When people think of Buddhist monks, they imagine that we dwell in clouds of incense, smiling serenely, unperturbed, meditating on nothing. However, we are not called to drift placidly in emptiness, but to “tremble with compassion for all sentient beings”.
Late one night some years ago, my Teacher and I passed by a dark alley and heard the cries of fear and pain of a youth who was being beaten by a gang. Without hesitation, my Teacher approached the men and, smiling broadly, asked them if it would not be much more “fun” to beat up two Buddhist monks instead of one young man.
I was not smiling broadly. I was not smiling at all. You see, Buddhist monks vow not to resort to violence, even to defend ourselves. We do not fight. We were going to get pummeled. Surprisingly, the beating stopped, the men laughed nervously, uttered some choice profanities, and left.
I asked my Teacher if he had known that we would not come to harm. He responded that he did not, but at the very least, we could have taken some of the blows, and not all would have fallen on that one young man. And then he told me soberly that it was our sacred duty, whenever confronted with suffering, to get in the way, to stand between those who would do harm and those who would be hurt.
Not all abuse happens in dark alleys. Much unspeakable cruelty takes place in the brightly lit aisles where we purchase the flesh of animals, their eggs, their milk, their skin, their wool, their feathers, and their fur. Those brightly lit aisles conceal the horrible darkness where animals are confined, enslaved, tortured, and slaughtered for our pleasure.
I implore you to look upon ALL our fellow sentient beings, human and non-human, with compassion. If we cannot prevent the cruelty they suffer, at least let harm not be inflicted for our pleasure, paid for with our money, and executed in our name.