A few weeks ago, this Hispanic man was kicking a baby squirrel to death in the yard. I appreciate that the badness is in the action, not in the man, much less in the ethnicity of the person. And I realize that although the effects are long lasting, the “bad” goes away in the instant the bad action stops.
What are the effects? A young Caucasian man pushes the Hispanic man to the ground. Later that night, seven or eight Hispanic men beat the Caucasian man in the head using combination locks in socks as bludgeons.
Everyone, including me, assumes the Hispanics are members of the same gang that controls the chow hall and steals food. The Hispanic servers short Caucasians—particularly “old white guys” they presume to be “choms” (child molesters). I am old and Caucasian.
Even with the short portions, I’m in no danger of starving. It’s just the idea of it. I boil with malice. I try all sorts of things. I keep the malice in clear awareness. That always helps, but I’m still just burning. I try mantra. That’s some help, but I’m still on simmer. Then I read this passage in Anguttara Nikaya:
He bears no ill will and is not corrupt in the resolves of the heart. [He thinks,] ‘May these beings be free from animosity, free from oppression, free from trouble, and may they look after themselves with ease.
When I recite this silently to myself in the chow hall line, the fire goes out. Prison is just scenery. The real problem is birth, aging, and death.
The third Pure Precept Actualize good for others, is an excellent example of this different approach to a universal social principle.
At first flush, my initial understanding of this precept is that it is an embodiment of the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” As far as I know, every culture and religion has some version of this rule at the center of its behavioral prescriptions. And for good reason. A society in which everyone treated each other with dignity and respect and saw to each others’ needs sounds ideal.
Sometimes, however, efforts to do good for one another can backfire. “Do-gooders” can be too intrusive if their service isn’t welcome, or if their good intentions are misguided and they do the wrong things. Problems arise when I try to impose my solutions on your needs. Remove the separation and what would happen? By seeking to understand your mind, I would naturally act in a way that would lessen your suffering. It would be as if I were helping myself. No separation.
It is easy to envision seeing through the eyes of someone we like or admire. It would be like joining eyebrows with the masters. But what about someone who is a jerk? In prison, what if it is a guy who is loud day and night, who disrespects almost everyone else, who constantly talks crap to the guards and causes them to retaliate on all of us in the pod with midnight goon squads, and who refuses to listen to any advice, especially from a boring old white guy like me? No separation between him and me? Really?
I had to do an experiment because I have just such a guy living not 30 feet from me. I had to be quick and careful because guys like him generally get beat down and sent to the hole. It is called “running him off” in here. It won’t be long for him unless he changes. I decided to reduce the mile-wide gulf that separated us—a gulf that I had largely encouraged.
Baby steps. I opened the door a bit by laughing at some of his jokes and by openly agreeing when he said stuff about the guards. He took quick notice. After a couple of days of this, we found ourselves next to each other in the chow hall line. I asked him how things were going. He said, “Not good.” I said, “Tell me about it.” It’s easy to listen. Just ask a leading question once in a while to sharpen your understanding, keep your mouth shut, and be genuinely interested. I ended up doing just that for close to an hour, learning that the young man was being eaten up with anxiety and personal failure with a consequent rejection by his family. This is a huge load for anyone to carry and all too common among prisoners.
While I could offer some encouraging words, obviously I couldn’t change his life in one hour. He has a long road ahead of him. However, I know that my own resentment at his behavior has nearly disappeared and if he were to want to reach out once again, I would not drive him away.