TWENTY YEARS AGO, I didn't worry about my physical safety. I hitchhiked, camped out, walked alone at night, with a young person's imprudence. This unconcern gave way inexorably, first to a growing caution, and then to genuine anxiety and fear. In the last few years I felt myself to be in a strange state of paralysis. My fear of physical harm, of being a victim of violence, had come to affect my behavior many times a day, limiting where I went and at what times. I felt, like most women, resigned. I was always, however unconsciously, imagining and preparing for the assault any newspaper told me to expect. I resented this feeling, which seemed to have such gravity, pulling me down, forcing me to see the world through narrowed eyes, but I also felt helpless to change it.
In my ten years as a Soto Zen Buddhist, I've considered the distinctions between activity and quiet at length. I have never been in danger of escaping to my cushion, of hiding behind a passive Buddhist face. I have a noisy mind, a restless body; my flaws have always been active ones. I envied the placid tempers of some of my fellow trainees. The last thing I thought I wanted to do was learn self-defense—learn to fight. But I believe compassion can be assertive, even aggressive; I believe it must take that form sometimes. While my training may be focused on the transcending of duality, I get through the day by deciding how to act. Finally, I began to see not fighting, but fighting back. Did I deserve to be protected? I asked myself. The answer was clear: Yes. Was I willing to face this fear? Perhaps.
I could hardly imagine hitting someone, gouging and kicking and biting the way I knew I should if attacked. But I knew that it would do neither me nor my imagined attacker good for me to be hurt. Even if my motives weren't the most generous possible, I realized that being a victim was a karmic choice as much as being an attacker. This fear confused me long enough. I signed up for the most detailed self-defense course I could find.
The class, offered by a kung fu dojo, began on a summer night in 1 DO-degree weather. Virtually all of the eleven women involved were strangers to each other. Janesa, founder of the dojo and our teacher, was a tall short-haired woman in long flowing pants and a T-shirt. She began, by way of introduction, with a discussion of our histories and our fears. The youngest woman, Amy, was a shy and petite fifteen-year-old. The oldest, Karrie, was a plump, curly-haired woman of fifty, with shiny eyes, who introduced herself as an "incest survivor." There were other women, like me, who had had close calls, near-misses, enough to make us afraid all the time. Several of the students had been raped, including Lauren, a short, stocky woman. Lauren told us in a whispery voice, "I've tried for years to be invisible and inconspicuous." Rebecca was a feminine, weary-looking woman in her mid-forties. "I've worked all my life to be a good girl," she said. "I've never been raped because I always went along with sex. I wouldn't make a scene by saying no." Diane, a handsome middle-aged woman, haltingly asked for us to protect her privacy with care. Her ex-boyfriend, she explained, was in prison for assaulting her. He was due to be released and had vowed to kill her.
Listening to these stories affected me in several ways. They reminded me that there was nothing paranoid about my fears. But I also lay awake that night thinking about how much fear I felt in my training, too. Sitting meditation has often been a battleground for me; at times, silent and upright on a cushion, I've been paralyzed by a fear as primitive and organic as my fear of being attacked in a dark street. This fear, mixed up as it is with the more quotidian emotions like depression and pride, has time after time pushed me up off the cushion and out the zendo door. I lay in bed and imagined not going back to the dojo the next day, dropping out, inventing as many excuses not to continue there as I had over the years for not going back to the zendo. Morning came, and I went.
In the first two days Janesa taught us a variety of strikes, kicks, and escape maneuvers, which we practiced until we were all sore and weary. She made us use our voices constantly, all of us reaching down for the shouts and commands women are conditioned against, and then we practiced verbal confrontations—the real goal being, we all heartily agreed, to avoid ever fighting at all.
All the while Janesa prepared us for the Padded Attacker. I had chosen this course because of the Attacker, a man in heavy protective gear against whom I could finally fight. I needed to know I could really hit, how it felt, how fighting back might work. I privately dismissed J anesa's warnings, that his presence would disturb us. He was only a volunteer, one of her blackbelt students, a man from whom I had nothing to fear.
I HAVE A SHORT TEMPER and a sharp tongue. My own anger is one reason I had resisted the "acting out" of fighting practice. It wasn't that fighting was so foreign to me, or so far from my life, but that it was so close and familiar that worried me, that confused my fear of being hurt with my fear of inflicting harm. The line between the two is the line on which Kanzeon stands. Kanzeon, Kannon, Kwan Yin, is one side of compassion; it is she most lay trainees study. I've always been drawn to a more obscure figure, a dharma protector named Acala, or Fudo Myoo, the Immovable. Fudo holds a sword and a rope, lives in Hell, bares his teeth and glares at his enemies like a pit bull. Fudo is a symbol of clarity in action, certainty, and the power of confidence. He reminds us not to misinterpret compassion as being always soft and nice in appearance. Fudo reminds us that compassion can be cruel, and that Protectors and bodhisattvas can come in many shapes and sizes.
When the Attacker finally entered the room, already sweating in the summer heat, he was not just a man at all. He seemed the stuff of nightmares. He wore a huge helmet covered with silver duct tape, mesh screening over his eyes, hockey padding under his shirt and overalls, and gloves. The thick padding made him walk in wide, slow strides. He entered the room silently, eerie and enlarged, and all our conversation came to a halt. Janesa had been right: he was all the masked, inperturbable, attackers I have feared.
Fudo Myoo (dharma protector and symbol of clarity in action), 13th century, hanging scroll
I could feel myself shrink, cower inside. "Stand up!" Janesa barked at us. "Don't let him see you're afraid. And I thanked her, silently, and stood up straight. Cowardice is a product of the ego. It is small mind. When I sing the litany of Kanzeon I call her "The One Who Leaps Beyond All Fear." She knows the myriad dangers of the world, of life, she knows all that can and will befall us. The Hell Realm is here; Hell is the realm full of fear. And Fudo lives here—so I told myself. This man, this volunteer, was my bodhisattva that day. But all I could feel was afraid.
For several days we were attacked. It was that simple. Each day we practiced old strikes and learned new ones, practiced combinations of escape maneuvers and added more. Then we took turns being attacked. It was up to each of us to choose our own scenario, an old or an imagined event. While Janesa whispered the scene to the Padded Attacker, whose name we never learned and whose face we never saw, the woman waiting pulled on knee pads, elbow pads, hand and wrist guards, and tied back her hair. The rules were simple: He could attack until the woman disabled him. We couldn't fail, but we couldn't quit. The fight continued until Janesa's whistle blew, signaling success. The rest of us stood around the scene, yelling, sometimes crying, giving advice, cheering on the victim as, one by one, each victim became the victor. We were attacked from the front, from behind, on the ground; we each fought from a fully pinned-down position at least once. Jennifer, a young, long-limbed woman with a high, thin voice, reenacted two different rapes several times. Lauren reenacted a date rape and a physical assault she had suffered on the street. Karrie relived the memory of her grandfather's molestation of her when she was very young. Young Amy, pummeled by the emotional power in the room, actually stopped in the middle of an attack, giving up, submitting; we, her audience, yelled at her until she started to fight back again. Rebecca wept throughout her attacks. Diane hyperventilated once, reliving the brutal wounds she'd received in the past. Several women bore minor injuries home like trophies. At one point I felt filled with love for these women, who seemed for those several days to be my closest friends. The heat, exhaustion, and emotion charged the room, and the attacks, with rest periods between, continued. And each of us escaped every time.
When it was my turn, I could only think: I don't want to do this. I don't have to do this. My mind and body rummaged for excuses. I'm too tired, I thought. My knee hurts. I already know how to do this; I don't need to prove anything.
My fear filled me as I stood, pretending strength, and the Attacker grabbed my wrist. "I'm going to kill you," he shouted, muffled through the helmet, and it didn't matter that I had told Janesa to have him say that. He was going to kill me. To live, I had to fight back, and to fight back, I had to move—and to move was to be willing to die. Zen was the religion of the samurai, a match that, until this course, I'd never fully understood. I had not been able to understand the warrior mind. Suzuki understood it implicitly: "Zen is a religion which teaches us not to look backward once the course is decided upon," he wrote. "The fighter is to be always single-minded with one object in view: to fight, looking neither backward nor sidewise."
What I have now are memories of confusion and bewilderment, strange fragments of time speeded up and slowed down, with the voices hollering, cheering women in the background. I felt fear, fear, fear when he pulled me down and then I felt an icy rage. I don't know how many times I have sat with fear overwhelming me, fear giving way to anger, anger giving way to grief, all the while trying to remind myself that none of these states is me. Fear and hate are qualities of my ego, but it is the nature of ego states to expand and fill the spaces of our mind and heart. The "me" that is terrorized lashes out in hurt, and hurts back; that small self which is so desperately afraid to die, which sees death and injury everywhere in this uncertain world, is capable of mindless rage. And it is literally mindless; rage severs our connection to the Big Mind. Confronting fear and the anger with which we try to smother fear means to confront the mean and petty parts of ourselves. It means to see the Attacker in ourselves.
I disabled the Padded Attacker five times in seven attacks; the other two times I "killed" him. I was afraid every time, very afraid, when the attacks began. But I learned, and the fear lessened. I learned how to move, I learned that I could do it, which was an enormous lesson, and finally, I began to look forward, in a strange way, to the next fight. The solid blows I landed were the blows of a survivor. One of the "kills" was an accident while I was rolling away from him—a double kick which "snapped" his neck. But the second time was not. Janesa had taught us how to do a foot stomp—to the instep, the throat, the nose. I had cringed at the idea of hurting another person in this way, which seemed gratuitous even in self-defense. An hour later, we were struggling on the floor; I rolled away, stood, swung around, kicked his head, and even as Janesa's whistle blew and I was victor, I raised my foot. I didn't think at all. Wham! As hard as I could, I stomped and smashed his throat. In that moment I touched another form of compassion; in that moment, I became the Attacker.
"Compassion contains fundamental fearlessness without hesitation," wrote Trungpa. In had been truly fearless, I wouldn't have landed that final, unneeded blow. I killed him out of a fear I didn't even consciously feel. There is something else, too. I thought that because the Attacker was just a man, I wouldn't fear him. But it's always been men I fear, after all. My fear has made men "other" than me, it has kept me separate from men. Fear diminishes me, makes me no bigger than that part of me which fears. Fearful, I am too small to contain Thought, too small to hold real compassion. Protecting myself, I will hurt others. That is the state I was in before I took this course—always anxious, always ready, unskilled, a loose cannon in every sense of the word. Learning to fight correctly has given me not only control, but the security needed to fight only as much as necessary and no more. This is true warrior mind.
The Padded Attacker is a bodhisattva to me now. Not only the real human who willingly absorbed our fear and rage, but the attackers I've yet to meet. I feel a relationship to them now that is altogether different from the way I saw them before. They attack for reasons that are disconcertingly similar to my reasons for retreat; their hostility is a mirror of my fear. Learning to fight back physically has given me another view on my training. I am afraid of violence. But I am also afraid of training, of zazen, of the depths to which meditation can take me. I have to strike back at that attacker, too. I have to fight the ego which fears not only the physical death, but the death within meditation, the death of the small self within the Great Mind.
We have just had Segaki. Standing in the zendo, singing the dharanis and opening the gates, I could see myself as one ripple in an unceasing stream. All my fears, fear of rape and pain and loss, fear of assaults and injuries, of death and the future, fell away, if only for a moment. Training is nothing more than the steps between these moments, and going on as though these moments don't matter. I can't always remember fearlessness itself, but I can remember its possibility. I can remember victory over fear.
Sallie Tisdale's most recent book is Stepping Westward: The Long Search for Home in the Pacific Northwest (HarperCollins). She is a Contributing Editor to Harper's.