I heard an actor famous for playing gangsters say to his interviewer on the radio that he had never been in a fight in his life. I noted the irony and realized that even I could not say that. I recalled standing toe to toe with the neighborhood bully at the bus stop fifty yards from my house. I challenged him when he pushed me out of the door of the bus back at middle school.
I snapped. He had abused and bullied me and all the kids in the neighborhood. He stood six two, weighed two twenty, and boasted the nickname, “Slugger.” Standing in that tense moment and staring into his freckled face, with everything in the universe silent except for the rasp of my breath going in and out, I saw clearly my own death at thirteen.
As Slugger and I shuffled our feet and waited for a sign to start, I thought of my father’s advice. My dad had a reputation in our family for having been a brawler in his younger days. There was one anecdote about him punching a brick wall with an errant blow, and the wall cracked. My dad said to me, “If you get in a fight, hit the other guy in the stomach as hard as you can, before things even get going. You do that and the fight is over.”
Slugger and I both had our fists up. Slugger kept his elbows high (maybe a technique he learned from his Dad), and his hefty midsection presented itself. I watched and remembered my dad’s words, “Do that and the fight is over.” I wanted the fight over.
By now, we had attracted a small crowd. Other kids from the neighborhood formed a semi-circle around us. I heard shouts, “Hit him, Diedrichs.” “Make him bleed.” “Kill the g’rilla.”
I focused again on his ample paunch. I just had to pull back my fist and lunge forward, putting all my weight behind it. I would put him down and I would be a hero in front of my friends. I tried to raise the courage, but I knew I could not do it. I could not hit him. In my heart, I did not want to hurt him. My moment passed and Slugger and I danced around until he grabbed me in a clench. He pulled me to the ground and laid on top of me. At that point, I really did think I was going to die. My friends warned Slugger to get off me or they would punch his face in. The energy in the air dissipated and nobody wanted to be there. My mother called me from our driveway half a block away and waved me home.
I never imagined that I would beat up Slugger. I got fed up with him picking on me and everybody else. I stood up to him hoping something would change. In fact, soon after our fight, Johnny (Slugger’s real name) and I became best friends.
I have reflected on this experience, and others, including my time in the U.S. Marine Corps. Despite the circumstances or the prevailing demands, I find I do not have the will to do harm to others. This inherent tenderness made me different from most of the boys I grew up with. Beneath my clothes, I seemed to wear the cloak of loving kindness. Eventually, I found the Buddhist path and began Bodhisattva practice.
A bodhisattva (bodhi-enlightenment and sattva, being) is someone like you and me who dedicates his or her life to waking up for the purpose of freeing all beings from suffering.
A pillar of Bodhisattva practice is metta, loving kindness. Metta serves as one of the Four Heavenly Abodes, along with karuna, compassion, mudita, joy at the happiness and success of others, and upekkha, equanimity.
Buddha believed that you and I truly live in heaven in this time and space when we act lovingly, caringly, and with concern for others, with composure and strength. He said in the Metta Sutra: “Radiating kindness over the entire world, spreading upwards to the skies, and downwards to the depths; outwards and unbounded, freed from hatred and ill-will. This is said to be the sublime abiding.”
I am not, nor have I ever been, unfailingly kind and concerned. But as I discovered as a child, this ambition seems to reside at my core. I see no other reasonable way to proceed. So, I keep practicing, moment-to-moment, day-to-day. As Slugger might testify, it beats a punch in the gut.