Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Lincoln was a buddha

by Tom Armstrong

Writing in 1880, John Caird, looking back at the man's life, wrote these eloquent summarizing words
…[My overall impression] is that of a man who combined with intellectual originality other and not less essential elements of greatness, such as magnanimity and moral elevation of nature, superiority to vulgar passions, and absorption of mind with larger objects, such as rendered him absolutely insensible to personal ambition, also self-reliance and strength of will – the confidence that comes from consciousness of power and resource – the quiet, patient, unflinching resolution which wavers not from its purpose in the face of dangers and difficulties that baffle or wear out men of meaner mould. Along with these, we must ascribe to him other qualities not always or often combined with them, such as sweetness, gentleness, quickness and width of sympathy.
Caird's words are about Gautama Buddha, but can very much be said of Abraham Lincoln, as well – a person no less extraordinary and no less different from the people all about him such that his impact was astonishing. Events, time and place all had overwhelming influence in making Buddha Gautama and Abraham Lincoln immortal persons. But both had buddhaseeds sprouting when they were children. And both acted in ways that baffle ordinary men.

Buddha Gautama is a whole other story. He decided to try to let others in on what propelled him. Abraham Lincoln's strange life's journey led him to center stage during America's most trying time, just at that pivotal moment when the baton of the presidency needed to be passed … to that rare diamond, a buddha.

Caird's assessment is interesting in that he didn't apprehend Gautama Buddha as being a buddha. His opinion was what he came to know of Guatama as a man, from what documents he read, compared to ordinary men. Likewise, persons who knew Abraham Lincoln, most all of whom appraised him as an astonishing human being, did not have the wherewithal to assess his high spiritual attainment directly.

Young Mr. Lincoln

The shorthand for Lincoln's boyhood days are that his mother died when he was quite young, but, happily, a wonderful, loving stepmother took her place in his life; he lived in a log cabin; he was naturally athletic, but he was inclined to turn his head toward the pages of a book; and in all ways, even as a youngster, he was honest and wholesome.

All of the above is true. What is not understood is that it is true to an outrageous extreme. Furthermore, it is not understood, except by scholars, that Lincoln was very much not the pastoral, ah-shucks Huckleberry of legend and as portrayed in old movies, but was instead an outlandish alien freakazoid! If he had had a single eye in the middle of his forehead, pointy ears and the ability to fly he would have been a more natural citizen of placid rural Indiana & Illinois than the gawky, two-eyed, big-eared, non-flying Abe Lincoln reality who was born in 1809 and died from an assassin's bullet.

Rural Indiana and Illinois of the 1810s and 20s was the edge of the wild, uncivilized West. The land was rustic and primal as were the isolated homesteading inhabitants. Boys were supposed to be especially ornery and mean and scarred up and smelly. They would torture animals and torture each other and had distain for learning much more than how to shoe a horse or slaughter a pig. Constant hard physical labor was required of all members of a family to stave off death in the boggy, cold, isolated areas where Lincoln grew up. Poisoned milk killed Lincoln's mother, his maternal grandparents and others. A harsh winter killed scores of neighbors – some found only after the spring thaw.

One thing remembered by many who knew him as a small child was his love of animals. One schoolmate remembered that he quite seriously lectured others about ants' right to life; another, that he broke up a gang of 'mates that were torturing terrapin turtles for entertainment and that he composed essays against cruelty toward animals on multiple occasions.

Though hunting was one of the few pleasures for men and boys of the rural Midwest, Lincoln would not hunt. And though his farming background could have been of great advantage to him politically, he didn't speak of it – most probably since memories of it were admixed with the pain of having been hired out by his father to help slaughter pigs.

William Lee Miller, author of the book “Lincoln's Virtues” wrote “Throughout the life of that extraordinary hired hand whose name was Abraham Lincoln, there would be a recurrent pattern: an initial impression of the boy or the lad or the man, derived from externals and superficialities, would then be overthrown by the shock of recognition of this intellectual power.” Miller, it seems to me, has it mostly right, but from (my interpretation of) the words of others in his book and other books [and of these, most-especially William Herndon's “The Hidden Lincoln”] it is not “intellectual power” that throws people for a loop – rather it's Lincoln's emptiness of guile and ineffable Buddha glow that might find expression through his intellect, but might also shine from his compassion, humanity or just the way he held an ax.

A Religious Man

Mary Todd Lincoln said, after her husband's death, “He never joined a church; but still, as I believe, he was a religious man by nature.”

As a young man Lincoln would engage in discussions advocating a “doctrine of necessity,” that opposed unfettered free will. I think this is very much a young person's insight into the interconnectedness of all things and beings and the chain of causes that seem to determine all events. A less magnificent person than Lincoln is likely to develop from this beginning, a religious sensibility grounded in scientism. Compassion toward others then becomes just a wildly romantic indulgence. But Lincoln, above everything was vividly compassionate and it was through this lens that he increasingly sought wisdom.
The beauty of his character was its entire simplicity. … True to nature, true to himself, he was true to everybody and everything about and around him. When he was ignorant on any subject, no matter how simple it might make him appear he was always willing to acknowledge it. His whole aim in life was to be true to himself and being true to himself he would be false to no one. – Joshua Speed, one of Lincoln's closest friends.
Speed's statement is as clarion a depiction of authenticity as you might find. Authenticity is a requirement for spiritual advancement.

In his mid-20s, Lincoln wrote a manuscript showing that the Bible was false. He did not believe that Jesus was God and could not believe that a true God would bring punishment to his 'children' when the laws of cause and effect that he saw in the world were pre-eminent forces. His friends were shocked by his beliefs that his law partner, William Herndon, contends he maintained throughout his life. Fearing for his political future, one friend burned the manuscript to keep it from being published. Still, Lincoln – who continued to be forthright and outspoken on the subject – was dogged by a reputation thereafter for being an infidel which was politically damaging.

With Malice toward none …

Leonard Swett, a close friend of Lincoln's, said in an interview, a year after the assassination, “He was certainly a very poor hater. He never judged men by his like, or dislike for them. If any given act was to be performed, he could understand that his enemy could do it just as well as any one. If a man had maligned him, or been guilty of personal ill-treatment and abuse, and was the fittest man for the place, he would put him in his Cabinet just as soon as he would his friend. I do not think he ever removed a man because he was his enemy, or because he disliked him.”

Indeed, Swett's words are a gross understatement; Lincoln was incapable of hate. Lincoln included on his initial Cabinet men who were his rivals for the Republican nomination in 1860 -- and he was especially gracious to guarantee the acceptance of his chief rival, William Seward, to the post of Secretary of State.

Edwin M. Stanton, who was Lincoln's second Secretary of War, is a particularly curious case. Stanton (of whom Fredrick Douglass would observe, “Politeness was not one of his weaknesses”) had ignored Lincoln, utterly, when – many years before he became president -- they were two of three lawyers chosen to represent a company for a particularly important civil suit. Lincoln was not a well-educated East Coast attorney, like the others. Judged from the fact that Lincoln was a rural Illinois lawyer, gangly and not well dressed, he was kept silent at the lawyers' table and the closing argument which he had prepared went unheard and was curtly ignored: The text, that Lincoln had passed on to his colleagues in a sealed letter, was returned to him unopened.

In the first years of the Lincoln administration, there are public records of Stanton referring to Lincoln as an imbecile (twice) and a baboon, yet Lincoln was undeterred in his selection of Stanton as his Secretary of War. He selected the best person for the position and ignored all else.

Observes William Lee Miller, “[Lincoln's] 'ego,' as we call it now, did not distort his good mind's working. His considerable self-confidence notwithstanding, he would achieve a detached and proportionate sense of himself in relation to an unflinching measure of the scope and meaning of the enormous human drama that confronted him. His self did not get in the way.”


The biggest character flaw that William Lee Miller tags Lincoln with is ambition. It would also be an overwhelming obstacle to the thesis that Lincoln is a Buddha, if one agrees with Miller that at times Lincoln pushed himself forward, instead of doing the right thing that might have been politically disadvantageous.

For Miller, Ambition first comes up when looking at Lincoln's vocational choices. Instead of remaining in his rural community, either as a farmer or businessman, Lincoln chose to become a lawyer and move to the city of Springfield.

Despite his wide-ranging, superlative skills, Lincoln may have had fewer options than Miller supposes. Saddled with deep compassion for the suffering of animals, he was not suited for farm work. Much as a Buddhist is indisposed to take up the profession of being a butcher, Lincoln was indisposed to make his life's work one that included the slaughtering of farm animals.

Entrepreneurs need to be of a character such that they are eager to profit, overgreatly at times, at the expense of unwitting customers in order to make their businesses thrive. Lincoln did not have the disposition required for him to be a successful businessman. Indeed, young Lincoln's business ventures failed, putting him in a deep debt that took years for him to extricate himself from.

Becoming a lawyer, and tossing himself into the political maelstrom of his time and place, seems to have been the vocational path (and spiritual challenge) that was left to him after crossing off others. His wasn't a fulsome, consuming ambition; rather, it was that last path available that was suitable to his blend of talents and weaknesses.
Lincoln's Face

“At first glance, some thought him grotesque, even ugly, and almost all considered him homely. When preoccupied or in repose he certainly was far from handsome. At times he looked unutterably sad, as if every sorrow were his own, or he looked merely dull, with a vacant gaze,” one observer wrote. Still, as even the caustic Englishman Dicey observed, there was for all his grotesqueness, "an air of strength, physical as well as moral, and a strange look of dignity" about him. And when he spoke a miracle occurred. "The dull, listless features dropped like a mask." according to Horace White, an editor of the "Chicago Tribune". "The eyes began to sparkle, the mouth to smile, the whole countenance was wreathed in animation, so that a stranger would have to say, "Why this face, so angular and somber a moment ago, is really handsome!" He was the homeliest man I ever saw." said Donn Piatt, and yet there was something about the face that Piatt never forgot. "It brightened, like a lit lantern, when animated."

The poet Walt Whitman commented after getting a close-up view: "None of the artists or pictures have caught the subtle and indirect expression of this man's face." And again, some years after Lincoln's death: "Though hundreds of portraits have been made, by painters and photographers (many to pass on, by copies, to future times), I have never seen one yet that in my opinion deserved to be called a perfectly good likeness: nor do I believe there is really such a one in existence."

"Beyond a certain point Lincoln's appearance not only defied description; it also baffled interpretation. "There is something in the face which I cannot understand." said Congressman Henry L. Dawes of Massachusetts. And the leader of the German-Americans in Illinois, Gustave Koerner, remarked: "Something about the man, the face is unfathomable. In his looks there were hints of mysteries within."

Buddha as a Man; Lincoln as a Man

In the middle of the 19th Century, when Lincoln was being assessed as a heroic and tragic figure, Buddha was being introduced and examined by Victorian England. Since others' assessments of Lincoln are colored by culture, time and place, I think it is interesting to see how similarly Buddha Gautama was viewed.

From the book “The British Discovery of Buddhism,” comes this quote:
Of all the qualities praised, it is the Buddha's compassion and sympathy that was most often remarked upon. Millions were won by his intense sympathy for suffering, observed Joseph Edkins [quoted in Remarks on Budhism (sic)]. According to The Westminster Review in 1878, his was 'the example of a life in which the loftiest morality was softened and beautified by unbounded charity and devotion to the good of his fellow-men'; and The Church Quarterly Review for 1882 viewed him as one 'who, born a prince, sympathized with the sorrows and the moral struggles of the meanest; who … opened his arms to receive as a brother every one who pursued goodness, truth, unselfishness, and his ideal …' George Grant remarked in 1895 that, after making all allowances for accretions, the picture remains of an extraordinary man 'the memory of whose unselfish life, thirst for truth, and love for humanity ought to be honoured to the latest generations.'
Fittingly, the last year of the century, William Rattigan drew together the Victorian assessment of the Buddha:
Having regard to the intellectual and religious darkness of the period, it is impossible not to accord a high degree of admiration to Gautama for the lofty percepts he enunciated, for the gentleness and sereneness which pervade his utterances, for the deeply sympathetic and profoundly humanitarian spirit which underlie his doctrines, and for the manly endeavour he made to arouse a true feeling of self-reliance amoungst a people prone to lean for support upon others.
In league with this, Lincoln concluded his second inaugural with these famous words:
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations. 

Yes, we exhaust ourselves on the legend of Lincoln in the fifth grade, and for us he becomes a tired relic, like Mickey Mouse and Lady GaGa and Harry Potter's glasses. His face – unanimated and serene – stares out at us from pennies and five-dollar bills. His wise words are just etchings on bronze somewhere -- the life that once was in his words has been expelled. “Fourscore and seven years …” sounds like a tiresome history lesson to us today, not the beginning of a speech, rich and eloquence, that brought chills and tears to Americans for decades after the speech was spoken.

If you pull together all the assessments of Lincoln, it is a remarkable record. He was greatly beloved by all in the communities he lived in. He was the dazzling, pre-eminent person – giving, loving and vividly authentic. Absolutely honest. Absolutely dependable. Fully in touch with the pain of others'. He held no grudges and condemned no one. He believed there was clarion truth in the notion that created America – that all had equal rights to live and equivalent right to live in liberty and pursue happiness. No one could be a master since no one should be a slave. And no one could be a slave since no one should be a master.

Somewhere back in misty time, one of the buddhas that walked this earthy earth became president of the United States. And it made a difference.

[Versions of this post were put up previously in Zen Unbound and the blog Homeless Tom.]


  1. This is a beautiful piece and very insightful. As a non-Buddhist (but spiritual practitioner) and a non-American (but who lived in the USA for a couple of years), this is an interesting spin on the noble character of a preeminent leader. May we all muster the compassion and authenticity of a Buddha and the world would indeed be on the road to Redemption.

    This Good Life

  2. Well said, Tom. In celebration of Buddhas everywhere :)

  3. Thanks, { This Good Life }. Thanks, Bud Phil [aka, Justin]. I think that Abe wasn't just a smart guy acting in a good way, there was a reason behind it all. As there often is.

  4. http://kadapila.blogspot.com/2011/07/secret-of-buddha.html

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