Monday, August 3, 2009

A Plum for a Peach

I read this wonderful article by Usha Jesudasan in The Hindu. I am reproducing it verbatim here.

Mozi, a Chinese scholar who lived in 470- 390 BC was a thorn in the flesh to the Chinese leaders of the time and a strong opponent of violence. Unlike Confucius, who spread the idea of love which embraced only the family and close relatives, Mozi spr ead the message of love and kindness to everyone regardless of who they were. I particularly like his concept of chien ai — “he throws at me a peach, I give him a plum.” The peach has a big, hard stone that can hurt easily. A plum has a soft tiny stone. Meaning, he throws a large, hard object at me to hurt me, I give him something sweet and pleasing to him in return — thus the desire for tit for tat violence is evaporated even before it has a chance to form. Chien ai does not deal with the inner emotions of forgiveness. It just insists on doing the “good thing” automatically. I like this idea very much. How can one possibly be mean and nasty to anyone who gives you a deliciously sweet, juicy plum?

Mozi’s philosophy reminded me of a neighbour I once had who used to go out of his way to be helpful and caring and “sweet” to his adversaries. At the time, I could not understand this attitude. But to my neighbour, his way of life was more than just “doing good to those who hurt you”, it was “making their life ‘sweet’ in some way”. Now, many years later, when I think about this, it makes perfect sense. Giving a plum — that is making your opponent’s life better/ sweeter, takes away the poison and anger from your own heart. From being the trodden-upon victim, one can rise to be the giver of good things and restorer of broken relationships. From being powerless, to being powerful.

Can this idea of giving a plum work in today’s climate of prejudice, suspicion, hate and violence? When injured by someone’s arrogance, ignorance and thoughtlessness, can we set aside our hurt and do something to make his/ her life good and sweet? Our initial reaction is to throw something harder than the one thrown at us, or to stay away from them I use the word “sweet” deliberately, as it conveys more than just a superficial good deed which can be shrugged off later.

To make someone’s life sweet or sweeter, we have to raise them from the pit of ugliness where they dwell now…that is the abyss of violence and ugliness that caused them to hurt you in some way. Pulling them out of this deep horrible place and giving them something beautiful and life-giving can be a huge challenge.

Devi was a housemaid who worked for a tyrannical woman who ran a travel agency. Although she worked to the best of her ability, her mistress was bitingly harsh with her words, and scolded Devi with hurtful words often. At the end of a particularly bad day, she offered to massage her mistress’s feet. On another day it was to massage her head, and run her a hot bath. Devi found that she could do many little things to bring her mistress out of the pit of ugliness, into a better place. Over a period of time, she noticed that the relationship between them had changed. She was no longer just the maid, to be scolded and hurt, she was becoming a friend. Devi came home one day after Deepavali and showed me the beautiful silk sari her mistress had given her. Folds of mango yellow silk shimmered in her hands. She held it against her dusky skin and beamed and twirled in front of my mirror. This is when she told me her story. And in return, I shared with her the peach and plum attitude and how an ancient Chinese scholar coined this phrase. Ever the philosopher, she shook her head and said, “It just seems the right thing to do for me.”

A young teacher who had been particularly snappy and mean to one child in her class told me how one day, she was surprised to get a painted picture from this child. It said, “Have a nice day ma’am. I love you.” She said, “In an instant, my mood which had been miserable for a few weeks changed. I realised I had been lashing out at my students and this child’s sweetness changed it.”

Devi is just a village woman who in her everyday life has worked out for herself the need for making a difference in a hostile world by giving a plum when thrown a hard peach. This little child too had learnt how to deal with someone’s meanness. So, if an illiterate woman, and a child, can make this concept work, then it should give us the inspiration and hope that we too in our families and work places can do the same thing.

In the course of a day, many hard peaches are thrown at us from every direction. We would like to throw some too. But before you do so, I suggest you buy a basket of nice, sweet plums and keep them beside you just to practise this ancient way of ahimsa living. As they say, practice makes perfect.

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