I was gleaning through the various internet news sources and a particularly interesting title came up: “The Moment a Black Man Hugged a Neo-Nazi.” This particular article was from Euronews, however, as I searched around, the story was picked up by other news outlets as well. As far as headlines go and I don’t remember where I heard it, probably some cheesy B movie years ago as a kid – when a dog bites a man that’s not a news story; but when a man bites a dog…. A bit of a sensationalist approach but it worked on me. It’s also not a headline that I would expect to see. Tragically, it would be more in the tune of “Neo-Nazi Beats A Black Man” or “Neo-Nazi Kills A Black Man” but not “A Black Man Hugs A Nazi.” How can one resist such a hook?
After reading the article from Euronews, and a couple of other news sources, I formed a fairly full picture of what had happened between the “Black” man and the “Nazi.” The event took place among protesters of a Richard Spencer event, the celebrated or notorious white nationalist, depending upon who is critiquing, in Gainesville Florida this past October. As what seems to be part of the landscape these days, there were protesters and protester protesting the protesters. As the inevitable confrontation between the two groups became more heated, Aaron Courtney, aka, the “Black Man,” took another path. Confronting Randy Furniss, aka, the “Neo-Nazi,” Aaron asked “why do you hate me? What is it about me? Is it my skin color? My history? My dreadlocks?” Randy stood there silent. It was then Aaron asked Randy for a hug. At first Randy resisted. Aaron asked again, and then a third time. As it is said, “third time the charm.” It was that third time asking that Randy acquiesced and embraced Aaron
“I don’t know” is an important concept in Buddhism. It is the basic definition of the Pali word avijjā, or avidy in Sanskrit, meaning ignorance. It is a very significant concept because Buddhism considers ignorance the prime factor for difficulties and suffering in our lives. Not only does it pertain to one’s life time but it is also seen as the prime factor for countless rebirths, the cycle of samsara. Typically, I don’t delve into aspects of rebirth; one, because I’m not sure that I believe in it, two, more importantly, how we take care of here and now affects our future. So when attend to the here and now we are attending to our future, regardless of rebirth or no rebirth. The Buddhist Dictionary by Nyanatiloka, a classic work, defines ignorance as “…the primary root of all evil and suffering in the world, veiling man’s eyes and preventing him from seeing the true nature of things.” Putting the outdates use of “man” aside, this is a powerful statement of the human condition.
Ignorance in Buddhism generally refers to some specific things such as being ignorant of the Four Noble Truths: The truth of suffering and difficulties, the truth of the origin of suffering and difficulties, the truth of the cessation of suffering and difficulties, and the fourth, the truth of the path leading away from suffering and difficulties. There is also ignorance of the impermanent nature of things. We assume, we believe that something is permanent, always around, perhaps always available, but in fact that is not the case. All things are impermanent, even if it doesn’t seem so. Another aspect of ignorance in Buddhism and that is the dependent, or interconnected, nature of all things. No thing exists on its own. In a very real way, it is ignorance that creates the separation of “you” and “me” in our lives.
One can look at these aspects of ignorance and think that it’s about being ignorant of the Buddhist doctrine, and it may be. However, the teachings are observations of the human capacity for suffering. Is there suffering and difficulties in our lives, I’d say so. What in the world is permanent? Even the world itself is impermanent and ever changing. The very ground we stand on moves. Tectonic plates, right? All things are dependent upon other things to exist. Any brief exploration can demonstrate this simple idea. So, it’s not so much about “Buddhist doctrine” as it is about the human conditioning of our perceptions and how we process those perceptions.
But wait, there’s more – not only is there the ignorance of this and that, there is the ignorance of ignorance, meaning, we don’t know that we don’t know. What a dilemma, not knowing that you don’t know! We think everything is fine, no problems, life is good, this is the way it’s supposed to be and we don’t have the notion to question anything or look deepely into something. Why bother? Everything is fine. It’s one thing to know that we are are ignorant of something. There is some kind of opening one can work with. However, with ignorance of ignorance, we build our lives just as much unconsciously as consciously, perhaps more the former. Through our ignorance of our ignorance we become the victim of ourselves. We may look outward to find the scapegoats of our suffering, he is the problem, she is the problem, they are the problem, its always them. Of course, how can it be any other way? But in actuality, we create the suffering within us and usually it affects our lives; how we perceive that which is around us, our situations in life, the people we come in contact with, and so on. Perhaps we learn this from childhood, perhaps later in life. But, nonetheless we continue in life day after day, week after week, year after year, perhaps our entire life is lived out this way. Unless….
Awakening is an interesting thing, a rather compelling thing. Awakening is the opposite, the antidote, to our ignorance. We go from not knowing to knowing. It is those moment of clarity, moments of “ah hah,” that we begin to view things in a dramatically different way. It is the door opening to another path, another story of one’s life. Some may experience and run with it. Some may be startled at first – not sure what to make of it. Some, unfortunately, experience it and then ignore it. Perhaps it is too frightening for them, too outside the realm for them, too outside their box, so it is shunned.
Many of us, who are in the practice aspire for the great awakening, as the Buddha experienced, you know, the big enchilada. This is quite an aspiration, for in the Mahayana sutras it’s expressed that it is an endeavor that takes a multitude of lifetimes. This puts a new slant on one’s long-terms goals. But one doesn’t need to peer into the cosmic future for an experience of awakening. I certainly don’t. I am perfectly content about the small awakenings experienced throughout my life, the pivotal points that were life changers – no I didn’t need to turn to alcohol as my father had, it was ok to be gay, emotions didn’t have to rule my life, I could find peace within my turbulent heart and mind, and so on.
Sometime we look back at our lives through the eyes of “what if?” Usually, it’s with a negative slant, creating doubt, regret, perhaps remorse. I want to look back to see what if I didn’t experience those moments of clarity, how things could have been if I continued the way that I was going and be grateful and totally amazed. I have no idea how those moments of awakening came about. As the Buddha said “conditions are numerous.” They are also mystifying. Perhaps it’s our Bodhi Nature pushing through the walls and caverns of our hearts, a little crack here, a little crack there.
As for Randy. I really don’t know much about him, his life story, nor how he came to be where he was that day, nor his relationship with neo-Nazism, nor his encounter Aaron. The news stories of the encounter are like most others, mere boxes to peer into, a moment, a happening, which leaves too much for the imagination. What has happened to Randy since? I don’t know. Other than that snapshot, I am ignorant of his life. I can’t help wondering, however, that perhaps Randy experienced a moment of awakening, that he came to that critical point, where all the mysterious conditions came together, and through the one simple question “why do you hate me?” began to see something he hadn’t seen before.