Over the past several months our nation has lost two champions of justice and equality. The passing of Congressman John Lewis and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg have been occasions to reflect on the nature of leadership and what it means to serve others. Throughout their lives, these courageous individuals faced tremendous challenges, yet put aside self-interest and demonstrated by their actions a nobility of spirit that was far greater than themselves. They understood that true leadership was about service to and concern for the welfare of others.
Justice Ginsburg believed that her legacy was, “To make life a little better for people less fortunate than you, that's what I think a meaningful life is. One lives not just for oneself but for one's community." Congressman Lewis echoed similar thoughts by saying, “Freedom is not a state; it is an act. It is not some enchanted garden perched high on a distant plateau where we can finally sit down and rest. Freedom is the continuous action we all must take, and each generation must do its part to create an even more fair, more just society.” They believed that one’s conduct matters and it is what determines our collective future.
However, it seems like the kind of leadership that both Congressman Lewis and Justice Ginsburg demonstrated throughout their long lives is in short supply these days. We have leaders today who are self-serving and lack genuine concern for the people in their care or for our collective welfare. This willful lack of leadership has resulted in over 200,000 deaths to COVID-19 and has inflamed racial tensions and civil unrest in our society.
Shakyamuni Buddha taught at length about the radical equality of all people and criticized the arbitrary nature of class and status. He taught that nobility was not a matter of one’s birth but rather a matter of one’s actions. In the Suttanipāta the Buddha says:
One is not a brahmin by birth,
Nor by birth a non-brahmin.
By action one become a brahmin,
By action one become a non-brahmin.
One becomes a farmer by action,
By action one becomes a craftsmen.
One becomes a merchant by action,
By action one becomes a servant.
One becomes a thief by action,
By action one becomes a soldier.
One becomes a priest by action,
By action one becomes a king.
The Buddha understood that true leadership is based on one’s actions and conduct. A true leader avoids the unwholesome and does what is wholesome in ensuring the welfare of those within their care.
A true leader demonstrates nobility by shutting up and listening. A true leader deeply hears the pain of others and works to relieve their suffering. A true leader relies on the advice of wise counsel and makes decisions based on facts. A true leader speaks honestly with a mind of loving-kindness. A true leader offers protection, shelter, and safety equally to all people. A true leader loses themselves in service to others.
Our altar reflects this teaching of nobility through one’s actions. Have you ever noticed the pair of hanging ornaments flanking the image of Amida Buddha? These ornaments are called Sumi Yōraku and they are derived from jewelry worn around the neck and body of nobles in ancient India. The pair of Yōraku which hang from the corners of the central altar represent the attainment of nobility through noble deeds.
As we consider these qualities of leadership, we must reflect on our actions and the actions of our current leaders. Both Justice Ginsburg and Congressman Lewis had humble beginnings but became true leaders through their noble actions. Can we demonstrate the same sense of nobility in our own lives and hold our leaders to the same standard? We have an opportunity to do so in the upcoming election. This is how we should evaluate good leadership.
Namo Amida Butsu.