By Carolyn Jacobs
The story of how the Mind & Life Institute came to Botswana is a river fed by many streams. At an earlier Dialogue in 2014, the Dalai Lama had mentioned his desire to revisit Africa and engage in a dialogue there on secular ethics.
I was present at that meeting as a member of the Mind & Life Institute’s board of directors, and I, like others, thought it was a wonderful idea. On Arthur Zajonc’s retirement as president of the Institute and my own retirement from Smith College, I had the unique opportunity to chair the search committee for the next president, and to serve as president in the interim, during the time when the board was considering possibilities for a dialogue in Africa.
We decided to offer an idea that would be uniquely responsive to the African context: to explore the indigenous ethic of ubuntu as it relates to Buddhist ideas of interdependence and compassion, to examine relevant scientific understandings, and to envision how such a dialogue could further a secular ethic valued by our global society. I had the honor of presenting this to the Dalai Lama in December 2015 and with his approval, the planning moved forward.
I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. . . . We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., "Letter from Birmingham Jail"
The stream that led me personally to this dialogue draws deeply on my values and my many identities as an African American woman, dean of Smith College’s School for Social Work, and a Roman Catholic with a deep commitment to contemplative practice. I had come to the Mind & Life Institute through collaborating with Arthur Zajonc in the Five College community of faculty exploring how to integrate contemplative practices in pedagogy, and as chair of the board of the Contemplative Mind in Society.
Earlier, on a sabbatical to Africa in 1989, I followed an African saying that lives within my cultural identity: “I Am Because We Are.” Over the years I had become curious about the philosophical aspects of cultural differences and their relationships to the world views of different groups. Three months traveling in Africa allowed for a brief but transformative immersion in the cultures of the Basuto people in Lesotho and the Ashanti in Ghana. I wanted to experience the collective as the primary definer of self. There is the sense that only when an individual is in relation with others—family, clan or ethnic group and society—that one is a full, living human being; otherwise one is less than a person. Throughout my travels the sense of self-definition in relation to the collective identity of family and ethnic group was ever-present. It was the most important aspect of introductions. Positions, degrees, research interests, while important, were secondary to questions about the nature of my relationship to the people who had written my letters of introduction. How do you know them? Who are you in relation to the significant people in your life? There was a desire to know the “me,” to be with me and not just to know about me. Once I had met others on the ground of being with them, there was a shift, affectively, into comfort and acceptance. I felt that I had been caught up in the wave of movement around the center of the African’s world. I came to experience the life force that pervades and permeates all things, all relationships, with a historical and ancestral configuration for each group.
The sense of the life force is a movement that flows in concentric waves from the center of the group through all the various circles of ancestors from the nearest to the most remote, and I felt I had found my space on the waves in the collective. Thus, knowing occurs in an emotive and active context. It is experienced through the life of the group. It is to be shared and participated in, and it is expressed as a gift of the ancestors and elders. While my journey was not a search for ancestral roots, it became a movement toward the life force or that spirit which gives energy to the collective theme. This underlying search was a thread woven through my travels that continues throughout my life.
With the Dialogue in Botswana, ubuntu invited me to a more expansive understanding of “I am Because We Are” to “I am Because You Are.” And thus, my journey gave voice to the richness of ubuntu and interdependence with all of humanity. –Dr. Carolyn Jacobs