Issue 210 | Correspondence | The Sun Magazine
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Correspondence

For seven straight years, I have supported your “magazine of ideas.” But Stephen T. Butterfield’s “When Thieves Break In” [April 1993] was the hardest test yet.

My family and I, with children ranging in age from six to twenty-six, live in Cleveland’s inner city. We moved here nineteen years ago as a lifestyle choice, mostly as part of our path. Since then, like Butterfield we have been the victims of break-ins, and also car and bike thefts. For that reason, I read of Butterfield’s giving up with great disappointment and disbelief. I took him to be a fellow traveler on the way.

We can’t figure out why certain things happen to us, as Butterfield tries to do. We must live with the vagaries of life, and try to rise above them. Arming ourselves, as Butterfield suggests, seems to me the foulest rejection of the spiritual journey. It is not only heretical to the Buddhist path, which in my understanding would include nonviolence, but it also contributes to the violence-consciousness growing in our country.

Rather than keeping things in perspective by reflecting on robbery and pillage as the rule in history, I would suggest that he reflect on our modern consumer goods-drugged society as an immediate cause of so much of the theft that we suffer. The true path, as I see it, would encourage us to have nothing, including our space, whose loss we cannot suffer. This would contribute to a much more peaceful consciousness.

After an intrusion such as a break-in, I would recommend a “recovery” similar to, but also different from, Butterfield’s. Banding with the neighbors certainly seems the right thing to do, including a nonviolent form of Neighborhood Watch. But to band together as armed vigilantes seems to me to be the last thing our society needs. Butterfield’s essay tells me that his earlier writings were theory only, and did not come from his heart and experience. People expect that if a person writes about a path, they are confirmed in it, instead of being so shallow as not to give a “rat’s ass” for it when the chips are down.

Refer to Butterfield’s article “The Light From Different Windows” [March 1987], in which he notes that suffering is an essential part of both the Christian and Buddhist traditions. Break-ins are certainly sufferings, and as Butterfield has written there, “in Buddhist thought, suffering is actually enlightenment in disguise; that is, enlightenment comes through to the unenlightened as pain. The disguise is my ignorance, aggression, and greed, my ego, my belief in a self which has to be protected and preserved” (emphasis mine). “The last thing I want to do, then, is run away from suffering. . . .” I submit that arming ourselves is the perfect example of running away from suffering by stupidly, violently protecting ourselves from it.

I would encourage Butterfield to submit his work from now on to another forum, whose readers weren’t indulged by his former spiritual theorizing. I would urge The Sun, as “a magazine of ideas,” to stay with more useful ones.

Curt Treska Cleveland, Ohio

During my years of reading The Sun, the author I have liked most is Stephen T. Butterfield. I’ve enjoyed both his luminous prose and a sense of fellowship with someone on the same dharma path that I am struggling along. I liked his piece “When Thieves Break In” and understood (I think) his progression from boiling anger to the shared strength of neighborhood resistance to the melting love of a man for his disabled watchdog.

But it also stopped me. The reason may lie in the fact that a similar burglary was, in the perspective of more than thirty years, a pivotal event in my own life. We had come home tired from a weekend at the lake, with the kids, the dog, the cat, the dirty laundry. There in the middle of our living room floor lay broken pieces of wood from the antique desk and the contents of its emptied drawers. We soon noticed the missing silver chest and other traces of the burglars. It had been a professional job and nothing was ever recovered.

The single greatest loss was the pre-Civil War set of heavy old sterling that had been the wedding silver of my husband’s Quaker grandmother. We used it on our table every day, because we had no other. Many more family heirlooms were missing also. Like Butterfield, our first and strongest sense was one of personal violation.

Violation is a feeling more familiar to women than men; we try to shake it off along with the pain and loss and get on with life. I bought a serviceable, attractive set of stainless steel. After two years, the insurance company gave up resisting and paid us the face value of our homeowner’s policy. It became the down payment on a newer, larger house.

But for my husband, that was not the end of it. It haunted him. Combined with the fact that a few weeks earlier his doctor had found evidence of a “silent” heart attack, the theft of these treasured objects seemed to harden in him a conviction of mortality and defeat. It was a blow to his very sense of self. First he made a desperate lunge to regain youth. He had an affair and resumed the heavy smoking he had given up ten years before. No use. It was the beginning of a steady slide into chronic depression that ended a dozen years later in alcoholism, divorce, and death.

For me, the real loss lay in erosion of the love and trust our marriage was built on. Eventually my instinct for self-preservation led me to meditation. I sought out a path that pointed toward liberation from loneliness and from emotional dependence on others, not to mention some measure of equanimity in a collapsing civilization.

Despite Butterfield’s wry admission that The Path had reached out with a wet nose and a thumping tail to reclaim him, I felt a certain lack of closure. I keep wanting to say: “Get rid of that heater, Stephen. It may just possibly enable you to drill the next criminal who breaks into your life. If that happens, you know as certainly as I that he will not be all that is killed.”

Rhoda Gilman St. Paul, Minnesota

Is this the same Stephen T. Butterfield who wrote “When the Teacher Fails” [May 1989]? That essay was filled with Orwellian “doublethink” and downplayed the criminal behavior of a false Buddhist prophet who had knowingly infected numerous devotees with AIDS. In a subsequent issue, the “transcendental” Butterfield made these smug statements to answer critics: “Many of my readers seem disappointed and angry that I didn’t criticize Osel Tendzin. I’m sorry, but it doesn’t interest me, and it doesn’t help.” Obviously, Butterfield wasn’t poisoned with AIDS from this megalomaniac, so he can be detached.

However, now that he has become personally infected from the less pernicious breaking-and-entering virus, he seems to have forgotten his other grand statement that “the task of a Buddhist is to treat this event exactly the same as all other forms of suffering: with intelligent, active compassion, nothing less.” How glib and facile.

Karate historian Richard Kim describes how one of his instructors would allow students to advance only after passing severe tests. The final exams were to determine if the mental state known as iwao no mi (steady as a rock) had developed. This “did not mean stubbornness, but the same state of mind under all conditions not influenced by external factors.” So when the student Sato didn’t blink when the instructor thrust a sword close to his face, he advanced to the final exam. The students climbed a mountain where a mile-high gorge was bridged with a rain-slicked, six-inch-wide log. In the pounding rain, Sato froze when instructed to cross. The instructor raced across and urged him to follow. Still, he couldn’t move — end of test. It seems that when tested, Butterfield couldn’t cross his log either.

Randall M. Tillotson North Vancouver, British Columbia
Canada
Stephen T. Butterfield responds:

Hear the language of Mr. Treska, this peace-loving path traveler: I am “foul,” “heretical,” “shallow,” “stupid,” “violent,” and an advocate of “armed vigilantism,” and I should keep my reflections “to another forum,” i.e., shut my mouth and buzz off. Hell hath no fury, it seems, like a disappointed missionary.

Do you imagine, Mr. Treska, that my previous remarks on suffering bind me to sit here and do nothing, lung-impaired and unable to run, while some poor victim of society cleans out my house, ties me to a chair, and puts a plastic bag over my head? I don’t understand how you were “indulged” in that notion by anything I wrote. My first commitment is not to “Buddhism,” or any other “ism,” but to authentic response. In a nearby town recently, a young thug broke into the home of a ninety-three-year-old woman and, not content with merely robbing her, raped and killed her too. Since you would not permit us to defend ourselves, will you come and preach your sermon to this guy?

Nonviolent resistance is OK with me. I have practiced it for fifteen years, as a labor organizer and grievance officer. The idea of Neighborhood Watch is to avoid violence by deterring the intruder. Sorry that point was unclear to you.

Ms. Gilman, your story touched me, and I reflected deeply on why I cannot give you the closure you would have preferred. When my son was about to be sexually assaulted while hitchhiking, he rolled out of the guy’s car, ran to a nearby trailer, and pounded on the door, screaming for help. The man inside appeared with a shotgun, pumped it conspicuously in the doorway, and said, “Take it easy, kid, no one’s gonna hurt you. I’ll stand right here while you go use the phone.” The assailant left in a hurry. Good neighbors and shotguns went up considerably in my estimation after that. Believe me, the thought of drilling anyone scares the hell out of me, but in this country of atrocious murders, I choose to keep all my options open. It is not just my own life which may need protecting. If I use a weapon stupidly, the courts will judge me for it. If I ignore the truth in your last sentence, the judge will be my own conscience, and that is much worse. Living an examined life is demanding, isn’t it? Thank you for your gentleness.

Oh, Mr. Tillotson, by the way, you are clubbing a dead guru — one who gave a lot more than you care to know. Crossing slippery logs over mile-high gorges is a stunt for video arcades. Better luck on your next exam.

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