September 12, 2003

Virtue Foundation Builds Bridge ‘From Tragedy to Unity’

Celebration of The Human Spirit

“It’s been a remarkable day,” said NBC’s Forrest Sawyer at the close of an all day symposium, “From Tragedy to Unity: A Celebration of the Human Spirit,” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He was master of ceremonies at the colloquium held on the second anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

He told a humorous anecdote that relates to the understanding of different cultures. He described a meeting at Harvard in the 1960s between a great tantric Buddhist from Nepal and a Zen Buddhist from Japan, who faced off for a discussion. The Nepalese master came on stage in saffron robes accompanied by his disciples; the Zen Buddhist entered wearing blue robes. The latter, whose tradition favored the view that enlightenment can come in a single stroke, pulled out an orange. He put it close to the Nepalese master and said, “What is this?” What is this?” “What is this?” The Nepalese master leaned back and his translator relayed the questions. The Nepalese master then said, “What’s the matter with him? Don’t they have oranges where he comes from?

The symposium was sponsored by the Virtue Foundation in collaboration with UNESCO, the Nour Foundation, The Rockefeller Foundation, and the Permanent Mission of Uruguay to the United Nations. The program included a musical performance by Claire Antonini and double bassist Renaud Garcia-Fons.

A lunch was held at the Stanhope. It was attended by James Rubin, former assistant secretary of state for public affairs; Dr. Joseph Salim, executive director of the Virtue Foundation; Mr. Sawyer, and many others.

“Today” anchor Ann Curry moderated a panel discussion on “Bridging the Cultural Divide: Overcoming Ethnocentrism and Xenophobia in the Age of Globalization.” Participants included The Rockefeller Foundation president, Gordon Conway; Christina Lamb of The Sunday Times, London; Ambassador Richard Murphy of The Council on Foreign Relations; Professor Jessica Stern, a terrorism expert at Harvard University, and Ambassador Dumisani Kumalo of South Africa’s Mission to the United Nations.

Among the topics discussed were improving education at home and abroad; building person-to-person connections among people across borders; encouraging humility rather than arrogance in dealing with other countries; avoiding stereotypes, and broadening perspectives in how the press covers stories.

Ambassador Murphy said Americans need to learn to listen better, and pointed to the country’s geographic isolation. Mr. Conway praised the British-American relationship as a model of understanding and reciprocity.

Ambassador Kumalo talked about the openness of Americans and the need to project around the world more than just the image of the American government-such as about its great people.

The audience laughed when he said that sometimes while traveling around America, he would relate that he was from Africa and people would ask him questions such as: “I have a friend who is from Nigeria. Do you know him?”

Shashi Tharoor, the United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information, offered an anecdote about mutual interdependence and connecting across boundaries. It seems an American and a French diplomat were discussing how to solve a particular problem. The American said “I know how we can solve the problem,” by doing such-and-such. “Yes, yes,” said the French diplomat. “That will work in practice. But will it work in theory?”

Mr. Tharoor, in a mellifluous voice, looked at his watch, noticed it was running late, and said he would try to wrap up, connecting the various strands of his speech into a conclusion.

He brought down the house, saying, “Being at the Met, I’m reminded we are all like Egyptian mummies-pressed for time.”