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Violence and Emptiness

by Suvarnaprabha

Violence and Emptiness

by Suvarnaprahba

Audio available at: http://www.freebuddhistaudio.com/talks/details?num=OM725B

Talk given at the Western Buddhist Order Women's Convention, 2005


There seems to be a question of like, notes. Whether you're meant to take notes or not, and I
would say no. [laughter]. But I didn't write anything down. But if anybody really wanted me
to I could, although it doesn't seem likely. But anyway don't write anything down; it doesn't
matter that much.

I was trying to be all composed for this talk, 'cos I'm usually not very composed, and I was
listening to Vidyamala's talk and I put my hand in my head and it was kind of sticky, and I
realized that I'd left the shampoo in my hair. [laughter]. The only possible explanation...
[laughter].

But that is not what I am here to talk about... [laughter]. So the name of this talk is ‘Violence
and Emptiness’ which I came up with some time ago, but I think maybe a more accurate one
would be: ‘Violence and Non-Violence and Emptiness’, possibly.

So, I was sort of focusing more on the last part of the verses, which are;

"Like water and the water wheel, helplessly we circle,
I bow down to the compassion that arises for all beings."

Which you could say covers quite a lot of territory in terms of what it’s talking about. It felt
very big to me. So, on the "water wheel" part – which is quite interesting – I'm going to say
something about violence, which I'm sort of interested in; and then, I've sort of been into
writing definitions lately for some reason. I'll probably get really attached to them later, but at
the moment I find them kind of fun, and I've written some things about compassion. But I'm
going to start off with a poem that was written by a guy called Jimmy Santiago Baca who's an
American who was sent to prison. I don't know for what but I know that he couldn't read and
write when he got to prison, and he's a fairly well known poet now. So I thought I would read
a poem by him to start off.

“The elegance with which
in the sweetest humility the
Lilac senses the time
to show itself –
fights adversity all winter,
coldest nights
blowing storms,
clinging to fence posts,
tossed and heaved,
trampled, pecked by crows,
almost eaten by insects,
pummeled by brute heat –
yet the whole time
still as a stone carved Buddha
meditating,
silently greets the world
in its vow of silence, birth to death alone, in the rain
weaving its being into a nameless red blossom
opening at dawn.

And its body
we preserve
in pages of books,
that have kept our belief in love,
next to poetry lines we love so much
where we place our dreams
for safekeeping
from the harmful world
that hurts us so much sometimes,
I place this flower.”

So: ‘where we place our dreams’. So as I said, I didn't realize this for probably almost my
whole life but I'm sort of interested in violence. And as this person there mentions... I
occasionally meditate with violent people who are in jail. But I think I am primarily
interested in violence in myself, and I'll say in a second what I mean by that.

But I was just recollecting a time when I was about five and I had learned to read (and I'm
guessing that's how old I was), and I noticed a newspaper on a table somewhere, and I went
and said, “This is no longer a mystery of jumbles of symbols, I can read it.” I was very
excited, and I picked up the newspaper and I have no, (this would have been around 1968), I
have no recollection of what I read. It might have been to do with Vietnam, it might have
been to do with the Civil Rights Movement, I don't know. But I know that I was so shocked
by the violence that was in this newspaper that I just started bawling, sitting on this couch,
and I remember thinking, “God I can't...Like how am I going to live. Everything's so
horrible!” And I still feel like that occasionally.

So I said I was interested in violence, but probably interested isn't really the right word – but
I think that I was born with an intense sensitivity to all sort of levels of violence. I feel like
that is my... almost like a karmic inheritance. And I suspect that other people have this
sensitivity also, but I don't know about that actually. And so I'll just say what I mean by
violence. I mean, you know the obvious things, bombs exploding on underground trains,
domestic violence, which is what about half of the people I meditate with in the jail have
engaged in; racism, sexism, which are like violent pre-characterisations of someone. And
then also harsh speech, criticism, irritation, annoyance, addiction, being self deprecating,
being bossy, the list is endless...

So there are many ways to talk about it. I was thinking of it earlier as a kind of immaturity...
violence. But I think the the violence that I've been the most interested in lately is maybe a lot
more subtle than all these ones I've just named. Which is, basically, experiencing my own
subtle resistance in meditation, and having a very strong experience of just resisting really
basic experiences. And I don't think that that is fundamentally different from any of the other
kinds of violence that I named. I suspect that it's all the same thing.

And this is the wheel that we all hopelessly circle on. Or the wheel that the water circles in.
And what I said about this kind of sensitivity to all these different kinds of violence – I'll also
mention that I've also shocked myself with all these things like harsh speech and stuff. I
remember when I first started going on retreat, I used to get off retreat and I'd be all mellow,
and calm, and nice and everything – and then I'd just say something, and it would be
shocking because it was just the way I was used to speaking, but it was really violent. And it
still happens every once in a while, but it's not that often.

And I just wanted to make a general comment about how this has been my experience of
myself; and also how with people in jail – people who are really, seem really, tough and scary
are actually like little kittens on the inside; and the reason that they got so tough and scary is
because they are so sensitive, and that's been my experience, over and over and over again
with big, mean-looking bikers... I've had many people tell me they were afraid of me in fact.
Which always really upset me. I'd be like, “Why? What the hell's wrong with you?” [laughter]
And that didn't help... But it doesn't happen very often any more, which I'm grateful for.

So what does all this have to do with compassion? I guess I was thinking about compassion
as something that comes from a response, or an action that arises from that kind of basis of
not resisting (that I was talking about). Or of ‘not opposing’, or ‘oppressing’, or which ever
word you would like. So my little definition that I wrote was;

“Freedom of response and unburdened response, that happens when resistance, or
oppression or violence – whichever you want to use – on all levels and on all its forms and
stories, is abandoned”

I also have:

“Action routed in a lack of resistance.”

And I also have:

“Action routed in awareness of one’s own, and other people’s, nakedness, or tenderness.”

In the jail they have this very special program that helps people actually stop being violent.
And they look at their past a lot, as one must; and I went to one of these sessions where I
heard a man who had been violent as an adult, and he was talking about his childhood, and he
had also been a victim. So they had this thing where victims come in and talk about their
experience. And he said a lot of stuff. He was very emotional, and his voice was shaking, he
was this huge guy in this orange thing that everybody wears in the jail. And there were a
couple of things that stood out for me that he said. He said that his mother had told him his
entire life that it was his fault his twin had died when they were born. That was one thing.
And the other thing was about being handed a crack pipe when he was not very old. And I
was very upset by this guy's story for a few weeks, I think, after that, and thinking about how
sensitive people are, and especially children. You know what a huge affect we have on
children, and just that sense of, even though he was this big, mean-looking guy who could
probably beat up his wife or something. I mean, I don't know why he was in jail…

Well, in a way, he was just sort of carrying on the wheel. And I guess it just struck me in a
very personal way how important it is to not perpetuate... Or… Well, basically, to cut off the
violence that we are ...

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