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Ming Zhen Shakya

Zen, Justice, and the Martial Arts

Part I

by Ming Zhen Shakya, OHY

For David G.

Sometime during the last score of years the Lion of Buddha on our Zen ensign has switched its stance from couchant anti-crime to rampant anti-punishment.

A self-serving corps of creative people has morphed the image of Zen clerics from mystical guides to radical activists; and now, every time anyone cries "Mercy!" we are all expected to rise with our dukes up ready to champion the cause of indolent justice for anyone convicted of serious felony.

It used to be that priests led people to safety - preferably before they got into trouble with the law; but now, not a week passes but we are asked to intervene in death-row rescues or other penal "inequities" or, worse, to demonstrate support for a variety of causes that anyone, except the petitioners, would find patently inconsistent. All too often the same people who seek to abolish the death penalty also promote abortion on demand and euthanasia - or who attack our citizens' right to bear arms also agitate for the support of foreign insurgencies and revolutionary movements. It gets curiouser and curiouser.

There was a time when being an American Buddhist gave a person either/or choices: when meditating, we faced either the wall or the room; and when chanting, we followed either Japanese or Chinese. We all valued simplicity and ink: words and drawings satisfied a common esthetic sensibility. We were perceived to be quiet, introspective types; and while nobody equated us with slugs, nobody, except zealots in our own sanghas, actually expected us to get out and demonstrate about government policies. Being fed-up with government anything was usually what brought us to Zen. Besides, protest was a hot medium, and we were medium cool.

The Zen Ideal - and indeed, the image Zen sought to convey - was Samurai-at-rest or Wushi-at-ease, couchant...not some wuss rearing up in hissy-fit. So how did we manage to find ourselves summoned to stand and involve ourselves in all this political conflict?

The problem became noticeable when other schools of Buddhism arrived and flourished in the U.S. We found this gratifying; but we also saw that a selection of these Buddhists began to stand out and deliberately to attract attention. They walked our streets with their Public Relations' people and sat in our restaurants with their Public Relations' people and appeared on television with their Public Relations' people; and this would have been fine but for the importance given to their utterances and for their lofty use of the Imperial "we". For when they spoke it was as the Queen speaks: she says "we" and means a whole country. They said "we" and annexed Zen.

We began to hear rumors of a "Buddhist Coalition" - one in which Zen's former hegemony was nowhere in evidence; and the names of Zen clerics - like it or not - began to appear on servile solicitation lists. And now we regularly get letters and calls from desperate parents or eager members of Social or Political Action Committees. The organizations say they want justice but ask for money. The individuals want only justice.

The mystery is how Buddhism and the criminal justice system were conjoined in anyone's mind in the first place. Buddhism and samsaric justice, at least, have nothing to do with each other. It's not that they're antagonists. They're not. They are simply two different species. Religion and politics seldom produce a worthwhile hybrid. Not easily would we have accepted a "Pat Robertson Roshi" into our ranks.

The first "call for justice" I received came a few years ago after some of these imperial Buddhist spokesmen indicated that Texas was going to be made the object-lesson of a drive to abolish the death penalty. The mother of a man sentenced to death wanted my help. The call was difficult to take. Anytime we speak to a parent about a troubled child - no matter how old that child is - we know that we're talking to someone who is acting out of love and pain and, yes, guilt. These are no chats about the weather.

And so we listen, not wishing to seem unsympathetic to the plea; but especially if we're experienced in prison ministry we're prepared for the course the conversation usually takes. All too often the source of the child's societal problems can be detected there in the parent's speech. Shrapneled with racial and sexist epithets come charges directed against incompetent lawyers and vindictive prosecutors and prejudiced juries and judges; and then, once we get past the trial and into the nature of the crime, it is, inevitably, the victim who was to blame for the crime.

My first caller assumed that I was raring "to get behind this Buddhist movement" and would therefore write to Austin, Texas to ask the Governor to commute her son's death sentence to life imprisonment. I knew nothing about the case or the Buddhist war on the Texas judicial system and so, more baffled than anything, I listened to her version of the crime. Her son had accidentally shot someone and now Texas was going to execute him. She so stressed "accidentally" that I foolishly asked, "Was he hunting?"
Well, no, he was actually holding up a convenience store. I was asked to understand that he was desperate because he was behind in his child support payments and he needed the money for his kids. He never meant to kill.
"Whom did he accidentally kill?"
Some clerk and an underage kid who was trying to buy beer.
"So he accidentally shot two men?"
The clerk should have just given him the money - that's what he was supposed to do. Instead he made a quick move as if going for a gun and her boy naturally flinched and his gun went off. It was the same with the kid buying beer... he butted-in and made a threatening gesture. If he had done as he was told and just froze there by the freezer, he'd be alive today. It was all a terrible mistake.

From there, the conversation, which was already going downhill, plunged into incomprehensibility. I thanked her for calling, wished her well, and wrote no letters.

A few days later I received another call from a desperate mother who wanted me to write to Austin to have a life sentence commuted to time served. I said that I was sorry but I did not write letters for prisoners I did not personally know; but she, too, wanted justice. Her son had been convicted of something that shouldn't have been considered a crime in the first place. It was self-defense. A man had started a fight with him and the bartender told them to take it outside. Once there, the man tried to sucker-punch him and he had to shoot to protect himself. Yes, he was carrying a concealed weapon and no, he had no permit to do so. But he had a good reason for carrying the gun: his car-door wouldn't lock and he didn't want to let the gun fall into wrong hands.. kids might get it.

"Why, if he was concerned with safety, didn't he unload the weapon?"


It never occurred to her that someone might ask such questions. She had sat through her son's trial; but like the mother who watches an army on parade and says, "Everybody's out of step but my son John," she saw and heard only what she was prepared to see and hear. That her son illegally brought a concealed and loaded weapon into a public place and then under the pretext of engaging in a "fair" fist fight, went outside and shot and killed an unarmed man had not registered with her. That she expected me to champion his cause because I was a Buddhist was as unsettling as the thought that she and the other justice seekers had been cynically conned into expecting that letters from Buddhist clerics could or even should try to negate the judicial process. How much support had these petitioners given the proponents of this unrealistic quest?

Just how confused the public's perception of Buddhism's attitude toward crime and punishment had become was evident when I was called to Jury Duty. As chance would have it, my name dropped out of the Keno ball scrambler and I became Prospective Juror Number Ten. The Voir Dire process began. It was a criminal case and the prosecutor and defense counsel both asked me my stats and the usual questions. When it came to occupation, the prosecutor harvested the information from me that (gasp!) I was a Zen Buddhist priest. (I was not wearing clerical garments.) "Just how serious a Buddhist priest are you?" she asked. And I guessed that on a Serious Scale of one to ten I was probably a ten. When twelve of us were seated, the preemptory challenges began and Prospective Juror Number Ten was first on the prosecution's hit list. As I rose to exit the jury box, the judge interrupted the proceedings. Would I mind answering a few questions? He wanted to glean some information that the prosecutor had not garnered. Had I ever sat on a jury before in a criminal matter? "Yes, three times." Without telling him the nature of the verdict, did those juries all reach a verdict? "Yes." He thanked me for my cooperation and I left the courtroom, leaving more than a few citizens to consider conversion to Buddhism as a good way to get out of jury duty and the judge to mull over the daunting possibility that Buddhists don't automatically hang juries because they just can't bring themselves to punish a defendant.

Issues such as vegetarianism versus meat eating used to inform discussions about non-violence, health, and personal sacrifice. It amused us that in Buddhism's somewhat tortured taxonomy we could not even agree on what constituted an animal. Buddhists from Sri Lanka, for example, do not consider fish to be animals and so eat a great deal of sea food while rigorously obeying the no-meat proscription.

A few months ago animal rights activists protested at a nearby lake, intending to halt fishing there since that activity so obviously constituted cruelty to animals. A non-local Buddhist group planned to join the protest and a very self-righteous individual called to summon me to participate. I said that my being a vegetarian didn't give me cause to prevent other people from fishing; and then, because I didn't appreciate his attitude, I added - with more pleasure than I should admit to, "Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime."

My caller quoted one of these Imperial Buddhist Spokesmen who had evidently put his imprimatur on the no-fishing edict and added that if I were a real Buddhist (as I professed to be) I would have felt privileged to help. Then he hung up. My ranking on the Serious Buddhist Scale had dropped into negative numbers... (Humbled, I could only wonder why converts to vegetarian non-violence always seem to regard with such venomous disgust meat and meat eaters - whose loathsome ranks they once so happily filled. Ah yes, overnight they join a more sensitive and refined class of beings. It is as if knighthood had been conferred upon them.)

And then, just a few weeks later, while yielding to an uncontrollable impulse to paint my den, there came a knock at the door. A monk wearing Vajrayana robes asked me to contribute to the Free Tibet donation box he carried and to sign a petition to repeal the 2nd Amendment to the Constitution. ("A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.")

"Why would I want to do either?" I asked, astonished by this pairing of goals.

He was vehemently against all guns - rifles, shotguns, handguns, howitzers. It mattered not. If it went "bang" he wanted it outlawed. I asked him how he proposed to Free Tibet without somebody getting shot.

In fact, since the 1950s when China rightly or wrongly exercised its territorial claims to Tibet, two generations of Chinese civilians have been born and raised in Tibet - while a dwindling generation of childless Buddhist clergy has been in exile. "What should be done with these Chinese families?" I asked.

"Send them back to China!" he said.

The point is, that's where they think they are and where we, too, think they are. The U.S. established full diplomatic relations with China after the Tibetan takeover which means that we regard Tibet to be part of China. "And what if the Chinese don't want to leave their homes?" I asked. "What will you do then? Starve them? Bomb them? What?"

"The Chinese committed atrocities and must be brought to justice!" He seemed certain of this.

At the risk of having paint dry on my roller - a catastrophe in the fine art of wall painting- I asked how preventing American citizens from bearing arms ever got tied to a peaceful solution to the Tibetan situation. Had he never witnessed the pathetic spectacle of third-world revolutionary armies of conscripted, peasant farmers... men who never held a gun who were now required to kill with them?

He countered that we weren't Third World and that we now had a large standing militia and that I had obviously misread the 2nd Amendment: The Constitutional Framers intended it for wars in which we had no regular army. I reminded him that we had a regular army then when our Republic was founded - George Washington, himself, was a General of that Army.

As I held the door open for him and he sidled past my cocked roller, I asked him to consider the possibility that it was because the Framers so appreciated the Minutemen - Citizen Soldiers who were used to handling weapons - that they wrote the 2nd Amendment. Perhaps they knew the obvious: the best shots in the wartime infantry are invariably the best shots in the peacetime woods.

Then, if this were not enough of an assault upon Buddhist common sense - and it certainly should have been - I received yet another epistle from an enterprising group that had seen the wisdom of linking Buddhism's name to profitable crusades.

And so I learned that now enlightened people believe in euthanasia. As an enlightened Buddhist, I was expected to be moved to join... at a level of membership commensurate with the size of my contribution - an organization which would put me on an elite "availability list" for people to contact in their time of need. I would surely be rewarded for helping to mitigate their sorrow and/or for helping a physician to make a difficult decision. Meanwhile, there were books that I could purchase... The letter left me wobbly and fearful of needing a physician myself.

So, people who can think of ten thousand ways to spend the money they'll inherit from Grandpa - providing they can consign him directly to the Sweet Hereafter and not let him detour though expensive nursing homes - have suddenly become so bereft of imagination when it comes to accomplishing this economical transit that they'll beg - of all people - a physician to make the hit for them, with a priest acting as some cheery Igor, yet. And all the time they'd be speaking so glowingly of the peace and dignity they wished to bestow on Pop-Pop that we'd wonder how they restrained themselves from dueling for the right to dispatch the old guy.

In more civilized societies they'd ask their Don to put a contract out on him; and every beneficiary would have an air-tight alibi for the night Gramps got whacked.

It began to bother me. How had it happened that Buddhism was getting involved in all these controversial subjects. And I resented, too, the false hope that was given to people who wanted me to write those letters of protest to Texas. Their grief had been used merely to paint an aura of beneficence around the heads of a few P.R. clients. I also began to think about that odd "Free Tibet/Anti-gun" agenda.

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Last modified: July 11, 2004
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