Angry Bodhisattvas

Hi all,

Todaiji Guardian of Outer Gate

(Taken at Todaiji Temple in Japan, 2010)

Lately I’ve been enjoying a lot of reading, mostly Roger Zelanzy’s A Night in the Lonesome October and various works by H.P. Lovecraft.¹  But I’ve still been continuing my read of Thich Nhat Hanh’s Opening the Heart of the Cosmos.  In one chapter, he talks about the notion of angry or fierce-looking bodhisattvas, and then touches on police officers in the US:

I have learned a lot from a friend, a police officer who took the mindfulness trainings some years ago, about the suffering of members of the police force in America.  It is very difficult for them to do this job.  The constant exposure to threat and violence and the negative way many people react to them cause the hearts of police officers to harden day by day.  They feel isolated, disrespected, and uncared for by society.  If police officers do not have skillful means, if they don’t have enough understanding and compassion, then a lot of anger, frustration, and despair build up in them.  They feel that no one understands how difficult their work is because they are seen only as oppressors.  Communication between the police and the community they are supposed to serve becomes stifled.  And in such an atmosphere of hostility and mistrust, some members of the police abuse their authority and become oppressors. (pg. 131)

This book was published in 2003 before the tragic deaths of young men like Michael Brown in Ferguson, Ohio, but it is strangely prophetic how it described the crises in the US between police and the community they serve.

Later, Thich Nhat Hanh shows how the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, among his/her many forms to rescue and aid people, sometimes appears as a fierce, angry figure but inwardly his/her heart is filled with goodwill toward all beings.  In the same way, a police officer can be like Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva and yet still fulfill his or her duty:

Avalokitesvara shows us that even if you must be very firm, even when you have to carry a weapon or impose authority, at the same time you can be very compassionate.  You can serve as a fierce burning-face bodhisattva with a tender heart and deep understanding.  This is how you can be a bodhisattva in that form.  But to serve as any kind of bodhisattva—a tender, motherly bodhisattva or a fierce guardian bodhisattva—you have to really be a bodhisattva. You can’t just act the part, merely appearing to be a bodhisattva outwardly while inwardly your heart is closed. You must have real understanding and compassion in order to be worthy of being called a bodhisattva. (pg. 132)

In a way, Thich Nhat Hanh’s comments sound a bit naive, especially given the deeply woven problems in American society, but I also think he has a point that the mutual understanding, and goodwill can really make a difference.  This is easy to say, but as he warns, you really have to strive to understand others, and to listen to them.  Only then can you identify with them, and grow as a person.

P.S. Happy Halloween!

¹ Currently enjoying Dream-Quest of the Unknown Kadath in particular.


Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

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