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Behind the Headlines: APA News Blog

Academic Version: Applying my personal experiences and academic research as a professor of Sociology and Asian American Studies to provide a more complete understanding of political, economic, and cultural issues and current events related to American race relations, and Asia/Asian America in particular.

Plain English: Trying to put my Ph.D. to good use.

November 17, 2008

Written by C.N.

Zen and the Art of Being President

Throughout the presidential campaign and nowadays, as he prepares to officially become the next President of the United States, many people have remarked that Obama seems to be very calm and even-keel in almost all circumstances. That is, he doesn’t ever seem to get visibly angry, frustrated, or on the other hand, seems rather reserved when everyone else is celebratory and even euphoric.

In other words, we might say that Obama is very Zen-like in that way. As Buddhists like to say, he seems to be very “equanimous” — he shows his emotion and determination to achieve his goals, but is very cool and unflappable in doing so and even once he achieves victory, maintains his calm and placid demeanor.

I bring this up because acclaimed writer Alice Walker (her most famous work was The Color Purple, for which she won the Pulitzer Prize) just wrote an open letter to Barack Obama, in which she reinforces many of these “Buddhist” observations and characteristics that Obama personifies. Here are some excerpts of her letter (emphases in bold are mine):

Dear Brother Obama,

You have no idea, really, of how profound this moment is for us. Us being the black people of the Southern United States. . . . Seeing you deliver the torch so many others before you carried, year after year, decade after decade, century after century, only to be struck down before igniting the flame of justice and of law, is almost more than the heart can bear. . . .

We knew, through all the generations, that you were with us, in us, the best of the spirit of Africa and of the Americas. Knowing this, that you would actually appear, someday, was part of our strength. Seeing you take your rightful place, based solely on your wisdom, stamina and character, is a balm for the weary warriors of hope, previously only sung about. . . .

I would advise you to remember that you did not create the disaster that the world is experiencing, and you alone are not responsible for bringing the world back to balance. A primary responsibility that you do have, however, is to cultivate happiness in your own life. . . .

We are used to seeing men in the White House soon become as white-haired as the building; we notice their wives and children looking strained and stressed. They soon have smiles so lacking in joy that they remind us of scissors. This is no way to lead. Nor does your family deserve this fate.

One way of thinking about all this is: It is so bad now that there is no excuse not to relax. From your happy, relaxed state, you can model real success, which is all that so many people in the world really want. . . .

I would further advise you not to take on other people’s enemies. Most damage that others do to us is out of fear, humiliation and pain. . . . It is understood by all that you are commander in chief of the United States and are sworn to protect our beloved country; this we understand, completely.

However, as my mother used to say, quoting a Bible with which I often fought, “hate the sin, but love the sinner.” There must be no more crushing of whole communities, no more torture, no more dehumanizing as a means of ruling a people’s spirit. This has already happened to people of color, poor people, women, children.

A good model of how to “work with the enemy” internally is presented by the Dalai Lama, in his endless caretaking of his soul as he confronts the Chinese government that invaded Tibet. Because, finally, it is the soul that must be preserved, if one is to remain a credible leader. All else might be lost; but when the soul dies, the connection to earth, to peoples, to animals, to rivers, to mountain ranges, purple and majestic, also dies.

And your smile, with which we watch you do gracious battle with unjust characterizations, distortions and lies, is that expression of healthy self-worth, spirit and soul, that, kept happy and free and relaxed, can find an answering smile in all of us, lighting our way, and brightening the world.

As someone who feels connected in many ways to Buddhism, Alice Walker’s words capture many of the same feelings that I have towards Obama and the task ahead of him. And based on his character and his equanimity, I am very confident that he will do just fine.


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Copyright © 2001- by C.N. Le. Some rights reserved. Creative Commons License

Suggested reference: Le, C.N. . "Zen and the Art of Being President" Asian-Nation: The Landscape of Asian America. <http://www.asian-nation.org/headlines/2008/11/zen-and-the-art-of-being-president/> ().

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