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
I 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.
The 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.
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.
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.
As 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
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.)