violence

In Buddhist Burma, monks gone wild

Andrew Lam: New American Media: For a country steeped in Buddhism, Burma is accruing terrible karmic debts.

Alarming news and images of attacks and killings by the Buddhist majority in Rakhine Province against a Muslim minority there have been slowly trickling out onto the Internet and the wider world. Pictures of charred bodies and crying parents have stirred largely unheeded calls for intervention, mostly from Muslim nations.

The attacks have been primarily one-sided, with Muslims generally and Rohingyas specifically the targets and victims,” Benjamin Zawacki, a Bangkok-based researcher for Amnesty International, told The Associated Press. “Some of this is by the security forces’ own hands, some by Rakhine Buddhists with the security forces turning a blind eye in some cases.”

The government in Burma, recently lauded for taking steps toward democratization, declared a state of emergency in June following the outbreak of violence allegedly sparked by the rape and killing of a Buddhist woman by members of the Rohingya minority — a largely Muslim group on the country’s western border with Bangladesh. The official death toll stands at 78, though activists say it is likely much higher and prompted the UN to call for independent investigation over human rights violations.

The Rohingya, meanwhile, remain caught between a hostile populace and a neighboring Muslim nation in Bangladesh that refuses to open its borders to fleeing refugees.

Such is the irony in a country famous for its Valley of the Temples and its unrivaled devotion to the Buddha. Alas, while Buddhism through a Western lens can appear rosy for its message of compassion, inner peace, and self-cultivation, in Asian societies Buddhism as an institution has much broader political applications.

Five years ago thousands of monks across Burma led in mass demonstrations against the military junta that paralyzed the former capital Yangon and other cities. The catalyst was an economic crisis, coupled with a devastating typhoon that destroyed homes and rice fields. The government’s failure to respond drove the monks to revolt, leading to the arrest and beating of hundreds of clergy. In such an overwhelmingly Buddhist country as Burma, the crackdown posed serious risks for the leadership.

For the monks, on the other hand, if fighting on behalf of the people seemed a moral necessity, such “spiritual engagement” apparently does not extend to the country’s Muslims — estimated at around 800,000. They are a population denied citizenship and, by extension, the beneficence of the Buddha.

In 2001 monks handed out anti-Muslim pamphlets that resulted in the burning of Muslim homes, destruction of 11 mosques and the killing of over 200 Muslims in the Pegu region. Four years earlier, another anti-Muslim riot broke out in Mandalay during the worship of a Buddha statue at the Maha Myatmuni pagoda. In that incident, an estimated 1,500 Buddhist monks led the attack on nearby mosques and Muslim-owned businesses, looting as they went.

As for the current crisis, Human Rights Watch is strongly urging the Burmese government to end arbitrary and incommunicado detention, and “redeploy and hold accountable security forces implicated in serious abuses. Burmese authorities should ensure safe access to the area by the United Nations (UN), independent humanitarian organizations, and the media.”

“The Burmese government needs to put an immediate end to the abusive sweeps by the security forces against Rohingya communities,” noted Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Anyone being held should be promptly charged or released, and their relatives given access.”

So far the killings have garnered little attention in the West, where they have registered little more than a blip in the news cycle. Equally as troubling, however, has been the muted response of Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi – an icon of human rights across Southeast Asia. Her recent tepid call for ethnic equality in Burma, nearly two months after the violence erupted, was met with uniform criticism around the world.

In the 1960s the renowned Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh coined the term “Engaged Buddhism.” The intent, then as now, was to exhort fellow monks to emerge from their temples and engage with a society then in the grips of war.

The practice continues across much of South and Southeast Asia today. One example is the long drawn out war in Sri Lanka, during which militant monks formed their own political party, held seats in parliament and advocated military solutions to the conflict with the Tamil Tigers.

In Vietnam, the ruling class knows each time a Buddhist monk sets himself ablaze they’d better watch out. That was certainly true in 1963 when a Buddhist monk named Thich Quang Duc immolated himself in downtown Saigon to protest a crackdown on Buddhism. Unrest grew as civilian fear turned into anger, and the Catholic controlled regime of Ngo Dinh Diem fell soon afterward. The current communist regime still keeps a number of leading clergymen under house arrest for fear for a popular revolt.

But if Burma’s monks held the moral high ground five years ago when they protested against government oppression, that standing has quickly turned into a deep and dark sinkhole of depravity amid calls for the majority to oppress their neighbors.

“Teach this triple truth to all: A generous heart, kind speech and a life of service and compassion renew humanity,” the historical Buddha, Gautama Siddharta, once said.

One wonders what he would say now, as innocent blood is shed in his name, and the path toward enlightenment that he taught to relieve the suffering of all beings had somehow derailed into a dark road of rebirth in the lowest levels of hell?

NAM editor, Andrew Lam, is author of East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres and Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora. His next book, Birds of Paradise Lost, a collection of short story, is due out in 2013.

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Violent Buddhists and the “No True Scotsman” fallacy

mel gibson in braveheart

Mel Gibson: Definitely not a “True Scotsman”

I recently had a conversation on Google+ (it’s a social network that’s — in my opinion — a much better alternative to Facebook) about Buddhist violence in Burma. Following the alleged rape of a Buddhist woman in Burma by members of that country’s Muslim minority, there was an outbreak of violence in which 2,600 homes were torched and at least 29 people died.

I condemned this violence unequivocally. There is no justification in the Buddhist scriptures for violence. There is no Buddhist doctrine of “just war” or even of “righteous anger.” The Buddha condemned all forms of violence, and famously said that even if bandits were sawing you limb from limb, you should have compassion for your torturers. In fact he said that anyone who had any anger in such a situation would not be one of his followers.

Now that seems kind of crazy, because every single Buddhist experiences anger. I know I do. Does that mean that the Buddha has no followers? I don’t think so. I think what the Buddha meant was that in the moment of being angry you are not following his teachings. In the moment of being angry we are not pursuing the path of mindfulness and compassion.

But back to that discussion on Google+.

See also:

The original thread I was commenting on was started by an atheist, and she had a number of atheist followers who chimed in, citing the violence as evidence that Buddhism is a bad thing (“full of shit”) was one phrase used. I had a feeling that there was a generalized disdain of religion which was being uncritically extended to Buddhism.

But in what way does it make sense to criticize Buddhism itself because of the behavior of people who call themselves Buddhists? If Buddhism (i.e. the Buddha’s teachings) said “violence is wrong unless…” then, sure, I’d accept the premise that Buddhism is full of shit. But it doesn’t. The Buddha was completely uncompromising on the question of violence. When people are violent they’re not following the Buddha’s teachings.

I articulated the point above, and was accused of employing the “No True Scotsman” fallacy. In case you’re unaware of this fallacy, it runs like this:

McTavish says, “No Scotsman would refuse to help an old lady crossing the road.”

Smyth says, “I witnessed, just yesterday, a Scotsman who refused an old lady’s entreaties to help her cross a busy thoroughfare.”

MacTavish replies, “Ah, but he was no true Scotsman.”

What our dear friend McTavish is doing here is trying to justify an unsupportable generalization when challenged with examples contradicting it. [Full disclosure: I am a True Scotsman.]

So, what does that mean in terms of Buddhists who are violent? Well, given that I would never make a generalization of the type “No Buddhists are violent” I don’t need to backtrack as McTavish did. My statement (and the Buddha’s) is more akin to a definition: “The Buddha’s teaching is to practice nonviolence. When someone is violent, they are not practicing the Buddha’s teaching.

So if I said “Scientists do not falsify results” that could be challenged by someone pointing to examples of scientists falsifying results. I could then fall back on the “No True Scotsman” fallacy by arguing that those cheating scientists are “not true scientists.” I’m attempting (using a fallacious argument) to justify a false generalization.

Now if I say that scientists who falsify results are not doing science, there’s no fallacy involved. I haven’t made a false generalization that I am trying to defend. I’ve made a fairly precise statement about what science does and does not consist of.

Similarly, people who are acting violently are not “doing Buddhism.”

The Buddha’s teachings provide no “excuses” for violence — not even the “he did it first” or the “I was just defending myself” types of excuses. There’s no use of the “No True Scotman” fallacy here — just a clear definition.

Now if only we could remember, as Buddhists, that when we express hatred we cease, at least for a while, to be Buddhists.

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EU welcomes “measured” Burmese response to rioting

The European Union said on Monday it was satisfied with Myanmar’s “measured” handling of the Muslim-Buddhist violence that engulfed one of its biggest towns at the weekend.

As rival mobs of Muslims and Buddhists torched houses in Sittwe, the biggest town in northwestern Myanmar, police fired into the air and Muslims fled to neighboring Bangladesh.

The fighting was the worst communal violence since a reformist government replaced a junta last year, began to allow political pluralism and vowed to tackle ethnic divisions – moves that helped persuade the United States and European Union to suspend economic sanctions.

Brussels made clear that it did not believe …

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Anders Behring Breivik used meditation to kill — he’s not the first

Vishvapani Blomfield, the Guardian: Meditation makes you calmer and clearer and encourages empathy and kindness … right? Not if you are Anders Behring Breivik who has told psychiatrists that he used meditation to “numb the full spectrum of human emotion – happiness to sorrow, despair, hopelessness, and fear”. He still practises it behind bars to deaden the impact of his actions.

Breivik uses meditation as a form of mind control – a way to focus the mind and exclude responses that get in his way. You could argue that he is meditating wrongly, but I think his testimony shows that the effect of …

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When murderers meditate…

Woodcut of Sakuma Genba Morimasa by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, circa 1820s

I wonder what kind of “meditation” Anders Breivik — who shot 69 people on an island in Norway last year, as well as killing another eight with a bomb — was doing?

According to this report,

When prosecutors Friday asked Breivik whether he felt empathy for others, the killer said he taught himself to dull all emotions – “from happiness to sorrow, despair, hopelessness, anxiety, fear” through meditation.

It’s possible that Breivik was not doing anything resembling traditional Buddhist meditation, which encourages compassion and non-repression of emotions. I’d be 100 confident that Breivik was not practicing lovingkindness or compassion meditation!

Traditionally, meditation is only one part of the spiritual path, and it’s accompanied with an ethical code that strongly emphasizes non-harm. Stripped of this traditional context, there’s no guarantee that meditation alone will make someone a better person.

It’s also possible to practice meditation in an unbalanced way that results in an unhealthy form of emotional detachment and a kind of emotional deadening. Sangharakshita, my own teacher, has mentioned seeing some early western practitioners of the Burmese Satipatthana Method becoming very detached from their emotions and from their physical experience. This seems to have arisen from their having misunderstood the nature of the meditation practices they’d undertaken (or perhaps they had a bad teacher or teachers).

But meditation can be used quite deliberately in ways that are at odds with the Buddha’s teaching. It’s said that samurai warriors would practice meditation in order to quiet the mind and make them better warriors, so this use (or mis-use, from the perspective of the Buddha-Dharma) of meditation techniques would not be new.

I’d encourage all meditators to practice lovingkindness meditation as well as mindfulness practices, and to consciously practice the five Buddhist precepts of undertaking not to kill, take that which is not given, commit sexual misconduct, speak falsely, or indulge in intoxication.

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Meditating behind bars: How yoga in prisons could cut overcrowding

wildmind meditation news

Rachel Signer, Christian Science Monitor: Earlier this year the Supreme Court ruled that state of California prisons were so bad as to be inhumane, violating the 8th amendment prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment.

The reason? Overcrowding. California must to reduce its prison population by 30,000 prisoners, according to the ruling.

Overcrowding is a perennial issue in US prisons in no small part because the recidivism rate is remarkably high. In 1994 the largest study of prisoner recidivism ever done in the United States showed that, of nearly 300,000 adult prisoners who were released in 15 different states, 67.5 percent were re-arrested within three years.

James Fox, who founded the nonprofit Prison Yoga Project, has been working with incarcerated youth and adults for more than 10 years and has some ideas on what keeps the recidivism rate above 50 percent. In his opinion, the prison system overly emphasizes retributive justice – that punishment alone is a sufficient response to a crime. Fox is an advocate for restorative justice, an approach that focuses on criminals as individuals with needs and seeks to find ways to empower them to meet those needs, and thinks an emphasis on restorative justice could lower the recidivism rate.

Fox teaches yoga to male prisoners as a form of restorative justice. Criminals, and especially repeat offenders, he told Dowser, are suffering from unresolved trauma from their early years, and stunted …

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Bodhipaksa

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“Why is there peace?” asks psychologist Steven Pinker

Violence is declining, argues psychologist Steven Pinker. What are we doing right?

Over the past century, violent images from World War II concentration camps, Cambodia, Rwanda, Darfur, Iraq, and many other times and places have been seared into our collective consciousness. These images have led to a common belief that technology, centralized nation-states, and modern values have brought about unprecedented violence.
Our seemingly troubled times are routinely contrasted with idyllic images of hunter-gatherer societies, which allegedly lived in a state of harmony with nature and each other. The doctrine of the noble savage—the idea that humans are peaceable by nature and corrupted by modern institutions—pops up frequently in the writing of…

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Sri Lanka Buddhist monks destroy Muslim shrine

Charles Haviland: A group of Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka led a crowd that demolished a Muslim shrine last week, the BBC has learned.

This incident took place on Saturday in Anuradhapura, an ancient Buddhist city and Unesco world heritage site.

The monk who led the group told the BBC he did it because the shrine was on land that was given to Sinhalese Buddhists 2,000 years ago.

But a prominent Muslim in the area said he was very sad and the sentiment was shared by many Sinhalese too.

A Sri Lankan news website showed photographs…

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Mumbai: Terror, horror, forgiveness

wildmind meditation news

Natasha Korecki, Chicago Sun-Times: In June 2008, Alan Scherr traveled from the United States to Mumbai in search of a place where his meditation group could hold its fall spiritual retreat.

One month later, David Headley, of the North Side, also traveled to Mumbai — but he was in search of the best place to kill as many people as possible.

Both men picked the Oberoi Hotel.

“They couldn’t have been there for more different reasons,” Alan Scherr’s wife, Kia, says now.

It was in the pristine, five-star setting of the Oberoi where Alan Scherr and his 13-year-old daughter, Naomi, were eating dinner the night of Nov. 26, 2008, when terrorists stormed in and began rapidly shooting anyone in their sights.

The father and daughter were slain in a massacre that rained down on Mumbai in a series of coordinated attacks that eventually killed some 170 people, injured hundreds more and branded that date — 11/26 — as infamous in the city as Sept. 11, 2001, is the U.S.

Headley, whose birth name was Daood Gilani, has admitted that he traveled to Mumbai on multiple scouting missions and relayed information to a Pakistani terror group about the Oberoi, the Taj Mahal hotel and other prospective sites as targets. He has pleaded guilty in a deal that allows him to avoid the death penalty. Now in prison, he is expected to be a critical witness in a federal trial in Chicago early next year in which another Chicago man, Tahawwur Rana, is charged in an alleged conspiracy to aid Headley’s efforts in planning the attacks. Rana denies involvement.

Alan and Naomi Scherr were among the six Americans killed in the attacks and are named as victims in Headley’s plea agreement.

Kia Scherr, of Virginia, was in the U.S. when her daughter and husband lost their lives.

Now, for the first time, she’s traveled to the very place they were killed. She plans to be at the Oberoi for the two-year anniversary of the killings, which is Friday.

But she brings with her a message that continues to stun people:

She’s forgiven the terrorists.

“My life ended in that moment. Life as I knew it ended,” says Scherr. “Everything ended. It’s like dying while I’m still alive.”

Scherr, who earlier this month met President Obama in Mumbai, helped form the not-for-profit group One Life Alliance, which advocates peace and forgiveness. On Friday, about 1,000 people will meet at the hotel to memorialize those who lost their lives in the massacre.

Scherr condemns the attackers but said harboring hatred toward them would not allow her to heal.

“Forgiveness has nothing to do with terrorists. It has to do with me,” says Scherr. “If I hold on to anger, revenge, hatred — I’m basically choosing their experience. That’s like taking poison and hoping your enemy dies.”

But Scherr as well as survivors of the attacks say they don’t want people to forget the absolute horror of the attacks.

• •

It was after 9 p.m. on Nov. 26 when the doorbell rang at a hotel room at another five-star hotel, the Taj Mahal. Inside, retired Cook County Judge Benjamin Mackoff and his wife, Carol, were trying not to make a sound.

Mackoff, a prosecutor for seven years, was in his room packing to go home the next day, Thanksgiving, when he heard the rapid gunfire.

He knew what was happening.

The couple, who had already blockaded the door and muffled the room phone with pillows, sat motionless until the door buzzing ceased.

In other parts of the hotel, terrorists pried open guestroom doors and threw in grenades.

At one point, Mackoff peered through the peephole. He caught a glimpse of one of the terrorists pacing outside, talking to his handler on his cell phone — a conversation caught by Indian intelligence.

In all, Mackoff and his wife were holed up in their room for 42 hours, all the while they listened to gunfire and even screams.

Earlier that night, the Mackoffs dined with friends from Australia whom they had traveled with through India for three weeks. The couples left the open lobby at the hotel for their rooms about 9 p.m.

Minutes later, armed men stormed in and shot up the lobby.

The Australian couple was inside their hotel room where smoke from a fire that was set above their floor began to pour in.

They stepped into the hallway for air — and were shot.

The husband fell first; his wife’s body then dropped on top of his, Mackoff said. But she was able to get up and make it to a stairway and eventually to safety. Her husband, whom Mackoff described as a “dear friend,” perished.

Mackoff has a different take than Scherr on the tragedy and the 10 terrorists involved (nine of whom were killed by authorities during the attack). The only one who was captured alive was prosecuted in India and sentenced to death.

“I don’t forgive the terrorists. But I don’t hold them solely responsible. I think they were used,” Mackoff said. “But they had to know they were killing people.”

Like Scherr, he’ll probably return one day to Mumbai, he says. Not to hold a memorial, but to continue pursuing his love of traveling and photographing the world.

“We’re not going to let those bastards . . . ” Mackoff says, his face becoming flush as he pauses to collect himself, ” . . . tell us where we can go.”

• •

Back at the Oberoi, smoke filled hotel rooms so that those inside could barely see.

Charles Cannon, who headed the spiritual group the Scherrs were traveling with, was holed up in his hotel room as instructed, listening to terrorists battle police.

“We could hear these explosions; volleys of gunfire that just rippled through the whole place,” Cannon said. “When we came out of that hotel [room], it was unrecognizable.

“It was a bombed-out war zone.”

Cannon was asked to identify Alan and Naomi Scherr, a task Cannon described as one of the toughest of his life.

“I had to go into that restaurant, stepping over all these bodies and pools of blood and debris,” Cannon said. “And there were the [Scherrs’] bodies. There they were.”

• •

Headley is accused of funneling intelligence to Lashkar e Taiba, a Pakistani-based terror group that wanted to make a worldwide splash with the siege.

The Chicago case, and Headley’s cooperation, has gained worldwide attention. In recent weeks, controversy has surfaced in India after U.S. authorities admitted they had some intelligence on Headley prior to the attacks.

“I would think he is more culpable than the 10 [terrorists] that landed,” Mackoff says of Headley, who will evade the death penalty in exchange for his cooperation. “But I understand there is need for evidence and he may be the only one who has it.”

Not surprisingly, the event “is something I think that has shaped our lives,” Mackoff said. But, he declares, “It has made us stronger.”

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Bodhipaksa

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Moody Cow Meditates, by Kerry Lee MacLean

Moody Cow Meditates

There are far too few books on meditation for children, and Kerry Lee MacLean’s Moody Cow should be a welcome addition to the book collection of any meditator’s child. But Bodhipaksa has some concerns. Find out why.

“My name is Moody Cow. It used to be Peter, but now it’s Moody Cow. It all started one stupid, rotten day when everything went wrong…”

So begins the story, which introduces us to Peter the calf, his sister Daisy, and his mother. We also get to meet Peter’s grandfather, who plays a pivotal role as the wise old bull of the family. Peter’s father is strangely absent, although we do get to see his car. Fathers do not generally get a good rap in modern culture, and it’s a shame that the author participates in this trend.

Peter has an awful day, which starts with a bad dream and his being unable to find his mother (I keep wondering where she might have been), a confrontation with his sister (which turns violent), having to cycle to school through the snow because his mother (what was she thinking!) kept him late to punish him for vandalizing his sister’s doll causing him to miss the school bus, no fewer than two bicycle accidents (not surprising given the weather conditions), and then a stress-induced incident where Peter throws a baseball through a window, for which he is again punished by being made to clean the toilets for a month and is also publicly humiliated by his mother, who (with the best of intentions, apparently) calls him a “moody cow” in front of his sister and her friends.

The mind jar is an excellent idea, and there are detailed instructions on how to make one

Peter’s grandfather is called in to help him work through his issues, although given the issues reckless endangerment, unfair treatment (Peter is punished for vandalizing his sister’s toy: she is not punished for vandalizing his), and public belittlement he has faced, I wonder if Social Services might be more appropriate.

Granddad’s a meditator, and he introduces Peter to the “mind jar” which contains water. Peter adds a pinch of sparkles to the jar for each angry thought he has — many sparkles are added — and then granddad shakes it up to represent the way that these thoughts are swirling around in Peter’s head. Peter then listens to the sound of a gong as it fades away into silence, and by the time he’s finished he finds that both the sparkles and his angry thoughts have settled down. Peter decides to meditate every day with his grandfather, and he also decides to keep the name “Moody Cow.”

There’s no suggested age-range for this new book by Kerry Lee MacLean, who previously wrote Peaceful Piggy Meditation, but I’ve tested it repeatedly on my 2 3/4 year-old daughter, who seems to enjoy it very much. Admittedly she’s precocious, but I’d imagine this book could be appreciated by most children from about three to eight years old — and perhaps older.

As you can probably deduce from my comments above, I had mixed feelings about Moody Cow. I’m pleased to see a book for children about meditation. There are very few resources appropriate for a child as young as my daughter, who perhaps has a better idea now of what I do when I disappear into the basement. The mind jar is an excellent idea, and there are detailed instructions on how to make one (it’s not just sparkles and water). I appreciated the instructions very much, and although I haven’t yet made my own jar I’ll do so soon. The jar is an excellent way of introducing one basic concept of meditation, which is that the mind settles down if you observe it for long enough.

In the parts I come from, the term Moody Cow is a serious insult

On the other hand, the book does present some outrageous behavior, from the violence of Peter’s sister making him fall downstairs by tripping him, to Peter being forced by his mother to cycle to school in the snow. My daughter’s rotten days tend to consist more of things like not getting enough sleep because her little brother was teething, not wanting to share a favorite toy with another kid, the YMCA pool being closed when she’s been promised a swim, and not liking what’s for dinner.

I presume that Peter’s woes are being made exaggeratedly grave in order to dramatize the story and thus make it more interesting, but I’m not sure I wanted my little girl introduced to the concept of one sibling pushing another downstairs. If the title was just the title then I would have regarded it as a mildly witty pun, but “moody cow” is also used as a term of ridicule by Peter’s sister and his friends in order to humiliate him (although shouldn’t be be a “Moody Bull Calf”?). In the parts I come from, the term “Moody Cow” is a serious insult. I don’t particularly want this term to become part of my two-year-old’s vocabulary, although admittedly she might not take it seriously if she herself is ever subjected to that term of abuse in the future.

The dialog in the book is well written from a first person perspective, so that we see things from Peter’s perspective throughout. Kerry Lee MacLean has a sense of humor that both my daughter and I appreciate. The illustrations are from paintings, which are charming, even if the colors are rather gray and muddy for my taste.

I’m pleased to see a book for children about meditation.

I’m new to parenting, having only been a father for a little over two years, so it may be that I’m underestimating the resilience of older children’s minds. Or perhaps, not having a television set, I’m out of touch with what children are exposed to these days. Perhaps pushing downstairs and parental abuse are staple topics of entertainment for three-year-olds. Or perhaps the book is aimed at much older children than it appears. Without any guidance in the book I just can’t tell who it’s aimed at. (Plea to publishers: please put a suggested age-range on every book).

If you’re surprised by my discomfort with the book’s violent themes, then of course feel free to disregard my concerns. If, like me, you feel a desire to prolong your child’s innocence, you might want to tread warily. MacLean, it should be said, has many years of experience of teaching meditation to children, and perhaps I should give her the benefit of the doubt and assume she knows what’s appropriate, but I suspect this book is going to quietly make its way to some hidden spot in the house, out of the reach of my children. But the mind jar is still cool.

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