Thursday, May 6, 2010

My Lunch with a Living Buddha (one year anniversary re-posting)

Just a few hours ago, I had lunch with His Holiness the Dalai Lama at St. Martin de Porres in San Francisco. I had the honor of being invited and then the awesome privilege of being seated at the same table. I was elated, happy, my heart was palpitating. I kept staring at him…is that really him? My mind would drift off to other places, thinking how incredible this was, a dream come true. (I’d wanted to meet this great spiritual leader, this Living Buddha; or simply attend one of his public lectures. A few years ago he spoke at New York's Central Park, I volunteered for the Richard Gere Foundation and put up posters around town, etc. As it turned out I could not attend the event because my last living uncle past away in Texas. Again in New York, while hosting a workshop at the New School, several Ford Foundation colleagues got up and whispered in my ear that they had to go because they were attending a private luncheon with the Dalai Lama; I almost died!)

As he entered St. Martin’s, I had to use the Buddhist technique of coming back to the breath to remain present, and then looking into his eyes and admiring his smiling face, his jolliness and laughing at his jokes and quick wit...not to mention his presence...he is definitely is there for you, with you...that kept my full attention and awareness on him. I felt joyous, happy, lucky, chosen, admired---cameras keep flashing everywhere and all eyes were of course on our table.

He told us--mostly a group of homeless men and women and those volunteers that serve us soup daily at St. Martin's the importance of human dignity. He said there is no shame in being homeless, that we should feel part of human society, part of the community of 6 billion people. He talked about a remote place in India, called Nako where many people with disabilities live. He told the story of a man with only two fingers handling a hammer and how much anxiety it caused him to see this man hammer away even more fervently at his carpentry---because of course he was doing so in front of the Dalai Lama.....he expressed....”oh this caused me such anxiety” in his deep, sweet Tibetan accented and enunciated voice. He advised us to look at life from many different perspectives, different angles. He picked up a slice a bread, "like this piece of bread, from this angle it looks one way----as he turned it round---from this angle looks different and so on." This is how you should approach life. From one angle, one is has to leave home and that may be sad, but from a different perspective it also provides you with many new and different opportunities. You eventually find a new home. He said "home is where you feel most comfortable" and where you will find a new family and new friends, much as you have done so here (at St. Martin's). At one point, he exclaimed, “I myself am homeless”, I had to leave Tibet at a very young age (after the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1950), and now I have found a wonderful new home and incredible new opportunities to help my people that otherwise might not have been possible. (Dalai Lamas, these spiritual leaders, mostly stayed in Tibet, secluded in Lhasa, and most of the world did not even know they existed. The 14th Dalai Lama has traveled the world over and has made numerous friends, allies, and brought many new followers to his cause of Tibetan freedom from Chinese rule and to the growth of Buddhism in the West.)

He spoke of preferring to eat with ordinary, innocent people (if he only knew!!). He said being with us at St. Martin's reminded him of his childhood in Tibet. His mother being a giving, kind person, should a guest drop by, offered what little there was in the home with great kindness. (He later made me quite sad when he spoke of the importance of mothers in building the first inkling of compassion in children, their first nurturing and warmth and how important that is in a child's life and in later years. I thought of how my father had to play both roles, mother and father, after my mother abandoned us, and how in his manner he taught me about compassion....but also instilled in me pride....which can sometimes get in the way of compassion and humility.) He talked about living in the Potola (one of the Dalai Lama’s two palaces--one for Summer and one for Winter), and how much he rather enjoyed sharing a meal with the person who swept the floors than other Lamas, much the same wauy he prefers sharing a meal with ordinary, innocent people who are without the pretenses that rich people, educated people, "high" people have; their every move can seem calculated....”for instance, even if they are starving, they will not touch their food!" he said. As I watched him eat, I could not help but notice that he ate in the same down to earth, unpretentious manner in which he approached the guests at our table and St. Martin's as a whole. He was one of us. He said and gestured raising his hand, “In Buddhism, the greatest gift you can give someone is in person, directly.” “When I was in the Potola, I could make donations to poor people, but it had to be through other people. When I was in Lhasa, in the streets, I could also give something, but again, it had to be through someone else. So he turned to the group and said, "so I very much appreciate you providing me with the opportunity to do this." He had served several individual plates of pesto pasta and salad to our guests at St. Martin’s before sitting at our table. Apparently he was also excited at the idea of wearing an apron!

To be quite honest, I think he did not know what to make of me. His first glance at me was an odd one. I was seated alone at the head table, he was making the rounds having just entered and he had stopped at the first table and asked a young man a few questions to which he quietly and shyly responded (someone exclaimed he is not usually so shy your Holiness!) ...I was also awestruck and speechless and when he turned to me at my lonely table he sort of made a funny look, bent over and moved in closer yet keeping his distance and uttered "um" in a very inquisitive way, almost childlike manner, bowed his head and moved on. I simply smiled bowed my head in return and namasted to him, all the while fighting the instinct to run over a shake his hand.

The conversation at our table was animated, joyous and filled with laughter. Barbara, the organizer of the event, held his hand the entire time as would a proud young daughter hold on to her wise grandfather. At one point I asked him if he had met or spoken to President Obama and he replied that he would not have the opportunity to do so on this trip, they had no plans to go to D.C., but that he would return in October to meet with the President and friends in Washington. I responded how interesting, you visited with President George Bush on October 18 of 2007. (Don’t ask me why I remember this date, actually there is a reason having to do with the number 18 and its importance in Asian astrology) He gave me an inquisitive look, repeated October, turned for a second and murmured something to his attendant and translator, then returned his attention to our table and blared out "I love George Bush!" At which point I almost choked on my food--a woman behind me said she knew the hemlock maneuver should I need it! Indeed, everyone, including the tables nearest us and the press howled in laughter. He continued, "Yes, I love George Bush, he is a good human being, he is a very direct person; but his policies are quite a different matter." The gentleman next to me showed him a picture of Archbishop Desmond Tutu and asked when they would meet again. He responded “ahh” and called Desmond Tutu his brother, that they always joked together and teased each other. He said Tutu calls him "mischievous Dalai Lama, naughty Dalai Lama" shaking his finger in the air. He talked about an international meeting of religious leaders at which both were present. They were getting in line for lunch and as Desmond Tutu was in front of him, he grabbed him by the neck at which point Tutu suddenly turned round and yelled "the Dalai Lama is trying to kill me!" Again the crowd lost it! I am losing it now as I write this, it brings warm feelings to my heart and goose bumps to my skin.

The day I was secretly told that I was invited to lunch with his Holiness, I burst into tears, tears of joy and happiness; I was elated. Over the next two days, in my vanity, I pondered what should I wear? What does one wear to meet a living Buddha? Should I wear the clothes I wear when I recycle and push my shopping cart, or should I dress up a bit? At lunch I told the Dalai Lama that I had put on this three piece suit and some jewelry that I found while recycling in order to make a point about homelessness and living on the street, and how fortunate I felt to have found these items. I have always found it amazing what people discard and how the streets can usually provide you with what you need. (I have recently found two ipods, some gold jewelry and a genuine jade bracelet.)

After the luncheon, I looked in the mirror at Martin’s and it looked like the Holy Spirit descended upon me, my face was beaming and I felt a genuine love of mankind, I was filled with joy, uplifted and it showed. I had fun. I had a great time at that table. People have asked me "so is he is a living Buddha?" I don’t know the answer to that question, but I do know he is the most genuine and authentic person I have ever come in contact with in my life. To me, for me, he is a great spiritual leader without pretense, a saint--there is something mystical about him, he is also simply a human being, a "real" human being—a modest Buddhist monk as he likes to put it. Given what life has thrown at him and his people, it amazes me that he manages to maintain a sense of humor and compassion for his enemies even now.

At the end of the short question and answer session my friend Charles asked him, “will you come back as the 15th? At which point his Holiness chuckled and quickly said, “That I do not know!”

To see AP photos of the event, please scroll to bottom of blog

Wednesday, October 28, 2009


Last night we kissed, we each other farewell forever, never to see each other in the same way, we will not meet again. We will rely on videos, photographs, memories, and a mindful heart to reconnect, reminisce, remember.

"Strange baby...can't you see I'm looking Older?"

The lines don't firm up any more....the anti-wrinkle creams and lotions have served their purpose well. The eyes once jaundiced, clear once more...and yet something has changed...some thing is different? Worn! like a comfortable pair of jeans and a hoodie, the rips and tears proudly on display for the world to see. Even as the glaucoma sets in, the tunnel vision of youth is replaced by a Sight of a different sort. Think "Mists of Avalon", think out there beyond ideas... The heart once in shackles and fiercely protected now open, free and vulnerable to attack. Punches to the heart while not welcomed, returned or defended against are received, accepted with no resulting retaliation. Tears flow much more freely.

The time is Fall. Time is falling back an hour, on wrists, on walls and in simple minds. "Cause you're out of time...I'm letting go...I'm not the man that you want." Gone are the lovers of yesterday, replaced by the family, friends and "los companeros" of always! And yet You are still there. Gone are the night clubs, the all-nighters, the raves. Everyday life, la vie quotidian in their place. The nooks and crannies of the day hold dear. Desire, determination, ambition and fascination not lost nor abandoned but no longer frenzied; quiet. Treasure troves uncovered, slowly discovered; reside within. Humility, wisdom, compassion pave the way to Now, to a new love, a new life, a second coming?...a new romance with an old friend. "...something good has happened to me. Change is a stranger who never seems to show."

Strange baby...don't you See I'm looking Older?

Lyrics from George Michael's song "Older" waltz in my head and are used without permission but are duly noted and attributed.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

In Good Time...

On April 26 of this year, I had the awesome opportunity to ask His Holiness the Dalai Lama if he had met or spoken to President Obama. He replied he had no plans to go to Washington D.C. and that he would return in October to meet with the President. (see My Lunch with a Living Buddha).

As fate and global politics would have it, President Obama will not meet with His Holiness this month as originally planned. In September, the President sent Valerie Jarrett, his close Chicago friend and senior adviser, and Under Secretary Otero, to meet with the Dalai Lama in Dharamshala, India. While many were hopeful that President Obama sent two representatives to meet with His Holiness ahead of their meeting the following month; they were there to ask His Holiness to postpone his trip to Washington.

President Obama has pledged support for the Dalai Lama but will not meet him during his upcoming visit to Washington, taking his own "Middle Way" and outraging some Tibet activists and followers of the Dalai Lama. The Obama administration views Chinese support for global economic and environmental goals as crucial and wants to establish friendly ties between Hu and Obama during next month’s visit. China reviles the Dalai Lama and pressures foreign governments not to meet with him. (China invaded and illegally annexed Tibet on the 7th of October, 1950, forty-nine years ago to date!.) The U.S. does not want to "upset" China before the presidential meeting in November. The latest White House reports put the meeting in December after Obama visits Chinese President Hu Jintao this November.

A White House delegation including Valerie Jarrett and Otero, met Monday (October 5th) with Tibet's spiritual leader in his home in northern India, Dharamshala. The Dalai Lama, in a statement released by his office, said that he "looks forward to meeting with President Obama after (Obama's) visit to China," which is not scheduled until November. Kate Saunders, spokeswoman for the International Campaign for Tibet, which works closely with the Dalai Lama, said Obama would likely meet the Tibetan leader before the end of the year. She said Obama, who met with the Dalai Lama as a senator, and Dharamshala made a "strategic" decision to wait until after Obama's first presidential trip to Beijing.

The Dalai Lama did not cancel his trip to Washington D.C., and although he did not meet with President Obama, he was presented the Lantos Human Rights Prize by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi at a ceremony attended by several members of Congress including Senator McCain. (The late Representative Tom Lantos was the only Holocaust survivor to have served in Congress.

In his acceptance speech His Holiness said "those people who work for human rights...generally those people who have some greater potential to change the society, to build a better society...these people usually become the first casualties." He went on to add, "the very idea of human rights, taking care about human rights is taking care of other's well being. So that's act of compassion, act of human affection.", I think, we generally speaking, we are lacking about that sense of responsibility and taking care of other's well being. He went on the reprimand the United States for not taking care of its' less fortunate, "Huge gap, rich to poor. This is unhealthy," he said. "You have to think seriously about those less-privileged people. They're also human beings."

I recalled His Holiness's message to us at St. Martin's House of Hospitiality in San Francisco earlier this year. As the AP reporter described the occasion, "The guests included some of San Francisco's most desperate, reviled citizens, men and women who carry their life's possessions in shopping carts and sleep under bridges." He told us there was no shame in being homeless, at one point saying "You know, I'm homeless too." (His Holiness left Lhasa on the 17th of March 1959 with an entourage of 20 men, including six Cabinet ministers, and escaped to India.) And yet, "Our lives depend on others," said the Dalai Lama. "Me too. My life depends on others. You are still in human society, human community. Please feel happy and feel dignity."

To end his acceptance of the Lantos Human Rights Award, His Holiness related his budding affection for America as a child because it was "the champion of liberty, freedom, democracy", and chuckling he added also perhaps because of a gold watch sent to him by then President Roosevelt! "When I think of America, I think of the idea -- concept of freedom, liberty, equality. I think these are real human values," he said. He ended his speech by pointing out while "American weapons, military forces" are to be taken seriously, he insisted "the real greatness of America, is your ancestors' principles," and urged the U.S. to preserve those principles at any cost.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Knowing Your Place

Approximately fifteen years ago, (my God has it been that long!?) I started working at one of the largest foundations in New York as a program assistant. I had just finished my Master's degree in international affairs. I was what my boss called "a cracker jack". I was hot shit, I knew it and took it for granted. I even changed my title the first week to Program Associate! (Ironically, that foundation program came to be known by the same title!) Upon arriving my first day at work, I was told I was to receive no secretarial support by the head secretary, yeah whatever....You see it had never occurred to me to "know my place".

One day, one of my peers, another program associate (assistant, oops!) by the name of Sharon came into my office and said something along the lines, you know something Armando? you are so entitled, just like a white person. I turned to her, and in confusion asked, what? She responded, "no I mean that in a good way, you don't act like a minority, you act like someone who just walked out of a country club. You're just Armando, that is who you are." I was not sure what to make of her statement and our conversation at the time, but I took it as a compliment. A few months later, I was elected to membership at the Council on Foreign Relations, a prestigious members-only organization in New York from which Secretaries of State, Treasury etc., are chosen and includes leaders of industry like Ted Turner, and Nobel prize winners like economist Joseph Stiglitz.

Fast forward fifteen years later, still recovering from cirrhosis of the liver, homelessness and fighting my drug and alcohol addictions, I am having lunch with my now medical doctor friend Sharon in San Francisco, and with great excitement I tell her, "I have found the key to all the problems with life, mine in particular: humility." To be truly available and of service to others and to yourself you have be somewhat humble. The only problem I told Sharon, is that I am not a humble person. She smiled and quietly responded..."No you're not." We both busted out laughing. I must admit I had trouble with this notion of humility and have been perplexed by it. You must understand that for me humility meant you had to play small, practice self-deprecation, etc. As it turns out, my father taught me the opposite, to be proud, "Always remember who you are and do not take shit from anyone." Now I am learning that pride is what can get in the way of compassion, for yourself and others. To feel true compassion is to put yourself into someone else's shoes, to connect to the rest of humanity in all its wonder and defects.

Now, I recently came across a reading on authentic humility. Authentic humility is about living in the truth, the whole truth of who you are. It mean knowing your place and taking it! To be truly humble is to take stock of your gifts, talents, abilities, wisdom, limitations, weaknesses and ignorance--all of who you are and place it in the service of others. Is it not odd that I would finally begin to learn this lesson as a homeless man living in one of the most depressed and drug infested parts of San Francisco,and after having stared death in the face a few times and come out the other end. I now know I have been put on this earth to be of service to my Lord and my fellow man, and I am sometimes slowly, and sometimes quickly learning in just what capacities.

Finally, I am reminded of a quote that is incorrectly attributed to Nelson Mandela in his Inauguration Speech, 1994. It is actually from: Our Deepest Fear by Marianne Williamson and it reads:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

I also came across the following wonderful poem by an Indian author on the Internet, that prompted me to start working on this blog; in all its irony.

Knowing Your Place by Sita Kapadia

If you would but only know your place,
Curb your ambition for others' domain,
You would not have to suffer so much pain--
-Stepped on, passed over, treated as menace,
Or garbage. You would never have to know
The raw wounds of wrenching separations,
Aborted babes, or ruthless evictions.
Annoyance will grow bigger as you grow.
In a realm ordered against transgression,
Resentments rise, though with you no fault lies.
I, for one, hold you in as high estimation
As any reigning focus of all eyes.

Those who hear me say, "She speaks of women
Of these days. So forward, over-reaching,
Crossing bounds!" Well, I know I'm just speaking
To you, Mentha, spade in hand in my garden.
Wholesome, perennial, primal perchance
-Spearmint, peppermint, applemint and more
-Every one, in spite of all, a survivor,
Raising proud, pretty head with nonchalance.
But in my words admiring your forward darts,
Undaunted in every well-guarded place
Some may hear thumpings of their guilty hearts,
That hardened long, hurt now for lack of grace.

To be continued......

Sita Kapadia, born and educated in India, is a CUNY professor of English, emeritus. A versatile educator, writer, poet, and artist, she brings her rich multicultural experience to her work. Now in Houston, Kapadia tends her family and her garden and is currently writing a biography of Kasturba, wife of Mahatma Gandhi.
© 1996, The Women in Literature and Life Assembly of the National Council of Teachers of English (ISSN #1065-9080). Reference Citation: Kapadia, Sita. (1996). "Knowing Your Place." WILLA, Volume V, p. 20.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Netwar and Cyber-attacks

This posting was prompted by the recent cyber-attacks launched on U.S. government and South Korean websites. It was initially thought that the North Korean government was responsible, but now news reports indicate that it may have been the work of a broader spectrum of players, including prankers and industrial spies. Whatever the case may be, it is clear that such attacks are nothing new and will persist as long as information technology increasing and at hyper-speed becomes more and more a part of our daily lives.

Fifteen years ago, on New Year's Day 1994, approximately 4,000 insurgents of the Zapatista Liberation Army (EZLN) led by Sub-commandante Marcos, occuppied six towns in Chiapas and declared war against the Mexican government. At the time I was doing an internship at the Rand Corp. with David Ronfeldt, a genius policy analyst and strategist, and now a good friend. We looked at this, the first case of a social "netwar" where a group of transnational NGO activists formed a vast, highly networked, transnational coalition to constrain the Mexican government's response to the Zapatista insurgency in Chiapas. Throughout the 90's Sub-commandante Marcos become a household name in Mexico and support for the EZLN remained moderate, especially in its stronghold in Chiapas. Today, support is almost non-existent, but you can still buy a Sub-commandante Marcos T-shirt online or outside the Universidad Autonoma de Mexico, (UNAM), and read his communiques online.

The recent cyber-attacks against South Korea and the United States (supposedly supported and led by North Korea) while different in their purpose and organization illustrate how the global information revolution has and will continuously change the nature of social conflict.

See Chapter Sixteen: A Comment on the Zapatista “Netwar” by David Ronfeldt and Armando Bravo Martinez in the book:

In Athena's Camp

Monday, July 6, 2009

Wishing His Holiness a Happy Birthday!

Today is His Holiness the Dalai Lama's 74th birthday. Thousands of Tibetan exiles in India and Nepal celebrated His Holiness's birthday. Yesterday, thousands stood in monsoon seasonal rains waiting outside His Holiness' residence in Dharamsala, the headquarters of the Tibetan government-in-exile to join the birthday celebrations. His Holiness said that everyday is a new beginning, a fresh day, not just birthdays.

Born in 1935 in northeastern Amdo province of Tibet, Lhamo Dhondrub was recognized as the reincarnation of the 13th Dalai Lama at the age of 2. He was brought to Lhasa in October 1939, and enthroned as the head of the state of Tibet on February 22, 1940.

He fled to Dharamsala after a failed uprising against Chinese rule on March 10, 1959.

The Dalai Lama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989 for his non-violent campaign for democracy and freedom in his homeland.

A total of 140,000 Tibetans now live in exile, nearly 110,000 of them in 35 settlements across India. Six million Tibetans live inside Tibet.

Today, Indian and Australian governemnt officials meet in New Delhi to celerate His Holiness' birthday....strangely enough he shares his birth date with George W. Bush. At a luncheon here in San Francisco at St. Martin de Porres, His Holiness said he loved George Bush, that he was a great human being, but that his policies were a different matter. (See post Lunch with a Living Buddha from April, 2009)

Strangely enough, there are no news reports as of yet as to celebrations in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, which were most likely kept to a very low profile by Chinese authorities.

We hope one day in the years to come, he may have the opportunity to celebrate in Lhasa with his people.

Monday, May 18, 2009

New World Order and What we make of it.

Here is a link to an article I wrote about 10 years ago, Emerging Powers: "The New World Order and What We Make of It" World Policy Journal, Fall 1999.

In it I argue that as a step toward creating a new international order, the United States and the emerging powers need to reach a consensus on three broad areas: 1) security - how to use force to avoid violence; 2) wealth creation and sharing; and, 3) norms, and how to structure institutions.(14) This is not to say that all the world's ills will vanish once emerging powers are brought into the "club of nations." However, the first step toward a more cooperative world is not to ignore "unfamiliar" parts of the world. Countries are not unlike people, requiring attention, recognition, and respect from their peers. The United States must recognize the great strides that have been made by emerging powers like India, Brazil, and South Africa in the political and economic realms.

The full text of the article can be found at

The New World Order and What We Make of It
I am currently working on a follow-up article looking back 10 years later at the state of Emerging Powers and their fate in the new US political climate.