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From Freedom Riding to Freeing Oneself: An Interview with Board Member, Carol Ruth Silver
The following is an interview with Carol Ruth Silver, a DRBU board member. This is a transcribed spoken interview that has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Tell us about yourself.
My name is Carol Ruth Silver. I was born in Boston Massachusetts many long years ago. I went to public schools in Massachusetts, got scholarships to the University of Chicago, and I wound up in San Francisco, California for most of my professional career. The things that I am doing now are, when I reflect on them, very much connected with the things that I thought I would be doing when I started out in life, and they are still wonderfully interesting and satisfying.
My early ambitions were to be an attorney and to be an author, a writer. I wrote for my high school magazine and for my college newspaper. So far I have published one book, Freedom Rider Diary: Smuggled Notes from Parchman Prison. This was a manuscript which I wrote in 1961 while I was in jail in Jackson, Mississippi and in a prison at Parchman, Mississippi.
I had been arrested as a Freedom Rider while traveling to the South on a Greyhound bus to try to integrate the facilities that were offered to travelers at that time. I have to laugh at my needing to remind people about it, but some people don't remember that there was a time when not only the Southern states of the old Confederacy but all of America was much more racist than it is now.
That racism took the form in the South of the Jim Crow laws and customs. The laws basically said: no Blacks can live in certain areas, no Blacks can use the same facilities, the same schools, the same buses as White people. The Black people had to go to the back of the bus, quite literally, and “to the back of the bus” has become a synonym for being discriminated against.
To protest that discrimination, I joined with about 435 other young people, in the spring and summer of 1961, all of whom traveled to the South, as Freedom Riders. I was arrested in Jackson, Mississippi, spent some time in the county jail and then additional time at Parchman Penitentiary, a high security prison work farm, for a total of about forty days.
Coming out of that jail and prison experience, I was able to conceal that I had a sheaf of little scraps of paper on which I had kept a diary. Resting up after my jail ordeal at my mother’s little house in Los Angeles, she, and my sisters Barbara and Jane, and a bunch of volunteers, helped me type those notes into a manuscript. It was not published until more than 50 years later. It was 2014 before that manuscript was finally published as Freedom Rider Diary.
I have thoroughly enjoyed being an author of that story and I continue to sell copies of the book (now in paperback), to give speeches, do book signings. But I also have a bunch of pieces of writing that I want to complete so if you ask me what I'm doing now -- that's at least what I think I'm doing.
I have had a long and successful career as a public service attorney -- civil rights lawyer in the South, poverty program attorney in Oakland and Berkeley, California and as a consultant, then founding attorney of the California Rural Legal Assistance office in Delano/McFarland. I was also a family real estate lawyer, and my final lawyer position was as head of the San Francisco Sheriff’s Office of Prisoner Legal Services.
I was a member of the State Bar in California for 50 years, and when they sent me a certificate saying, “You've been a member of the bar for 50 years - congratulations!” I said, "Oh, what a good time to retire!" And so I did. I have not been officially and legally practicing law since 2005. The hardest task in my retirement is to remember that I am retired, and to avoid giving advice to others. The habits of a lifetime of advising, suggesting and leading, are hard to give up.
More than 40 years ago I met Master Hua, Heng Chih, Heng Hsien and other nuns of Gold Mountain Monastery, as well as Terri Epstein (Nicholson). We put together a school called Gold Mountain Instilling Virtue Buddhist Elementary School in San Francisco. My elder son Steven was one of the first students. But when Master Hua decided to move the school and the entire Gold Mountain Monastery about 125 miles north to Ukiah, it was too far for me to send Steven to continue studying Mandarin, Sanskrit, and Buddhism.
Steven then went to the French American International School, and it was in the basement of that school that I founded a new school now called Chinese American International School. Now almost 40 years since its beginning with only one teacher, a principal and ten students, one of whom was my younger son, Jefferson, the school has been amazingly successful. It now has 450 kids from pre-kindergarten through 8th grade, and has three campuses plus a gymnasium in the Civic Center area of San Francisco. I am so thrilled that they still allow me to come to celebrations, wave my hand, and say “Happy New Year” in fractured Mandarin Chinese.
Chinese American International School is one of my life accomplishments of which I am most proud. I am also proud of my children and my grandchildren. I am proud of my career as an attorney. And I'm proud of my political career which, I suppose I should say, is still going on. Although I'm not now running for office, I spent 12 years as an elected representative on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, and I ran for the Democratic nomination for Congress up in Ukiah and Humboldt County, California. And though I did not make it to be elected to Congress, those are the things that have defined me in the past. And I am still working, virtually, on Zoom, on political campaigns right here and now, in San Francisco.
How does DRBU’s mission resonate with you?
As I understand, DRBU started out as a quite conservative Buddhist university that focused almost exclusively on ancient texts. A big part of the energy that Master Hua put into and gathered from his followers in the US was in translation of classic Buddhist texts, some in Chinese, some in Sanskrit. Translating those into English and later on into other modern languages was a life work for many of the nuns and monks at Gold Mountain Monastery. Translating the texts has made them accessible to people in the modern world. This is a great legacy, beyond even DRBU and Gold Mountain Monastery.
I was very fond of Master Hua, and I think he was a little bit fond of me. We knew each other in San Francisco when I was helping the Buddhist Monastery nuns to create the Gold Mountain Instilling Virtue Buddhist Elementary School. When Gold Mountain decided to expand Dharma Realm Buddhist University into a modern liberal arts college, they decided to do something that, had they asked me, I would have highly recommended, and about which I am still thrilled.
DRBU now focuses on the ancient Buddhist texts and on the Great Books of the Western World. The Great Books of the Western World is a series of European texts that were published in a set of 52 volumes in English in the 1950’s. It is a compilation from the Western and European way of looking at the world, starting with Plato and Aristotle. All of the included authors were philosophers in their own times, and they were philosophers in the sense that they looked at what they could see and tried to understand how it worked, why it happened, and what was there. The most fitting complement to the Buddhist ancient texts is this Western set of texts displaying the intellectual history and development of Western Civilization.
As luck would have it, my college -- the small undergraduate college at the University of Chicago -- had in the 1950’s pioneered the many years-long selection and publication of the 52 volume set of the Great Books of the Western World. And as intended, the selected set was adopted as the inspiration for a liberal arts college curriculum based on these texts.
When I heard that DRBU was adopting the Great Books of the Western World curriculum, I couldn't wait to be involved again, and with great pleasure accepted the invitation to join the Board of Trustees. I'm very, very excited about where DRBU is headed. I think it is very likely that it will become one of the premiere small colleges in the United States. It is already well on its way, having recently received its full accreditation.
What inspires and motivates you as an individual?
The spiritual and ethical legacy I received from my parents was something that the Jewish tradition calls tikkun olam -- it is the commandant to Repair the World. Another commandment that I was taught very energetically by my parents is the commandant of tzedakah, which is the commandant to do charity, to help anybody, anything, any person, or even animals, who are in need of help.
Tikkun olam or Repair the World, means for example that if you're walking down the street and you see that somebody has thrown trash on the street -- you should stop and pick it up and put it in a proper trash receptacle. Do I do that every time? No, because there is another part of the commandment, which is that you need to evaluate and then to do what is within your ability, your time constraints, your financial constraints.
But the guiding spirit of my life is that it's your responsibility, or at least my responsibility, to take care of the whole world and everything that's in it -- every turtle and fish and every single person. If we believed in a Western style interventionist God, we would say that what God has given us needs to be protected and taken care of by us. And by us, I mean by me, and that's a big job. But everyday I try to do just a little bit of tikkun olam.
I am nearing the end of my time on this planet and what comes after this, if anything, I don't know. If I will be reborn it will be as a beetle or ant or some other small entity, to punish me for my many sins which I do not even now acknowledge. But if I am not reborn and if when I die it will be in fact the end, let it be said of me, tikkun olam was my guiding principle, and to the end I was guided by it.
What does a meaningful or fulfilled life look like to you?
Here it is! I feel that I have had a meaningful, fulfilled, and happy life. Since I am towards the end of that life, I need to say that I'm ready to keep going on, but I am also ready to wrap it up, say thank you so very much to so very many people for having helped me along the way, and, goodbye.
My favorite bedside reading book is by local author Katie Butler and is called The Art of Dying Well. It is a how-to book on how to enjoy and not waste the last few years of one's life. Rather than artificially prolong my life through intrusive modern medicines and machines, this little book helps me to say such a life, with pains and limitations, is not a necessary part of the life I have so far so greatly enjoyed. I can make alternative choices.
Average human lifetimes used to be about 50 to 65 years. Having lived many years longer than that, I am ready to stay and continue, but also ready to go. If it's time to go, I am working very hard to make sure that those last years, months, days, will not be painful and miserable, and will not require that someone else be brought in to take care of me. That's one of my political interests for right now -- to convince people that there are ways to have a peaceful, good and artful way to pass your last years, and that you should do that if you can.
What message would you share with today's world?
It's basically, have compassion for all, which translated into modern parlance is, Be Nice. Be as nice as you can possibly be to everybody, to anybody, to the homeless guy on the street who is asking you for money, and to the policeman who's coming to shoo him away. If you look into your heart and you have compassion for every person, every animal, every entity - you will try to do what is going to help them, not hurt them. This will make you feel better because you have helped them and it is therefore having compassion -- being nice -- to yourself. It may sound simplistic, but if you take that as your mantra, Be Nice, you will not fail to find that meaningful and fulfilled life.