Perception : Who’s Right?


I just returned from hosting an encore screening session of the multiple-award winning documentary ‘Buddha’s Lost Children’. (The review link is below.) During the discussion session, a lady remarked that it was somewhat disturbing that the abbot featured in the film seemed angry at times, during his teaching sessions. I replied that as I can’t read his mind, I can’t tell whether he had genuine anger, but that it is possible to manifest rage as a skilful means to educate. This is best represented by the wrathful manifestations of Bodhisattvas portrayed in Vajrayana Buddhism (with glaring eyes, fangs, weapons and all), which are meant for subduing those already wrathful in nature. (The following include answers extended upon further reflection.)

Playing Mr. Nice Guy towards Mr. Nasty does not always work. Sometimes, Mr. Nice Guy has to be Mr. Nastier to awaken Mr. Nasty. Real rage need not be involved, only showed – for the needed shock effect. Think a timely sharp rap of a Zen master’s stick on a slacking disciple’s shoulder… Think chiding a stubborn child sharply for continually playing ball too near a busy road… Even a little spanking might be needed to drive the message home? Why do some legal systems endorse caning of law-breakers? Is it more of a punishment, or to more harshly create deterrence from creating similar mistakes in the future, for reformation? The ‘right’ use of violence can be very grey, in terms of when it is appropriate and how much of it is.

I asked the audience for a show of hands if they felt that the abbot was really angry (at any point) in the film, as according to their perception. Only one man raised his hand. He insisted in a slightly ‘indignant’ way (according to my imperfect and thus possibly wrong perception) that a scene where the abbot kind of wrestled a guy (who was possibly on the verge of a fight) was clearly violent and thus wrong. I replied that I shan’t give any excuses for him, that I can’t say how effective his methods always are. However, for the guy in the film, it appeared effective. (The abbot got him to sit, urging him to talk about his problems with the other aggressors.) There is a touching scene of him going to the abbot during dusk, squatting before him to speak to him, while the abbot put an arm on his shoulder in a brotherly or even fatherly way.

Tough love works if there is wisdom applied with it, while smothering love without wisdom is cause for trouble. Nowadays, I hear many cases of children being spoilt beyond reason, till they do not listen to reason. Surely, firm compassion is the solution? I should have asked the man three questions in return, but maybe it wasn’t appropriate. The first question is this – ‘Why, do you think you are the only one who saw the abbot as angry?’ (The lady above later remarked that she could appreciate the means of ‘fierce compassion’.) Sometimes, the aggression we percieve in others is but a subtle reflection of that within ourselves. When we see with aggression in the backdrop of our minds, we see aggression. A case of tinted glasses tinting the world out there. Thus the saying – ‘When the mind is pure, the land is pure.’ Even the truly aggressive is not seen as repulsive by the pure, but as those in urgent need of the balm of kindness (even if it needs to manifest wrathfully), so as to enable them to see the error of their ways.

The second question is this, to be addressed to the others in the audience – ‘Do you see the abbot as more aggressive, or this gentleman?’ I remarked that I had seen the film about five times, but I never detected genuine anger in the abbot – while his acts of compassion never failed to touch me. (Then again, as mentioned, my perception might be wrong.) The abbot did say (in the special features of the DVD set) that he knows he is not 100% perfect, but that he hopes he can help purify the world to some extent with his efforts. It’s truly heartening to know that there are such great monastics like him, who heroically risk their lives to help the needy. Comparing myself with him, I think I have absolutely no right to harp on any of his perceived minor faults, while missing the great good he is doing. That said, as long as not fully enlightened, we all can and should further improve ourselves. This I think, he is already doing. The third question is this – ‘Why do the masses, as featured in the film venerate the abbot so greatly; instead of venerating us?’ I think the answer is obvious. We need to buck up.

Related Article:
Film Review: How the ‘Buddha’s Lost Children’ were Found