Although I don’t adhere to a particular religion, I deeply appreciate lessons gleaned from the study of religious texts and their application to modern life. Without this formation, I am not sure how I would have dealt with an unfortunate scene I witnessed one day last month. After seeing a mob-sized crowd belittle a small group of gypsy beggars I found myself feeling angry and helpless at the same time, full of disgust for what humans are capable of at times. It was the teachings of Jesus and the Buddha that helped bring me back to center, back to homeostasis and balance.
Joseph Campbell approached each religion as if he were studying mythology, rather than fact. It allowed him to view the teachings as metaphors he could apply to his own life and teach others how to use in their own, rather than a set of rules imposed upon us as an inescapable obligation. In The Power of Myth he states:
“In the study of comparative mythology, we compare the images in one system with the images in another, and both become illuminated because one will accent and give clear expression to one aspect of meaning, and another to another. They clarify each other.
When I started teaching comparative mythology, I was afraid I might destroy my students’ religious beliefs, but what I found was just the opposite. Religious traditions, which didn’t mean very much to them, but which were the ones their parents had given them, suddenly became illuminated in a new way when we compared them with other tradition, where similar images had been given a more inward or spiritual interpretation.
I had Christian students, Jewish students, Buddhist students, a couple of Zoroastrian students – they all had this experience. There’s no danger in interpreting the symbols of a religious system and calling them metaphors instead of facts. What that does is to turn them into messages for your own inward experience and life. The system suddenly becomes a personal experience.”
Liverpool football club was in town to play against Real Madrid. As I walked home through the historic center I heard groups singing football songs and smiled, as I always enjoy the camaraderie the fans share amongst themselves. My smile and feelings of good cheer faded as I made my way into Plaza Mayor. The scene reminded me of a medieval hanging, but rather than gathering around the gallows the jeering crowd had encircled a group of gypsy woman. They laughed and hollered as they threw coins at the woman and watched them scramble to collect them, sometimes falling over one another in an attempt to get the coin first. They threw empty beer cans at the women and sprayed beer and one fellow even circled around them swinging a towel over his head as if he were herding farm animals.
The British tourist were treating these women like subhumans, while in my eyes of the moment they were the ones who looked like pigs. I grew more upset once I noticed how many people were filming the “spectacle” as if it were something they could share and laugh about later, boosting their own egos. To make matters worse, there were fathers with their children joining in. When I could no longer contain my anger I entered the circle and turned towards the section of the crowd closest to me. I shouted, asking how they could be filming such a thing and that the whole thing was a disgrace. I was met with furious stares and told to “shut the fuck up.” Where does that kind of hate come from?
Seething with negative emotions, I walked home. I thought about everything I had ever learned about Jesus and his limitless capacity for forgiveness as I struggled to forgive this mob. I considered how even Buddhist teachers often turn to Jesus as an example for compassion, recalling S. Goenka’s lectures from a Vipassana course I had attended. As I began to calm down a little bit I looked for forgiveness in my heart and found some, but it certainly wasn’t limitless. How could Jesus forgive those who crucified him even as they committed the act? It was clear I had to dive deep into my heart and search for some morsel of understanding before I could forgive and move on with peace of mind.
Luckily, that very afternoon I came across an article from an old issue of Spirituality & Health magazine. The article was “The Four Aspects of Love,” by Thicht Nhat Hanh, but what stuck with me was a story about the author from Karen Bouris’s introduction:
“Twenty years ago, the Rodney King riots had just exploded in Los Angeles, and the image of a fallen man being beaten by police replayed itself over and over on television sets everywhere. That same week, I went to a talk at the Berkeley Community Theatre featuring Thich Nhat Hanh.
The auditorium filled with thousands of people as this small man in robes, little known to me at the time, took the stage. He immediately started talking about the news―the beating, the riots, the events in Los Angeles that were triggering anger around the world. He spoke about his sadness for the beaten man. And then he spoke about his even greater sadness for the men doing the beating―the rage they must have had inside and the deep suffering that would cause them to act out in this way. You could hear a pin drop as the audience took in his words, his understanding, and his compassion for every person in this struggle.” See more at: http://spiritualityhealth.com/articles/four-aspects-love#sthash.2TAYAhaE.dpuf
Suddenly it clicked and I had a deeper understanding of where the hate I watched unfold that afternoon has come from. It was the same hate that stemmed from the “deep suffering” of the men dealing the beatings in the Rodney King riots, the same hate that always seems to grow from an inner wound only to express itself in some heartless way. In my own heart I felt some piece of the boundless forgiveness Jesus bestowed upon the world and the compassion that Buddha’s dharma teaches. The forgiveness archetype that runs through all of the world’s myths and religions in various shapes in forms. In appreciation for the peace it brought me I radiated that love to the young man who looked the angriest and shouted with the most rage, the voice and the image that had affected me the most.