It’s been a crazy week or so. My own heart aches over the needless loss of life because too many young people see no other alternative but to end their life. There was Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers freshman who jumped from the George Washington Bridge because an encounter he had with another man in his dorm room was surreptitiously broadcast live on the Internet by his roommate and another; Asher Brown, a 13-year-old who shot himself in the head, driven to despair by constant torment over being both Buddhist and gay; Seth Walsh, also 13, another young boy who recently came out as gay and who also endured constant teasing until he went to his backyard where he hanged himself; Raymond Chase, an openly gay sophomore at Johnson and Wales University who hanged himself in his dorm room, although the precise reason why remains unclear; Billy Lucas, an Indiana 15-year-old who hanged himself after classmates said he had been bullied for years over being gay.
There are many others that remain anonymous because their torment wasn’t newsworthy. Because, you see, this is nothing new for gays. This has been going on since the Middle Ages when gay men and lesbians were burned at the stake, the fires stoked with sticks that were identified with the term “faggot,” a word to this day that is used to demean and injure gay men in particular.
It is also not new for us homosexuals that suicide among gay teens is more common than among any other group. Gay teens are more than twice as likely to report being bullied than straight teens. This is already well-known among us. Being a teenager is hard enough as it is, but for many gays life is a nightmare that can at times appear to have no end in sight.
As Buddhists, we recognize that life is filled with suffering. Clearly, the five boys I identified above were suffering. And unsurprisingly, most of us react not just with sorrow, but with anger – anger toward the ignorant bullies that drove these boys, and others, to such desperate ends. But anger is delusion and leads us to forget that the bullies suffer too.
Yes, bullies are in pain too. They experience fear and delusion like all of us. And for the bully, aggression toward others is a simplistic palliative to ease that pain: “I don’t want to be alone in my hurt, so let me share it with you.”
In the Danda Sutta, “The Stick” (Ud 2.3), the Buddha encounters a group of boys who are beating a snake with a stick. Upon seeing this, the Buddha uttered the following gatha:
Whoever takes a stick
to beings desiring ease,
when he himself is looking for ease,
will meet with no ease after death.
Whoever doesn't take a stick
to beings desiring ease,
when he himself is looking for ease,
will meet with ease after death.
Bullying is a part of a cycle that is carried on from one to another. It may be from parent to child, but it can simply be from one child to another unrelated child. When we are targeted by this bullying, or see it occur with others, anger is a common response. But anger is delusion; a mind consumed with anger is a mind possessed with madness. If we take but a moment and let the initial anger pass, better solutions come to mind.
In the Kumaraka Sutta, “The Boys” (Ud 5.4), the Buddha questions a group of boys who are fishing. He asks the boys if they fear pain. “Yes, lord, we fear pain. We dislike pain,” they answer. To this, the Buddha replies with:
If you fear pain,
if you dislike pain,
don't do an evil deed
in open or secret.
If you're doing or will do
an evil deed,
you won't escape pain:
it will catch you
even as you run away.
If we are to have compassion for the bullied, we must have compassion for the bully as well. Admittedly, this is no easy task. But moments do arrive.
When I was in eighth grade, I endured bullying like many others. Being tripped in the hallway, called names, threatened – it was so common that I just shut it out. I also became very gregarious, making friendships with all types of people so that I was in good with the nerds, the jocks, the dopers, the straight-A students, and even the delinquents. This was my method of self-preservation – be friends with everyone. That’s another story.
Anyway, there was a girl a year older than me who was one of my true friends. She was a girl-friend, not a girlfriend. She and I were in the hallway after school by her locker when Billy Babcock walked up to us. Billy Babcock was a well-known bully at the school. He harassed and intimidated other kids constantly, his knuckle-headed minions giggling at his atrocious acts, giving him the praise he desired and which kept them safe from Billy turning against them. The girl and I were both nervous, but Billy was alone, so he had no audience.
“You two guys are friends, aren’t you?” Billy asked us. We both sheepishly said yes.
“How did you do that?” I looked at Vicki, confusion covering my face, as she looked back at me with the same expression.
“Do what?” Vicki asked.
“How did you become friends like that? I see the two of you together a lot. I know you’re not boy-girl-friend, but you are friends.”
Vicki and I sighed with relief, then she answered because, frankly, I was struck dumb. I didn’t know what to say. Here was an opportunity to share healing with someone who hurt, and I failed to meet the moment. She merely said that we enjoy doing things together that are fun and make us feel happy without bothering anyone else.
Billy stood silently there for a moment, mulling over her words. He then nodded, said thanks, and walked away. Billy never bothered either one of us again.
I am human, and like others, I initially responded with anger when I heard and read about the recent news. And I mean really angry. But my anger is no longer like a line drawn on stone, a line that can take years to be erased. It is somewhere between being a line drawn in sand and a line being drawn in water. We all suffer, even the bullies. Every day, I am given a chance to help lessen that suffering. And every day, I strive to be aware of these opportunities.
It’s not easy. But it is essential.
Addendum. I thought this Violent Femmes video was appropriate. Besides, it's a kick ass song.