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Reverend Father Antonio Hernández, O.M.D., A.B.F.
Founder of the Independent Order of American Buddhist Fathers


The second most popular film series on earth, which developed into a television series, is a Japanese series. It deals with a masseur and sword fighter called ZATOICHI. Though he is blind, Zatoichi slices and dices bad guys better than a Cuisinart. His keen senses, honed by religious sword practice and Zen Buddhist religious practice, allow him to slice several things in his vicinity in one move. He does this so rapidly that one can never really see what he did. Zatoichi does this with his trusty "shikomi-zue", which means "canesword" in Japanese. When it's in its scabbard, Zatoichi's canesword looks harmless and even laughable. It's an old, smooth stick, like a door bar.

The 27-film series, which regularly flitted onto the Japanese silver screen from 1962 to 1989, delighted the downtrodden and raised the spirits. A poor blind hobo, with a pathetic stick- then, WHAMMO!!- if you're the bad guy, you're guts are flying everywhere!

This great character, Zatoichi, brings me to the question I hear so often: "How can Buddhists carry weapons, fight in self defense and even kill someone?" Tough questions, but very good ones. In the time of the Buddha, monks (and later, nuns) were allowed a staff for self defense. This was due to the many attacks, the rapes and murders, plaguing wandering monks and nuns. There were also tigers and other vicious creatures. The Buddha wasn't going to take that lying down, and as he had once been a warrior-prince, he gave permission for self-defense arts to be developed. These, of course, had to be developed quietly. Buddhism is known for its life-revering philosophy, and the first Precept of Buddhism is: "Thou shalt not kill." Yet the Buddha approved the staff as staple for clergy - and a real weapon in the hands of a master.

The Buddha was interested in the protection of life and its inherent self-defense applications. According to a little known Buddhist rule, it is taught that anyone can take the life of any living thing that is a threat to other life. It is not a matter of choice: the monk or nun is obligated to kill any living thing that endangers lives. In the old days, this included killing people. In A.D. 6th century China, Buddhist priests resurrected dialectics on this unpopular Buddhist rule, because they knew that they would need it. The monks in China wished to use Buddhism's rules to help bring about something that is as close to democracy as the ancient world ever got. That was also the Buddha's original intention, but lawlessness and crime had to be addressed. If not with soft Buddhist compassion, than it would be addressed with the hard.

Democracy and Buddhism have many things in common- but the most vital common denominator in these two philosophies is that humans will be humans. No other systems of thought make such a "human allowance" as do democracy and Buddhism. Both systems understand that humans can be bad, destructive and murderous. These are facts not to be avoided. Both systems teach ways of dealing with the bad. In Buddhism, as in democracy, something that may look bad, but is used to deal with the bad, is positive by its own virtue. This is especially true in the instance of carrying weapons. Thus self defense- and more importantly the defense of others, even unto death- is a globally common religious obligation. Even the Jewish faith has a similar small-print by-law.

The Constitution of the United States guarantees such self defense rights, though presidents and weirdo groups work very hard to take these rights away. Other countries have similar laws about self defense and duty to retreat. Here in the state of Illinois, it is legal to go armed, as long as the weapon is visible. To conceal a weapon while outside one's home is considered carrying a concealed weapon, and is illegal. My religious order specializes in carrying and using swordcanes, which are technically illegal here. Further, it is city ordinance that anyone caught off his or her property with ANY martial arts weapon is to be ticketed. Many different types of law-abiding citizens can apply for a license to carry a concealed weapon, if their reason is sound enough. Yet the thought that a religious individual might wish to apply for it seems to grate on the nerves of police. Why?

A city police officer and I once had a discussion about priests carrying guns. That's right: priests carrying guns, our exact topic of debate. He asked me, "Is that a type of message that a religious [person] would want to send to his congregation?" The officer was a Catholic.
"Well," I countered, "the Catholic Church defended itself violently for a millennia and a half. Its priests are allowed to sacrifice their lives for another, or fight on behalf of someone who can't; is it that far a leap to think that even priests might like to be able to defend themselves?" I persisted- but there was simply no way of reaching this man. I cited the radical drop in crime rates among armed populations in certain parts of America. He dismissed it. I cited the higher crime rates suffered by religious clergy; he snorted in disbelief. My mother used to say. "Against stupidity, there is no argument."

Do I not have the same basic right as the violent criminal, viz., the element of surprise and SOMETHING to surprise him with? That he is outside the law, while I am law-abiding, doesn't seem to justify the argument that he can hurt me while I idly allow him. Yet the police say that is precisely what I should do. Such a criminal has to be stopped, by someone at some point. The police don't always catch them; the police don't always care about catching them. So I say, if the bad folks come to mess with me, I'll "catch" them myself. No person who is law-abiding and non-violent can argue with that. In America, the law states absolutely and incontrovertibly that any citizen has the "right to protect self, loved ones, property and possessions, even if deadly force be required." That is a verbatim quote from a circuit court judge who was a friend and colleague of mine.

At the end of the day, it feels as though the real argument is not about self defense, but cowardice. The police bombard us with propaganda everyday: DON'T BE A HERO. DON'T INTERFERE WITH A CRIME IN PROGRESS. DON'T FIGHT BACK. Someone defending herself or himself might later find themselves in court, facing a lawsuit brought by their attacker! We are being cowed slowly into cowardice. Even Albert Einstein came to realize that if he or his family were threatened with deadly force, he would have to respond in kind. He extended this view to include states and nations. He knew that the way of Gandhi could never work, because it cost too much in terms of morale and lives- and it was too slow.
So I do what my "Buddhist ancestors" did: I teach my students empty-hand self defense, and to use common, everyday things to defend themselves. I teach them that it was Buddhist clergy that introduced new self defense techniques and weapons whenever a government outlawed them. I show them that sometimes self defense is the highest form of compassion.
And that's how screwed up our world has become.
© Most Reverend Antonio Hernández, O.M.D. December '03

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Order Rev Hernandez's book on-line on Tourettes -No Duty To Retreat here

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