the practical buddhist : essentials

a practical buddhist response to violence

Over the course of my life, I’ve been involved in violence many times. As a child I received spankings, sometimes from my parents and sometimes from teachers and school administrators.

School violence as a child

For about 6 years, I was raised in Texas where, in the 1960s corporal punishment was not only used in the correctional system but in public schools as well.

I recall getting spanked in the 5th grade by the Principal of the elementary school I attended. My teacher had accused me of stealing her teacher’s edition textbooks largely because she placed them in my desk before I arrived.

She made a public display of feigning shock when she walked directly over to my desk and opened the top to expose her books hiding there. I was mortified and had no idea how they got there. I started crying immediately. I recall wanting to die right in my seat rather than suffer the embarrassment that I had played no part in generating.

I was marched to the Principal’s office where I was told to bend over while she swatted me on my backside about five or six times with a flat wooden device designed for the sole purpose of causing pain in children.

What violence teaches us

I know this sounds like a guilty child’s defense, but sadly, this is what actually happened to me. I suffered public shame and humiliation, and faced ridicule by all but a few of my closest friends who had witnessed the teacher hurl similar accusations toward me over the preceding months.

When I complained to my parents, they didn’t believe me at first. For months they thought I was lying about what was happening in school. It wasn’t until the father of one of my friends came over to our house one evening and told my parents the stories his daughter Charlotte had told them about Mrs. Frazier’s behavior toward me.

He explained that he and his wife found the tales hard to believe and weren’t convinced at first. It was only when Charlotte had repetitive nightmares reliving the incidents that they spoke up. I was grateful they did.

From those childhood experiences I learned one lesson:

Adults could get mad enough to hit me.

Throughout childhood I was always a rather small kid and as a result of my small stature dealt with my fair share of bullying. Even into high school (until I grew 6 inches in the span of one summer) I battled getting picked on. I was 17 and nearly 6 feet tall before I felt safe walking through the campus.

These, and other experiences later in adulthood -including have a handgun pointed at my abdomen by a thug robbing a hamburger joint in San Francisco and a relationship marked with domestic violence- renewed within me a fearful outlook on life.

I was afraid in the world and I didn’t like feeling that way. It wasn’t until my forties that I could truly feel comfortable in life, walking in the city, or anywhere in the world.

Violence as a symptom of a groundless life

In the American culture violence has become commonplace.  Small, defenseless children are being gunned down in cold blood in the sanctity of their kindergarten classrooms. Commuters die in road rage incidents stemming over abrupt lane changes and sudden stops. Playground bullies learn from being bullied at home and in turn seek out and target for retaliation those without adequate defenses.

It’s my position that violence is a symptom of a restless, ungrounded individual, devoid of any sense of innate self-worth or compassion.

Show me any person using a handgun or other weapon of violence, and I’ll show you someone who does’t have a sense of self-worth and excess self-loathing. I’ll show you an individual who feels disrespected by most people in his life and devoid of a moral foundation.

I abhor violence. It is a cycle of indifference and lack of self control. It is a symptom ozone who feels totally lost in the world.

There are some who, despite all efforts on the part of society and family, are bent on violence. Perhaps there is no changing this; perhaps genetic predisposition is a possible explanation. I’m not of such naiveté to think all violence can be stopped or even prevented.

But I do think that if we are grounded in moral accountability, living in mindful awareness of ourselves and others, and grounded in compassion, we can change our own behavior.

Some think religion is the answer; that if you train a child in a tradition of religious living that they will be spared from the overriding culture of their society. In my experience, religious training serves to make people less sensitive to the needs of others. I’ve seen them go out of their way to avoid people in need of obvious assistance. They are instead focused on the rules and rituals on their own beliefs and rarely go beyond their self-imposed behavioral boundaries.

Real compassion, though rare, is our hope

In my book, The Practical Buddhist: Buddhism Without the Robes & Ritual, I wrote:

What does it mean to practice compassionate kindness? Compassion is the gift of an honest heart full of love and acceptance.

When one is closed-off, biased, or non-accepting of the whole, they cannot engage in compassionate kindness.

Compassionate kindness is shown in speech, attitude, action, and intention as we survey the Eight-fold Path. When you encounter someone who practices compassionate kindness, you are moved by them. There is something different about them though you might not be able to pinpoint what it is.

I’d characterize His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa, St. Francis of Assisi, Wayne Dyer, Deepak Chopra, and even my youngest son as examples of those in touch with compassionate kindness. Practicing compassionate kindness is a choice anyone can make.

I support the position that compassionate kindness is rare. More often than not, kindness is conditional. But compassionate kindness is the fruit of an open heart. It’s the by-product of inclusive acceptance of all.

Show me someone who is not open-minded and I’ll show you someone who doesn’t engage in compassionate kindness.

Compassionate kindness is the fullest expression of one living as a Practical Buddhist. It’s the result of learning to master the present moment via meditation and the coming back to the present moment via mindfulness.

One feels and is moved by the suffering of others because of compassion; they aid such individuals in need with expressions of kindness.

Compassion and kindness are the antithesis of violence. Together they are more powerful than any weapon.

Neither require a background check,  and both can be carried without a permit.

Can compassion end all violence?

There are no absolutes. There isn’t a cure for all cases of violence. But compassion is the best prescription that I’m aware of that, when taken regularly, can produce life-altering changes in those who practice it.

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