It was a long-awaited and wonderful opportunity for those of us from Dharmagiri to be able to attend this conference together immediately following our vision dialogue meeting and annual AGM. We were all very grateful to Kittisaro and Thanissara for making this possible and to friends in Botswana for making their home available for us to stay in during the conference. So when, a couple of days before the conference was due to begin, we heard that the Dalai Lama would not be coming to the conference due to his exhaustion and concerns about his health, we were all sorely disappointed, although naturally supportive of his taking care of his health. Questions about whether this was the result of Chinese pressure on the Botswana government came to mind.
A surprise awaited us when the conference opened with a videoed talk by the Dalai Lama. He encouraged us to go ahead with the conference without him, assuring us that his spirit and mind were very eager about this dialogue, even though his body did not agree! He emphasized his apology especially in light of the genuine interest shown by Botswana President Khama in his visit and despite some real difficulties, and added that he considered the situation to be merely a postponement of his visit. The following day an article appeared on the front page of the Botswana Guardian newspaper quoting President Khama as revealing that China had indeed pressured Botswana, threatening to recall their ambassador and to engage other African states to isolate Botswana. Botswana however, would welcome a visit from the Dalai Lama at any time.
“The oneness of 7 billion human beings.” the Dalai Lama.
In his talk, the Dalai Lama noted that he has been promoting the oneness of the world’s seven billion human beings and believes that the African philosophy of Botho/Ubuntu has great potential to contribute to realizing this oneness. The problems facing humanity currently are those of differences in nationality, religious faith, and race and the only remedy for these problems is a greater sense of oneness among human beings. He regards humanity as becoming more mature as indicated by an increased desire for harmony and peace than was the case in the early 20th century where violence and war were simply accepted as part of life. He attributed current violence to be the result of the past century’s outdated way of thinking about solving problems through force. He emphasized that peace has to come through inner peace, respect for others, and mutually agreed solutions. We are now moving towards solving problems of disagreement (that will always be there) in a human way through dialogue and referred to the 21st century as the ‘Century of Dialogue’. He encouraged our dialogue in Botswana by commenting that sometimes smaller nations have greater potential to create peace.
In these reflections about the conference, I would like to focus on three main areas of the dialogue: firstly, what is Botho/Ubuntu?; secondly, the ethical dimension: how do we rescue Botho/Ubuntu from extinction?; and thirdly, what does evidence from research in neuroscience tell us about Botho/Ubuntu in terms of how human groups form and how trauma impacts the brain and the biological processes that underlie empathy, compassion and recovery?
What is Botho/Ubuntu?
“I am because of you.” Prof. Michael Onyebuchi Eze
Botho is a Sotho-Tswana word meaning humanity, humaneness, kindness, compassion, sharing, humility, mutual respect and responsibility, interconnectedness, harmony – a universal bond that connects all of humanity. Ubuntu is a word in the Nguni languages which has the same meaning.
The philosophy of Botho/Ubuntu comes from indigenous African religious beliefs and practices where all of life, nature, spirit, and Creator, are inter-related, inter-connected, and inter-dependent. Botho/Ubuntu applies intergenerationally and also inter-species-ally. The self emerges from the relationship with others, other life forms, the natural environment, ancestors and the spirit world, and is healthy when this relationship is harmonious. This implies an ethic of reciprocity: all is one and what is done to one, is done to all. Perhaps Botho/Ubuntu is best expressed in English by the term coined by Thich Nhat Hanh: Interbeing.
Botho/Ubuntu has been adopted as one of Botswana’s five national principles (the others are democracy, development, self-reliance, and unity) and it also underlies the South African constitution and is seen in the country’s coat of arms which depicts two Khoisan rock art human figures facing each other and joined in unity. The Khoisan language motto means “people who are different coming together”. It is surely also reflected in the languages, national symbols and principles of other African countries as well.
At the conference, one of the key phrases expressing Botho/Ubuntu was discussed by many of the speakers at the conference: motho ke motho ka batho. Motho means a person (or, at a deeper level, one who has emerged from the great unknown). Ke means is; ka means by means of, with, or through, and batho means people (plural of motho). So – a person is a person by means of or with or through people. There is a quote from Archbishop Desmond Tutu that expresses this beautifully:
A person is a person through other persons. None of us comes into the world fully formed. We would not know how to think, or walk, or speak, or behave as human beings unless we learned it from other human beings. We need other human beings in order to be human. (Tutu, 2004:25).
Another version of this phrase that was discussed at the conference is: ‘I am because we are’. Questions that came up in relation to this phrase were: who is the ‘I’ and who is the ‘we’ here? What is the notion of personal subjectivity in the traditional African worldview? Michael Eze, who teaches African political theory at the University of Amsterdam, emphasized the performative aspect of this subjectivity summing this up as: “every encounter is a recreation of the self” and “we are each others’ creators” – “we are like small gods to each other”. Michael referred to the work of John Mbiti, teacher and writer on African philosophy and religion, who argues that this phrase should be translated as I am because you are rather than ‘we’ because ‘you’ is more inclusive and can refer to anyone, whereas ‘we’ tends to denote and amplify group identification. Michael also noted that Botho/Ubuntu implies a positive interpretation of the other’s condition and intention and that difference is seen as a gift rather than a threat. Through dialogue we come to understand each other and this understanding leads to a noble-mindedness.
Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, who holds the Chair in Historical Trauma and
Transformation at Stellenbosch University, described Botho/Ubuntu as expressing a state of being in which there is awareness that my subjectivity depends on being recognized and witnessed by others – that my existence is confirmed through relationship with others. She brought in the Zulu greeting sawubona meaning ‘I see you’ or ‘I acknowledge your existence’ as an example of how Botho/Ubuntu is embodied in African languages. The reply ngikhona means ‘I am here’ – an affirmation of existence. A comparison with the English greetings ‘hello’ which conveys little meaning, or ‘good morning’ which conveys a good wish, reveals an absence of substance in common greetings in the English language.
Pumla pointed out that Botho/Ubuntu goes beyond mutual existential recognition to include putting oneself in the other’s shoes – sensing what is going on in the heart and mind of the other – and in this way illustrating the inextricable interwovenness between us. She encouraged us to explore the notion of Botho/Ubuntu through sayings and meanings that are embodied in African languages as well as through the processes of forgiveness that took place during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Forgiveness, she said, involves dropping our denials and justifications and opening ourselves to feel the pain of the other and the shame of having inflicted that pain. Remorse is the key that opens the door to forgiveness and healing. The web of our interconnectedness can be ripped apart through violence and trauma and only repaired through reconnection by means of acknowledging each others’ experience – bringing us back into harmony with each other.
Pumla however, also pointed out that many young people in South Africa find it difficult to connect with Botho/Ubuntu and don’t feel much intergenerational connection. Augustine, a young man from Kenya on the youth panel, commented that young people in modern Africa are encouraged to ‘get a good life for yourself’ and are seldom challenged to think about others. But some young people at the conference indicated that they were working on developing a Botho-quotient to raise awareness about the inadequacy of intelligence without Botho. Justine, on the youth panel from Namibia, said that Ubuntu is being able to see each other as human through all the layers of our various identities.
Several other speakers commented on the commercialization of the term ‘Ubuntu’ as seen in the name of bottled drinks, security company names, PC operating systems, restaurant names, etc. – where it is used as a feel-good term. While the term has become popularized, its real meaning is being lost in superficiality.
Mandaza Kandemwa, spirit medium and medicine man from Zimbabwe, gave a powerful and moving talk, saying that when he looks through the eyes of Ubuntu, he sees no hierarchies, no VIPs, and no “nobodies” – as required by the spirit of oneness. Ubuntu is not a concept to be studied but is a way of being: you become Ubuntu. We need to understand Ubuntu through our hearts. Humanity needs healing from conflicts, separation, and wanting to own and control everything. He asked: “where are the trees, birds, wild animals, waters, the children who are born as wisdom keepers, in this conference?”, recommending that future Ubuntu conferences be held in nature and include the children. He pointed us back to our own minds to find the source of war, conflict, and corruption, rather than accusing political and business leaders out there. In order to heal, our minds need to become like the ocean that refuses no river. We first need to get rid of the boundaries in our minds and heal the bleeding wounds there. Then we can dispense with passports and boundaries and live in one world on one earth. We need to be the temple of the great spirit that wants us to have Ubuntu. Instead we are like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle scattered everywhere. There is no race or culture that has not been abused or controlled by another. Spirit is saying “don’t live in that yesteryear but make a new history. Don’t leave this world in chaos.”
With Africa modernizing rapidly, there is a sense of a loss of community, African identity and the relational richness of Botho/Ubuntu in traditional African ways of life. Concern was expressed about Botho/Ubuntu being reduced to a mere formality, upheld in public and civic forums but losing influence in daily social interactions and becoming less of a lived reality. Africa still remains deeply colonized – its philosophical ideas are marginalized and its own stories remain untaught at schools.
This reminded me of my own experience as a white child at school in SA studying English literature. While much inspired by it, it remained alien to my own lived experience of the seasons, colours, earth and skies, people, cultures and images around me. Afrikaans literature and poetry were for me much more intimate in reflecting my own experience. It is so important that children hear the stories of their own experience, environment and culture so that they can feel included and part of the way of life they are born into. As Thupten Jinpa, the Dalai Lama’s interpreter, pointed out, there is a need for the building of a pan-African identity based on a shared philosophy and societal values that can transcend the impact and trauma of the colonial mentality. As he said: “if you don’t tell your story, someone else will. Africa needs to know and own its own story”.
Several speakers pointed out that Botho/Ubuntu implies inclusivity – that in traditional African communities, strangers were always welcomed. But the question was also raised about how many of these communities are in fact diverse, and whether these communities actively practice diversity beyond the welcoming of occasional strangers? A further question was raised about some of the more oppressive aspects of traditional culture and the fear of being different, or of exploring beyond the boundaries of traditions. The issue of wars and conflict between nations and groups in Africa was also raised – how do we reconcile these with the philosophy of Botho/Ubuntu?
The Ethical Dimension: How do we rescue Botho/Ubuntu from extinction?
“If you don’t tell your story, someone else will. Africa needs to know and own its own story”. — Thupten Jinpa
While Africa is rapidly modernizing and adopting the individualist values of the West, the individualism in Western societies is resulting in serious problems of atomization and alienation – from other humans, other life forms, and the earth itself. Family and community structures are breaking up, exploitation of other species, the earth and seas is rampant, communication between people is mediated through technology, and levels of anxiety, depression and other mental problems are unprecedented. Thupten Jinpa pointed out that there are hardly any communal values left in the current Eurocentric ethical understanding. It is as if we have become blind to our interdependence which, ironically, science is simultaneously revealing to be the fundamental nature of reality itself.
In his book A Fearless Heart, Thupten Jinpa comments: “To the naive eye of someone who grew up in a poorer part of the world, at first glance, people in the West seem more confident, more efficient, and better able to take care of themselves and enjoy life.” But he goes on to point out that all is not as it seems. People neglect “their basic needs for sleep, nutrition, and exercise, and drive themselves harder and harder at work because they don’t know how else to find validation as human beings. People lash out or shut down when they are criticized, because they are all too ready to believe anything bad about themselves, but at the same time they can’t stand to hear anything bad about themselves because they lack a sense of self-worth to balance it. …… People feel anxious and depressed and desperate and they don’t know what to do – and they blame and berate themselves for this too.”
The economic system of Western capitalism with its inexorable drive for increasing growth and profit is impacting the delicate balance of our ecosystem, littering the planet, oceans and atmosphere, and creating waves of alarm about our very survival. Perhaps it is time to acknowledge that we have lost our way and return to consult with our elders.
Botho/Ubuntu may offer a philosophical and ethical model that could help us to reconnect with a sense of oneness and wholeness and lead us back to a feeling of belonging and caring for each other, our environment, and the great mystery of our existence. Pumla emphasized that Botho/Ubuntu needs to be placed in the context of large current global ethical dialogues and debates. She noted that it is important to start these dialogues without any specified goals or agendas, so that people can simply come together to listen to each other and meet each other at the soul level where we can re-establish the connection that we have lost with each other.
Many speakers at the conference advocated dialogue as a beginning to finding a way forward, in keeping with the spirit of the Dalai Lama naming the 21st century as the century of dialogue. Lily Mafela, professor of History and History Education at the University of Botswana, suggested that dialogue about Botho/Ubuntu is needed in small communities as well as at national and transnational levels. National leaders as well as leaders of the African Union need to be engaged to make these dialogues a priority and to budget for them with the goal of placing Botho/Ubuntu at the heart of government policy.
The question is: can we find the common ground where we can agree about common values? Thupten Jinpa suggested the question: “what do we want for our children?” as a way of revealing these universal values. How do we expand our tolerance and appreciation of differences among us so that our differences don’t trigger threat responses? Can we redefine “self-interest” to include our interdependence and communal values? How do we embody these values in institutions so that they become the norm and not remain only an aspiration?
What does evidence from neuroscience tell us about Botho/Ubuntu?
- Uri Hasson, Professor at the Psychology Department and the Neuroscience Institute
at Princeton University, demonstrated very graphically with his slides how our brains become synchronized through sound when we are communicating: the same areas of our brains are activated as we speak and listen. We literally become physically interconnected in the sense that the activity of our brains becomes synchronized when we communicate.
- All is well when we are on common ground and agree about values, but what about forces that polarize us? We can’t say that all values are equal while also preserving differences between us. For example, we may accept the value of freedom, but for some this may mean a society with guns while for others it may mean a society with no guns. These two can’t both be accepted as of equal value and reconciled.
- How do we break down the boundaries between ‘us’ and ‘them’ and open ourselves to new encounters beyond our in-group? This may involve a recreation of the self for a new humanity where the dynamic changes to accepting the other as different but also equal. This means finding a way to increase our capacity for empathy.
- Two ways for Botho/Ubuntu to become a reality in society are 1) seeing the benefits of it as being in my self-interest and 2) that it becomes institutionalized in the basic structures of governance.
- Carsten De Dreu, Professor of Psychology at Leiden University and also affiliated
with the Center for Experimental Economics and Political Decision Making at the University of Amsterdam, provided three reasons that people live and function in groups: to cooperate, to care for each other; and to compete against other groups both to aggressively exploit them for resources, and to defend our group against such exploitation by other groups.
- Experiments show that the neuropeptide oxytocin is involved in care and cooperation within groups, but not between groups. It is also involved in aggressive defence of our own group against outside threat but is not involved in aggressive exploitation of other groups. The two main conclusions of these experiments are: 1) we are biologically prepared to serve our own groups and 2) serving our own group creates deprivation and discrimination in out-groups so that they feel a sense of threat which leads to conflict.
- Group formation is based on similarity, proximity, and common fate. Where all three apply, a tightly bonded group is formed. So can we achieve peaceful coexistence with other groups that are not similar, are not in proximity to us, and with whom we don’t share a common fate?
- In modern life in the context of globalization we may be beginning to recognize all other humans as similar, to feel proximity in relation to our all occupying the same planet, and to perceive our common fate in terms of planetary conditions such as climate change. If so, our biology could support the development of a sense of oneness and unity among all human beings.
- Rebecca Shansky, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Northeastern University in
Boston, addressed the questions of how trauma impacts the brain and which biological processes underlie empathy, compassion and recovery in her presentation.
- Stress and trauma impact two main areas of the brain: the more recently evolved prefrontal cortex (PFC), involved in the higher cognitive functions, personality, decision making, and regulation of social behaviour; and the older amygdala involved in emotional reactions such as fight, flight or freeze and emotional memory.
- Stress and trauma affect the neuroplasticity of these two areas. PFC neurons shrink and synapses become more rigid, affecting cognition and decision-making and resulting in a loss of the ability to regulate emotion and social behaviour. In contrast, amygdala neurons grow resulting in stronger fight, flight, or freeze responses. The good news is that given recent findings in relation to neuroplasticity, it is possible to create new associations to override neural trauma patterns.
- Experiments with rodents suggest that there are differences in male and female responses to fear, and in male and female comforting behaviours.
- In further experiments designed to determine whether rats understand when others are distressed and whether they then help each other, it was found that rats only help others if they have lived with them previously, even if they are a different kind of rat. However, if given anti-depressants, there is no empathic response. Since anti-depressants suppress amygdala activity more than PFC activity, this suggests that empathy is a very basic, preconscious and prerational response.
What do these findings mean in relation to Botho/Ubuntu?
- Through brain synchronization when we communicate, we are already demonstrably interconnected.
- We need to find out what the values are that we hold in common, so that we can strengthen the sense of our interconnection and interdependence.
- We need to clarify how these communally held values support our self-interest and how we can institutionalize these values in our structures of governance.
- We seem to be biologically prepared to bond with and defend our in-group based on similarity, proximity and a common fate. If we are to achieve a greater sense of interconnection and oneness beyond our in-group, we need to find ways to break down the boundaries between ‘us’ and ‘them’ and to develop our capacity for empathy and bonding beyond our own groups.
- Empathic response appears to be more related to conditioning (previous living together) than physical similarity which suggests that greater familiarity with one another strengthens our empathy for each other.
- We need to address the causes of increasing levels of depression in modern societies and find alternatives to anti-depressants as a remedy if we are to successfully cultivate our capacity for empathy.
- Given neuroplasticity, the effects of stress and trauma suffered through colonial oppression may be alleviated through the creation of new associations. This highlights the importance of creating a new narrative for ourselves: defining who we are as Africans, what kind of society is it is that we want to create for ourselves, and what it is that we have to contribute to alleviating the current world predicament.
Let us begin these dialogues at all levels of our society: what is it in the Botho/Ubuntu way of being that we can bring into modern life and how do we do this in the contexts of our governance, education, economic, justice, and spiritual institutions? Can we motivate our governments and the African Union to support these dialogues?
Secular mindfulness-based training programs are being used in multiple contexts in society and are contributing not only to relieving the stresses of modern life but also to increasing awareness of the need for radical change to arrive at a more sustainable way of life.
A newer Stanford-based Compassion Cultivation Training has been developed by a team headed by Geshe Thupten Jinpa and began running trainings in January 2011. This could be a model that could be introduced and adapted to incorporate Botho/Ubuntu principles in offering this training at least initially in Africa. As part of Dharmagiri’s vision of exploring “Afro-Dharma”, it is our intention to develop a training program along these lines following dialogue-based retreats as encouraged by this Botho/Ubuntu conference. Anyone interested in participating in initial exploratory conversations about this, please do get in touch with us!!
Thupten Jinpa (2015). A Fearless Heart. Why Compassion is the Key to Greater Wellbeing. London: Piatkus.
Tutu, Desmond (2004). God has a Dream: A Vision of Hope for our Times. New York: Doubleday.