When I first started practicing Buddhism the big, scary bugaboo in the world was not terrorism but the Cold War. Throughout the Reagan Years the world sat perched on the verge of total nuclear annihilation. It would’ve all been over for humanity in mere seconds if the doddering right-winger who believed that Jesus was on his way back any minute had decided to push the button that sent a strike against the Soviet Union. And I who was raised on a steady diet of Godzilla films, which were allegories of nuclear destruction, and Black Sabbath songs like War Pigs, was scared shitless.
But when I got into Zen I started thinking that being scared shitless was not the Zen Way. The Zen Way was to be cool and calm in the face of everything including the looming fear of being wiped out by hydrogen bombs, I thought. One time I was talking to my first Zen teacher, Tim, and I said something like, “I used to be worried about nuclear war, but I’m not anymore.” I said it because I thought that was the thing I was supposed to say and because I had convinced myself that’s how I felt.
Tim’s reply really surprised me. So much so that I still remember the conversation although I’m sure Tim has long since forgotten. He said, “Really? Because I’m pretty worried about it!”
It was so freeing to hear him say that. Ultimately, I mean. At first it was just confusing. But then I realized that I wasn’t really unafraid. I had just forced my fear into a dark corner where I couldn’t see it anymore. Understanding that it was OK to be afraid, or to be angry, or to be sad, or to feel any of those “negative” emotions that I thought were forbidden was like having an enormous weight lifted off me.
So when I heard the news of the bombs in Boston and felt that surge of anger against the perpetrator, I wondered, “Should I express this?” And I thought about that conversation with Tim. So I decided to go for it and see what happened. I wrote, “I, for one, hope they find the piece of shit who did this and rip him to shreds. He deserves it.”
I think most people understood the sentiment as it was intended. But predictably several did not. I got sent a number of hastily written but deeply impassioned essays about how I was not expressing the proper Buddhist sentiments. One guy kept trying to draw me into a debate on the subject in the comments section of Facebook. But you cannot have any kind of reasonable dialogue in the comments section of Facebook, so I declined. This just got him posting more and more increasingly longer comments. He declared that he was a pacifist and that he had the moral high ground. So I told him he could have the moral high ground and wished him a happy life there.
I’m not laughing at him, though. Because I know exactly how that feels. It’s a painful situation. The moral high ground is a lonely place. It seems like there’s only ever room for one up there. I used to try to stay there. But it was too sad. So I came back down.
I don’t feel that my declaration of my feelings is going to inspire any angry mobs in Boston to rip anyone to shreds. That’s not what’s going to happen here. There will be a few weeks of investigation after which the perpetrator will be found and brought to justice. It will be a media circus and soon all of us will know his name. I’ll even indulge in a bit of speculation. I believe the perpetrator will be a white male, around 30 years old with a bizarrely twisted political manifesto. He will not belong to Al Qaeda, the Taliban or the North Korean military. He won’t really be right-wing or left-wing. His ideas will be all over the map. He’ll get on the cover of all the papers and news magazines. There will be a long and spectacular trial after which he will be convicted. Since there is no death penalty in Massachusetts, he will spend the rest of his life in prison. After the furor dies down he’ll be largely forgotten by the public.
What I feel about him won’t change his fate in any way. I’d hoped, though, that maybe my expression of those feelings might prove useful to those who struggle with and feel guilty about their “bad” feelings when they’re trying to be good Buddhists. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe it won’t help at all. But you gotta try.
I really like what my former fellow Suicide Girls columnist Patton Oswalt had to say, though. So I’ll quote it here,
Boston. Fucking horrible.
I remember, when 9/11 went down, my reaction was, “Well, I’ve had it with humanity.”
But I was wrong. I don’t know what’s going to be revealed to be behind all of this mayhem. One human insect or a poisonous mass of broken sociopaths.
But here’s what I DO know. If it’s one person or a HUNDRED people, that number is not even a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a percent of the population on this planet. You watch the videos of the carnage and there are people running TOWARDS the destruction to help out. (Thanks FAKE Gallery founder and owner Paul Kozlowski for pointing this out to me).
This is a giant planet and we’re lucky to live on it but there are prices and penalties incurred for the daily miracle of existence. One of them is, every once in awhile, the wiring of a tiny sliver of the species gets snarled and they’re pointed towards darkness.
But the vast majority stands against that darkness and, like white blood cells attacking a virus, they dilute and weaken and eventually wash away the evil doers and, more importantly, the damage they wreak.
This is beyond religion or creed or nation. We would not be here if humanity were inherently evil. We’d have eaten ourselves alive long ago.
So when you spot violence, or bigotry, or intolerance or fear or just garden-variety misogyny, hatred or ignorance, just look it in the eye and think, “The good outnumber you, and we always will.”
I agree with him. It’s something we all ought to remember.
That “hatred will not cease by hatred but by love alone” is true because the statement is a tautology. If an old lady were being driven to distraction by noisy neighbors, how would she benefit from being solemnly told: “Noise will not cease by noise but by silence alone”? The Dhammapada verse, like this hypothetical advice to the woman, is true at such a level of generality that it offers little help in dealing with specific situations. It merely states the conditions under which a long-term solution to hatred would be possible. It may reinforce one’s faith that human beings can relinquish hatred and inspire one to seek to love others unconditionally, but it doesn’t answer the question of how to respond to an act of violence that threatens one’s way of life here and now.
The challenge for Buddhists is not to let a commitment to the principle of nonviolence blunt one’s critical acumen or deflect one’s gaze from looking steadily into the nature and origins of violence. It is far too simplistic to think of violence as originating solely in the psychology of hatred and anger. Violence is intrinsic to the function of the nation-state. Our freedoms and privileges in a liberal democracy are ultimately guaranteed by the willingness of the state to use violence to protect them.
When I first read that back in 2001 it angered me the way my comments along the same lines anger a lot of people who read me. But I’ve reflected on it over the years and, much as I would like to deny it (and believe me, I would!), Batchelor is right. I think it’s really crucial that we as Buddhists do not refuse to face reality.
In his new comedy special, Louis C.K. talks about slavery and how horrible it was. But then he holds up his Smart Phone and says� something like, “But without slavery we wouldn’t have these!” This refers to the established fact that the workers in the factories in Asia that make our Smart Phones, our Nike shoes, the computer you’re reading this essay on and so forth are living under conditions often worse than those suffered by the Africans captured to work the plantations of the Old South. Louis C.K. concludes, “We could have candle light and horses and buggies and all be nice to each other, or we could have these!”
Denying the facts doesn’t change them. It’s important to face the fact that your freedom to openly hate the government and the military without fear of reprisal is guaranteed by the government and military and by their willingness to kill those who would try to stop you. I don’t say it’s good that it’s that way. I don’t even say it has to be that way. But I know that it is that way and that’s important.