Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me!
What child growing up in
has not invoked this mantra at least once or twice when faced with the taunts
and teasing and name-calling that seem to be an almost “inevitable” part of
childhood life? + From an early age we recognize the wisdom of these words, and
even though we might not always succeed at bringing to life their truth we at
least come to realize our potential for being “big enough” that no verbal insult
need ever darken our mood. America
But what does it mean, anyway, to be big enough that no such words can ever harm us? Perhaps it means we’re big enough to know that, when considered along with our multitude of other qualities, the so-called bad quality of wearing thick glasses or having freckles all over our face is but a trifle. Or perhaps it means we’re bigger still and have come to realize that wearing thick glasses or having a freckly face is merely what is – neither good nor bad – despite what anyone else might say. Perhaps it means we’ve got so many real friends that being accosted by one who is not amounts to only so much noise out on the playground. Or perhaps we’re even bigger than that and have arrived at the conclusion that nobody would purposely try to hurt another unless they were already feeling a lot of hurt of their own.
|The Buddha being pursued by Angulimala|
But what about those sticks and stones? They really do break our bones; and in this day and age, with people hurting all over the world, there doesn’t seem to be any shortage of people who are willing to make others hurt as well. Can we ever be big enough that not even the sticks and stones of the most violent aggressor can hurt us? The Buddha apparently thought so. Not surprisingly, however, the bigness that the Buddha advocated was not that of a football linebacker or a mixed martial arts practitioner; it was the bigness of seeing the self in an entirely different way. For instance, in the Kakacupama Sutta: The Simile of the Saw, the Buddha states:
Monks, even if bandits were to carve you up savagely, limb by limb, with a two-handled saw, he among you who let his heart get angered even at that would not be doing my bidding. Even then you should train yourselves: ‘Our minds will be unaffected and we will say no evil words. We will remain sympathetic, with a mind of good will, and with no inner hate. We will keep pervading these people with an awareness imbued with good will and, beginning with them, we will keep pervading the all-encompassing world with an awareness imbued with good will — abundant, expansive, immeasurable, free from hostility, free from ill will.’ That's how you should train yourselves. (Majjhima Nikaya 21)
Wow, that’s pretty big! Is it even possible for us to live up to such a standard? Could the Buddha himself have lived up to it, for that matter? I do tend to be a pretty critical reader, after all. Actually, I’m very much inclined to believe that he could have lived up to it – and that we all can, for that matter – even as I sympathize with those readers who might wonder whether the saintly or superhuman state of mind described above could ever truly be realized given the deeply ingrained nature of our instinct for self-preservation. Perhaps this must remain a matter of faith for us – until such time as we might verify it for ourselves, that is – for the Buddha actually lived a fairly long life ++, skillfully avoiding threats of violence along the way.
The painting above, for instance, depicts the Buddha using “psychic powers” to remain just out of reach of the murderous bandit, Angulimala, shown here wearing his infamous necklace strung with the severed fingers of his many victims. So depraved was Angulimala that he was purportedly contemplating the murder of his own mother when the Buddha fortuitously happened along and presented himself as a potential victim in her stead. By the way, Angulimala’s mother is the one who can be seen escaping into the forest as her son pursues the Buddha. The story ends with Angulimala renouncing his murderous ways after becoming transformed by the depth of the Buddha’s teaching. This is a powerful story of redemption, to say the least. Nonetheless, the Buddha’s reliance on those mysterious “psychic powers” in order to remain just out of harm’s way strikes me as a rather odd element in this story. After all, if we all just cultivated a few “psychic powers” of our own we might never find ourselves in the unenviable position of being savagely carved up, limb by limb! But that doesn’t quite strike me as what the Buddha’s teaching is all about.
There is another story, however, this one contained in the Jatakas, “birth stories” – tales of the previous lives of the Buddha, his followers, and his foes – that tells of the future Buddha feeling such great compassion for a starving tigress and her cubs that he allows himself to be eaten so that the mother and her offspring might survive (Schuhmacher & Woerner, 1994, p. 160). Ah, but isn’t it convenient, the critical reader might be thinking, that a story would be contrived related to some incredibly magnanimous deed performed in a previous lifetime! Tell me a story where it actually happened, you might be thinking. Tell me a story in which such compassion and loving-kindness was actually put into practice during the most extreme of circumstances and witnessed by those who lived to speak of it. I hear you. I told you I was a critical reader, didn’t I?
Well, the Buddha’s life is the Buddha’s life. Thankfully it was such that he was able to live and teach for many years. Please allow me, then, to borrow an example from an altogether different wisdom tradition. Perhaps you remember a great teacher saying: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” Of course, these are the words that Jesus is reported to have said on behalf of those who were in the process of torturing and murdering him. Clearly, the mind that Jesus revealed as he uttered these words is the same mind that the Buddha urged his disciples to have in such circumstances.
Now, the unrepentant skeptics reading this might not let me off so easily – or the Buddha or Jesus, for that matter. Sure, you might be thinking, if you were to somehow convince yourself that heaven awaits after your crucifixion, if you were to somehow make yourself believe that you’d be reborn into a better life after being hacked to death or eaten by tigers as long as you proved yourself worthy by maintaining compassionate equanimity throughout the ordeal, then, yes, perhaps you could do it. But there is no heaven at the end of this road, you might have already decided; there is no next life after this one is over. This is it. It is to you, dear unrepentant skeptic, that I address the remainder of this post:
So, this is it. Or at least this is as much as we can count on now that we’ve let our wishful thinking fall away. We’ve reconciled ourselves to greeting the end as we might yield to deep and dreamless sleep – sleep from which we’ll not awaken. But deep and dreamless sleep is not so very bad. Sure enough, none of those enticing ideas of heavenly realms or souls reborn has any place in dreamless sleep, but neither do the nightmares or torment or anguish that visit from time to time. And so we vow to live each day to the fullest – working our way through our very own “bucket list” of things to do and places to see – accumulating memories as we might accumulate fine collectibles to be kept on a shelf in our memory somewhere. And when the end is near we’ll dust them off and admire them one by one – smiling with self-satisfaction as we peacefully drift off to sleep.
What? Does such a life sound rather shallow? Does it seem but a small and meaningless concern when approached in such an acquisitive way? As if we’re living out our days like some piece of high-tech video recording equipment, making a movie that no one else will ever watch – one that will be erased the very moment that it’s a wrap. Besides, filming might not go according to script. Perhaps instead of gorgeous cinematography capturing excitement and adventure amidst fantastically beautiful settings our movie will end up being a documentary of sickness and struggle, loneliness and despair, set against a backdrop of utter meaningless and hopelessness. Yes, a life so small is fraught with danger.
And so we strive for a life that’s bigger – deeper and more meaningful. We fall in love and we raise families; we cultivate friendships and community. Our self is mirrored back at us in larger and larger circles and that which is considered other becomes diminished – if only marginally. In doing so our sense of self expands; and in so doing we hope deep down that our actions will long outlive us, rippling outward after we’re gone – amongst family and friends, and throughout the communities and institutions that we’ve helped nurture throughout our lives.
Ah, but still we know full well that the simple passage of time will temper both the happiness and sadness that recollections of us might evoke, until such time as we are just a name recalled one last time without emotion, and then no more. No, nothing that we can ever claim as ours will stand the test of time. Nothing that we hold onto can remain within our grasp for long. No matter how hard we might try to keep something safe and sound and protected it will nonetheless grow old, grow sick, and die. This is the truth of our existence that is more horrifying than any sticks or stones that might be used to break our bones, more horrifying than being hacked apart by bandits, even. For this truth is not that of some remote possibility that we might be fortunate enough to avoid. It is the truth of every moment of every day for everyone. Yes, it appears we must be bigger still. But how?
One way, of course, is to keep expanding the circles of that which we might call the self – to keep pushing further and further over the horizon that which is considered other. Does it really make sense that we care so much for that which we have arbitrarily identified as “self” and not at all for that which we consider “other”, even though that “other” might live right next door? Certainly we can bear witness to “our own” sense of unease that there is poverty in the neighborhood down the road no matter how secure “our own” gated community might seem. Certainly we can see that it does little to protect “our own” children if the children of “others” grow up hungry, uncared for, uneducated, and more likely to resort to criminal behavior to survive. Certainly we can see that as well amongst the nations of the world. We simply can’t live in isolation, secure in our selfhood, as others remain mired in poverty, war, and internal strife (or under our thumb, for that matter). Certainly we can see it as well with respect to the environment. No longer does it make sense for us to think that we can keep our own little corner of the world pristine and healthful even as we turn the rest of the world into our trash dump – and a warming trash dump at that.
It looks like I’ll need to continue this exploration in a subsequent post. I think we’ve made enough progress, however, to view with greater clarity the various wisdom stories retold above. Any hatred or ill-well that we might feel toward our aggressor arises in proportion to the strength of our view of self and other. The insane strangeness that we attribute to one who might willingly give his own body to feed some hungry tigers occurs because of our inability to fathom another way to think about self and other. The ability of Jesus to forgive those who were killing him relates to his ability to recognize the deluded thinking of his aggressors – their inability to see beyond their hard and fast views of self and other.
Thanks for reading! Have a great Memorial Day weekend. I’ll continue with this topic next week.
+ I put quotes around ‘inevitable’ because we adults seem to be making at least some progress with respect to dealing effectively with bullying in the schools. Perhaps as we learn to better model appropriate behavior such taunts and teasing will become a thing of childhoods past.
++ The Buddha is thought to have lived into his eighties before succumbing to what is generally thought to have been some type of food poisoning. Mettanando (2000) hypothesizes that the actual cause of death may have been mesenteric infarction.
Majjhima Nikaya 21. Kakacupama sutta: The simile of the saw (Thanissaro Bhikkhu Tr.). Access to Insight, 30 June 2010,
Majjhima Nikaya 86. Angulimala sutta: About Angulimala (Thanissaro Bhikkhu Tr.). Access to Insight, 14 June 2010, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.086.than.html
Mettanando (2000). Did Buddha die of mesenteric infarction? http://www.lankalibrary.com/Bud/buddha_death.htm
Schuhmacher, S., Woerner, G. (1994). The encyclopedia of Eastern philosophy and religion. Shambhala Publications, Inc.
Photograph of a temple painting of Angulimala chasing after the calm Buddha by Tevaprapas Makklay via:
Photograph of a Thai monk with tigers by MichaelJanich via:
Copyright 2012 by Maku Mark Frank