The Failure of Nonviolence
The mantra-wheel pavilion unnerved me for the duration of my brief stay at the Buddhist retreat center. It was prominently placed on the property and loomed, lit, at night. I got a nightmarish feeling when I even approached it, especially after dark.
The retreat center’s inhabitants spent many years raising money to build these enormous motorized mantra wheels. They contained millions of mantra rolled into giant scrolls, spinning continuously under an ornamental roof. The Buddhists said the mantra were very powerful and the wheels’ constant spinning sent huge amounts of positive energy into the world, but I found them creepy. Their grinding groan was anything but sacred to me.
I would hurry past the pavilion only to come upon a four-story sculpture of some mythical Buddha-being wielding a giant scepter. Its painted eyes were wide and crazed, and this, too, was frightening. At that point in my walk I’d sprint back to my cabin and cower on the sleeping platform, grateful for the darkness.
I wanted to write for a few days in the midst of a traveling summer. The midwife who delivered my brother’s college best friend now lived at this Buddhist center in the mountains of northern California. They could rent me a retreat cabin for $20 a night. You could actually live there for free if you did chores and took an oath to their leader. “That’s like, Plan Z,” said another kid who had been delivered by the same midwife.
The practiced empathy of the Buddhists was very soothing to the temperamental artist in me. “What are you going to work on today, Emily?” they would ask over breakfast.
“I thought I might work on this real whopper of an essay I’ve been chugging along on. I’m trying to draw a connection between decadence, tourism, and the exploitation of indigenous people through the lens of a love affair. It’s about fifty pages, which is kind of an odd length, but I think it’s really starting to come together…”
The Buddhists, fresh from their prostrations and on their way to their mindful chores, would look me straight in the eyes. “Well, I hope that goes well for you,” they would say, shaming me into deep focus with their total presence. If they could clear poison oak from the paths or slice vegetables for dinner with such purity of intention, the least I could do would be to give the morning my best shot.
One of the residents gave me a tour of the center’s significant landmarks. He showed me the spinning mantra wheels and the place where the original lineage holder’s ashes were buried. After the previous lineage holder died, he said, a special committee went to Tibet to find his successor. This was achieved by giving baby boys a choice of various objects, some of which the lineage holder had owned and some of which were decoys. The baby boy who picked the object the lineage holder had actually owned would reveal himself as the new lineage holder.
But how did they know which baby boys to show the objects to?
“So our leader, before he died, he gave some hints on where he was going to reincarnate, because he has conscious birth.”
I couldn’t help it. I had to ask. “If he is capable of conscious birth and knows where he’s going to reincarnate, why doesn’t he just tell you exactly where that’s going to be before he dies?”
“That’s a good question,” he smiled. “And I don’t know the answer to it.”
Another morning I talked with a woman around my age. “Before I came here, I’d been doing all kinds of wasteful things,” she said, “like drinking and smoking and having sex.”
“Uh-huh,” I said uneasily.
“But I don’t have to do that anymore,” she said.
“Oh, no? How’s that going for you?”
“It’s really good!” she sighed. She had also given up wheat and dairy.
We were in the communal kitchen. She was mindfully putting away the non-dairy spreads for her wheat-free breads.
Over lunch, someone mentioned that they had read about a woman who worked for Kellogg, Brown and Root in Iraq who had been gang-raped by her co-workers. The woman who had given up drinking, smoking, sex, wheat, and dairy said, “You know, it’s easy for me to feel empathy for the woman, because I identify with her, but it’s a much harder part of my practice to feel empathy for the rapists.”
“I’d like to have the opportunity to personally castrate and then kill the rapists,” I said. The Buddhist looked disturbed. “I mean, I’m not a violent person,” I added.
“It is part of my practice to get my heart to crack open for all humankind,” she said. “How do you deal with hearing about things like this?”
I went on a long diatribe about systemic violence, institutional violence, corporate violence, the military-industrial complex, post-traumatic stress disorder, empathy, and dehumanization, concluding that the rape of the female military sub-contractor was both a sadly common occurrence and a metaphor.
“You speak with such detachment,” said the Buddhist.
I did not want to be detached, but I also did not want to give up drinking, smoking, sex, wheat, and dairy, and then spend my time trying to feel empathy for military subcontractor gang-rapists.
The Buddhist’s eyes were filling with tears. Oh, honey, I thought. You may think you’re crying for the gang-rapists but I don’t buy it. Have a nice big glass of wine and cry for yourself.
During my final lunch, I was chatting with a woman who lived next door to the retreat center when the term Jew-Bu came up. You know, Jews who get into Eastern religion via meditation or yoga and become hybrids, Jew-Bus.
“I’m a non-practicing Jew,” I joked, “So I guess I could just as easily be a non-practicing Jew-Bu.”
It was then that the woman who lived next to the retreat center said, “Are you going to become a Buddhist to try to reverse the karma of the Holocaust?”
It takes a lot to raise my Jewish hackles. Really a lot. I have got to be one of the most anti-Semitic Semites out there. The two things I hate most are authority and hypocrisy, so I am naturally wary of organized religion. As a person of 100% Jewish descent, Judaism was the first organized religion I had occasion to be suspicious of, and I reserve a special place in my general wariness of organized religion for it specifically. But still.
“Excuse me?” I said, slowly.
“Do you think it’s time for the Jews to work to change the karma that caused the Holocaust?” repeated the neighbor of the Buddhist center.
Now, it’s fine with me if these folks want to meditate every day and do their 108 prostrations and follow the word of their deceased lineage holder and whichever children may have, in their toddlerhood, shown an affinity for a shiny object once held by their deceased lineage holder. I am not saying that their leaders are not capable of conscious birth and re-birth, that they do not achieve enlightenment, that they do not levitate, that liquids do not travel backwards up their penises, and that they cannot see the essence of all things. For all I know, they do. And I hope they do.
Clearly meditation makes people better and happier people, and clearly these people have a really beautiful community together largely outside the conventions of normal society, which is something it always warms my heart to see, though they are doing whatever this one guy tells them to do, which it does not ever warm my heart to see, but maybe that is something they need in their lives in a way that I cannot understand for myself but appreciate, and they are not hurting anyone, and paths are many, truth is one, so whatever works for them as long as they let me be me is fine by me. And have I not also fallen under the spell of charismatic individuals who, though they are deeply flawed humans, function as demigods among their willing followers? And have I not also taken at their drunk, stoned, rambling word certain charismatic individuals who have not merely advised me to meditate but also on occasion incited me to vandalism or dangled me off cliffs? Indeed I have, indeed I have. So who am I to judge?
Now I myself will say some critical things about Judaism. I will say, for example, that I support no state and certainly not the state of Israel, that Jewish law and in fact all religion is nothing more and nothing less than an institutionalized form of obsessive-compulsive disorder that has little if anything to do with spirituality or the divine, that all of it was invented by sexaphobic misogynist power-mongering wackos for the express and exclusive purposes of socio-economic-psycho-spiritual-sexual control, that it is all, as I was told as a small child by my own parents on the steps of the first temple I entered, bullshit, that American Jews of Ashkenazi descent—of which I am one! of which I am one!—too often fit our stereotype of being high-strung, neurotic, anxious, depressive, pushy, obnoxious people with weak physical constitutions, that these problems are exacerbated by inbreeding, which is misguidedly encouraged in pursuit of a kind of eugenic fetish stemming from fantasies of racial purity ironically reminiscent of the views of Hitler himself, that I personally have never dated a Jew, that I greatly enjoy systematically profaning the laws of all religions, particularly the Jewish religion, especially by eating (preferably pork products) on Yom Kippur, eating leavened products throughout Passover, and drinking alcohol and caffeine (preferably simultaneously) on the grounds of Mormon temples, that I take a perverse pleasure in deliberately bumping into Orthodox men who are afraid to touch women just to fuck with them, that I take a perverse pleasure in behaving lasciviously toward young male Mormon missionaries just to fuck with them, that I recognize that these practices are themselves juvenile and in some way represent a kind of through-the-looking-glass reverse, perverse practice of religion as anti-religion, if not a hate crime, or at least a hate misdemeanor, that I was never bat mitzvahed, that I believe circumcision is absurd and barbaric, that Passover is a genocide narrative thinly disguised as a liberation narrative, and that piety always, without fail, masks perversion. I say these things as a Jew and a human, with an openness to and deeply felt love for my fellow Jews and all humankind and a recognition that this is only my personal opinion and experience, that not everyone shares my view, that some people, including those very close to me, find great comfort and solace in organized religion, be it Jew, Bu, or otherwise, that these people have always been very understanding of my insanity in this and all areas, perhaps, ironically, because religion has helped them to be more compassionate, and that we can all peacefully coexist just like the ubiquitous bumper sticker says.
But seriously, lady, where do you get off insinuating to, let alone outright saying to the face of a Jew, even this Jew, that the Jews somehow brought the Holocaust on themselves in some karmic way and that this karma now needs to be reversed via your own brand of religion?
So help me God, I should have cut the Buddhist bitch.