R.I.P. Nelson Mandela, Bodhisattva

“We pray, I pray also, for the long life of South African leader, Mr Nelson Mandela who fought for such a long time to end apartheid and racial discrimination in Africa. This is not only actually an example in the African region or in the African continent. This is an example for the world community as how apartheid is a disease really for the human race, and human discrimination can be peacefully settled.”

- A Buddhist monk in the video below, where this summer, groups of Buddhist monks assembled in Bodh Gaya to offer prayers for his long life.

Global news sources are reporting the death of one of the 20th and 21st century’s great men: Nelson Mandela.

Mandela had been in the hospital for ailments related to a lung infection for several months. Read more at the BBC here (photo above from the BBC).

His success in non-violent reconciliation drew monks together from Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Thailand, and Burma (Myanmar) to pray for his long life in July. Let us hope that the the depth of his message reaches those in power in those lands, especially where ethnic and religious violence has grown in recent years.

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Previously, Maia Deurr of Jizo Chronicles wrote of Mandela, calling him a “bodhisattva extraordinaire.” I could not think of more fitting words. Ruth King also honored him this year on his 95th birthday, calling him a “Beloved Bodhisattva.” Unknown Buddhist gave a touching “Happy Birthday Nelson Mandela” post last July (2012), writing:

All of us, including me, have made mistakes. But we can strive to be of service, be mindful in understanding, showing kindness, honesty and humility. These are the worthy human values we should be proud to acquire.

… true humanity always serves, is always humble and always in love.

And by acquiring these values, we become very Christ like, Buddha , very holy.

Dalai Lama, the exiled leader of Tibetan Buddhism, left, walks hand-in-hand with South African president Nelson Mandela prior to an official reception at the presidential office in Cape Town, Thursday, August 22, 1996. The Dalai Lama is on a visit to South Africa lecturing about the peaceful struggle of the Tibetans against the occupying Chinese. The white silk scarf worn by Mandela was presented to him by the Dalai Lama. SASA KRALJ | AP (via the Sacbee.com)

But lest we forget, Nelson Mandela was also a man who went to prison a terrorist and stepped out 27 years later a national hero. As we look beyond the surface, the fact sheets, the time lines, we see that Mandela’s life was complicated. His struggle was at times violent, in ways that Buddhists today may or may not condone, but it was undoubtedly a struggle against an institutionalized violence far more potent and destructive. It is this institutionalized violence that rears its ugly head most clearly in nations such as Burma and Sri Lanka and too often the most vocal Buddhists are the ones supporting it.

It is also this institutionalized violence, in the way of natural and human resource exploitation in non-Buddhist countries that also has many in the West divided in debates about mindfulness vs McMindfulness, Buddhist anarchism vs Compassionate capitalism, and more. Whether and how Mandela’s memory will fit into such debates is yet to be seen. What is already clear is that his life provided profound inspiration to people around the world, including a great number of Buddhists. He will be missed.

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