First impressions in downtown Atlanta: Big blocky buildings. Strangely quiet streets.

The architecture speaks to me of domination. It’s all imposing, arrogant squares, too sure of themselves to admit a wussy curve. Nature, get out of the way. Sky, back off. Trees, fit yourselves in – if you can.

And people wander through, with lots of space between them. They are dwarfed by their own structures. Not like the messy, organic life that is most Asian cities, where the structures always seem to be left behind, panting and struggling to keep up with the people. Here, it’s things first.

We’re in America, the consumption capital of the world; and, for all we know, the universe. So let’s do it: let’s go shopping. Specifically, some new shoes for Chandra.

For those of you unlucky enough to not know of whom I speak, allow me to introduce. Chandra – or to give his full name, “Kumarasinghe Katunayake Appuhamillage Chandrawansa Kumarasinghe”(yes, it’s a thing) – is my kappiya (steward) for this trip. He’s a Sri Lankan retired electrical engineer who’s been staying at Santi for the past several years. A good friend and a wonderful human being.

Anyway, Chandra got to the airport and realized he had only his comfy squashed up ugg boots on. No good in the weather. So we ended up at a couple of shoe shops, remembering why we hated shopping. People really do this for fun? Well, he got a pair. Actually two: why not? They’re on sale…

Food, clothes, stuff. It’s another world for me. It just feels so alien. This is how it was long before I became a monk, and I remember why I felt the Dhamma jibed so well with me. But I wonder: what does Dhamma have to say to these people? I’ve immersed myself for so long in the aggregates, samadhi, dependent origination, it’s the world I’m at home in. How can it speak to these people?

Someone hands me a Jesus card. Believe – it’s the only way. Morality or good deeds can’t save you. Only the saving grace of Jesus can. I think this is silly. What an impoverished, unreasonable spirit. And how far from anything that Jesus himself might have wanted. And yet – here we are in the Temple of Mammon. Here, Dhamma is not the alternative to Christ – stuff is. It’s not faith versus faith, or even faith versus reason, but faith versus meaningless acquisition. And “just believe” is maybe not such a bad option after all.

We visited the Olympic memorial park and just sat for a while. Kids playing in the fountain. Old men sitting on benches. I guess we were two of the old men. The best bit: two small white cats, hidden behind a hedge, curled up with each other in the sun. They didn’t need much to be happy.

There’s a little museum called APEX nearby, all about the African-American history of the region. We spend a quiet hour or so. It’s so hard to square it all. We see outside black, white, Asian people, sharing space, eating each others food, laughing. All different, all human, all ok. How can something so obvious and natural become so utterly perverted into the horrors of the slave trade?

The gradual extension of our humanity, the full embracing of “others” is the story of our moral evolution. It’s full of backsliding and contradictions. An African-American has become President of the US – something of incalculable symbolic power. Yet inequality and, yes, slavery still thrive. These days the hidden trade has shifted, and it is often women who are the victims. But the numbers and the suffering have not diminished.

I wonder why the Buddha did not object to slavery. Sure, the kind of slavery that was around in ancient India – or indeed through most of Asian history – was a far cry from the horrific degradation of the trade of Africans to the New World. Megasthenes, the Greek ambassador in the court of King Chandragupta only a century after the Buddha, wrote that there was no slavery in India. He was wrong, but it reveals how different Indian slavery was compared to what he knew from Europe. One of the Jatakas tells of a female slave who wanted to go on a picnic with friends. Her mistress not only allowed her to go, but loaned her a valuable necklace to wear – something no employer would do today.

Nevertheless, it still seems wrong. We have this notion of human dignity – it’s just not right to own another human being, even if you treat them kindly. The Buddha spoke out on some social issues – notably the caste system – so why not on this one? Perhaps it was just not the time and place when it could have done any good.

I still have hope. There is goodness in people. If they are not too twisted by ideology they will, by and large, try to do the right thing.

So why segregation, discrimination, slavery? It is uncomfortable in another’s world. I feel like an outsider here. Probably because I am. And it doesn’t feel good. I’m looking at people, but lots more are looking at me. What, d’ya think I’m weird or something? We like to belong, to stay where we feel comfortable, with the people and the ways we know. There’s always a slight nervousness, a little fear when going out of our domain.

I’ve noticed how just about every American who has offered some advice for our trip has included a warning of some kind. It would never occur to me to issue warnings to anyone visiting Australia, or any other country I know. For all the astonishing expenditure on defense and security, Americans don’t feel safe in their own country.

Perhaps we won’t ever feel really safe until the earth is our country, and humanity is our people. Until then, be afraid.


13 thoughts on “Atlanta

  1. Lovely to read about your travels. I laughed at the image of Chandra at the airport in his uggies.

    Your post reminds me of when I was living in the States (Kansas) and told an American friend that I was going to get a Greyhound bus to New York. He was appalled, ‘You can’t do that! No-one travels on Greyhound!’ (I’m not sure who his idea of ‘no-one’ was…).


  2. Looks like Reality but sounds like Fantasy:)

    “Once more, another form devils assumed was that of a dead friend. Thus Hamlet (i. 4), when he confronts the apparition, exclaims—

    “Angels and ministers of grace defend us!
    Be thou a spirit of health or goblin damn’d,
    Bring with thee airs from heaven or blasts from hell,
    Be thine intents wicked or charitable,
    Thou comest in such a questionable shape
    That I will speak to thee.”
    for, as Mr Spalding remarks, “it cannot be imagined that Hamlet imagined that a ‘goblin damned’ could actually be the spirit of his dead father; and, therefore, the alternative in his mind must be that he saw a devil assuming his father’s likeness—a form which the Evil One knew would most incite Hamlet to intercourse.”

    The same idea seems present in Horatio’s mind:—

    “What if it tempt you toward the flood, my lord,
    Or to the dreadful summit of the cliff,
    That beetles o’er his base into the sea,
    And there assume some horrible form,
    Which might deprive your sovereignty of reason,
    And draw you into madness?”
    Once more, in the next act (ii. 2), Hamlet again expresses his doubts:—

    “The spirit that I have seen
    May be the devil: and the devil hath power
    To assume a pleasing shape; yea, and perhaps
    Out of my weakness and my melancholy,
    As he is very potent with such spirits,
    Abuses me to damn me.”

    • My sincere apology for posting the above “play” just for a little jest in the midst of a lot of tension in our lives and before any disharmony ensued. Hope I did not freak out anyone. Plays are humorous.Apology again.

  3. Bhante,

    Really enjoy your musings. So many wonderful thoughts for contemplation there. I’ve only just found your blog through Santi Forest Monastery’s website. I look forward to following your writings and travels more.

    Even in the small ways it is interesting how we attach to the security of our own domains. I notice how I prefer the security of my own home and company of my wife. Leaving to go anywhere outside the boundary of my common circle in a geographic or social sense seems to arise in me an awareness of the boundaries of my ego and it’s attachment to what it is familiar. An interesting journey both geographically, socially and spiritually.

    I’ve actually just booked in to stay at the Santi Monastery for a few day meditation on the weekend of your return. I look forward to meeting you then.


  4. Bhante,
    i hope while you are there that you get to experience some real southern hospitality and friendliness that people from Atlanta are renown for. Some of the nicest, kindest, friendliest people I have ever met are from Atlanta. This is what Southern Americans are famous for. May you be blessed with this kindness during your visit.

  5. _/\_ Bhante, I have always been told that the Buddha did object to slavery, so I am quite confused, hearing from you that the Buddha did not object to it. Would you please be able to comment further on the matter?

    Doesn’t the prohibition in ‘trade in human beings’ under the category of Right Livelihood cover slavery? If it doesn’t, what exactly is meant by ‘trade in human beings’

    I read:

    “The Buddha said that the buying and selling of human beings is a wrong means of livelihood for laypeople (A.III,207) and he forbade monks and nuns to accept gifts of slaves or to own them (D.I,5). These teachings seem to be the oldest known prohibition against slavery.” (A-Z Guide to Buddhism, S. Dhammika)

    And also, according to the Tipitaka, there were 5 types of slaves in ancient India:

    1. Those born to enslaved mothers (amayadasa)
    2. Those purchased (dhanenakita)
    3. Those who voluntarily became slaves (sayam upayanti), eg. to escape starvation during famine.
    4. Those who became slaves out of fear (bhayapanunna), and
    5. Prisoners of war (kammaranito)

    (Ja.IV,285; Vin.IV,224).

    Doesn’t the inclusion of the classification of ‘slave’ in the books indicate that the matter was considered?

    Your clarification would be much appreciated. (=

  6. I’d like to think the Buddha might not have approved slavery, but it’s just not the right time and condition to bring about that subject (like Bhante wrote). Showing disagreement to caste system might be big enough not to stir another issue. Or it’s just that he simply was not a social activist, he got another purpose in life, this purpose has bigger impact.

    He was more concerned with “educating” people’s mind, and the more educated people are, the less suffering people would inflict to others (incl. slavery issues).

  7. re: ‘faith versus meaningless acquisition’

    Note that the history of Calvinism in the States is still a powerful momentum for Evangelicals, to wit: wealth has a way of getting interpreted as a sign of grace…

  8. Australia is pretty up there in consumption. As is the UK, Europe, the Middle East etc. We need to look into our own back yards first before we ride the anti-American bandwagon. IMHO.

  9. Hi Bhante,

    Sounds to me like you might be a little bit in culture shock. I think it’s important to keep in mind the distorting effect that culture shock has on perception before evaluating a country or culture other than our own. It can take months to years for adjustment to take place. Then our perception is still distorted, but only in the more usual ways.

    That the U.S., like Australia, is a former English colony doesn’t necessarily mean culture shock will be less. It can make it more disorienting and jarring when our brain hears a familiar language but then doesn’t experience what it expects. At least that’s been my experience. I’ve had quicker adjustments to living in East Africa than to living in England. Culture is such an interesting field for observing perception.

    Then again, maybe I’m just biased. You’d be hard-pressed to find a bigger cynic about American government than me, but I love America’s people and cultures. Go figure.

    Safe travels, you two!


  10. You would likely already have heard about this there, because it’s big in America:

    I’m very taken by this part of Jon Stewart’s closing speech [quoted on tumblr by one of my favourite current American geeks]:

    This made me realise how we (nb: “me”) don’t continue to note small, ordinary acts of connection when caught up in a jangle of difference.

    It came to mind when I read about your experience inside and outside of APEX.

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