What I should have said

An ignorant lout insulted my religious observances and I remained quiescent

Published July 12, 2012 12:00AM (EDT)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Cary,

I know there are times everyone wishes they had said the right thing at just the right time, and when they don't they might play it over again in their heads for a bit then let it go. I have a tendency to do that more than I like and I can't seem to let it go.

Most recently my temple rented a community center for a temporary meetingplace. The center is at a park where there are lots of trails. I was sitting just outside the center at a table with my son. A group of Sunday cyclists rode up to make a pit stop and get some water from the drinking fountain attached to the building. I was faced toward the center and chanting along with the members inside. Someone around the fountain kind of hushed the group, saying there is a service going on inside. One of the cyclists in the group said, "Oh yes, I think it's a bunch of Hare Krishnas," and continued to list a bunch of unrelated religions and finally settled on "Buddhists, yeah, that's it, Buddhists." He then began chanting gibberish in a mocking way. Someone must have pointed over to me and I heard him say, "So what, who's she, the keeper ... this is a park, isn't it?"

Despite thinking this guy was being a rude, obnoxious jerk, and he must not have celebrated freedom of religion just four days earlier on Independence Day, in that moment I decided not to respond and to continue chanting and let his ignorance be. I wasn't asking him to be quiet and his behavior spoke for itself. But just as the moment passed and they all went their separate ways, I felt I had done myself and my faith a real disservice. My perfect response would have been, "Yes, we are Nichiren Shoshu Buddhists. We are renting the space because there was a fire at our temple and we are waiting for the repairs to be completed. I am out here because I have a rambunctious 2-year-old and out of common courtesy for people practicing their faith I came out here so they could do so in peace. I'm guessing this is why someone suggested you lower your voice for the short time you'll be drinking water."

I was just playing this over in my head and I guess his comments and behavior bothered me more than I admitted to myself. I felt like I didn't defend myself or speak up for my faith and those chanting inside. My internal dialog quickly turned into me telling myself I'm such a loser. I feel like this happens time and again. In situations where I am certain I am right or even being disrespected out of someone else's ignorance I choose to let them exhibit their poor behavior because I know that I am right. I guess I grew up being taught that it doesn't matter what other people think as long as you are right on the inside. But later I am kicking myself. Am I being a loser? Am I being a doormat?

Taking the High Road Doesn't Make Me High

Dear High Road,

At first when you said "temple" I thought you were Jewish. My Jewish friends will say, "My temple did this" and "My temple did that." Realizing my mistake, I set off on a train of thought.

A temple is indeed not the congregation. You might say a temple clothes the observances held within. It provides protection and context, a ritual surface. So what you had here, with your congregation traveling outside its temple, was a kind of spiritual nakedness, a church without its skin. Naturally it aroused observers.

We make the distinction between the temple and the congregation because the temple cannot go out and do things. What travels out in the world are the people who worship in that temple, and they must remember that outside of their temple their rites will have a different meaning. They may appear strange. Ignorant louts will say things.

Ignorant louts have a place in the world. They remind us of our own neuroses.

For many Westerners with only a casual interest in Buddhism, silencing inner thoughts, or learning to live with these inner thoughts, seems like the one big payoff of Buddhism. So it's surprising that your doctrine did not offer a ready solution, a well-understood method or practice.

For instance, Pema Chödrön talking about "where we are hookable," reminds us how great it is to have people around who arouse our neuroses.

So as you go deeper into this event, you may see that your beliefs, like this man's beliefs, are just beliefs, and beyond those beliefs is something eternal and egoless and unchanging, which, when we glimpse it, brings those occasional flashes of enlightenment we so fervently seek. My suggestion to you, therefore, since you asked, is to spend some time encountering this thought pattern until it begins to dissipate and reveal what is behind it.

By Cary Tennis

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