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Honoring Nelson Mandela, Beloved Bodhisattva

Happy 95th Birthday President Nelson Mandela

July 18, 1918 – July 18, 2013

As I reflect on the  birth, life, and impending death of Nelson Mandela, I feel tremendous warmth and gratitude for his generous spirit and devotion to peace and liberation for all beings. In so many ways, I honor him as a Beloved Bodhisattva.

1017642_10200197516485490_1523180807_nMahayana Buddhism is based largely on the path of a Bodhisattva – a person, like you and me, subject to birth, sickness, sorrow, disappointments, delusions, old age, and death and commits him or herself to the attainment of liberation for the wellbeing of all.

The Bodhisattva makes four vows: (1) To save all beings from suffering; (2) To extinguish all immoral passions; (3) To learn the truth and teach others, and; (4) To lead all beings to Buddhahood or liberation. Who would sign up for such a tall order? Is it even achievable?

It all seems impossible until it’s done. ~ Nelson Mandala

A Bodhisattva does not rigidly seek perfection but rather develops a noble heart and mind, and serves in ways that honor our interconnectedness. This path, cultivated over many life times, reminds us that what we do with the life we’ve been given matters greatly.

In 2004, I took Bodhisattva vows in Berkeley, California, with Acharyas Gaylon Ferguson in the Kagyu and Nyingma lineages of Tibetan Buddhism and the Shambhala wisdom as taught by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. This practice serves as a moral compass in my life as a socially engaged Buddhist, insight meditation teacher, and emotional wisdom author and consultant.

One need not be Buddhist to follow the path of a Bodhisattva. President Nelson Mandela cultivated Bodhicitta (wisdom and compassion for the benefit of all beings) despite a grueling and unjust life. Born July 18, 1918, in Mvezo, South Africa, Mandela was a loyal activist against South Africa’s apartheid – a legal system rooted in the hatred and oppression of Black Africans. A law scholar at age 24 and president of the African National Congress Youth League by age 31, Mandela believed that Africans were not free until Black Africans were free. Little did he know, this would become a mantra for human rights throughout the world.

At 47, after much cruelty and harassment, Mandela was sentenced to life in prison for four counts of sabotage. He served 27 years – 5 years in hard labor and the remaining years on Robben Island in a cell less than 10’x8’ in size, yet his devotion to freedom continued and was kept alive by close comrades, his wife of 33 years ~ Winnie Mandela, and by freedom fighters of all races throughout the world.

In his years of confinement, Mandela taught the world about the resilience of the human heart. Those of us hungry for hope were deeply inspired by his inner revolution from bitterness to peace. Over decades, many of us watched his face grow wise, warm, and content with unwavering grace and goodness. Through his example, we experienced the insignificance of the material world and tasted freedom. 

Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies. ~ Nelson Mandela

Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one getting burned. ~ The Buddha

Nelson Mandela was free in heart and mind well before his physical release from prison in 1990. He believed that to be free was to make peace with your enemy and partner for liberation. An example of this partnership was in 1993 when Nelson Mandela and National Party Leader F. W. deKlerk shared the Nobel Prize for their work in the peaceful dismantlement of apartheid and the formation of a new multi-racial democracy. It was one year later, in 1994, that Nelson Mandela was elected the first Black president of the Republic of South Africa representing the African National Congress in the first open election in the country’s history.

When we can sit in the face of insanity or dislike and be free from the need to make it different, then we are free.  ~ President Nelson Mandela


I traveled to South Africa shortly after Nelson Mandela was elected. I met with dozens of organizers who had devoted their lives to fighting apartheid. I wanted to celebrate this monumental victory and pay homage to their efforts. Many stories of triumph and courage were shared and the felt sense of freedom was palpable.

A good head and a good heart are always a formidable combination. ~ Nelson Mandela

While in South Africa, I was reminded of how challenging life was growing up Black in South Central, Los Angeles, in the 1960’s. At great odds, my mother and so many African American men, women, and allies across the nation courageously fought for Civil Rights – for human rights. The need for such wise and caring attentiveness was true then, and it is true now. Also true is the recognition that Bodhisattvas come in all shapes, colors, classes, ages, sexual orientations, religions, seasons, generations, and often disguises. We must all ask ourselves: What will I do with the life I have been given?

The Buddha says that in the end, these things matter most:

How well did you love?

How fully did you live?

How deeply did you let go?

Throughout his life, Mandela battled sickness, sorrow, abuse, delusion, and old age, and retired from public office in 1999 at the age of 81. Since June 2013, President Mandela has been in critical condition with a lung infection. He is 95, and at the time of this writing he is on life support, near death.

We have all been transformed by Nelson Mandela’s presence, his practice, and his life. He will be remembered by many names ~ Rolihlahla Mandela, Madiba, President Mandela, Man of Peace, the Spiritual Heart of the World ~ but to me he will always be a Beloved Bodhisattva.


In my country, we go to prison first, and then become president. ~ President Nelson Mandela

Deep bows to President Nelson Mandela. Thank you for a noble heart. May you transition with ease surrounded by loved ones. May your loved ones rest in the vast empty space that your death makes possible, and may this space be filled with love – your very essence. May we all celebrate your long life with gratitude, respect, and joy. And may we all be inspired by your example to fully live the life we have been given with wisdom and compassion for the benefit of all beings.

Sadhu ~ Sadhu ~ Sadhu

Shanti ~ Shanti ~ Shanti

9 Responses

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  1. Catherine McGee said

    There’s a spirit that shines right out of Nelson Mandela’s pores. it has illuminated so much for so many, shining real light on our humanity, to help us see more clearly. This surely is a Bodhisattva’s gift. I feel your love for him Ruth.

  2. Quanita said


  3. Trudy Goodman said

    I had the privilege recently of hearing Oprah Winfrey talk about how he inspired much of her work and has been a great teacher/mentor for her. And I remember reading “No Easy Walk to Freedom” when i was in college and being amazed. Thanks for writing this, Ruth — my Dad was a Bodhisattva, too, and thanks to you, i now know he and Nelson Mandela share the same birthday!.

  4. Kalinga said

    I have been a great admirer of Nelson Mandela as I have strongly supported the anti-apartheid cause in my youth. As a Buddhist, I agree with your assessment that he may well be a Bodhisattva. May he attain the ultimate bliss of Nirvana!

  5. Barbara said

    A wonderful tribute for a heart centered man, who continues to teach us what that truly means. The light of your heart illuminated his with grace and power.

  6. Kim said

    Thank You, Dear Ruth, for sharing your beautiful tribute to Nelson Mandela. I was truly moved.

  7. Claudia said

    What a wonderful tribute and honour, I am pleasantly blessed to have found your website, through being interviewed by Robin Smith earlier today.
    Mr Mandela surely is a teacher at heart and a nurturer – he spoke clearly about these two very important activities.
    Having moved to SA about 10 years ago, it’s been interesting to see how ready every person is for change, however such ingrained limiting beliefs has everyone expect a lot without doing their bit. At this time, Mr Mandela still inspires and hopefully our current leaders can work towards inspiring their people. May this become real here and everywhere else in the world – because the people are wanting it so.

  8. Harish Davda said

    Beautiful, moving and timely recognition of a Bodhisattva. May the world learn from his rich legacy and wisdom.

  9. It is told that Nelson Mandela is the incarnation known as Matraiya Buddha. love and thanks for this beautiful piece …

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