The Universal Notebook: Stop watering the seeds of violence

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Americans love violence. We love stock car races and their inevitable crashes. We love football and its inevitable big hits. We love hunting and hockey and fights, guns, murders, and wars.

Of course, most of us don’t take part in this mayhem. We are just spectators, remote yet riveted. Our own lives are not violent, but vicarious lives are. And much of the violence we see isn’t even real. It’s violence in movies and on television and in video games. American are armchair thrill seekers.

Last year I was visiting a relative who suggested we watch an episode of “Dexter,” a Showtime series whose hero catches serial killers because he is a serial killer himself. We hardly got through the credits before I started to feel sick and left the room.

I had much the same reaction to the film “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.” I kept watching because I couldn’t believe that the sadistic violence could get any worse, but it did. Now I’m told that I probably won’t be able to stomach “The Killing,” an AMC series about the search for a child killer. Like “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” “The Killing” comes to us from Scandinavia. I thought the Danes and Swedes were a civil people.

I think of my revulsion in the face of gratuitous violence every time I pick up the paper or turn on the news and learn of the latest homicidal shooting in a schoolyard or workplace, the latest vigilante shooting or racist rampage. What the sickening feeling in the pit of my stomach reminds me is that we all contain the seeds of violence.

The best explanation I have found for the evil men do is the Buddha’s concept of seeds of consciousness. Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, the only truly holy person I have ever met, writes this in “The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching”:

“The Buddha said that in the depths of our store consciousness … there are all kinds of positive and negative seeds, seeds of anger, delusion, and fear, and seeds of understanding, compassion, and forgiveness. … The practice is to refrain from watering the negative seeds in us.”

Watching violence waters negative seeds. I’m sure someone will write to cite a study with conclusive proof that violence on television does not beget real violence. I used to believe that, too. I played with toy guns as a boy and I didn’t grow up to be gun crazy. But I have watched now over 50 years how American culture has become coarser and cruder, less civil and, yes, more violent, and I have concluded that we are simply watering too many negative seeds.

It is raining violence and pornography and celebrity and greed and prejudice. Our books, our films, our televisions, our computers, our newspapers and magazines bombard us with violence because they are reflections of our culture.  

We have become numb, shocked, inured, anesthetized. I sometimes think that young people who commit violent acts don’t ever understand their reality, their finality. Violence is a game. It’s normal.  

The antidote is to water the positive seeds, the seeds of peace, love, compassion, selflessness. The practice must be to refrain from watering so many negative seeds. Every act of violence is ultimately a failure on someone’s part to comprehend the miracle of life. We must stop the rain.

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Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Yarmouth. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.