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Barbara O'Brien

Help the Advice Columnist!

By July 12, 2012

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The Salon.com advice columnist, Cary Tennis, has a new question from a Nichiren Shoshu Buddhist who says she was ridiculed for her chanting practice. So let's play "Dear Abby" and see what advice we come up with.

Background: The writer says that her Nichiren Shoshu temple had been damaged in a fire, and so the sangha had rented space in a community center for services while repairs were made. She was attending service when her two-year-old son got a bit rowdy, so she took him outside to a park next to the building.

She was chanting gongyo with the group when some cyclists rode up and began to mock her:

Someone around the fountain kind of hushed the group, saying there is a service going on inside. One of the cyclists in the group said, "Oh yes, I think it's a bunch of Hare Krishnas," and continued to list a bunch of unrelated religions and finally settled on "Buddhists, yeah, that's it, Buddhists." He then began chanting gibberish in a mocking way. Someone must have pointed over to me and I heard him say, "So what, who's she, the keeper ... this is a park, isn't it?"

She says she chose to ignore the mockery and keep chanting. However, later she began to kick herself around for being a wuss:

I felt like I didn't defend myself or speak up for my faith and those chanting inside. My internal dialog quickly turned into me telling myself I'm such a loser. I feel like this happens time and again.

So her question was, what should she have said?

Cary Tennis's advice wasn't bad. He cited Pema Chodron talking about "where we are hookable." Pema Chodron said we need people around us to provoke our neuroses, to show us where we have work to do. Reacting self-defensively shows us that we're still clinging to a "self."

In the response I added, I said I was surprised the writer didn't relate to the chapter in the Lotus Sutra about the Never-Despising Bodhisattva. When people mocked this bodhisattva, or struck him with sticks and stones, he would retreat a short distance. Then he would turn and bow to his assailants, saying, "I do not despise you. You will become buddhas."

An online lecture about this passage says that the bodhisattva was primarily concerned about cultivating seeds of buddhahood in his mockers. This is what bodhisattva's vow to do for all beings.

Of course, it doesn't hurt to remind ourselves that bullies and jerks are just manifesting the twisted way they see the world. Really, their bad behavior toward you doesn't have anything to do with you; it's all about them. If you react in anger, you are just reinforcing their delusions.

However, unless you are extremely skillful, even a few well-meaning words of teaching would not be accepted well. Ignoring them and continuing to chant probably was the best response. Can you think of a better one?

July 12, 2012 at 11:24 am
(1) Franko says:

my first thought was that it was a (sadly) missed opportunity for education, and my second thought was that she shouldn’t beat herself up about missing the opportunity. more will come.

still, it’s easy for me to say. i don’t know what i would’ve done in the same situation. i have sat with chanting groups before, and it took me a long time to be comfortable chanting with everyone else — i can’t imagine myself chanting by myself somewhere in public. so my response probably would’ve been the same as hers. i have lots of learning to do, too. : )

July 12, 2012 at 11:57 am
(2) CL says:

“more will come.”

Indeed it will.

I think her external response was appropriate, the second guessing I’m not so sure. I practice morning and evening gongyo, most days, on a crowded commuter train in and out of Manhattan. I actually find that I don’t have to just whisper but can keep a reasonably audible volume level (it helps), use juzu beads/hand mudras, and only occasionally someone will ask what I’m doing. In these cases, it has been an opportunity to talk about buddhism.

I usually employ the Never-Disparaging practice when I am on foot, in midtown, swirling samsara in all it’s glory….. :o )

It also helps to practice some kind of more specfic, short antidote with visualization, some silence, perhaps after daimoku, especially if feelings of intense anger or self-depreciation arise.


July 12, 2012 at 2:31 pm
(3) Michael says:

I think she did the only reasonable thing. Trying to engage jerks like that would only have prolonged/escalated the encounter. I doubt they would have been open to understanding any point of view she tried to put across.

That said, not losing it probably did have an effect on those guys. Who knows down the line, when they are older and a bit more reflective, they might remember the Buddhist lady who who had the strength not to react to their taunts. Maybe on the day they start getting mocked by someone younger and stronger. No remains a tough guy forever.

She certainly should not see herself as a loser. Maintaining your dignity in the face of belligerent ignorance is heroic. If she had descended to their level she would have lost. These guys are afraid of anything different so they attack it. Making an effort to understand this and forgive them could actually turn this unpleasant episode into a learning experience to be grateful for.

July 12, 2012 at 5:18 pm
(4) Memento Mori says:

I think assuming this person was a jerk is a mistake. None of us knows the circumstances that led to his comments, but we do know every effect has a cause.

This young lady had a great opportunity presented to her. Challenges like this help us to grow as practitioners and bring to awareness our own preconceptions. That being said, there were many actions she could have performed that could be considered ‘right’ or ‘courageous’, as long as it was done with the 8-fold path in mind.

July 12, 2012 at 6:23 pm
(5) SpuriusL says:

As Eleanor Roosevelt once said: “No one demeans or belittles me without my permission”. Achieving detachment, to me, means not allowing the emotions and passions of others to affect me. In the dhammapada, the sutta: “Just as a solid rock is not shaken by the storm, even so, the Wise are not affected by praise or blame” helps me to understand that my reaction to such behavior is the only thing that is truly under my control, not the behavior of others. Also studying and meditating on the Eight Worldly Winds really helps in not allowing the praise or criticism of others to negatively affect me.

July 12, 2012 at 7:39 pm
(6) Chris White says:

A person who attacks/insults a complete stranger for no apparent reason is simply looking for a confrontation, probably so they can “defeat” the Other in order to feel better about themselves.

I think the chanter’s response in this case was entirely appropriate; I doubt that even the most carefully chosen and delivered words of wisdom would have had the slightest impact on one so bound up in his own ego. Speaking to him would only have provoked a more agressive response as he tried to alleviate his own pain by inflicting pain on someone else. I generally feel only sorrow for those who have to engage with the world in such a manner; their lives must be so full of pain and fear that they don’t even recognise it as such.

As for the writer; it might be wise to reflect, not on what she “should have done”, but on the fact that this man’s behaviour has made her feel bad about herself. His actions, performed in the past, are still acting on her (or at least they were when she wrote of feeling like a “loser”). Maybe she should ask why she is still hanging on to that feeling.

July 12, 2012 at 9:56 pm
(7) donald cook says:

what others say is on them; how we react is on us. It is that simple, and it is that liberating. We can change no other; yet we can change ourselves. When a practitioner says simply; “that is what You said”, in response to hatred; they are giving the unaccepted gift back to the giver, and taking charge of themselves. Far from depersonalizing, they substitute loving-kindness and compassion for hatred. this is not being a “wuss” ( the ego never promotes anything complimentary! ), this is being fully engaged in clear-light mind, by understanding that form-ignorance is baseless, and Buddha-Dharma is in every being! Just letting their words be words, without Your spin on it, will bring You unfettered Peace; believing that we can change anybody’s mind brings self-hatred–because it cannot work. May We all have Happiness; may We all live in Peace, Safety, and Joy!

July 13, 2012 at 2:11 am
(8) Wayne says:

In these situations, I always think of the two arrows. Obviously the first arrow is the pain of being ridiculed by the cyclists, the second arrow is the one she shot into herself. I don’t know what she should have said, if anything, but the real truth is that she doesn’t need to beat herself up over someone being a jerk.

July 13, 2012 at 11:39 am
(9) Mila says:

I was quite impressed with how the columnist handled the question — citing Pema Chodron, etc. — much better, it seems, than the average “non-Buddhist” media person.

When I feel an impulse to “act out” in the way that the cyclists did — with anger, hatred, cruelty, derision, etc. — I try to bring to mind the image of these sorts of actions as being like throwing a handful of sh*t or red-hot coals at the person or people I’m upset with. Even if I hit the target, my own hands will for sure become more burned and/or smelly than theirs, in the process …. so do I really want to do that?

When I’m on the receiving end, I like to use the image that donald-cook mentioned above: thinking of their words/actions as something like an offered gift, which (like holiday fruit-cake) I can simply decline, can simply say, “no, thank you” — with no obligation whatsoever to accept it. When I know I have this choice, I’m empowered to remain in my own freedom, and grant them theirs, also ….. :)

July 15, 2012 at 12:33 pm
(10) David says:

I think I would have done the same–ignore them. But possibly, if you happen to have a very witty rejoinder on the tip of your tongue, it might be worth saying something (if it is funny). I recall a supposedly true story of a older lady who was “flashed” in public by a guy who opened his coat and had nothing on underneath. Instead of running away or getting flustered, she replied “You wanted to show me THAT?” I can’t think of an equivalent zinger for mockers of Buddhist chanters, but somewhere in the world there must be one.

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