Heaven, hell and Jeremy Clarkson

We are our deeds. It’s a popular heathen saying, and the title of a well-written heathen book by Eric Wodening. What we say, what we do is a reflection of our own self. How we behave is what defines us.

Our society is full of examples, however, of bad behaviour being rewarded, or being applauded. In Britain, famous television presenter Jeremy Clarkson was fired from the popular television show, Top Gear, because he had punched a producer in the face when he found out that there was no hot food available on set. No charges have been made against Clarkson’s assault, and indeed, he is making light of the whole situation, thereby condoning violence. In a recent spin-off live show in Belfast it opened with a video of him throwing a left-hook, as if it were right to punch a colleague in the face. Everyone cheered. When it was rumoured that comedian Sue Perkins would possibly replace Clarkson on the show, she had to leave Twitter because of all the death threats that she was receiving. Violence breeds violence.

What we think, what we say, what we do defines our self. When we live in a world that no longer seems to care about personal responsibility, about compassion, about just being nice to other people, it is even more important that we take up the reins and provide an example of how to be in the world in good, honourable relationship.

We are blessed with foresight. We can think about the outcomes of our actions. We have memories of the past to consider when making our actions. And yet some people still behave badly, willfully, out of spite and their own demons, or out of ignorance that there is a choice.

This is what it all comes down to: we always have a choice. We can choose to behave badly, remaining stuck in our bad habits, remaining trapped in our attachments, allowing our emotions to run riot over ourselves and others. Or we can choose to take up personal responsibility, to think about things that we have done and things that we are going to do, and how they will affect others. It’s not fun being mean to other people. It makes our hearts small. It tightens and constricts them until we become mere shadows of ourselves. We may hide behind comedy, delusions or the lies that we have told ourselves over and over again to justify our behaviour. Ultimately, however, we know on a deep level when we are doing things that are wrong, and we can choose to continue or not.

Take responsibility for your actions. Shrugging off bad behaviour doesn’t make it right, and you will eventually have to face it at some point in your life. Clarkson knows that what he did was wrong, which is why he’s making fun of it rather than face up to the fact that he was wrong. It’s all about saving face, about personal egos, illusions and delusions. How many other people do you know who are like that?

If nothing at all, these people remind us of who we do not wish to be. We can still have compassion for them, seeing that they suffer from their own demons. However, that does not mean condoning their behaviour. We can speak out against it, and still hope that they find peace in their own lives.

There is a Zen story about a samurai who asks a monk about heaven and hell:

Hakuin, the fiery and intensely dynamic Zen master, was once visited by a samurai warrior.

“I want to know about heaven and hell,” said the samurai. “Do they really exist?” he asked Hakuin.
Hakuin looked at the soldier and asked, “Who are you?”

“I am a samurai,” announced the proud warrior.

“Ha!” exclaimed Hakuin. “What makes you think you can understand such insightful things? You are merely a callous, brutish soldier! Go away and do not waste my time with your foolish questions,” Hakuin said, waving his hand to drive away the samurai.

The enraged samurai couldn’t take Hakuin’s insults. He drew his sword, readied for the kill, when Hakuin calmly retorted, “This is hell.”

The soldier was taken aback. His face softened. Humbled by the wisdom of Hakuin, he put away his sword and bowed before the Zen Master.

“And this is heaven,” Hakuin stated, just as calmly.

May all beings find peace.

Heaven and Hell

Blending Buddhist and Zen principles into my Druidry is integral to helping me find my personal spiritual path.  There is no monopoly on wisdom, and I find the teachings of both Buddhism and Druidry are universal.

One aspect of Buddhism that I find is often misquoted or misinterpreted is the idea that you push away your feelings, in order to function with a clear mind. What I have found is that within Buddhist training and discipline, you not only feel your feelings more, you also learn more from the feeling itself.

We are not taught to suppress our feelings within Buddhist teachings. Letting go of attachments is what is at the heart of Buddhism. That includes attachments to your feelings.  So, we feel our anger, our pain, our grief acutely – we give ourselves some time and space to truly feel these feelings, to express them if we need to with honour and compassion, and then to let go. It’s not easy to do at first, but not many things in life are…

I can be very quick to anger. But I have learned to try to not to act or react on that anger without truly feeling it first. In some situations, yes, you may have to make a immediate decisions. If you see an animal being abused, you act right away to stop it. However, you can feel your anger but not allow it to control you, thereby allowing you to act appropriately.  Anger can often to lead violence, physical or verbal, which only elevates the suffering in both parties and which resolves nothing. We should act to help each other and all other living beings on the planet.

When I get angry, if I feel I cannot react to a situation respectfully or honourably and I have the opportunity to take a moment, I do.  Taking a walk, or sitting and meditating with the anger is a great tool to use in order to gain a deeper understanding of it.  Learning how your mind works is an invaluable asset to living a life with greater understanding, or compassion.  If I can, I sit with my anger, or grief, pain, suffering and really feel it. I look it over from all sides.  I try to find root causes of it.  I see that anger reflected in others around me. I then place myself in the situation of the person that I am angry with.  Why am I angry with them? What has caused the anger within me?

Buddhism teaches that anger comes from within – it is not something that is bestowed from without. This is seen in the famous Zen story of the monk and the warrior:

The old monk sat by the side of the road. With his eyes closed, his legs crossed and his hands folded in his lap, he sat. In deep meditation, he sat.

Suddenly his zazen was interrupted by the harsh and demanding voice of a samurai warrior. “Old man! Teach me about heaven and hell!”

At first, as though he had not heard, there was no perceptible response from the monk. But gradually he began to open his eyes, the faintest hint of a smile playing around the corners of his mouth as the samurai stood there, waiting impatiently, growing more and more agitated with each passing second.

“You wish to know the secrets of heaven and hell?” replied the monk at last. “You who are so unkempt. You whose hands and feet are covered with dirt. You whose hair is uncombed, whose breath is foul, whose sword is all rusty and neglected. You who are ugly and whose mother dresses you funny. You would ask me of heaven and hell?”

The samurai uttered a vile curse. He drew his sword and raised it high above his head. His face turned to crimson and the veins on his neck stood out in bold relief as he prepared to sever the monk’s head from its shoulders.

“That is hell,” said the old monk gently, just as the sword began its descent. In that fraction of a second, the samurai was overcome with amazement, awe, compassion and love for this gentle being who had dared to risk his very life to give him such a teaching. He stopped his sword in mid-flight and his eyes filled with grateful tears.

“And that,” said the monk, “is heaven.”


When our emotions control us, when they are the ones that are raising the sword and not our true minds, that is when we are in hell. When we are aware of what we are doing, and in that awareness come to understand the nature of all beings, ourselves included, then we are in heaven.  Acting with intention, instead of reactionary living, is what can make this world a better place.

 My anger can fuel my fire to fight against injustices in the world. It is kept in check, it is a sheathed sword.  I know it is there, but I choose not to use it, instead working with compassion.  It is a conscious choice. Sometimes I fail, and when I do I notice where and how I have failed, and see the opportunity to work with that. I cannot blame others for my anger.  Their behaviour is nothing that I can control. What I can work on is my own behaviour towards them and to making the world a better place.  Giving like for like can be a very damaging thing to do.  When someone hurts us, our first reaction, our first desire is often to hurt them back.  It takes a lot of work to come out of this mindset, a lot of practice.

They say that practice makes perfect. So every time I let my anger rule me, as Thich Naht Hanh said, I am practicing being angry. Every time I practice awareness, mindfulness and compassion, I get better at those ways of being and living.  I know which I would rather aim towards!