When I biked to the Jefferson Memorial yesterday, I was struck by the words etched on the upper rim of the structure, encircling Jefferson like a halo: “I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against all forms of tyranny over the mind of man.”
There are many forms of tyranny. There’s the tyranny so pervasive and subtle that Jefferson likely didn’t have the slightest thought that he was enacting it when he wrote “the mind of man” – the tyranny of patriarchy. There’s tyranny in the form of slavery, of social structures that maintain an unequal distribution of resources and access to education, and of course the tyranny of those despots who wave their wands of destruction over the homes and hearts of their brethren.
But are these examples of tyranny over our minds? To me it seems like these are forms of external tyranny. Of course, when one’s body is oppressed and one’s environment perverted, it is very difficult to have freedom and peace of mind. Even so, I recall a story told by H.H. the Dalai Lama of a monk who had escaped Tibet after being imprisoned there for decades. He reflected, “The thing that I was most afraid of was that I would lose compassion for my captors.”
This is a clear example of a person whose mind is liberated from the most deeply-rooted form of tyranny over the mind of people. This is the tyranny of self-centeredness.
Panchen Lama I referred to this tyrant as “the monstrous demon of selfishness.” With repeated introspective observation, those words are, if anything, revealed to be an understatement.
This is the demon who oppressed me under the sun’s terrible rays with anger as I sat for hours in traffic – ignoring the hundreds of others surrounding me, all in the exact same position as myself, many of whom likely had more important engagements to make.
This is the demon who distracts me every time I get involved in a constructive project, spinning me away from my object of focus towards any whim whose sweet scent it passes.
This is the demon who runs circles in my mind, ruminating about lost loves I never had and grudges that arose from simple mis-perceptions.
And when I look it straight on and examine its very nature, I can see with total clarity that this is the demon that motivates each and every form of external tyranny, none excepted. This demon told people that slavery was good and necessary This demon told Hitler of inferior races that must be eliminated. To this day, this demon tells the world that half the human race is less worthy the other.
To this day, this demon whispers to us that in war killing is justified and that, well anyway, there aren’t any other options.
This tyrant of self-centeredness is what all sages of the past have sworn hostility against. Thus, so will I, today and all days forward until it is utterly vanquished.