John Lennon’s killer came up for parole once again recently and was denied.
Whenever this guy comes up for parole and it hits the news a whole bunch of people say things like, “If Lennon were alive, he’d probably forgive his killer.” But that does not ring true to me at all.
John Lennon was not a saint. He loved Yoko and Sean very much. This man killed Yoko’s husband and Sean’s father. I can’t see the real human being John Lennon feeling at all kindly or forgiving toward him. Perhaps the imaginary Saint Lennon we’ve created since his death would. But that person never existed.
Lennon’s killer himself made the argument that if John Lennon were alive he’d vote for his killer to be set free the last time he came up for parole. It’s an absurd argument though. Because even if were true, whose fault is it that John Lennon is not around to speak up for him?
For me, though, this sparks off a bigger question.
None of the great spiritual masters we revere today were nearly as wonderful in real life as we have made them out to be. Whatever personality flaws the Buddha may have had have been obscured and smoothed over in the 2500 years since the real man departed from this world. We’ll never know if he ever did anything along the lines of, say, getting drunk and insulting the Smothers Brothers at the Troubadour and getting ejected from the club with a Kotex pad stuck on his forehead like Lennon did in 1974.
Anything even remotely like that has been permanently expunged from the historical record. What we’re left with is a projection of our own ideas of the perfect person. This, of course, is even more the case with Jesus of Nazareth. There we have even less information about the real person behind the myth and most of that information is highly unreliable. The historical Jesus could have been just about anything for all we really know about him.
What would Jesus do, indeed? God only knows!
For most of my life I’ve taken the stance that the reality trumps the fantasy in all cases and in every way. And yet lately I find myself wondering if that’s actually so. Sometimes I think maybe it might be useful to believe in impossible heroes.
If, for instance, you create a perfectly saintly Jesus in your mind and when some cretinous moron cuts you off in traffic you ask yourself, “What would Jesus do?” and decide to let it go, well, that’s very good. Your image of the perfect man Jesus helped you do the right thing. It doesn’t matter much if the historical Jesus could be time transported into your car and it turned out he screamed and yelled and cursed the guy’s fig trees to whither. The historical Jesus is irrelevant.
So perhaps there is some limited usefulness in mythical impossibly compassionate or impossibly kind or impossibly intelligent beings. Obviously it would be taking things much too far if you pardoned John Lennon’s killer based on your image of what Saint Lennon would have done. I’m not saying that.
Yet in terms of every day moral action, sometimes it might be OK to envision the most perfect person in the world and ask what she might do if faced with whatever situation you find yourself in.
I still think it’s also good for us to know such people don’t really exist. It’s good to know that even those who do the right thing always do so while fighting against their urge to, say, punch some dickhead’s lights out because he clearly deserves it. It’s good to understand that this kind of urge never really disappears completely. It’s good to know that every single instance of saintly behavior is an instance of someone holding back their baser animalistic tendencies toward revenge or greed or hatred or anger.
In the Buddhist precepts we are asked not to give way to anger. We’re not asked never to feel angry. That would be impossible. But we are asked not to allow anger to become a motivation for our behavior.
Now of course the word “anger” is used to mean a lot of very different things. One can be said to be “angry” about the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri without necessarily being emotionally angry about them. There’s some overlap, obviously. But people sometimes use the word “angry” in cases like this to indicate a feeling that things are seriously not right and need to be fixed immediately. That’s not the same as the raw emotion of anger — though I’ll say it again, often these types of “anger” are mixed together.
Same with the word “hatred.” I can “hate” the situation in Ferguson in a rational way, which may lead me to make sensible efforts to make things better without holding on to a hot, emotion-based kind of hatred.
So the Buddhist precepts do not ask us to be complacent. They just ask us not to act out of the emotion of anger or the emotion of hatred. Sometimes it may be useful to envision an impossible being who is beyond all anger and hatred and try to do what we think they would do, even knowing that such people have never existed.
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What would Jesus do if he just read that article for free and saw a donation button at the bottom of it? I think you know the answer!
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Here’s my upcoming events schedule:
Sept. 6 Houston Zen Center All Day Zazen
Sept. 9 Austin Zen Center
Oct. 1 Turku Panimoravintola Koulu, Finland– Movie screening
Oct. 2 Helsinki, Finland – Lecture Event
Oct. 3-5 Helsinki, Finland Zen retreat at Helsinki Zen Center
Oct. 6 Movie Screening in Espoo, Finland
Oct. 8 Lecture in Munich, Germany
Oct. 10-11 Retreat in Munich, Germany
Oct. 12-17 Retreat at Benediktushof near Würzburg, Germany
Oct 18-19 Retreat in Bonn, Germany
Oct 20 Hamburg, Germany
Oct 24: Lecture in Groningen, Netherlands
Oct 25: Day-long zazen in Groningen, Netherlands
Oct 26: Movie screening in Eindhoven, Netherlands at Natlab
Oct 27: Evening zazen in Eindhoven, Netherlands
Oct 28: Evening zazen in Nijmegen, Netherlands
Oct 29: Lecture in Amsterdam, Netherlands at “De Roos” bookstore from 19.00-21.00 (P Cornelisz Hooftstr 183)
Oct 30: Lecture in Utrecht, Netherlands at “De wijze kater” bookstore from 19.00-21.00 ( Mariaplaats 1, Utrecht)
Nov 1-2: Retreat in Utrecht, Netherlands
Nov. 2: Movie screening in Utrecht, Netherlands at ACU
Nov 6-8: Retreat in Hebden Bridge, UK
Nov 9: Noon – 5pm Manchester, UK