The Difficulty of Zen

I used to be notorious for holding grudges, often long enough to enact some form of revenge. Almost always justified, mind you. I’m no saint but neither am I a vindictive monster. Over the years, though, I’ve done significant work to leave that part of me behind. Resentment is a poison, and eventually the rot sets in.

The cycle of retribution often becomes more tiring and costly than the initial act being revenged, and to end the cycle before it starts requires such a retribution that your own moral center is put at hazard. One might even say that this was the foundational concept of our first law codes: eye for eye, tooth for tooth, commonly misrepresented as the cycle of revenge it was designed to stop through restorative justice.

To ignore this and instead pursue bald reprisal is not unlike throwing coins into a maelstrom, hoping to gain some surfeit in return. It is ridiculous, but most things are when viewed from a vantage outside the situation at hand. The only way to conquer the maelstrom is to turn away from it. Put simpler, the only way to win is not to play. This sounds easy, but it isn’t. Take it from one who knows, turning the other cheek is incredibly difficult.

It is very human to desire your enemies’ destruction. How else do you protect what’s yours? Or at least that’s the question your lizard brain asks and answers in times of crisis. But more than this, rejecting the inclination to vengeance is made that much more difficult by the light in which its opposite is cast. By which I mean, the inherent cowardice of allowing others to abuse you in the name of a moral victory. A moral victory is no victory at all, as anyone can tell who has been brutalized and seen their brutalizer evade any sort of karmic justice.

There is an argument to be made that these philosophies are a way to make peace with a cruel world and to absolve oneself of the pain that comes with wanting to change it and finding yourself powerless to do so. That argument certainly holds water. But this does not mean the act of turning the other cheek must be couched in forgiveness and the meek expectation of divine reward. And the alternative goes back to that rot which sets in with a grudge, that cycle of revenge we too often can see stretching out before us and yet rush into headlong anyway.

There is value in turning the other cheek when we recognize the servicing of a grudge will bring us more pain than the act which spawned it, where we understand that the temporary elation of wounding our enemies as they have wounded us will soon be replaced with the fear or expectation of reprisal, which then of course will beg further reprisal from us. And is that elation truly worth it? Or is it better to nurse our pride instead with the zen-like thought that this truly does not matter? That this pain is only temporary if we do not give in and repay the pain in kind.

The moral purity that is conferred upon those who refuse to “stoop to their level” is often without value. The moral thing, the *just* thing, is to punish wrongdoing through an impassive and inarguable instrument (i.e. what the law is *supposed* to be). Divine reward isn’t coming to us for refusing to take that work on ourselves. Understanding this, we can then understand the refusal to stoop to their level not as a means to righteousness, but to avoid enmeshing oneself in the labyrinthine tangle of returning hurt for hurt. Of further involving yourself with creatures whose only desire is to cause pain, either through neglect or joy for your own. For unless you’re as sadistic and heartless as the person to whom your wound is owed, you will quickly find yourself exhausted where they will grow energized.

Every fire needs fuel to burn and these interactions provide theirs. They feed off the opportunity to cause further misery, it is the only way for them to quiet their own personal maelstrom whirling within. And, unless you share this with them, the only way to quiet yours is to disassociate from their company. To stop feeding the maelstrom. Let the waves churn all they like but recognize the churning for the illusion that it is, much like the karmic wheel itself. The only thing real in the world is peace and to achieve it, not its mirage of purity, is to recognize the things of the Platonic cave for what they are and leave them behind. They are shadows on the wall. And playing with them will only make you a shadow of yourself.

But then again: Sometimes they really do have it coming, don’t they?