I want to punch someone.
You do too. You can deny it, if you want. I did for a very long time. Lots of people deny it. That doesn’t change anything.
It’s OK that you want to punch someone. There’s nothing you can do about it. It’s just how it is to be the kind of animal we call “human.”
Buddha wanted to punch somebody. So did Jesus. Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Mother Theresa, and Amma the Hugging Saint, they all wanted to punch someone.
The problem is that we are social animals. We depend on other members of our species for survival. If we went around punching people every time we felt like it, we’d risk losing our support system.
So, if we actually punch someone we need a justification. That justification must be acceptable to other members of our society.
If there were a certain specific person who it was socially acceptable to punch, that would relieve us of the burden of having to justify it. Better yet, if there were a certain type of person who it was socially acceptable to punch, that would be ideal.
Then we wouldn’t have to know anything about the person. We wouldn’t have to know if he’d committed a crime, or if he’d punched somebody else, or anything like that. We’d just have to know how to identify his type, then we’d be free to punch away until we exhausted our urge to punch someone.
In the past, some societies have designated certain types of people as acceptable to punch — the Jews, the Blacks, the Armenians, the Gays, the Communists… the list is depressingly long. Sometimes one country decides it’s acceptable to punch anyone from a specific list of other countries. We call that a war.
But you and I, we’re not like that. We are modern people, tolerant and accepting. We’re not racists. We’re not homophobes. We’ve transcended all that.
And yet we still want to punch someone. Again, that’s just how it is to be the kind of animal we are.
It’s hard to say exactly why we want to punch someone. The urge toward anger and violence appears before the justifications we invent for it. The urge to punch comes first — maybe it’s always there, lurking in the background. Justifications come later.
One of the rules of most modern societies is that it is not legally permissible to punch someone unless you are trying to defend yourself or defend someone else from a physical threat.
Over the last few days, in the aftermath of the neo-Nazi rally that turned deadly in Charlottesville, Virginia, the so called “national conversation” in America has revolved around whether or not it’s acceptable to punch a Nazi. Many have said that just displaying a swastika is an implied threat. Therefore, they say, it is acceptable to punch someone who displays a swastika, whether or not that person actually does anything otherwise threatening to you.
Yet throughout Asia, the swastika is a symbol of Buddhism. In Japan, maps are often covered in swastikas to designate the locations of Buddhist temples. Statues of the Buddha often have swastikas on their chests. I hope that the folks who are proposing this aren’t declaring open season on Buddhists.
Who do we want permission to punch Nazis from? Are we looking to God or to some other mythical supreme permission-giver? I don’t think so. It seems to me that we want permission from our peers, or from our political leaders. Some people are positively clamoring for it.
Over the past few days, my Facebook page has been filled to the brim with people trying to get their friends to say it’s OK for them to punch Nazis.
Nobody ever asks this outright. We’re cleverer than that. But you can see them posting and tweeting certain statements and then watching the responses to see whether their friends think it’s OK to punch Nazis.
It can be a bit risky in such an atmosphere to propose that it is not OK to punch Nazis. It’s especially risky if you’re any kind of public figure.
While we all depend on society for economic and other types of support, public figures depend on it even more directly. People like me, who write for a living, and others who do similar jobs need to be sure we are in our audience’s good graces or we won’t be able to pay the rent.
People will deliberately misconstrue what you say in order to try to defend the view that it’s OK to punch Nazis.
Right now, there is someone out there trying to spin my words into something bizarre. Maybe they’ll tell folks I said that being against racism is the same as hating minorities or something along those lines.
They’ll know full well I never said anything remotely like that, even as they’re telling their friends I did. And their friends probably won’t read what I actually said, anyhow. Or if their friends do read what I wrote, they’ll read it the way it has been spun for them. That’s how the game works.
And yet, as a person committed to the Buddhist Way, my opinion is that it is not OK to punch Nazis.
Self-defense is acceptable in Buddhism, just like it is under the law. But the mere seeing of a swastika or some other object designated as a “symbol of hate” is not enough. Nor is most of what the kids these days are calling “hate speech.” The justification of self-defense must never be easy.
Personally, I do not care if all of my Facebook friends and Twitter contacts get together and decide it’s OK to punch Nazis. It is not OK to me. So I will not participate.
Nor will I give anyone else my permission to punch Nazis if they ask for it either directly or in some clever indirect way — not that I understand why anyone would want my permission for anything. Still, some people do seem to want it, and I’m not giving it.
The Ninth Buddhist Precept is a vow not to indulge in anger.
The precept doesn’t say “don’t get angry.” That’s impossible. It says not to indulge in anger. In other words, don’t punch people, even if they’re Nazis.
The object or our anger is always arbitrary, no matter how well-worded our justifications. Everyone who has ever committed an act of violence thought they were on the side of right, that they were one of the good guys, that the person they punched deserved it.
And maybe they were right, and maybe that guy did deserve it. But to a Buddhist, even that is not good enough.
This is a hard practice. If it was easy, everybody would be doing it.
I’m sure some of those who read this will want to spin out hypothetical situations; What if this happened? Or historical situations; What about when that happened?
I am not interested in those kinds of questions. Maybe you think I ought to be. But those questions are impossible to answer coherently. I apologize in advance for my disinterest.
What I am interested in is how to live an ethical life.
And for me, that means that I must politely refuse your permission to punch Nazis.
Thank you for offering. But I can’t accept.
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September 7-10, 2017 Retreat in Finland
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September 22, 2017 Talk in Munich, Germany
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September 24-29, 2017 Retreat at Benediktushof, near Wurzburg, Germany
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October 18, 2017 7:00pm The Last Bookstore, Los Angeles, CA
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