“I am the master of my fate” ~ a tribute to Nelson Mandela

SOUTH AFRICA MANDELAA light has gone out in the world.

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela (18 July 1918 − 5 December 2013)

I like millions of others around the world am very sad that such a great being departed today. He is leaving a hole in too many hearts to count. President Obama said it the other day:

He is personal hero. But I don’t think I am unique in that regard. He is a hero for the world.

For decades, Mandela has been one of my greatest heroes – a shining example of how it really is possible to be a very good person, full of patience and love, and yet because of this, not in spite of it, able to effect enormous changes. He showed a different paradigm for dealing with conflict that resonated around the world.

I was trying to think today of anyone else in my lifetime who has been so universally well regarded and appreciated for their good qualities. I can’t think of anyone. My friend’s face dropped when I told her, and I knew it’d be the same if I told anyone else in the Denver coffee house where I heard the news. Around the world, I believe, the news, “Have you heard that Nelson Mandela has just died?”, is being met only with dismay.

President Zuma called him “the father of democracy” in South Africa. I believe he was a bona fide Bodhisattva in our midst, an obvious guiding light on the world stage, who managed to pull off the seeming impossible in South Africa and inspire people everywhere to behave just that little bit better.

I could talk about his good qualities all day. I hope and believe that others will be rejoicing in him today in the global media, in a thousand more qualified tributes–but I would like to join in. I sometimes think that the best way not to miss someone so important to you is to try and adopt his or her good qualities as your own. If everyone who loves him took on even a fraction of Madiba’s qualities, the world would transform overnight. For me, amongst many good qualities, it was Mandela’s genuine patient acceptance and strength that inspires me the most and that I would most like to possess myself.

A tribute from a South African friend

nelson mandela fear quoteI had quite a number of close South African relatives and friends. A good friend teaches Buddhism in Cape Town. My key ring is the South African flag in the shape of a miniature sandal that I bought in Langa. I visited a few years ago, finding Cape Town to be the most beautiful and yet most incongruous place – the stunning natural beauty sitting side by side with the appalling aids-abetted poverty of Langa and other townships. I shared a birthday with Nelson Mandela. I named a beloved cat for him. I have some connection with South Africa, but an old friend of mine has even closer karma with it as he was born and adopted there. I want him to do the honors, therefore, and include here something he said about Mandela in the context of patience some years back.

The patience of non-retaliation

To travel to South Africa for my gap year before university I had to earn money, so I took a job in a hospital’s geriatric ward as a “Domestic” with the uniquely British combined responsibilities of scrubbing toilets and making tea.

The ward felt like the asylum of lost hopes, where thrown-away people who had often led stellar lives were living out their end days lonely, lost and incapacitated. Several had amputated limbs, thus condemned to hospital life despite their active minds. And then there was the cheerful teenage me, about to go on a dazzling African adventure with my whole life still ahead, jovially offering them cups of tea. More than once they threw the tea on the floor, saying it was awful, deliberately trying to make my life difficult. Yet I was curious to note at the time that I never became annoyed with them. Why did their actions not upset me when the far less ornery behavior of people elsewhere irritated me all the time? It was because it made no sense to become angry when they were suffering so much; in fact the worse they behaved the more deeply I felt for them. My compassion for them was protecting my mind.

I see difficult people and the suffering they cause as apparently unpleasant, yet actually useful, because without them I could not practice patience. I want to become more patient because it brings me great peace of mind and helps me make spiritual progress. Who will help me to increase my patience? The people causing my difficulties! Actually, they exist for my benefit. They behave appallingly because I require and want them to for my spiritual well-being. I owe them.

mandela in prisonThe people who inspire me most are those who transcend seemingly unforgiveable grievances and end up helping untold numbers of people – heroes like Gandhi, Harriet Tubman, Nelson Mandela and my own Teacher Geshe Kelsang (who had to flee from his homeland). I was born in South Africa about the time Mandela was sent to break rocks in Robben Island, and I was 27 by the time he was released. Those first 27 years of my life felt like a really long time, and I would often wonder how “Madiba” was doing?

If anyone had a right and provocation to be angry, it was he. Yet he famously left the prison with a huge heart of forgiveness and love that saved an entire nation from a bloodbath. How did he do it? He said it was by patiently understanding that he was working for a task greater than himself.

He also had a huge sense of personal responsibility, as can be seen in the words of William Ernest Henley’s poem Invictus that helped him through the long years of captivity:

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

To practice non-retaliation involves compassion, the wish for others to be free from their suffering and also its causes, delusions and negative karma. Buddha said that with our thoughts we create our world. Negative karma refers specifically to the negative mental intentions that motivate each negative action we perform, and it is these intentions that sow the actual seeds for the experience of suffering. Think about how much negative karma angry minds and angry people create, thus sowing the seeds for intensely unpleasant experiences to manifest in their future. I don’t have to make it worse. young Nelson Mandela

Instead of thinking “This is an angry person,” we can think, “This is an unfortunate person who is being controlled by their enemy of anger.” By never seeing faults in people, Buddhas are able to maintain their love and compassion for them at all times. Anger is the enemy; the person is not. Compassion for them, not more anger, is the best response.

Mandela quote about love
“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” ― Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom

As a Buddhist, I too am trying to work for a task greater than myself – enlightenment for the benefit of all living beings. Suffering is all relative. As it says in Meaningful to Behold, we have experienced aeons of great suffering but it has not bought us any benefit. Now is different because we have a different perspective on what we are trying to get out of life:

We have the unique opportunity, by enduring comparatively insignificant suffering, to work for the benefit of others and thereby attain the supreme state of enlightenment.

We can therefore joyfully accept the hardships we face – which doesn’t mean gritting our teeth and putting up with it, but actually accepting fully and happily, without judgment or disapproval, whatever arises. We can do this if we are confident that we can learn to use absolutely any situation to train our minds in wisdom and compassion, thus bringing an end to suffering.

In Mandela’s broad smiles as he left the prison in friendship with his captors, I find that he discovered this truth.

Mandela quote about freedom of othersAs a Buddhist, I too am striving for a superior intention that takes personal responsibility for freeing all my kind mothers from their suffering and its causes. I have therefore learned from Nelson Mandela and seen in his actions, with my own eyes, how patience is possible if I keep this big perspective. And it was because of this patience, not in spite of it, that he also got everything done, as he could work toward getting everything done all the time without being derailed by anger. Patience is not a passive, doormat state of mind that leaves us standing there doing nothing. It is an active, dynamic, and immensely creative state of mind that enables us to accomplish all our tasks.

The greatest tribute

reacting to Nelson Mandela's death

My endless gratitude to you, Nelson Mandela.

Wherever you are now, I believe you will still be helping people. I am not worried about you, only the rest of us.

I don’t want to say goodbye. I have been dreading this day. Everyone is so sad. Zuma said “We need him with us.” I agree. But as we cannot have him with us, we can at least let his inspiring qualities live on.

The greatest tribute I believe we can pay Nelson Mandela is to become more like him.

The sooner, the better.


(Please feel welcome to leave your own tributes in the comments.)

Author: Luna Kadampa

Based on 40 years' experience, I write about applying meditation and modern Buddhism to improve and transform our everyday lives and societies. I try to make it accessible to everyone anywhere who wants more inner peace and profound tools to help our world, not just Buddhists. Do make comments any time and I'll write you back!

18 thoughts on ““I am the master of my fate” ~ a tribute to Nelson Mandela”

  1. Obama on Tuesday call 4 LuV 2 combat hate in 1st Africa visit Post-Presidency in a speech honoring the late Nelson Mandela 100th Birthday, Obama called 2day’s times “Strange & Uncertain”
    Graça Machel, Mandela’s widow introduced Obama.
    “I believe we have no choice but to move forward” Obama said. Madiba shows those of us who believe in Democracy, we’re going to have to work harder to promote lasting opportunities 4 all people…
    It’s a “Long Walk to freedom” and I rejoice that on 25 & 26 of August, around the corner from were Madiba was captured, there’s a weekend retreat tilted “The Modern Day Bodhisattva” “The Path Of Kindness” the ability 2 b of great benefit 2 others in our life.
    May this weekend became a tribute to “Madiba”

  2. What I find really most inspiring is that Mandela seems to have cultivated this quality of patient acceptance while in prison; in his younger life he was evidently less patient and more interested in armed conflict. While in prison, he was so kind to his captors, he was able to help them change and grow and cultivate lovingkindness. Such a perfect example of transforming adversity. Thanks for sharing this!

  3. He was an emanation to me. He had the wisdom to see beyond his suffering and the suffering of those around him and the fortitude to change the situation. I am not mourning his passing but reflecting on how I can develop his kind of compassion and wisdom!

  4. A lovely post, full of lived wisdom. I particularly like this one line “It was because it made no sense to become angry when they were suffering so much; in fact the worse they behaved the more deeply I felt for them. My compassion for them was protecting my mind.”

  5. Lovely article Luna, thank you for this. Such a rare thing – a great politician who embodies so many of the qualities we value and cultivate. May lovingkindness, compassion and wisdom heal the world.
    Sally x

  6. I didn’t know Mandela had died before I read the tributes to him this morning. Just reading how much he was respected and loved says everything. Total homage to him.
    Your advice “to try and adopt his good qualities as your own.” is so worth taking.

  7. Thanks so much L for such a wonderfully poignant response to the great Madiba’s passing on. We will be doing POWA on Monday evening at the Centre in Cape Town. I also love this quote I saw earlier:
    “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”
    ― Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom

  8. I have been experiencing a more stubborn than usual post-festival insomnia. Because of the travel drama and the intensity of the experience, mental excitement my sleep experience changes dramatically. Usually I bounce back to my normal sleeping patterns within a few weeks but this has been over a month. I went to sleep at 12:15 and awoke at 2:00 unable to get back to sleep; my day becomes problematic energy-wise if I don’t have seven uninterrupted hours of sleep. This time I began reviewing Meaningful to Behold in bed as I have an overdue exam to write which I am avoiding, with an adolescent stubbornness. I began reading The chapter on “Full Acceptance of Bodhichitta” (Training in Giving) where I spent some time reviewing the story of Sadaprarudita who tried to sell his body to make offerings so that he could receive teachings on Emptiness from Dharmodgata. After a while I felt hungry and decided that if my body were busy digesting it might tire more, so I made a snack and a tea. I then turned on the computer and found this article. Perhaps the main teaching for me from Nelson Mandela is that he gave his body, he surrendered it to the state, he gave it to the South African people. All of the apparently ordinary people you mentioned above gave their bodies too, in different ways: Gandhi, Aung San Suu Kyi, Nelson Mandela, and also Jesus Christ.

    In a way I also rejoice in the giving practiced by all of the “Resident Teachers” in our tradition. They are “giving” in a very similar way. They surrender to many expectations of an administration (though spiritual and holy, it is an administration within samsara with institutional aspects). These teachers deny themselves freedoms and enjoyments for the benefit of their small circle of students/followers, but also for the greater benefit of all living beings. They take care of their reputation by closely guarding their moral discipline and work very hard to be as perfect a model of spiritual evolution as they possibly can. (I think inmates in jails may earn more money…not sure about that, maybe it depends on the jail). So thank you, all you resident teachers of dharma centres!

    Yes we will all miss Nelson Mandela but we are left with many other examples of individuals who have overcome their self-cherishing, their self-grasping, and self preoccupation.

    It is interesting for me to go back to the story of Sadaprarudita and remember his ferocious desire to receive teachings on emptiness which led to him being willing to give his body. It seems to me that understanding the true nature of the body would be necessary to be willing to give it up. I suppose Sadaprarudita already had a deep understanding of the true nature of reality but he wanted to completely, perfectly realize it. If Ghandi, Mandela and the others did not have that realization of emptiness then they appear to have had a deep realization of the disadvantages of self-cherishing and the advantages of cherishing others, and also a realization of the Lam Rim realization/object “love”. I suppose “love” is the essential motivation for that kind of giving 🙂

    Now back to sleep, hopefully or this body may not be much use to anyone tomorrow.

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