Bestow kindness and aid the poor, so that they can be at peace.
When you witness people killing, have thoughts of compassion.
- The Shramanera Vinaya
I’ve been noticing…. One is that people seem to always have some kind of interpersonal conflict going on, and a second is that there’s always news of violence and disasters happening in the world.
Last week I visited the Bay Area for a few days to catch up with some old friends. Visiting the “normal” world generally presents me with a lot of drama (also known as news) that I don’t really have to think about while going about my routine at the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas. Having been at CTTB now for about six months, I’ve been noticing some trends about my visits to the outside world. One is that people seem to always have some kind of interpersonal conflict going on, and a second is that there’s always news of violence and disasters happening in the world.
Neither of these things would seem that strange to someone reading this “from the outside.” I sometimes wonder if anyone could understand how peculiar these two things seem to someone who’s been living in a monastery for six months. But it really makes me think: what’s going on in the world, and what’s different here at CTTB?
I think I’m getting at a question that’s very important to Buddhist practice. The question might be something like: what’s the connection between symbolic violence and the open, compassionate space of Buddhist practice? It’s fairly apparent that symbolic violence doesn’t really hold any weight here at CTTB. No one really fights here, or even really argues. The whole idea of an aggressive power struggle just doesn’t fit at all—and in a really profoundly good way. It’s something I often notice and reflect on because it’s so different. Of course I still hear news of war and disaster in the world, and I try to contemplate these things when I dedicate my practice, but in my day-to-day life the forces of violence, or even any power struggle at all, are almost completely removed from anything that seems real.
One thing I can say for sure is that being removed from power struggles doesn’t immediately put an end to my tendency to get involved in them. What it does do is make it clear to me that there are sources of violence, anger, and power struggles that are all coming from the inside. And from this perspective it also becomes clear that those sources must exist in everyone, that there’s a kind of internal involvement in violence that allows it to perpetuate, and that uprooting these tendencies could be profoundly good for the world.
I’ve often asked myself, when is violence justified? Over the years I’ve realized that violence is always justified—because justification is the first cause for violence.
I’ve often asked myself, when is violence justified? Over the years I’ve realized that violence is always justified—because justification is the first cause for violence. That’s how it works. I can see this when something makes me angry or when I become judgmental. There’s usually some kind of fear or stubborn frustration, some kind of fixation on something that I wanted, some kind of perceived threat or external power. My reaction to this thinking becomes reflected in my breathing and the feelings in my body, and then I call it anger.
Five years ago I was mugged while walking down the street just after sunset in Oakland. The whole ordeal only lasted about two minutes, but the emotional impact of the event stayed with me for years. Even today I haven’t forgotten about it. The physical event itself was actually not particularly important; like I said, it only lasted a couple of minutes. I wasn’t badly hurt, and I got my wallet back the next morning. Objectively it was a very minor event in the world. But the emotional and symbolic impact it had on me was enormous because it challenged so much of what I understood about my own personal safety and power.
So what’s the benefit of having space from this kind of thought? It seems to me that the monastic environment offers a space where all of these internal struggles can work themselves out, where we finally get to relax a little bit, where we have some space to see ourselves in a new way. The nature of this kind of seclusion is that I don’t get the chance to share it too often, but I think the impact that this kind of space has, especially to people who have dedicated a great deal of time to it, can have a profoundly positive effect on the world.