."

At the Summit of the Americas, Obama did not conquer Chavez or any other person or country, but he did what is most difficult: he conquered a long-standing hatred by extending a hand.

It could be that dialogue with Chavez turns out to be pointless or unproductive, but to me what matters most is that Obama is willing to let go past grievances in order to open new possibilities.

The Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh advises us that if we are angry with someone, it is good to give that person a gift. While Chavez gave Obama a gift in the form of a book, Obama also gave a gift of openness. The impact is yet to be seen, but it is clearly evident of a new approach to international relationships.

Obama offered us a nice Zen teaching, and as all good Zen teachings, it is one we could all likely put into practice.


Soren Gordhamer is the author of Wisdom 2.0: Ancient Secrets for the Creative and Constantly Connected (HarperOne, 2009). Website: