Monday, May 31, 2010

Dealing With Ruffians

A few nights ago I was walking home from work and I noticed a young man across the street leading a dog down the side walk. He was obviously very drunk and was yelling out the lyrics to some stupid pop song. He decided to come over to my side of the street and started walking a little in front of me. (I could smell the alcohol from several paces.) He started yelling/singing again and then decided to address me by calling me "homey" (whatever the Hell that means.) I made some sort of non-committal response that seemed to not be good enough, so I just tuned him out like I do every other drunk I meet.

At one point he stopped and let me pass him, then he started walking behind me. (This is not a position I like to be in with someone like this.) I tried to distance him with a fast step, but he kept up. He also started yelling at me and saying that I was "anti-social". At this point I was watching my shadow like a hawk so he couldn't sneak up on me. Ordinarily, I wouldn't have been too terribly concerned, but he had a dog with him. This meant that if he attacked me I would not have to just fight him, but the dog also. This dramatically changed the dynamics of the situation.

Luckily, before things got too out of hand I made it to a little strip mall where a lot of people were outside a bar smoking. When I walked into view all eyes turned on this little freak and I knew that I was safe from an attack. He went into a corner store and I continued on home.

I did a lot of thinking about this over the last few days and even considered purchasing some sort of weapon to defend myself. In Canada, your options are few. Guns are out of the question. Mace is supposed to be illegal, but you can buy bear spray in an outdoors store. I looked into it, but it didn't look like it would work in the situations I sometimes find myself in walking home at night from work. It would also be hard to explain to a policeman. I also looked into a spring baton of the sort the police carry. It too is illegal in Canada. A cane would be ideal, but I'm still young enough that there really isn't any need and it would look odd too.

Eventually, I found something called a kubotan that is legal to carry. At work, I found a pocket flashlight in our toolroom that is a very good approximation that I can keep in a pocket of my work trousers where it is very easy to access and is convenient to carry. I think my decades of taijiquan will allow me to use the thing with some dexterity if need be. My plan is to carry this thing on me every night.

Some readers might find this thought process and final decision an odd thing for a religious person to follow. I would suggest, though, that it is quite logical.

Religious like me are marginal people who live in the edges of society. Many hermits, monks and nuns live in the wilderness where land is cheap, distractions few, and the police a long way away. Urban hermits and religious communities on the other hand, tend to live in rough neighbourhoods and often deal with "unsavoury" characters. Part of this comes from not devoting your life to career and making money, which means that many religious simply cannot afford to live in the "nice" (and safe) part of town and avoid unsavoury characters. It can involve making a commitment to work with the poor and disenfranchised. As a result of these choices, religious people often have to make some sort of compromise when it comes to personal safety.

There are several ways in which religious people can deal with this problem. Probably the most important is by embracing poverty. If you own nothing worth stealing, then people will not bother you. Unfortunately, this will not work if people are so desperately poor that even minimal possessions are worth stealing. I once met a Buddhist monk who told me about being on a pilgrimage in India where he was set upon by bandits. He was travelling by foot, which meant he didn't have the safety afforded by riding in a bus or train. He had nothing but the clothes on his back and his begging bowl, but that didn't save him. The thieves stole his saffron robe and his sandals---which left him nothing but his underwear. At that point they proceeded to beat the crap out of him. (Being a good Buddhist, he dealt with the ordeal by reciting his order's version of a Metta teaching.)

Nor will it work if people have spread crazy rumours about you. A community of Buddhist Monks in Arizona found this out after local youths got it into their heads that they were funding their temple by smuggling heroin into the country, that they had a safe full of money and a solid gold Buddha statue. (They were slaughtered.) It also doesn't help if you offend powerful people in the process of trying to help the poor, like these Jesuits.

In my case, because I live in a rich society and have made a commitment to be an example to others that you can live in harmony with nature without being materially deprived, and, because I am specifically not part of a greater religious community, I have to have an income and savings. This means that the vow of poverty cannot be a line of defence. Moreover, it would not have helped with this drunken fool any more than it did for those Theravada monks in Arizona or the martyred Jesuits I linked to above. And because I live as a hermit and have to work for a living, I cannot even use special religious clothing as a way of defending myself, either. (I doubt if anyone in my town would even know what a Daoist robe is anyway.)

What this leaves me is another strategy that has been developed by religious people to survive at the margins of society: the martial arts. It doesn't really come out much in kung fu movies, but I suspect the real reason why Shaolin and Wu-Dang (I tried to come up with a link for Wu-Dang Shan, but all the links I could find were so "Disneyfied" that they made me gag) kungfu came about is simply so monks and nuns---as hermits, in abbeys or as cloud-walkers---could defend themselves from ruffians.

This doesn't mean that every person who came out of a temple was some sort of superman (or woman), but it did mean that a lot of folks did have some sort of training. And training makes a huge difference when you are in a fight with someone who has never had any at all (which includes a lot of ruffians.) Moreover, it doesn't matter if most religious never really got any training. If you never knew whether or not that monk or nun you attack might be someone who can kick your ass in a fight, you might give all the ones you meet a wide birth. Why bother running the risk when you know that none of them is going to have a lot of money anyway?

Anyway, that's the calculation that I follow. I work nights because this allows me to have the sort of "slacker" job that means I can follow my religious vocation. I also walk because of my vow to never own an automobile. If the walk gets too dangerous, maybe I'll go back to riding a bicycle or start carrying a cane.


Jim714 said...

Dear CWO:

According to some legends, Bodhidharma specifically taught weaponless defense at Shaolin because Shaolin had been subject to bandit raids and they needed some sort of method for defending themselves that didn’t violate their monastic precepts. Like most legends this is impossible to verify but it does show a cultural connection between spirituality and the martial arts.

I had a similar incident to the one you described. I was crossing a bridge in Chicago at night when a guy began pacing me, gradually getting closer. I sensed his first move and countered it with a simple block, and he was so surprised that he turned and walked away. I’m definitely not a martial artist of any great skill and if faced with someone with training I couldn’t hold my own. Even so, I’ve discovered that even a small amount of martial arts knowledge is a very useful skill and I’m glad I took the time years ago to study it; if nothing else it taught me how to remain focused in problematic situations.

I’m intrigued by your passing mention of your vow to never own a car. Have you posted about that? If not, I hope you can post something about it. I have wanted to live without a car for a very long time, but have not been able to get the pieces together to make it happen. How did you go about it?



Georg said...

What about this link:

Or this one: ttp://

The Cloudwalking Owl said...


Thanks for the suggestion for a future post. I think I mentioned it in the past, but part of getting older is I now have an excuse to repeat myself. ;-)

Your situation in Chicago is revealing. A great deal of aggression comes down to "sensing your potential opponent". An intelligent mugger is seeking easy prey, not a real fight. Any evidence that you will be more trouble that you are worth will help you avoid the fight without even starting. Sunzi was right: the best way to win a fight is to do so without even fighting.


One of the things that made me gag about the Wudang sites was the way they are obviously "milking" the Temple for money. You probably wouldn't be aware of this, but the leadership of Buddhist and Daoist groups in China are appointed by the central government. (This is the way it always has been, so you can't really blame it on the Communists.)

China is a very poor country still, which means that even though the Temples are now open, they have to make a profit in order to pay for things like upkeep and restoration. This means tourism has become a major pre-occupation of all major religious establishments.

I already knew that Shaolin temple had been turned into a tourist trap, because a delegation of monks came to Markham Ontario to set up a branch monastery where their best pupils could study without being distracted by hordes of gawking tourists. It looks like Wudang Shan is now suffering a similar fate.

The Daoist Temples are going to suffer a lot more from this than the Buddhist ones because there are a lot of wealthy Buddhists in the world who have been channelling donations into China to restore the Buddhist abbeys.

The only bright spot that I have heard is that on the grassroots level a lot of Chinese communities are sponsoring Daoist Temples because they see it as a way of creating nature preserves in order to keep some of the rape and pillage of China's environment at bay. I guess they think that an official can be bribed to turn a blind eye to a bulldozer, but a Daoshi might be harder to corrupt. :-(

Georg said...

But sometimes the attackers are challenged by someone who has at least some abilities in fighting. Not so easy to deal with them then.

I do not know what do to. My teachers always say: avoid fighting. Run away if you can. But if you cannot run or have to defend another person, then you have to act quickly and distinctively. If I can do so I do not know, fortunately. And I hope I will never come to such an experience.


You are probably right about the development in China. Two friends of mine regularly go to Wudangshan to practice Taijiquan and Baguazhang. They do write diaries there ( - german only, sorry) and they also complain sometimes that the buildings are on reconstruction now and new buildings are to be build and that the old charme is disappearing slowly. Also to make it more comfortable to Western students... Still they do love the place, and if there is no Sunday, it is very quiet. More so in the mountains, where some hermits still live.


I really enjoy reading your posts. On Saturday I am off to Southern France (on a beach at the Mediterranean, next to the border of Spain) for a week of Taijiquan.