Compassion on Two Legs


Spring, 2000

I’m at a protest camp in Thailand, on the Mun River. My Filipino friend Cray and I are having a beer with a couple of hard nosed activists from the anti-fascist squatter scenes of Berlin. Cray let it slip that he is an unapologetic Roman Catholic, like many Filipinos, and it turns out the squatter guy was raised a Roman Catholic as well.
“And it was hell,” he snaps.
His voice steadily grows louder as he explains that the Roman Catholics had backed the Nazi’s and blessed the weapons that killed the Jews and how can there be a God that did this?
“There is no God,” he concludes, almost shouting, “there is nothing when you die, only the worms that eat your flesh and that’s a good thing, at least your body goes somewhere useful.”
Cray decides it’s time to go to bathroom to try and throw up, a result of the half-dozen beers he has consumed, no doubt in combination with the conversation. The squatters girlfriend has gone quiet; she’s probably witnessed these scenes before. Her opinionated boyfriend turns on me, as I have accidentally revealed that I practice Buddhist meditation and support non-violent action.
“How can you can change this fucked up world without the use of violence? How can you watch your friends get beat up by the police? Are you just going to sit there, and let it happen? What would a Buddhist say to that? I was in El Salvador, I saw what was happening to the people, what the death squads were doing. What would a Buddhist do?”
“Non-violence doesn’t mean passivity. Look at Gandhi. He was active.”
“What did Gandhi accomplished?”
“A lot.”
“He didn’t accomplished anything. It was the people.”
“Of course it was the people. But he was an inspiration.”
“You think you are going to beat these bastards through non-violence?”
“You think these isolated, regional, guerilla wars are going to be able to take on the root causes of what is going on? It’s not some local thing. What’s behind it is much bigger. It’s multi-nationals. It’s the global corporate industrial military elite. How can we fight that with guerilla warfare?”
“What we need is a global guerilla warfare.”
“That happens. There’s terrorism. Do you think it really solves the problem?”
“Do you think non-violence is going to solve the problem?”
“If you play the same game, you can easily start to repeat the same mistakes. Look at the Khemer Rouge.”
“Oh don’t give me that. That was extremism, that was something else. ”
“So what armed revolution succeeded, what didn’t get twisted? Cuba maybe, some aspects of it. Maybe the Zapatistas, we can only hope. But they mostly use wooden guns. They haven’t fired a shot since 1995.”
“We’ve got to strike back. We’ve got to resist! We can’t just let them win. You think non-violence would have worked against the Nazi’s?”
“Everyone always says that. In fact, the few times it was used against the Nazi’s, it actually worked. It worked better than any of the other attempts at resistance from the inside.”
“What are you talking about?”
“First off, we need to define some terms, alright? Non-violence does not mean passivity. That’s a common confusion. Much of the response to the rise of the Nazi’s was either passive or violent. The few times non-violent action, and action is the key word here, was tried, it was very successful. Have you heard about what happened at Rosenstrasse?”
“It was in 1943, and the Nazi’s did a huge round up of the last remaining Jews, most of whom hadn’t been captured yet because they had ‘Aryan kin’- they were married to non-Jewish wives. They were caught by surprise, and easily rounded up and brought to a detention center. Immediately, what was left of the ‘Jewish Radio’, the underground phone network, went buzzing. The next morning, as if planned, thousands of women, the wives and sometimes the mothers of the captured men, appeared outside the detention center, which was only a few blocks from Gestapo headquarters. The numbers swelled to six thousand, demanding the release of their loved ones. The men inside took courage from this show of support, and started shouting and banging on their cells. It became a hugely embarrassing spectacle for the Nazis. They could have put a stop to it with a single spray of machine gun fire, but they didn’t. There was a full investigation into this incident done a while back, and they discovered the Fuhrer himself was paralyzed-he didn’t know what to do. In the end, the men were all released. What’s more, almost all of them were able to escape Nazi Germany, and survive the holocaust. So, one of the few times non-violent resistance was tried against the Nazis, it worked.”
“Okay, maybe I don’t know about that. Okay, maybe it worked sometimes, but how can we fight a whole military industrial complex without hitting them as hard as they hit us?”
“I agree, we need to hit them hard. I never said we need to roll over and play dead. I think we can hit them hard, without hitting them. But you know what I think is going to happen, sooner than we imagine, is that the whole planet is going to go up in smoke and we’ll have no choice but to wake up.”
“Yeah that’s what I think too. The whole fucking shit is going to collapse.”
He orders another one of those big black ‘Tiger’ beers and lights a cigarette. Cray stumbles back from trying unsuccessfully to throw up.
“It’s these Roman Catholics, the religions, brainwashing the people, justifying the destruction, blessing it with their hypocrisy.”
“Hang on, hang on. You never even mentioned Roman Catholics until Cray came back.”
“All religions! All of them!”
“Alright, it’s probably true that many religions have lost their original intent. Like with many Buddhists, many Christians. But if you go back to the original teachings there’s always truth. Buddha didn’t teach Buddhism, that came later. Christ didn’t teach Christianity. They taught compassion, that was one of the fundamental teachings.”
“Compassion. Yes, that’s what we need,” he finally agrees.

I once asked a Zen master Junpo Roshi, what he thinks the definition of spirituality is.  He said, “Embodied Compassion.”    To him, that is the core of it all.   What are we here on this planet to do?  Embody compassion.  Who are we?  Compassion on two legs.

Excerpted from my journals during the shooting of my feature documentary, Scared Sacred:


1 Comment

  1. It’s really hard to find – not only in politics, but in all areas of life – a middle ground and to strike the right balance – to be idealistic, without being naive, non-violent, without being passive, hopeful, when there’s no reason to be optimistic, to have a mission in life without becoming a fanatic. To fight evil without becoming a hatemonger. But it IS possible. And I DO believe that compassion will save our planet.

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