bullying

The Culture of Violence in Boys and Men

by Terry Miller mb37-TheCulture1

I spent two weeks of the 2004 Winter Retreat at Deer Park Monastery as part of my personal and professional work, during a sabbatical from my college teaching job. I have been researching, contemplating, and writing about boys and violence. This topic is very much a part of my own personal practice, as I confront my maleness and the violence of my country.

Growing up as an American boy, I felt alienated from most of my American brothers, and extremely sensitive to the violence in the culture of boys. I turned eighteen in 1967 and was drafted into the army to fight in the war in Vietnam. I refused to serve and helped others to resist the war. As luck would have it, I did not have to fight or kill in a war that I did not support, nor did I have to serve time in prison, as I had expected.

I became an elementary school teacher, and thus continued to spend my days with boys and girls. I tried to integrate peace education and conflict resolution into my classroom, and I worked with other teachers and parents in this effort. Deep down, I still felt alienated from men and boys. I was repulsed by violence on the playground, in sports, in the media, and especially by the cruel physical and verbal bullying which seemed so common in the culture of boys.

In the early 1990s, and again in 2003, many Americans were in full support of the U.S. participation in the wars in the Middle East, believing that bombing and killing were necessary to maintain our safety. At the same time, from the 1990s on, the violence in the culture of boys took a terrible turn. Horrific incidents of shootings in schools began, and awareness grew of the prevalence of physical and verbal bullying among teens. Many of us felt increasing revulsion and despair at the violence of men and boys. We asked ourselves: What is wrong with this entire gender of human beings?

As Thich Nhat Hanh teaches, we are not separate from those boys and men. They are me, and I am the product of the same cultural experience. It was time for me to look deeply at the behavior of boys and at my own behavior. My time in Deer Park was a crucial part of that work.

So many of the stories I have read, both factual and fictional, confirm that beneath the inclination to violence lies deeply rooted fear. We fear the enemy; we fear violence and death caused by bad people or bad nations. Boys and men are raised with another, equally powerful fear—the fear of weakness, the fear of cowardice, the fear of being shamed.

Sports, “play fighting,” violent entertainment, and bullying are integral parts of this culture today—all serving as tests of a boy’s manliness. The largely unspoken, deeply disturbing truth is that we, the adult men and women of America as well as many other societies, feel that we need our boys to be ready to fight our enemies. When we ask why our boys become so violent and cruel, perhaps it is because we think we need them to be this way.

When we look at ourselves deeply, we confront our deepest fears. To look at violence in others, we must see the seeds of violence in ourselves. We must see that our children are acting out our fears, and that we and our enemies are interconnected. Only then can we begin to help our boys and girls find a better way to be.

We need to plant and nourish seeds of nonviolence and compassion in our boys and girls. Men and women need to model how to face our fears in a peaceful way. We need to show our children how to be empathetic to all beings ––how to see ourselves in other beings, even in the perceived enemy. We need to talk about our own mindfulness trainings practice, and demonstrate how we attempt to put peace and compassion into practice, moment to moment.

One concrete way to facilitate discussion of this topic is to read aloud novels with a peacemaking theme, and to discuss the feelings and actions of the characters with our children. Boys and girls can learn from the modeling of peaceful heroes in children’s literature, and the discussion of alternative responses to conflict situations is a concrete way to nurture peaceful behavior in us all.

For example, the hero of Kathe Koja’s novel, Buddha Boy, is tormented constantly by some of the football players in his high school because of his shaved head and Buddhist practices. His friends urge him to get even –– the traditional response to bullying. He refuses to do this, saying: “...if I tried to get even, I’d be worse than he is, I’d be more wrong than he is. Because he doesn’t know. But I do.” “Know what?” “That we’re all gods,” he said, “gods inside, all of us. Him too.”

Crash, by Jerry Spinelli, has two differing role models for how to be a boy. One is Crash, the football player who loves physical sports and the thrill of competition, and who uses some of his aggressiveness to torment his neighbor, Webb. Webb is a peace-loving boy, who has the courage to be different. It is Crash’s concern for his beloved grandfather after he suffers a stroke, which begins his “softening” and the development of his natural empathy. He begins to appreciate the strength and courage of Webb’s way of being a boy.

In the novel, Charlie Pippin, by Candace Dawson Boyd, the heroine, Charlie, becomes curious about her father’s experience in the Vietnam War, which he refuses to talk about. As part of a research project for school, Charlie attends peace rallies, reads books about the war, talks to veterans, and finally, visits the Vietnam War Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C. When she brings back rubbings from the Memorial with the names of two men who fought with her father and died in the war, her father is finally able to share his extreme grief and bitterness about the war.

In using these books for reading and discussion, some children immediately identify with the peacemaking heroes and heroines in these books. Others disagree with the actions of the characters, but still can consider and discuss the effectiveness of using nonviolent alternatives in these situations.

It is not enough to simply tell our children not to kill or act violently, and not to play at violence. We have to show them ways of being strong, brave, and heroic without hurting others. We have to offer them stories of peaceful and creative alternatives to violence. Most important, we have to be models of mindfulness, living our teachings in our daily relationships.

Terry Miller is a professor of education at St. Cloud State University. A member of the Compassionate Ocean Dharma Center Sangha in Minneapolis, Minnesota, his Dharma name is Lamp of True Joy in the Japanese Soto Zen tradition.

PDF of this article

Retreat at Plum Village

By Cameron Barnett Over the summer I went to a Buddhist retreat in Plum Village, France. Plum Village is a community of Buddhist monks and nuns located about an hour and a half from Bordeaux. The head of this community is a man named Thich Nhat Hanh. He is a Vietnamese monk who was forced to leave Vietnam during the Vietnam War.

He was forced to leave because he was opposed to the war and both sides wanted him to join them. He left Vietnam to come to the United States to speak out against the war and when he tried to return to Vietnam, the government refused to let him back in. He then moved to France where he remains today.

Plum Village is made up of four communities where the monks and nuns live during the year. At different times during the year Thich Nhat Hanh offers retreats where people can come and stay for one or two weeks. The community where I stayed was very peaceful with a meditation hall, dining room, and ceremonial bell located in the very center. I lived in a farm house which was about a ten-minute walk from the center. It was an eight-room house which held about twenty people. Altogether at the retreat there were about 700 people coming from fifty countries.

mb45-Retreat1

Hearing Thich Nhat Hanh and visiting Plum Village were so important to me because it showed me the importance of being in the moment and taking things step by step. Thay taught me to feel sympathy for those who are mean to others or who picked on me because their souls were not better off for what they were doing. He is an extraordinary person. In his presence I felt that somehow anything that I had ever done wrong was OK, and I was happy.

When I returned home, I was much more relaxed and helped some new kids in the school dorm move in. One particular individual who before had picked on me came up to me the next day after I got back and made fun of me for going on this retreat. Although it was an extremely offensive remark, I thought back to what Thich Nhat Hanh had told me and simply replied, “How are you today?” He yelled at me again and I said, “I had a great break, how was yours?” It took about a week but by the next Monday, he no longer picked on me. Today we are good friends.

My teachers also noticed a change in me. From the second I got back to school I was much more relaxed, calm, and patient. I was also happier. Before when someone had done something I did not agree with, I put up a shell and refused to talk to that person. Thich Nhat Hanh taught me that shutting out the person was no better than picking on him and that if I shut someone out once it would become a habit. With this in mind I worked hard on becoming friendly to everyone and listening to what they were saying. It was a truly amazing experience and it has changed my life forever.

Cameron Barnett, age 13, and his mother JoAnn attended the family retreat at Plum Village in 2006, having previously attended a family retreat in Massachusetts

PDF of this article

How to Live with Two Religious Paths

By Emily Hilsberg I am seventeen years old, and I am Jewish and Buddhist. I study mindfulness at Deer Park Monastery. I have been going to Deer Park since I was six years old. This year marks my eleventh year being a part of the Sangha. I am also involved in my Jewish community. I am a member of Temple Beth Am’s youth group, and I have volunteered at many Jewish organizations. Every summer, I attend the family retreat at Deer Park and then I spend a month at Camp Ramah, a Jewish sleep-away camp in Ojai, California. When people ask me my religion, I say, “I’m Jewish and Buddhist.” Their reaction is always the same. They ask, “Why do you have two religions? You can only commit to one god.” This idea is false.

mb65-How1Thich Nhat Hanh has taught me so much since 2003. Thay says that you need to show compassion to others and that compassion is the basis for true happiness. Similarly, one of my Camp Ramah directors has had a huge impact on my life. He taught me to be a person who fights for change. Be that person who steps up and takes charge and is always trying to make the community a better place. I’ve also learned that lesson at Deer Park. For example, one year some developers wanted to build houses on the ridge facing the large meditation hall. The community fought to preserve the ridge and after many months, they earned enough money to save it.

Many people underestimate others. I was born with Asperger’s disorder, which affects my brain, and I’ve struggled socially and in school. People have often underestimated my capabilities. I’ve been beaten down by the speech and actions of others. Administrators at my elementary school had no confidence in my abilities and the so-called resource specialist often yelled at me and gave me answers to classwork without teaching me how to do the work myself. The principal did nothing to help me. My fifth grade teacher did not understand me and did not help me when other kids bullied me because she never caught them in the act. Kids can be so mean and they often harassed me! As a result of my life experiences, I want to make a change in the world.

I’ve learned so much from going to Deer Park and from the five summers I’ve spent at Ramah. I can be who I want to be and I can teach others to be active leaders. I recently attended Thay’s public talk in Pasadena. My mom was on staff and I decided to help out. I had a long talk with one of the brothers, whom I hadn’t seen in years. I told him that I’ve changed. I learned so much from Deer Park and appreciate how much it’s helped me. He was very impressed. Later that day, while my mom and I were driving home, I thought to myself, “I am proud to be both a Jew and Buddhist. Having both makes me stronger as a person.”

I consider Sister Ho Nghiem, one of the monastic sisters, to be my godmother. She’s known me since I was a young girl. Before the children’s program was started, I often spent time in the sisters’ hamlet. One year when she broke her leg, I visited her in her room to cheer her up and keep her company. For many years I helped her in the bookstore. When I saw Sister Ho Nghiem at the public talk, I was overjoyed. I can’t imagine my life without my brothers and sisters of Deer Park. The practice has grown on me, and I hope to teach it to my own children one day.

Buddhism teaches me to be more compassionate and understanding toward other people who are suffering. Judaism teaches me to be close to god and to be the person I want to become. In my mind, these lessons are very much alike. Both focus on ethics and the value of strong community. I am fortunate to have two very supportive communities to guide me on my path: my Jewish community and my Buddhist community.

Emily Hilsberg, Crystal Mountain of the Heart, lives in Culver City, California.

PDF of this article

The Wisdom of Ordinary Children

By Mike Bell mb54-TheWisdom1

I started learning to meditate in the late 1980s and went on my first retreat with Thay around 1992. I joined the Order of Interbeing in 1996. By 1999 I was looking for a new career and decided to take up teaching. I found I had less time to go to local Sangha meetings and so spent more time integrating the practice into my everyday life.

Mindfulness Trainings: Guidelines for a Better Life

I first thought about trying to use Buddhist ideas in the classroom while teaching a General Studies class of sixth formers (sixteen-year-olds). We had been talking about ethics. I remembered hearing that if you ask a group of schoolchildren about the things that upset people at school, and then ask them to come up with rules to prevent these things from happening, they will naturally generate the Five Mindfulness Trainings. I decided to give it a try.

mb54-TheWisdom2

I asked the pupils to write down one or two things that had made them unhappy at school. They read their ideas out loud, and I wrote them on the board. The most common reason that people get upset in school is because of things others say, and particularly, being talked about behind their backs. I asked the pupils to group the ideas into categories and, finally, to come up with a rule that they might be prepared to follow to prevent these things from happening.

mb54-TheWisdom3

It soon became clear that this exercise was going to work, but not quite as I had anticipated. The pupils came up with a list of what they called “Rules for a Happy Society,” which included:

  1. Consideration for others—no discrimination on the basis of age, sex, religion, or disability.
  2. No stealing
  3. No hurting, violation, or murder.
  4. Protection for religions and cultures. Accept a reasonable level of risk—do not look for blame.
  5. Welcome asylum-seekers, but deport illegal immigrants.
  6. Make facilities available for people of all ages.
  7. Limit the use of addictive drugs.

I noticed the importance to young people of tolerance: religions, musical tastes, fashions, and sexuality were all mentioned in our class discussion as objects of tolerance.

I have tried the same exercise with twelve-year-olds. I introduce the practice as “the science of happiness,” and tell them not to believe what I tell them, just to examine the facts. On one occasion, without any prompting, they did indeed group their concerns into the same five areas as the precepts: violence, stealing, speech, sexual misconduct, and consumption. I found from experience that I needed to include a second question, such as: “What things that you eat, buy, or consume can make you or other people unhappy?” Once prompted, they easily came up with overeating, getting drunk, and using drugs.

Mindfulness Practice: Calming Your Mind

I have several times tried to adapt our mindfulness practice to the classroom. I introduce these ideas as ways to calm your mind, to stop from worrying, to think more clearly, or to help you focus. Initially I thought I would follow Thay’s idea of the “pebble meditation”: moving five pebbles from hand to hand as you breathe in and out. I then realised that if I sent thirty pupils out of the classroom to collect five pieces of gravel from the driveway, I would really not end up with a meditation lesson! So first I tried using five pencils. Unfortunately, not every child has five pencils, and pencils come with some disadvantages—they take a lot of tidying up, they lend themselves to tapping, and they fall on the floor—so I decided to invent a simpler system. This is the five-finger meditation.

mb54-TheWisdom4

You start with the index finger of one hand resting on the wrist of the other hand, just below the thumb. Breathing in, slide the finger up the thumb. Breathing out, slide the finger down the other side of the thumb. Breathing in, slide the finger up the first finger; breathing out, slide the finger down the other side of that finger, etc. With nothing to fall on the floor, this system has worked reasonably well.

mb54-TheWisdom5

Slow walking meditation around the outside of the classroom was less successful— too many pupils did silly things, giggled, and poked each other. However, walking meditation has really worked with children who are being bullied.

I point out that bullies are people who enjoy seeing somebody else upset, so the trick is to not give them any idea that you are upset. I have shown several pupils how to bring their attention down to the contact point between their feet and the ground and how to keep their focus there as they walk across the playground, not allowing any change in expression when somebody makes a taunting comment. I have observed a change in two or three pupils. One girl, who would stop behind to tell me how horrible people were, now stops and tells me something else!

mb54-TheWisdom6

After I taught these exercises to one or two classes, a group of rather unruly boys asked me if I would teach them meditation. I told them that I would only do it with classes that I knew and only if everybody agreed to participate. I never expected the boys to be able to be quiet enough to do it. But each lesson they kept asking, so I decided to give it a try. To my amazement, they did quite well, with one particular boy practising extremely well. I asked him whether he did any activities that were repetitive and that required focusing his mind. He told me that he was a cross-country runner and that when he was running, he often paid attention to the feeling in his legs. He had no trouble sitting still without fidgeting, clearly focused for much longer than the other pupils.

On the day of their exams, I was waiting with my pupils outside the examination hall when two of them asked if they could do the relaxation practice again. (I had told them it would help them with their exam.) A group of five or six started breathing meditation. One of their friends came over. “What you lot doin’?” he asked in a jeering voice. One of my pupils immediately replied, “Meditating. Sir taught us… and it’s gonna make us better in our exam, so you can shu’ up!”

Can We Live by Ourselves Alone?

This year I was planning to teach eleven-year-olds about the characteristics of living things. I asked the technician to bring me a green plant and a large stone. Showing these items to the pupils, I asked them what would happen if I put the stone in a cupboard and left it for a year and took it out again. They had no trouble telling me that the stone would be roughly as it was before—perhaps a little dusty or even mouldy, but basically the same. When I asked them what would happen to the plant if it were kept in a cupboard for a year, they readily agreed that the plant would be dead, all rotten or all brown. I then asked them what the plant needed that the stone didn’t, and they said that it needed light and water and stuff from the soil. They copied my diagram and labelled it with things the plant needed. I then asked them what the plant needed to be happy, and they were clear that it needed more sunlight, more water, and more nutrients. I asked them what the difference was between the stone and the plant, and they came up with the general idea that the plant “cannot live by itself alone.”

I then asked what would happen if the pupils were shut in a cupboard for a year (pointing out that I had no intention of doing this!). They easily agreed that they would be dead and rotten and smelly. I asked them what they needed to stay alive, and they first thought of food, water, and air; they soon added friends, family, and a house. They were ready to acknowledge that they could not live by themselves alone. I then asked them what they needed to be happy, and again they had no trouble listing the things that would help them. I asked them whether they thought the plant was separate from the water and the sunshine and the soil. This needed a little more thought, but they eventually agreed that the plant was not separate. I asked them if they were separate from their family and the air and the rain. They had no trouble with the idea that they were not separate. I asked what they needed to do to make sure that they were happy, and they decided that they needed to look after their family and the environment in order to be happy.

These experiences suggest to me that the wisdom found in Buddhism can be easily discovered by ordinary children without any reference to Buddhist terminology. The Five Mindfulness Trainings are not rules handed down by an authority but a set of guidelines for living that any group of reasonable people—even schoolchildren—can agree upon. I believe that my efforts to introduce mindfulness practice into the classroom have significantly affected and improved the lives of my pupils.

mb54-TheWisdom7Mike Bell, True Sword of Understanding, lives near Cambridge, England and teaches science in a state secondary school. He is interested in exploring ways to offer the benefits of the practice to those who would be put off by labels, rituals and complex language.

PDF of this article