Saturday, October 15, 2011


E. Ethelbert Miller asks:  In your short essay "Toro Nagashi" you mention how violence can exist in one's spirit. What did you mean by this? How is this different from violence that begins in the mind or violence that is physical?


I should clarify a little that statement from "Toro Nagashi." What I simply meant is that we almost unconsciously cultivate violence within ourselves. Culturally and socially, we are encouraged to do this. In the social world, we are daily given many invitations, not to experience compassion and empathy for others, but rather to feel separate from them (and frequently superior to them). We are especially invited to feel anger, which I imagine everyone will agree is a violent emotion. Violence and anger go hand-in-hand. (And how strange it is, don't you think, that we tend to see an angry person as a "powerful" person instead of one who is out of control, a kind of emotional barbarian?) Do these statements sound controversial? Or perhaps a little "over-the-top"? If so, then let me elaborate and fine-tune them a little.

Violence is not merely physical. Physical violence is the end result of a process that begins first in the mind. I would wager the incidents of physical violence are fewer than the countless forms of mental or psychological or verbal forms of violence that precede them. All forms of violence involve a degree of disrespect toward others. Let's focus right now on just our speech. I would judge its intention to be violent when it disparages and is intended to hurt others. When it seeks to belittle others. Or make them appear less than ourselves. (And, yes, I include in that broad statement the black folk behavior of "Playing the Dozens," which every young black male encounters early in life.) Even what socially passes as acceptable "teasing" or "kidding" involves, in my humble opinion, not so much an expression of endearment, but rather violence in the form of a faint (and usually awkward and unnecessary) attempt at humor that is always at another's expense. Too often our entertainment---comedies and satires---boils down to simply being an attempt to diminish another in some way. (Unlike drama, which seeks to portray characters in their fullness and complexity, comedy almost always involves characters rendered as types---if not stereotypes---who are reduced to a one-dimensionality of meaning or being.) Gossip contains an obvious element of violence. Lust or selfish desire that objectifies another person and ignores his (or her) individuality and integrity as a subject (i.e., another human being who just seeks happiness and freedom from suffering, as we all do) are tinctured with a violence that often later manifests itself as rape. Our motion pictures, generally, are violent, especially those that target people in their pre-teens to early thirties. (Why? Well, because violence quickly gets our attention.)

How often have we heard of politics in America referred to as being a "contact sport"? How many times a day do our elected officials, Democratic and Republican, and our talk show hosts, insult members of the opposite party? How often do they use metaphors, tropes and figures of speech literally taken from the realms of the battlefield or fighting? How often do members of one party demonize or misrepresent the members (and positions) of the opposition party? And how often do we witness, cheer, and celebrate acts of violence and aggression in competitive sports of all kinds ranging from football and basketball to hockey, boxing, and mixed martial arts? And how often have we seen mindless violence erupt among beer-bloated spectators after their home team loses a game?

There is violence in the way some rappers (and crude men in general) talk about women. And equal portions of fashionable---even socially acceptable---violence in the ways that some women stereotype and put down men as less than themselves. There is often a heartbreaking violence in the way children, in pursuit of independence and self-realization, disrespect their parents and elders. 

All this violence in the social world is, at bottom, about a competitive (not cooperative) relationship between Self and Other, one that is founded on a mistaken and deluded sense of separateness. On a sense of difference between ourselves and others. And on petty ego. It is about what a Buddhist calls maana, usually translated as "pride," though the Sanskrit verbal root for maana means "to measure," as in measuring ourselves against others---i.e., seeing others as our inferiors, equals or superiors. (I refer readers to my essay "Is Mine Bigger Than Yours?" in the winter 2010 issue of Buddhadharma: The Practitioners Quarterly.) Every dimension of our lives---personal and professional, even our miscellaneous list of "likes" and "dislikes"---is saturated with maana. With measuring, judging. (When, in fact, the Other really is a mystery whose complexity and richness always outstrip our attempts to define or characterize or measure him or her.) From our earlier years of receiving grades that measure our academic progress to the promotions we strive for in our jobs, maana is an activity we are socially coerced into engaging in every minute of every day.

If we did not do this measuring, we would be unable to function socially or, as Buddhists (or anyone pursuing a spiritual path) be able to practice "right effort" when we see our discipline becoming lax. But maana can be spiritually damaging to ourselves and others in the social world. It can lead first to thoughts, then speech and physical acts of violence.

How do we break this cycle of violence, within and without? As someone actively involved in the social world, I know I am as subject to this---anger, harmful speech and thought---as anyone. The answer, I believe, lies in the efforts we can make every moment of the day to reduce our sense of separateness. And to catch (then correct) ourselves, mindfully, when we see we are about to pass relative judgment (This is "good," that is "bad") on others (or ourselves). At the very least, we can remember the Buddhist saying I mentioned in my last post: "Open Mouth, Already A Mistake."

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