This week’s blog post is contributed by Wade Jones: father, school worker, community leader, and Buddhist priest. Also a great thinker and my friend! This post, originally a talk to a Buddhist community, offers a universal message that is especially relevant today.
Reflecting on the Precepts
“I vow to refrain from all evil / It is the abode of the law of all Buddhas / It is the source of the law of Buddhas.”
“I vow not to kill / By not killing life the Buddha tree seed grows. / Transmit the life of Buddha and do not kill.”
“I vow not to harbor ill will. / Not negative, not positive, neither real nor unreal, / there is an ocean of illuminated clouds / and an ocean of bright clouds.”
These three vows are all from our Precepts renewal ceremony. It’s a lovely ceremony about rededicating ourselves to the Precepts – the basic vows that you take when you decide you really are a Buddhist. As a note, I don’t subscribe to the idea that you need to undergo a formal precept ceremony to be a Buddhist. I think it just takes the intention to be a Buddhist. Ceremonies just mean someone else acknowledges it.
I think, in much of what we talk about in terms of vows – Intention is everything. Behavior and Action are powerful and outward signs of who we are – Intention made manifest and on display, so to speak, but how many times have we rehearsed an action before making it manifest? For how long has a thought been on repeat in our minds before we take that action? Are we like the nervous teenager who has to psych themselves up to asking out a potential paramour? Reciting our words, imagining the endeavor going down in flames, imagining the embarrassment, and then maybe, just maybe still imagining a positive outcome and finally finding the courage to ask them out?
Our intentions are the actions and behaviors that we only show ourselves, but as we are the architects of our whole universe, we can’t help but be laid bare – no matter how much we dodge and avoid looking at those intentions, at the mental rehearsals, essentially looking at our selves.. We can’t avoid it.
This thought has been on my mind a lot the last week or so, spurred by two events that were making the rounds on my facebook feed. I apologize if you came here to avoid facebook – but I can’t deny that it provides an amazing amount of grist for the mill.
Punching Richard Spencer
First was the attack by a black bloc member on Richard Spencer. For those of you who don’t know who Richard Spencer is, he’s one of the leaders of the Alt-Right, the New Nazi element in today’s political sphere. He was in an interview on a street and from the crowd, someone ran up and hit him. The video is out there. I don’t necessarily recommend viewing it, but it’s there. The moment is fast, and violent, almost Surreal.
I grew up a comic book aficionado, and if comic books taught me anything, it was that punching Nazi’s was *ALWAYS* an ok thing to do. Captain America slugging it out with Hitler is classic americana – it is seriously an iconic image. If you prefer DC to Marvel, Wonder Woman is the same – her, fighting the Nazi’s is a classic. But this video brought it into a rather different perspective for me. Captain America, for as cool and attractive as Steve Rodgers always was, he is battling against the enemies of a by-gone day. That trope, fighting Nazi’s, worked so well in part because Nazi’s were a vanquished foe who had passed into the collective mythology as evil personified – taking the Buddhist use of a swastika as good luck charm with them, I might add.
The current thread is different. We’re no longer talking about comic book violence, or even about historical violence. We’re watching and discussing real violence in the now this time, in our current world. And of course, because this instance is still flagging the previous fictional and mythical indicators of a fight of good vs evil, there are portions of our culture that are cheering this. Whole segments of the American culture are now engaged in debate over the question – “Is it ok to strike a Nazi? When? Why?”
The second instance I mentioned is the opening of Shia LaBeouf’s ongoing art exhibit – ironically enough, titled “He will not divide us”. The exhibit is a 4 year long, always-on, livestream. In its opening day a young man was advocating Nazi inspired white nationalist propaganda, to which LeBeouf responded by shouting him down. Repeatedly. Indeed, his verbal assault is almost more disturbingly violent that the rapid assault of the black bloc operating in DC. There is nothing restrained in his shouts. No victory in any moral or ethical sense just because he managed to not physically strike the man.
What’s Going On Here?
There are moments you see, and realize that you are witnessing the release of pent up fear and anger. Emotion bottled and stored and caged. Eventually, that emotion gets released and it’s often ugly and violent in its passage.
Watching it though, watching these two outpourings of emotional and physical violence, I can not help but think of all the ways that I personally glorify, romanticize, and otherwise pine for violence. It’s in our media and our news. It’s really just part of the ongoing mental play we have for ourselves.
There are countless little imaginings and retellings that reinforce our fascination with violence in all it’s forms. From our movies, tv shows, and books to the small arguments with my mother that I repeat in my head over and over again. And I’m not advocating the elimination of that media. I’m just pointing out that we immerse ourselves within it on a regular basis.
I read the various arguments this week from different segments of my community. Some arguing that if we knew nothing else, we knew that attacking Nazi’s was always ok. But there were still a few brave souls pushing back at that narrative, reasserting the power of nonviolence and of humanity.
I, of course, lean heavily towards the nonviolence side of this argument. I am reminded that Spencer and this anonymous young man, both of whom would spread an ideology of hate – they are still human beings. They are still caught in fear, and ignorance, and delusion. They have, in fact, been so caught, so enmeshed that they are thrashing with the power of it. I wonder how many others they will pull deeper into the webs of delusion with them.
There are wounds to be healed all around in this, though. There are the wounds that keep those following a doctrine of ill-will and then there are the wounds that cause others to lash out and attempt to silence them. And this cycle is particularly pernicious, precisely because it is so effective.
There is a peculiar and powerful rush to violence. It has an allure for so many reasons. It feels effective and gives a quick hit of that elusive drug – control. Violence gives us the illusion that we have, for a moment, imposed our control on a situation that we know is spiraling wildly out of our reach or understanding.
The Sutras are clear though. Violence is almost never the skillful means. It invariably inflicts it’s collateral damage somewhere in the equation – there is always karma to be paid.
I can’t sit here and say unilaterally that violence is always the wrong answer. I’m quite sure that there will be instances where it appears to be your only answer and I do not deny those times and places. But I see the rising tide of chaos around us and feel a strong calling to bring our attention to the pain and suffering around us. The pain and suffering that causes men and women to lash out as they thrash in the throes of delusion.
I want to ask you – before you resort to violence. Before you raise your fist. Before you raise even your voice. Think about what this violence is communicating. Try to think of the ways that you can be a balm to someone in this moment who is hurting. It is our calling, each of us as Bodhisattvas, to try and ease that burden in the world.
We are imperfect at it, but the Intention is everything.