Sunday, May 05, 2013

Violence Matters

In the movies, people get punched a lot. 

There are fist fights.  Or it might be a single, surprise punch, in which a person known for being peaceful lands an unexpected blow on somebody who's been a real cad.  Sometimes it arouses laughter, maybe applause. 

In the movies, people walk away from punches and other abuse that would have landed a common mortal in the hospital.  I know fight choreographers who laugh about movie fights, pointing out the damage that would actually be done by the violence seen in these absurdly long hand-to-hand battles.  "Unconscious!..... broken neck!......  lost teeth!..... blindness!"  Moreover, they all look great after getting punched.  Maybe a bit of a scratch or a sudden bruise. 

When I got beat up on a New York City subway train twenty years ago, it was over in two punches.  Those two blows permanently changed how I breathe through my nose and left my face dramatically (and hideously) swollen for several days. 

That wasn't the movies.

In the movies, if you're pushed to the breaking point, you can knock somebody flat and the audience will applaud you, and the other guy will get up, holding their chin and looking highly annoyed, and that's it.  There are no medical consequences and rarely any legal consequences.  It might even help a guy win over the girl he likes.

In real life, if you land a really strong blow on somebody in the right spot, you can severely injure them.  They can, as a 17-year old boy in Utah has learned this weekend, slip into a coma; they might even die. 

The incident took place in Taylorsville, a suburb of Salt Lake City, Utah.  There was a soccer game, and a boy was angry that a referee had given him a yellow card (a foul).  Enraged, the boy punched that referee in the face. 

Witnesses described what happened next:

[Ricardo] Portillo seemed fine at first, then asked to be held because he felt dizzy. He sat down and started vomiting blood, triggering his friend to call an ambulance.
When police arrived around noon, the teenager was gone and Portillo was laying on the ground in the fetal position. Through translators, Portillo told EMTs that his face and back hurt and he felt nauseous. He had no visible injuries and remained conscious. He was considered to be in fair condition when they took him to the Intermountain Medical Center.

But when Portillo arrived to the hospital, he slipped into a coma with swelling in his brain. Johana Portillo called detectives to let them know his condition had worsened.

That's when detectives intensified their search for the goalie. By Saturday evening, the teenager's father agreed to bring him down to speak with police.

Mr. Portillo, aged 46, is dead, and a 17-year old boy who was already at a juvenile detention center for aggravated assault has learned that his victim died.  Two families now cope with loss, and I can imagine the effect on the community.  I can imagine some of the thoughts that must have run through the coaches' heads, what they might say to their teams next week.  as for the father of this boy, dear god, dear dear god.  Same with the parents of kids playing competitive sports, at least some of whom thought this would build character and forge positive relationships.

It's not a movie, but we've seen this before. 

[Image: from the ridiculously long fistfight in John Carpenter's film They Live.]

Friday, May 03, 2013

Samba Classes at the Zen Center?

Today, Deming Zen Center got a phone call from a woman who spoke Spanish.

I speak a little bit of high-school level Spanish, but I felt that I wasn't understanding the woman's question, so I asked for help.  She put an English-speaker on the line who repeated her question.

It wasn't my Spanish.

The woman really did want to know if the zen center was offering samba lessons.


SiSamba.  You know, this kind of samba:

Impatiently she said, "You know, you have classes on meditation and yoga.  Do you know anything about samba classes?"  The connection was obvious to her, lost on me.

No, ma'am.  I don't know anything about samba lessons in Deming or anywhere else.

Disappointed, she got off the line.

I don't know.  Why not?  Maybe a workshop on the Way of Samba would bring people to the zen center. 

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

What is a human being?

There has been so much going on worth writing about, but as is often the case when there is much going on, there hasn't been much time to write blogs about it.  How will the world bear the loss?  (That's a joke.) 

In May, I hope to contribute to this space more often.  Let me start by saying Happy May Day! 

One of the many stories I've been following, with sadness, is Buddhist-on-Muslim violence in Sri Lanka.  This seems to be based on ethnic rivalry more than theological differences or different spiritual practice.  I'm not about to get on my soap box about it at this moment -- and if I did, what could I say that you don't know? 

In our land we also have different religious traditions living side by side, often harmoniously but sometimes not.  In light of the bombing of the Boston marathon by two disaffected young men, islamophobia and even brown-skin-o-phobia have flared up. 

We might ask "how can human beings act this way," but if we don't fully understand what a human being is, maybe we're not ready for that question.

How do we take responsibility for violence in our world?  How can we help?  Do any of these numerous religious and ethnic traditions have answers that build bridges between us?

Zen Master Dae Kwang, one of my old teachers at Providence Zen Center, said this:

At one time, the citizens of Kesaputta asked the Buddha what they should believe. They were very confused by the many religions in vogue at that time. The Buddha said, “Do not accept anything by mere tradition. Do not accept anything just because it accords with your scriptures. Do not accept anything because it agrees with your opinions or because it is socially acceptable. Do not accept anything because it comes from the mouth of a respected person. Rather, observe closely and if it is to the benefit of all, accept and abide by it.” This Sutta – the Kalama Sutta – is the root of Zen-style inquiry into the true self.

The Buddha says in the Diamond Sutra that in his whole teaching career he never spoke a single word. In Zen, we are admonished that understanding cannot help us. The wind does not read. So, what are we left with? Just before he died the Buddha said, “Life is very short, please investigate it closely.” We are left with the great question: What am I? What is a human being? In his great compassion the Buddha leaves us only with footprints pointing the way… in the end he cannot help us; we must find the answer ourselves. Zen, too, asks the question but does not have the answer. But you do, if you look inside.