Thursday, April 23, 2015

State of the Apes

Is this a person?
Earlier this week, a New York judge agreed to hear arguments regarding the possibility of granting Chimpanzees subjected to medical experiments status as 'legal persons' for purposes of defending them against such experiments.  This comes a few months after an Argentina court granted an Orangutan 'basic rights' resulting in freeing the animal from a zoo.

These small steps are perhaps symbolic of slowly changing global attitudes toward animals with higher capacity for behavior and expression.  Certainly such rulings would seem absurd a century ago.  Apes are genetically our biological cousins and are increasingly viewed as possessing greater (human-like) intelligence and emotional range compared with other animals.  They seem to possess the qualities of what humans typically define as a 'person.'


It has been observed for years that certain apes use tools to accomplish tasks.  They can improvise very well, as was seen a few days ago when one whacked an irritating drone with a stick. A Chimpanzee did that.  Chimps demonstrate particular understanding and the ability to learn, as one group indicated by looking both ways before crossing a road in Uganda.


Whether captive or in the wild, Chimps show remarkable expressive range and considerable language skills.  When a group was transferred from the Netherlands to Scotland, they actually picked up Scottish accents when communicating. The "grunts" of Chimps are more meaningful than they might first appear.  They change vocalizations as they discover new things or experiences - just as humans linguistically do.


Many Chimps have been taught sign language to engage in more exacting, high-level communication with human beings. Read this incredible story of one Chimp who was able to discuss her miscarriage with a human caretaker.  When given another baby to raise, the Chimp understood the situation via sign language and she even taught sign language to her orphaned baby.  Think about the emotional and intellectual complexity of this situation.  Seems more like a 'person' than a goldfish to me.


The language ability reflects higher levels of conscious experience and it is by no means limited to Chimps. Scientists at Durham University in the UK have recently translated the calls of Gibbons, revealing a very complex vocabulary of vocalizations - words, in fact.


Just as with humans, this higher intelligence has its darker side.  Years ago I blogged about tribal warfare among apes. Recently, a Gorilla took offense to children imitating the behavior of the apes in a Nebraska zoo.  The ape charged the children with such force that he cracked the glass enclosure of their observation area. 


Complex reasoning by Rhesus monkeys was videoed in India last year.  After one monkey was rendered unconscious by an electrical shock at a rail station, another monkey attempted several different techniques to revive its unfortunate companion, demonstrating a high-level awareness of the situation and the ability to improvise using what was available to resuscitate the monkey.  


Such complex behavior and communicative competence might be behind Pope Francis implying that not only monkeys but other animals possess souls and can go to heaven - just like humans.


Humans and the so-called Great Apes (Gorillas, Chimps, etc.) can recognize themselves in a mirror. Most animals are incapable of this, suggesting that, as far as sight is concerned anyway, they do not have a higher-level sense of Self.  But Rhesus monkeys can overcome this limitation, suggesting that a sense of Self is present in them yet undetectable by the "mirror test."  These monkeys can be taught to recognize themselves, reflecting an enormous capacity for learning and discovery and self-appreciation that most animals do not possess or cannot physically experience.


The simple fact is, much of what we attribute as "human" such as language, ideas, emotional understanding, self-understanding, is not really all that unique to humans.  It applies to a variety of animals in our world.  The workings of our brains are not all that special, just more complex.


Human beings have created the Anthropocene.  As such, we are encroaching into (and controlling) more and more ecosystems on Planet Earth.  This makes it more difficult for Apes to avoid humanity than ever before.  So, perhaps it is well and good that we are considering the legal status and possible 'personhood' of these magnificently complex, high-reasoning, emotional creatures.  As we expand the influence of our species wouldn't it be great if we became more inclusive of the animal kingdom?  


What separates us from Great Apes is a differentiation of minor degree rather than a difference in basic nature.  By bringing them closer to us we might just develop behavioral patterns as a species that will benefit the whole ecology of the planet.  So, Apes might be teaching us the way forward.

Late Note:  Still following events regarding Chimpanzees in particular.  The latest news...

Chimpanzee lawyers argue for animal rights in a New York court.

An article on cannibal warrior Chimps.

Chimps probably possess advanced cooking skills (if they only had a way to make fire).

Friday, April 10, 2015

The War in 1865: Part Seven

The app provides this map of the general situation around Petersburg, Virginia at the time of the Battle of Five Forks.
The aftermath of the Battle of Five Forks can be seen here.  After almost a year, the Union troops breached the Confederate lines and pinned the surviving force against the city of Petersburg itself.  Isolated from what was left of the Confederacy, the Army of Northern Virginia retreated that night, also triggering the abandonment of the Confederate capital at Richmond.  The Army of the Potomac remained in hot pursuit resulting in Lee's surrender at Appomattox Court House a few days later. 
Note: This is the conclusion of my series of posts on how The Civil War Today app covered the final months of the War Between the States, which ended 150 years ago.
 
General Ulysses S. Grant reinforced General Philip Sheridan's cavalry, which had maundered through Virginia over the past several weeks.  Grant's additional infantry placed under Sheridan's command brought the Federal force up to about 27,000.  Sheridan assaulted General George Pickett's division of about 10,000 men.  The attack was unexpected by the Rebels and the Yankees tore through the Confederate lines at the important road junction of Five Forks.  As a result, half of Pickett's command was lost due to casualties and capture.

 
Having turned General Robert E. Lee's right flank after months of trench warfare, Grant ordered an immediate assault all along the Southern lines at Petersburg. Lee's thin defensive lines broke just east of Five Forks and the Union troops poured into the position fighting toward the city of Petersburg itself. General A.P. Hill attempted to rally the Confederates and mount a counterattack, but he was killed in the process.  The attack was costly for both sides with more than 3,500 Northern casualties but by the end of the day Lee's army was pinned against Petersburg itself, it's rail lines and road communications cut off from the rest of the South.


Lee ordered a retreat out of Petersburg by crossing the Appomattox River during the night.  This precipitated a withdraw from the Confederate capital of Richmond as well. Disorder reigned in the streets as President Jefferson Davis and the rest of the Confederate government fled. Rebel troops set various warehouses ablaze and portions of the city burned as thugs freely roamed the streets breaking into factories and stores.  Looting was widespread.

 
Not wasting any time, five Union corps remained hot the heels of the retreating Confederates, who were fleeing westward without any real plan other than to attempt to reorganize.  President Abraham Lincoln personally toured Richmond but returned to City Point at the request of his officers for purposes of safety.  Portions of Richmond remained chaotic as Union troops attempted to police the streets and bring order to the city. Meanwhile, Davis attempted to stitch his government together again in Danville, Virginia, vowing to continue resistance. Lee's shattered army was already cut off from Danville, however, thanks to rapid and decisive Federal pursuit.

 
Meanwhile, 12,000 Union cavalry under General James Wilson captured Selma, Alabama.  General Nathan Bedford Forrest with about 7,000 Confederate cavalry was unable to stop the Union forces.  There were thousands of Southern deserters and the small garrison in Selma was captured.  The ability and willpower to fight was fast abandoning the Rebels as the Yankees seemed successful in every endeavor.

 
On April 6, fierce hand-to-hand fighting occurred near Sailor's Creek as infantry under General Richard Ewell attempted to save more then 300 Confederate supply wagons from capture.  Both Ewell and the wagons were captured in the process, along with most of his makeshift command.  The size of the disaster can be gauged by Lee's response to the news, "My God, has the army dissolved?" With supply lines cut south toward Danville and with his wagons captured, Lee was forced to face the fact that his army had no rations at all. Most of his remaining troops had not eaten in several days. Hunger and malnutrition were now allied with the hot pursuit of Grant's forces in burdening and demoralizing Lee's once-vaunted army.

 
Grant wrote to Lee: "GENERAL: The result of the last week must convince you of the hopelessness of further resistance on the part of the Army of Northern Virginia in this struggle. I feel that it is so, and regard it as my duty to shift from myself the responsibility of any further effusion of blood by asking of you the surrender of that portion of the C. S. Army known as the Army of Northern Virginia."

 
But Lee remained defiant even after General George Custer cut off the Confederate army's retreat at Appomattox Station. 1,000 more Southern prisoners were taken in hard fighting there.  The remains of Lee's army held its ground. In response to Grant's correspondence of the previous day, Lee wrote: "To be frank, I do not think the emergency has arisen to call for the surrender of this army; but as the restoration of peace should be the sole object of all, I desired to know whether your proposals would lead to that end. I cannot, therefore, meet you with a view to surrender the Army of Northern Virginia; but as far as your proposal may affect the C.S. forces under my command, and tend to the restoration of peace, I should be pleased to meet you at 10 a. m. to-morrow, on the old stage road to Richmond, between the picket-lines of the two armies."  Lee met with his remaining generals that evening to discuss whether to surrender or to try to break out toward Lynchburg, Virginia.

 
According to the app: "Confederate War Secretary, John Breckinridge, writes to Jefferson Davis at Danville today: 'I left General Lee at Farmville yesterday morning, where he was passing the main body across the river for temporary relief. He will still try to move around toward North Carolina. There was very little firing yesterday, and I hear none to-day. No definite information as to movements of enemy from Junction toward Danville. Stonemans [Federal] advance reported yesterday to be near Liberty [NC]. Lomax reports enemy in considerable force advancing up Shenandoah Valley [toward Lynchburg]. . . The straggling has been great, and the situation is not favorable.'"

 
The app reads on April 9: "After his army failed to break through Union lines during a short battle this morning, Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrenders his army to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia.

 
"For more than a week, Lee had tried to outrun Grant to the west of Petersburg, Virginia. After a ten-month siege of the two cities, the Union forces broke through the defenses and forced Lee to retreat. The Confederates moved along the Appomattox River, with Union General Phillip Sheridan shadowing them to the south. Lee's army has little food, and they began to desert in large numbers on the retreat. When Lee arrived at Appomattox Court House, he found his path was blocked. He had no choice but to request a meeting with Grant. 

 
"They met at a house in the village of Appomattox Court House at 2:00 p.m. this afternoon. Lee was resplendent in his dress uniform and a fine sword at his side. Grant arrived wearing a simple soldier's coat that was muddy from his long ride. The great generals spoke of their service in the Mexican War, and then set about the business at hand. Grant offered generous terms. Officers could keep their side arms, and all men would be immediately released to return home. Any officers and enlisted men who owned horses could take them home, Grant said, to help put crops in the field and carry their families through the next winter. These terms, said Lee, would have 'the best possible effect upon the men,' and 'will do much toward conciliating our people.' The papers were signed and Lee prepared to return to his men.

 
"In one of the great ironies of the war, the surrender took place in the parlor of Wilmer McClean's home. McClean had once lived along the banks of Bull Run, Virginia, the site of the first major battle of the war in July 1861. His home near Manassas was used as General Beauregard's headquarters and was hit by at least one Union shell. Seeking refuge from the fighting, McClean decided to move out of the Washington-Richmond corridor to try to avoid the fighting that would surely take place there. He moved to Appomattox Court House only to see the war find him again, and come to an end in his parlor."

 
Lee's surrendered about 23,000 starving troops, which were the finest trained, motivated, and led in the Confederacy. Though Jefferson Davis vowed to continue the fight, there was little fight left in the Southern people.  They were whipped. But, then again, they had been whipped when 1865 began and still they fought, mostly in heavy skirmishes rather than full-pitched battles. Fighting continued at Mobile, Alabama for example, unaffected as yet by events in Virginia. Union forces captured Fort Blakely on April 9 in upper Mobile Bay, after capturing Spanish Fort the previous day.

The war remains the most horrific conflict in American history. According to the app, during four years with mostly primitive weapons the North suffered 390,243 dead from battle and disease.  The South's dead was a larger percentage of its comparatively smaller population, numbering 391,783. Over 780,000 Americans died in the Civil War by the time of Appomattox. 

The war, already ending in slow motion since late-1864, slowed to a crawl.  Fighting virtually ceased though officially the Federal and Confederate armies remained hostile. Almost a dozen additional surrenders and/or disbanding of troops occurred after Appomattox. These took many weeks to fully play out. The most significant were the surrenders of the commands of Generals Joseph E. Johnston (April 26) and Edmund Kirby Smith (May 26). 


Native-American General Stand Watie was the final Confederate to surrender his land-based command on June 23. Out at sea, the commerce raider CSS Shenandoah was the last entity to strike its Confederate flag. It did so near Liverpool, England on November 6, 1865. 


Even after 150 years, the war remains very much a part of American culture.  It is the most written about aspect of American history and its causes, its history, and its legacy are all still widely discussed and debated today.  The Civil War Today app affords an excellent resource for obtaining an overview of the war along with the personalities and the times in which it was fought. 


While it is by no means a complete (or even an academic) study, it is accessible and provides anyone interested in the conflict a gateway to many useful maps, articles, and correspondences from the period in which it took place.  I would rank it as one of the best apps I have purchased for my iPad so far.  It is self-evident that I highly recommend it, since I devoted this series of posts to (hopefully) demonstrating for you what the app is all about.  

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Reading George R. R. Martin

With the fifth season of HBO's Game of Thrones upon us, I decided last year to finish reading the rest of the books so far published in the A Song of Ice and Fire series.  As it turns out that was more tedious than I imagined and apparently not the best use of my time.  The TV series is likely to swerve away from the published story line to forge new ground while George R. R. Martin finishes the sixth novel at a painfully glacial pace. 

I read the first three novels in the series before HBO launched its TV adaptation. I stopped reading for several years and enjoyed the Game of Thrones' visual depiction through season four as it became available on DVD.  I kept up with what was happening as each television season aired through the plethora of online content available in news sources, fan websites, and its own wikipedia-type reference site.  Later, as I watched the DVD sets, I went back to the novels from time to time to pick up on subtleties I missed in my initial reading and to broaden my understanding of the 10 episodes presented each season. The first three books lasted most of four seasons - with some material from the fourth and fifth novels creeping in last year, which was part of my motivation to catch-up. 

Last summer at Dreamlake, I was about half way through A Feast for Crows, the fourth volume of Martin's highly successful series. I finished the 980 page fantasy novel late last fall.  It was a chore. There were all sorts of minor characters introduced for the first time, the pace of the story slowed to a crawl, the narrative scope, already enormous, exploded into something even bigger, and my favorite two major characters did not even appear in the book.  While Cersei and Brienne deservedly received, for the first time in the long series, chapters told from their perspective, it wasn't enough for me and I lost interest about 2/3 of the way in.  But I eventually trudged on through to the next, and most recent, novel around the Thanksgiving season.

A Dance With Dragons was more enjoyable simply because the two characters I was most invested in, Tyrion and Daenerys, were back.  I was intrigued and entertained by the latter's troubles and dealings with her three baby dragons, now grown unruly - so to speak.  Tyrion, a dwarf, probably the most intellectual character in the series, with a cynical sense of humor, and part of Westeros Royalty became a disguised vagabond riding a pig in a carnival act of a foreign land. It was humorous stuff and I did not stop caring for Tyrion or Dany. For me they were the best thread tying everything back to the first volume. And they both were facing immense challenges as characters. But the rest of the novel, the story of Jon Snow and Bran Stark and Samwell Tarly and all the many others was slow and dull with only flashes of the former brilliance of the series.  It seemed Martin was getting lost in the course of fleshing out his ever-winding story arc with larger events moving along at a crawl in order to deal with all these often pointless new characters.

Martin's narrative method is to tell each chapter in the, by now, 5,000 page story from a different character's point of view.  So you read their intimate thoughts (usually presented in italics), understand their private motivations that other characters don't know about and see how they percieve or misunderstand the actions of other characters around them. It is a great technique along the literary order of, say, William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying and similar works by many other authors. Martin writes these chapters expertly and they are chocked full of unexpected shocks, adventure, spectacle, passion, and intricate human entanglements.  The problem with the whole thing does not lie with the way specific chapters are written.

After several thousand pages of this I am not interested in a lot of new characters being introduced, nor do I find the slow pace of the significant action appealing.  I want some satisfying character progressions to all this instead of Martin's now infamous technique of unexpectedly killing off major characters, sometimes in droves.  I want some of the living characters to be articulated meaningfully instead of an ever-opening plot complexity where they become somewhat muted by the introduction of still more characters.

Martin is hyped as "an American Tolkien."  Well, that is overstating  the case.  Martin is like J. R. R. Tolkien in that his vast story is an interesting, surprising, sophisticated narrative.  But, he has far more grit and blood and sex and other taboo themes than Tolkien.  Comparatively, Tolkien offers far more depth, with more philosophic and metaphorical content, while simultaneously maintaining himself as a more comfortable read.

Martin also suffers from something Tolkien does not.  Martin struggles with the economy of voice in his narrative. Martin is excessive where Tolkien is erudite. While Martin is racier, more modern in his tale, sexy, twisted, impressively sophisticated, Martin makes me yawn at all his bulk.  I am satiated by him.  Tolkien never satiates, he always leaves his readers wanting more.  Martin's readers want more too, but they are already bloated on these thick books.  Tolkien leaves you satisfied yet curious for more rather than desperate for it.

But this is not the case with Martin's first three novels.  Years ago when I read A Game of Thrones I was enraptured with Westeros, Martin's fantasy world.  His writing style is blunt, sometimes harsh, yet poetic and it appealed to me. The story that unfolds is rich, the world complex and believable and yet, the fantastic elements of the novel are accessible and feel integrated, not there just to be flashy.  I read the book on the recommendation of a friend, unknowingly, unaware of spoilers and I gasped not once but several times. It was not innovative writing but there were several audacious, wonderfully written "Oh My God!" moments and I wanted more.

A Clash of Kings did not disappoint.  I read it with vigor and excitement.  This was a rich tapestry as several new major characters were introduced to replace the narrative space once inhabited by major and minor characters that had died in the first book of this expansive tale.  The second novel was highlighted by events leading up to and including the fantastic Battle of Blackwater in which Tyrion distinguished himself in military strategy and battle bravery though his nose was cut off.  Well, they didn't cut off his nose in the HBO series - one of many differences between the novels and the hit TV series. Instead, he wears a scar on his face. This is just one of many minor differences in detail that began to emerge between the written word and the visual presentation.

A Storm of Swords was the best novel so far in the series.  I found myself rereading much of it, especially referring back to sections of it as I became exposed to the DVDs of the fourth TV season.  The departure from Martin's narrative remained minor but nevertheless greater than in the first two novels. The fourth season even ventured beyond A Storm of Swords into the volumes I have just completed in the past year.  At any rate, it's 1,100 pages seemed to breeze by, Martin was the master of his story and in full command of his craft.

Not so with these more recent two novels, which were often slow, dreary slugs through a perpetually opening narrative. Both volumes were disappointments for me, as apparently they were for many other fans more into Westeros than I am. The introduction of numerous minor characters and the meandering nature of the plot hopelessly dissipated the energy and drive that Martin had in the first three novels. As a reader, I no longer felt the story was progressing, the main characters became frozen in their development.  We had action without purpose beyond forcing me to accept more narrative weight.

Martin chose to split his narrative much as Tolkien did in The Two Towers.  Only where Tolkien used the technique to create special dramatic tension, Martin seemed to just stagger along accumulating more characters without powerful effect. 1000-plus pages is a lot to read of a story in which your favorite characters are not around and nothing of significance happens. There were no "Oh my God!" moments. Ugh. When my favorites returned in A Dance With Dragons I found the story was lacking action or, rather, seeping energy into minutia. It was entertaining in places and there was certainly plenty happening but I was a bit frustrated with his world and what he was doing, or rather doing in slow motion, to it.

Still, I am now caught up with what is obviously a major force in fantasy fiction today, with millions of books sold and one of the most prestigious shows HBO offers, garnering awards and critical acclaim along with a huge and devoted TV following.  It is popular, mostly well-told (at least in the first three novels), tough and sexy in places, epic and sad and filled with treachery in other aspects.  And there are dragons. Three babies are growing up and doing things beyond their "master's" control.  Dragons might make the best fantasy stories we have, dating back to the Epic of Gilgamesh.

So now, with much anticipation, the TV series named after the first novel premieres for its fifth season.  It is widely expected that, seeing how Martin is taking forever to write the next volume(s) for Ice and Fire, the TV narrative will drift away from the novels.  It makes me wonder how much of the two novels I struggled to finish will even be used in the TV series. I wish them well, I enjoy the TV series. And I hope Martin's next installment actually lives up to the promise of its earlier volumes. Perhaps he will find his stride again following his 2,000 page stumble, fully focus on the primary characters, beef-up the action, and tie together some of these many loose ends he has created instead of just killing characters off.  Be that as it may, he is one of the few fantasy authors I consider worth reading as a "break" from Tolkien, though certainly there is no substitute for Middle Earth to be found in the mighty audaciousness of Westeros.

Late Note: The Atlantic reports that Season Five "transcends the failings of the books."  Seems their assessment agrees with my experience of reading the last two novels. 

Friday, April 3, 2015

The Politics of Reincarnation

In the 1950's The People's Republic of China implemented a policy of military and cultural aggression toward traditional Tibetan culture.  This resulted in the exile of the Dalai Lama, the accepted leader of the Tibetan people, in 1959.  Since then China has expressed nothing but antagonism for the Dalai Lama

China's intent is to commit "cultural genocide" against the Tibetan people - essentially to erase established cultural norms and to integrate Tibet into greater communist Chinese culture. The 14th Dalai Lama has always spoken carefully but firmly about these facts and pleaded for international attention to his country's and his culture's plight.  

Of course, China is a global leader with the world's fastest growing economy and a big military player.  Compared to the traditionally peaceful people of Tibet, China has immense power and control.  The so-called "free Tibet" movement may be "right" but it does not have the political might to prove it. So China's oppression continues and this ultimately culminates with the Dalai Lama himself.

China and the Dalai Lama both understand that the future of Tibetan culture rests with who controls the next Dalai Lama. By controlling the position itself, China's intent to "own" Tibetan culture will be ensured.  Conversely, as long as the Dalai Lama remains outside the physical control of China, then Tibet has a meaningful culture unfettered by Chinese aims and ambitions and will remain as it is today - a culture in exile but a culture that is nevertheless independent.

Traditionally, the Dalai Lama is a figurehead reincarnated according to custom inside Tibet. But, since China now controls Tibet and controls all the Buddhist monasteries within Tibet, a reincarnated Dalai Lama means a Chinese controlled Dalai Lama.  The political and cultural implications of this are obvious - it would be a blow to the Free Tibet movement.

For these reasons the Dalai Lama has made the reincarnation of the 15th Dalai Lama a matter of public discourse throughout the 21st century.  A decade ago he suggested the next Dalai Lama could be a woman.  He has always been forced toward the fact that, after his death, there could be two Dalai Lama's - one appointed in by traditions of the Tibetan people and another selected by China in order to attempt to control the cultural position. This would obviously be an almost unprecedented historical occurrence.

So, recently the Dalai Lama's perceptive on his reincarnation has evolved and he has suggested that he might not reincarnate at all - which is also an unprecedented thing. China, desiring to leverage the reincarnation (communist China does not actually recognize reincarnation, this is strictly a political matter for them), is adamantly opposed to this

So we have seen a great deal of maneuvering on both sides in recent months.  Who will control this ritual of reincarnation? China says, since it controls Tibet, it will control who will be the next Dalai Lama. China has aggressively responded to the suggestion that this is the last Dalai Lama but attacking His Holiness' influence and relevance. China accuses the Dalai Lama of "profaning" Buddhism with his suggestion that he can control his own reincarnation.

I find this situation fascinating and absurd.  The Dalai Lama, seeing the political and cultural stakes, might opt out of continuing to be the leader of his people altogether, thereby robbing China of its potential to control the position of leadership.  The Chinese government, officially atheistic and tangibly antagonistic toward Tibetan culture, is openly discussing the concept of reincarnation on the public stage.

Clearly, what we have here is the politicization of  a religious perspective.  Unfortunately, it is the Dalai Lama who is in the bind here.  China will see that the 15th Dalai Lama is ritualistically selected through a Buddhism monastery system it controls, or at least regulates.  The political stakes are too high and the potential to place a tighter grip on Tibetan culture is too great for China to do otherwise.

The Dalai Lama, on the other hand, has the choice to reincarnate and create a situation where there are two simultaneous Dalai Lama's each make claims to authority - or to cease his reincarnation and cede to China the ability to recognize a "fake" Dalai Lama.  Either way, we are going to have a fake Dalai Lama sometime in the next few decades. The question is will the "real" Dalai Lama decide to contend with this situation by creating a duality of validity claims.  

I have no idea which result would be best for the Tibetan people.  I can only sit back and witness this rather unique world event unfold and trust that the wisdom of His Holiness will direct him to take the best course.  He is already the most unique of all world leaders.  Not for his compassion and understanding, nor due to his charisma and belief system. He is unique because he is leading a nation and a culture and a people without a homeland.  

Tibetan culture is a distinct and living force in the world.  It is respected by people all over the planet. And yet there is no physical turf for it anymore. China has disrupted the geographic origins of Tibetan Buddhism.  The Dalai Lama is a leader without a geography, a national leader without a country.  If you consider that for a moment, maybe that fact in and of itself is showing humanity the way...to a mental space where it is possible to, in the words of John Lennon, "imagine there's no countries, it isn't hard to do, nothing to kill or die for..." 

Perhaps the Dalai Lama's most profound teaching is that geography has little spiritual value in the seat of the heart. This is a highly relevant insight. Imagine what could happen if these values held by such a significant leader were applied to the peoples of the Middle East or Africa or the Ukraine or even America.  It would strike a great blow for peace because the wars for our lands would dissolve in favor of the mutual understanding of the heart.  Yeah, humanity is a long way from that day, if it ever comes. But for the Dalai Lama it is the only path that makes any sense at all even to the point of embracing the cessation of his own being and his own line of power. 

Note: I have blogged about the Dalai Lama before. I met His Holiness back in the late 1980's and have followed his life with interest ever since.

Late Note: A few days after this post China announced that all Tibetan monks and nuns will be "tested for patriotism" and that monasteries will be required to meet certain national standards.  This is obviously a move to allow the monastery system to continue under tighter central controls.