I was reading about Rosa Parks the other day. The wonderful woman whose peaceful and dignified refusal to bow down to bigotry, a.k.a. cold-hearted, narrow-minded, spiteful meanness, helped to change the world.
But the author of the book I dipped into on Amazon puzzled me. He stated that Rosa Parks augmented her nonviolent disposition with a belief that revenge was sometimes necessary. As proof of this, he quotes her as saying: “From my upbringing and the Bible I learned that people should stand up for rights, just as the children of Israel stood up to the Pharaoh.”
Until this point in his book, the author came across as a man with an awakened consciousness. So why would he confuse quietly standing up for what is right with the aggressive thrust for revenge. How exactly is Rosa Parks’ spontaneous act in 1955 – when she politely refused the bus driver’s order to give up her bus seat to a standing, able-bodied white man (simply because she was black) – an act of revenge?
In fact, these two inner drives – one full of dignity and courage, and the other full of bitterness and hatred – are worlds apart. I know this from personal experience.
Back in the early 1980s in Montreal, I was in a doomed relationship with Greg, a sweet-looking and, originally, sweet-natured young man who became badly messed up on drugs – heavy drugs. At one point in the on-again, off-again saga, when he was heavily into heroin, he called me on a Saturday morning and said he wanted to come and see me. I said I didn’t want to see him. He swore at me and said he was coming over anyway and rang off. Next thing I knew, he was knocking on my door. I told him to go away.
He started to kick at the door with the heel of his cowboy boot. I grabbed the phone and called the police, urging them to get there as soon as possible. Greg kept kicking until he made a hole, and then he tried to get his hand through it to unlock the door from the inside. He put his face to the hole sometimes, to look at me where I stood at a safe distance, and tell me to let him in.
All this was happening exactly one week after I started to practise Buddhism. I’d done my morning prayers and chanted* before Greg called me. And although I felt frightened and threatened as wooden splinters flew from the door, a tiny part of me had the space to also feel calm.
Until he made the hole big enough to get his hand on the lock.
I ran to the door and desperately tried to pry his fingers off it, but he evinced some kind of demonic strength. And then things got mystic. The lock clicked open, and I thought, “I’m done for.” But the door jammed in the door frame. He kept trying to shove it open, but it just rattled back and forth a couple of inches, no matter what he did. He couldn’t get in.
In Buddhist terms, we call this receiving protection from the environment. Or, as Nichiren Daishonin taught: “When the Buddha nature manifests itself from within, it will receive protection from without.”
Then Greg’s hand shot through the hole and grabbed me, hard. I screamed in pain and fear. He let me go, and disappeared. Minutes later, two police officers arrived, and the same door that wouldn’t open for Greg, easily opened for them.
“When the Buddha nature manifests itself from within, it will receive protection from without.” ~ Nichiren Daishonin
I felt very sorry for myself. In fact, I was consumed with self-pity. He had bruised me where he grabbed me and I insisted on going to the hospital to get checked out. I felt outraged. How dare he do such a thing to poor me! I was going to make sure he would regret it. I insisted on laying charges. The police picked him up and held him.
That weekend I went to the downtown apartment of the lady who headed up the local Buddhist SGI meeting I attended the day after I started chanting. We chanted together, and tears trickled down my face as I wondered how such ugliness could come where once there had been love. Afterwards she read me a passage from a Buddhist text, and then she said some incredible words to me: “You should have compassion for him.”
I flashed back instantly in my mind’s eye to an image of the expression on Greg’s face framed in the hole in the door. For the first time I recognised his torment. I’d never seen such suffering on a human being’s face. My aggrieved self-pity and resentment towards him melted away, and with them, my desire for revenge. So when his mother called me in tears, begging me to drop the charges, it was easy to do so… on condition that he kept away from me. I also moved to a different part of town to help make sure that would happen.
Time passed, and several years later, during an on-again period, Greg stayed with me in my small one-room high-rise apartment. But things turned sour (he was shooting cocaine this time) and I asked him to leave. He still had his key, so I had the lock changed.
I left town for a Buddhist weekend youth conference in Toronto, and returned on Sunday evening. But when I tried to unlock my door, I couldn’t get the key inside the lock. Something blocked it. This was inconvenient to say the least, as I needed to use the washroom! A friendly neighbour kindly let me use her facilities, and also her phone to call the janitor.
When the janitor looked at the lock, he found a snapped-off key inside it. How strange, he remarked. But it was obvious to me that Greg had come there, and when he discovered that his key couldn’t unlock the door, he jammed it into the lock and snapped it off. If he wasn’t going to get in, neither was I.
The janitor couldn’t replace the lock until the next morning, so I spent the night at my friend Tommy’s place. Back inside my apartment on Monday, I checked the messages on my answering machine. (Remember those?) I found myself listening to Greg’s voice saying that he was going to take me out of this world. In other words, he threatened to kill me.
After a few years of daily Buddhist practice and the boost of the weekend youth conference, I didn’t feel angry or frightened. But I did feel a desire to protect myself and not allow myself to be pushed around or threatened. So I called the police. It wasn’t about getting even this time. It was about standing up for myself, for my right to be treated with respect, not manipulated with threats and bullying.
The police didn’t find Greg, but my friend Tommy did. Tommy was old enough to be Greg’s father, plus, as he used to put it, he had “turned a few corners” in his colourful life. He came across Greg in a bar one night and invited him outside for a “little talk” about the fact that I’d called the police and, more importantly, that it was unacceptable to treat a lady the way Greg had treated me. The talk, plus Tommy’s “street cred” as a former boxer with many nightlife connections, got the point across, very effectively. Once again, my environment protected me. I didn’t hear from Greg for quite a while.
So, I’m no Rosa Parks, but I do know the difference between the destructive flames of self-righteous revenge that scorch the soul, and the growth of character that arises when we peacefully and determinedly take a stand for what is right and good. In the first case, everyone loses – self and others. And in the second case, everyone benefits.
After all, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.” (Martin Luther King Jr.)