“There is no path to peace, peace is the path.” Gandhi
Reading the story of how one woman, tuned in to trauma dynamics, helped deescalate a hostage situation, brought back memories of my own brush with a potentially violent situation. Unfortunately, the incident last week at a Trader Joe’s in California resulted in an innocent bystander shot by police, but the potential for peaceful resolution to conflict is always present when we tune into our innate compassion and sense of connection with others.
I was on a train with my wife in Northern India in 2000, traveling second class, following Gandhi’s example who also rode second class, as a way to meet the people of India. My wife and I sat across from each other in our assigned seats. At one stop, two men entered our small compartment with metal benches, which we shared with three or four other Indians. One man was dressed neatly in uniform and had a rifle slung over his shoulder. He was holding a one inch diameter twisted manilla hemp rope, the other end of which was tightly knotted to the wrists of a burly man, about six foot four inches.
The prisoner sat down next to me. The soldier-policeman sat next to my wife. The rope dangled awkwardly across the aisle, blocking our exit and seemingly making us prisoners too. An eerie silence settled over our compartment as the normally chatty Indian passengers nervously eyed a tense unfolding situation. After the train had been moving for a while, the soldier gradually fell asleep, with his chin coming to rest atop the barrel of his rifle. “Please Buddha, please let his gun not be loaded”, prayed. Out of the corner of my eye, I sensed the prisoner was wide awake. What would stop him from springing to his feet and overpowering his sleeping captor, or worse? My wife and I locked eyes, but said nothing.
We were traveling from Bodhgaya, the most holy pilgrimage site for all Buddhists, the place of Buddha’s awakening. Channeling all the uncontrived compassion I could muster in the moment, I turned to my seatmate, and regarding him simply as another human being, without judgment, I looked him directly in the eyes. “So, what did you do?, I asked.” It wasn’t meant to be accusatory, just a matter of fact acknowledgment of the present circumstances as a way of connecting with him authentically. To have said, “so how’s your day going?” or “my isn’t this Indian monsoon weather lovely?”, would have only exposed myself as a tone deaf American, unwilling to step outside the familiar walls of my mental comfort zone (aka mind prison).
Without breaking his gaze, he said very slowly in a deep voice: “M u r d e r”. I took a deep breath. Undeterred by the direction of the conversation, I continued. “Are you okay?” Maybe the question caught him off guard. Maybe he wanted to scare me, as a way of emotionally defending himself, maybe he wasn’t used to someone with genuine respect for the dignity of his human birth, and compassion for his well being. Buddhists believe that every living being has the seed of enlightenment within their mind – whether they are saints, murderers, genocidal tyrants, rogue Presidents, or scorpions.
We all make mistakes, sometimes colossal ones, initiating actions based on or more of the three poisonous mind states of ignorance, anger, or attachment. We harm others with our unskillful behavior and eventually, reap the karmic consequences when the seeds of those actions bear their inevitable fruits.
But within each person lies the same fundamental purity of mind at the core, with varying degrees of obscuration veiling that. There is no need for retributive justice – the infallible wheel of karma takes care of that. What is needed is compassion, guidance, education, support, and some sort of healing contract with society, which could include a period of confinement, a time out for adults. What is needed is water for the seed of awakening to grow.
Besides the excessive financial costs borne by society, and the corruption within the prison-industrial complex, increasingly, studies show that it does not achieve its purported goals of reforming criminal behavior. For too many, jail time only drags people into a downward spiral, increasingly making them likely to becoming repeat offenders.
My seatmate confided that he had a recent gunshot wound and with that revelation, his demeanor shifted. He was in obvious physical (and probably emotional) pain. I asked him if he would like an energy treatment utilizing my training in external Qi Gong and in a gesture of trust, he consented.
At the next city, the prisoner and policeman detrained, and soon, barefoot child circus performers were walking up and down the aisle, trying to earn enough money for food. Nearly two decades later, I wonder what became of the prisoner. We have all been prisoners – literally and metaphorically – across our infinite stream of previous lives. And the ultimate prison is of our own making – the mind of ignorance. It keeps is locked in a cycle of suffering until we awaken to the truth of our non-separate nature with all life.