Violence as Entertainment?

Today’s dharma talk has been retitled Violence as Entertainment?

The seeds of this talk were first planted that moment, some of you know that moment when your kid becomes interested in some violence he sees on the TV screen. That moment when you grab him quick to avert his eyes. Of course, the only thing he wants to do now is to see what you are not letting him see. Oh, baby, you don’t want to see that, I say to him and his response, “Yes I do… I like it.” Then I start asking myself, why I am even watching it? Why do I want to see it?  

On a Reddit forum, I read a post from a person new to Buddhism who was asking a question about violent movies, wondering if he should avoid them. Most of the comments for him were telling him to stop being such a Pollyanna – we don’t need any fundamentalist Buddhist prescribing what we can or cannot watch was the general energy of the conversation.  I was a little surprised by the self-justifying answers of his fellow practitioners. Not one of them even suggested that it was a good question. I think the question is a good one and as you all know I am far from a fundamentalist.

At this point I want to make the disclaimer that this dharma talk is not prescriptive, I am not telling you what to do or watch or not to do this or that, but to join me in reflection.

In my previous tradition, we were counseled not to watch rated R movies. Mostly I think, because of the sex that is prevalent in some rated R movie. I remember back then living in student housing with a few of the guys who were watching, what my friend’s kid calls blowuption movie, lots of explosions and plenty of blood spatter. I asked all of them why they were watching this rated R movie. I was surprised by the response. Most of them agreed that it was OK to watch this kind of movie because it was only violence, there’s no sex in it so its fine. Even back then I was perplexed by the rationalization, as if Jesus would be just fine you watching people kill each other as long as you don’t see some frontal nudity. Frontal nudity BAD killing people on the other hand, well …….”Meh.” I even asked them about that and they said, it’s just a movie and its Mel Gibson movie for flip sake!

So strange that we would be so excited and would rationalize our thinking to justify violence as entertainment.  That makes me think about it in a different way: “violence as entertainment”. Why? I am not sure.

That brings me to now.  I have been becoming more aware of how much violence I allow into my head through the media I watch and the games that I sometimes play. We as American’s consume a lot of media with barely a second thought. In a Nielsen study found that…

American adults spend over 11 hours per day listening to, watching, reading or generally interacting with media.

Nielsen – MEDIA | 07-31-2018

I think we are afraid of silence.

It is said that the typical American child will view 16,000 murders and 200,000 acts of violence on TV by the time they graduate high school. Kids’ cartoon shows display up to 20 violent acts every hour alone. I wonder how many I have seen in my half-century on this earth. Too much.

Now I am not really making a judgment, I am trying to still process what this means and what it means to my own Buddhist practice. I do know one thing, now that I am a parent something just seems off here.

I myself was raised by TV, literally, this is how dysfunctional my family could be most of the time.  And even when I was like 7 I would rather watch World At War or Victory at Sea documentaries than Mr. Rodgers. I do love a good war movie, ancient or modern,

But now that my 4-year-old pays attention to what I am watching and is intrigued by it, it makes me a little nauseous. Now I don’t think watching violent TV makes you violent, though there studies that point to an increase in aggressiveness – that being said I know that in my own life, watching violent TV has not made me more violent, at least not physically. But maybe that is the wrong question to be asking.

Currently, there is no direct evidence that violent images make us more violent, and so most people, think its Okay. Maybe. I think the problem though is that we are asking the wrong question. I think the right question is does all the violent images and stories we consume make us more fearful? And if they do, how does that affect our everyday lives? If we are more afraid, do that add to our being less connected to other people, especially those not like us. And here is where the real problem may lie with violent media; and where it may lead indirectly to violent behavior. This is what worries me and what I see going on in our society. We are becoming more fearful, from vaccines to terrorist, from mass shooting to foreigners invading our country. These fears are for the foremost unfounded. The average American is as likely to be crushed to death by televisions or furniture as they are to be killed by a terrorist but we don’t see people throwing out their TVs. I think the fear that violent images and stories unconsciously create drive many unskilful behaviors we see, just as much within ourselves as anyone. My concern is that if we feel enough of it, violence becomes more possible.

As I prepared for today’s talk, I started reflecting on my morning ritual of reading the news first thing when I wake up. I have been noticing of late, how many more shootings, abductions, and other mayhems have been filling my feed. In addition, our political discourse lately has been chocked full of fear, especially stoking the fear of some abstract “pending violence” that is coming to our communities” Many communities in the US are living in the intersection of fear that is born of actual and perceived violence and others are becoming more violent born of fear of perceived or potential violence. Three young men were planning to attach a peaceful Muslim community in Ohio simply because of the fear of potential violence of some “other” than them. In Brazil, a few scholars were studying violence in some of the poorest communities and told how stories about crime in the community did the following:

Repetition of stories only serves to reinforce people’s feelings of danger in security and turmoil. thus, the talk of crime feeds the circle in which fear is both dealt with and reproduced violence is both counteracted and magnified.

Language and Violence: Pragmatic perspectives
edited by Daniel Silva 2017

People are fearful and I don’t blame them – and yet historically it can be said we are not any more or less violent than those who proceeded us, and in some ways, we are less violent but it just seems that it is worse. Maybe with the news media saturation maybe we are just becoming more aware of the violence that has always been there and because of cell phone camera’s now finally seeing for the first time. Maybe because like myself, I was raised by TV. I can only imagine all the violence have let soak into my brain since I was a kid. It makes me wonder that maybe because of this we have a predisposition, not for violence, but of being more fearful of violence, I don’t know.

I love this from Thich Nhat Hahn

We are often exposed, if not first hand, then through films, reading material, and conversations, to violence, fear, hatred, meaningless infatuations. Society is full of violence and hatred, which accumulates in the collective consciousness. If in our daily lives we do not know now to abstain from damaging materials and attitudes, the seeds of violence, hatred, and suffering in us will continue to be watered. We need to be aware of what we hear, see, and read every day… Do our associations and consumptions poison us?

Zen Society of Wooster – Sangha Notes

That is the question that I have been asking myself. Like I said before, I don’t think the violent images make us more violent  but I do think that it makes us numb to violence, and also teaches us to objectify the “other” as objects that we can justify hurting or killing because they are different from us, because they are bad, because we do not see them as “subjective” beings with; fears, hopes, dreams and their own tender suffering that may be like ours. As long as we see them as inherently different from us or as something to gratify our needs, can we ever arrive at peace? The Buddha-Dharma has taught me that to do violence to another is to do violence to myself. Here are some of the things that I am reflecting on that I want to share with you.

Again, this dharma talk is not prescriptive, I am not telling you what to do or not to do but to join me in reflection. Here are some of the things I am reflecting on – looking at my teaches for insight,

The Buddha taught

One is not called noble who harms living beings. By not harming living beings one is called noble.”

Why would I want to willingly watch gratuitous harming of living beings? There is enough in the world already why do I add to it.  Does watching four hours of SVU bring me closer to awakening? Probably not, so why do I watch it?

Here is another one I am thinking about. When watching a movie where humans are getting massacred meh …. but the dog gets killed or the horse – watch out! What is that saying about my acceptance of violence toward humans – or even my disconnection from the violence done to my juicy and delicious hamburger?

I love this traditional story

According to legend, when Avalokiteshvara also known as Quan Yin the Bodhisattva, the Goddess of compassion, first heard the suffering of the world her head burst from pain. Amitabha, her teacher, took the pieces of her head and remade eleven heads in its place. Then Amitabha gave Avalokiteshvara a thousand arms with which to ease all suffering.

Guayin Yin Nations Online

I bring this up because being a passive observer of the suffering caused by violence, even fictionalize, makes me numb and the last thing I am getting upset about is the violence, except when the special effects are bad. So I ask myself, ” Have I even watched a war movie to cultivate Bodhicitta, the heart of compassion?  Nope, can’t say that I have.  

What is the acronym GIGO – garbage in garbage out –

Here is my last reflection

If I numb myself against physical violence, what about the more subtle forms of violence? Or the justifications I make for violence? Well, they are unworthy victims because they are getting what they deserve. Violent media is based on this idea of Good guys vs Bad guys. A good story is when the villain is so vile in their villainy that you cheer at their suffering, you condone the violence done to them, no you exalt in it. It feels good for them to get it in the end. And if they were really bad and their ending isn’t violent enough, somehow it feels disappointing. Maybe we excuse it as OK because we know it’s not real but can we really know that? Can we really say it doesn’t affect us? As I contemplate my desire for violence as entertainment, it seems to be to be problematic. This is really true from what I see as my “practice” of compassion and loving kindness. I keep asking myself, “Why?”

The Buddha taught

Hatred does not cease by hatred, but only by love; this is the eternal rule.” 


One is not called noble who harms living beings. By not harming living beings one is called noble.” The Buddha

I appreciate this from Greg Frucci,

If your choice is to continually surround yourself with violence, negativity, and hate which all rooted in fear, then that is what you will become.   

Seeds if Violence Can Grow Quicky

And here is an insight I have gained from working on this talk – being surrounded by violence in the media does not make one violent but it stokes the fires of fear – and that makes us feel as if there is nothing we can do – it can take the vigor out of our practice – and if fed for long enough it can become violence itself.

 I appreciate this from Pema Chodron

The news we hear is mostly bad news, and that makes us afraid. It can be quite discouraging. Yet we could actually derive inspiration for our warriorship, for our bodhisattva path, from these dire circumstances. We could recognize the fact, and proclaim the fact, that we are needed.

The Best of Buddhist Writing – 2012 Page 27

At the heart of the practice from a secular or religious vantage point is to live a life of intention   This can manifest when we stop being passive in our engagement with violent images, games, and media.  It is about making our heart ready for freedom, make it ready for peace.

I want to close today’s talk with two quotes – the first from the Dalai Lama – and this is my new aspiration when it comes to violent entertainment disarmament.

…Through inner disarmament, we can develop a healthy mental attitude, which also is very beneficial for physical health. With peace of mind, a calm mind, your body elements become more balanced. Constant worry, constant fear, agitation of mind, are very bad for health. Therefore, peace of mind not only brings tranquility in our mind but also has good effects on our body. 

The Art of Peace

And from Gandhi

 “Your beliefs become your thoughts, 
Your thoughts become your words, 
Your words become your actions, 
Your actions become your habits, 
Your habits become your values, 
Your values become your destiny.


So I challenge you to join me in reflecting on these things and to engage with the idea of violence as entertainment and ask yourself the question why do I enjoy it? Do I bring in too many violent images into my world, and how am I affected by this?

May it be so.

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