Who is the Perpetrator? by Oxana Poberejnaia


A poem by Thích Nhất Hạnh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk and peace activist, “Call Me By My True Names,” lists various situations from natural world and the world of humans, most of them to do with violence and death. He claims in the poem to be both: the victim and the perpetrator of violence.

This poem has always bothered me. I can understand a world perspective where you express solidarity with all the sufferers, but how to come to terms with identifying oneself with the oppressors and murderers?

At my current limited level of understanding of the Buddhist teaching I can only say that perhaps the words: “I am a rapist and a murderer” point to tendencies that are present in all of us. First and foremost it is a tendency to divide, to separate. The most noticeable separation is between the “I” and the “outside” world.

First we counter position ourselves against all the others. Next we start believing that it is possible to achieve happiness just for ourselves, at the expense of the others. So we live egotistically. From here, I suppose, there is only a small step to rape and murder.

The law of separation and division is the basis for creating identity. To say “I am” or “We are” we need to separate us from someone who is not I, or we. Without it, identity simply does not exist. You are one ethnicity as opposed to all others. You are one particular class, level of education and gender, and not any other.

Each identity needs and craves its opposite. In each society there are outcasts against which the “proper” member of this society establish their “rightful” place.

I have watched the BBC’s documentary recently about sex workers in the first ever legal red lights zone in the UK. The title of the 13-part programme is Sex, Dugs and Murder. As clear from the title, the filmmakers point to the fact that 90 percent of sex workers in the UK are drug users. In addition, the documentary shone the light on violence directed at the women working on the beat.

Sex workers are often treated as that necessary “other” in bourgeois societies. They are pushed beyond the circle of civility, which we in the Global North like to imagine as our reality.

At the same time, I could see it clearly watching these women on film, that they were I. In the moments where these women got temporary relief from dependency on drug, their inner light shone through so powerfully. One woman paints – like me. Another loves to go out for a coffee with a friend – like me. Yet another gave her boyfriend a massage, and you could see the love and care in her hands, as in her whole being.

Living in capitalist economy, we do not want to admit to ourselves that we sell ourselves. Our time, our labour is bought for a price. That time is not ours anymore. It belongs to a capitalist. We are alienated from our own work, and thus, from our own life spent working.

We feel the horror of this situation, yet we cannot admit it to ourselves. Instead, we push this realisation out onto the sex workers: “They sell themselves. They are addicted.”

How about ourselves? Let anyone who is not addicted, or dependent on anything in this life: sex, food, alcohol, entertainment, risk, work – throw the first stone.

In one of the episodes, court sentenced a sex worker to a £150 fine for being disorderly. She said she did not claim any benefit payments from the government and all her income came from sex work. The authorities were clearly sending a message to this woman: “We force you to sell yourself so that our order can be kept.”

We know that is the order of things in bourgeois democracy. We know that nothing protects us from the inhuman nature of capitalism. We know we can be out of a job, and of our house if we miss a payment. Between these sex workers and us there is only a thin line consisting of circumstances that can change.

And yet we say: “us” and “them”. We separate ourselves from other people. We separate ourselves from reality. And thus, ultimately, we draw divisions inside ourselves: “I will notice this, but not that. I will care about this, but not that.”

Perhaps this is the way to ever increasing violence in our world. Perhaps this is what Thích Nhất Hạnh meant.

Oxana Poberejnaia is a frame drummer, writer and an artist at http://poeticoxana.wordpress.com. She was an Officer of the University of Manchester Buddhist Society while studying for a PhD in Government, and had been involved in organising the Manchester Buddhist Convention. Oxana is exploring the Sacred Feminine through frame drumming, working with her menstrual cycle, and shamanic journeying, while keeping the practice of Buddhist meditation. Her world music band Soma can be found here.

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Categories: Buddhism, Sex Work

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17 replies

  1. This is a wonderful poem which I understand speaks about the process of Karma and the lives we enter, continue to enter & have previously entered. In Buddhism, each life we enter depends on the karma we accumulate in our lifetime. So yes in one life we may be the rapist & in the next the victim of rape. These are all our true names and we cannot escape that – we can only move on from then by using our 6 sense consciousness to learn lessons from the past.

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  2. I say this with difficulty and only because I’ve been told by a Spiritual group called Brahma Kumaris – to take responsibility for crime. Staying silent is the crime. The pharisee on the temple’s steps in the Bible – thank God I’m not like this … fill in the gap … is the crime. It’s hard though.

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  3. What a stunningly, beautiful poem, Oxana. Thank you for posting. The last line is so apt: “Please call me by my true names so I can wake up and so the door of my heart can be left open–the door of compassion.”

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  4. Separation between us and them (whoever them happens to be) could be the beginning of self righteous condemnation, and yet in this time of political instability I have to remind myself constantly that I did NOT choose this way of being in the world, and I am NOT supporting this cultural insanity by my thinking or my actions. If did not make this separation not I would feel crazy or suicidal (yes, it’s that bad).

    Accepting responsibility for the dark tendencies in all of us helps us to develop compassion for ourselves and others. At the same time there is a difference between feeling our dark feelings and acting upon them. As a woman I may feel like murdering someone that has shot an innocent bear fro example, but I do not act on this tendency, I simply own it. And expend my energy on trying to change people’s perceptions.

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    • I agree, Sara. “It could have been me…” does not mean it was me. I also find Christian blanket confessions of sin to have the same flaw. Yes I have benefited from white supremacy, but that does not make me an armed neo-Nazi skinhead. No I have not done all I possibly or perhaps could have done to end oppression, but I have done something, and no I have not raped a child or an adult.

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  5. I agree that we all have the ability to do dark things,but I am not a rapist or a murderer and I will not call myself one. I also am uncomfortable with the way we use words like dark or black to describe bad or evil things and white or light to describe goodness.

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    • I too am uncomfortable using the word darkness to describe emotions that are nefarious because I am aware that the dark goddess stands behind my words, but she embraces both dark and light and is capable of transforming … Thank you though for highlighting how important it is to be clear about using the word darkness. There is certainly a continuum here. I’m curious. What words would you use in place of darkness?

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      • I was just thinking about what words I could use instead of darkness and am finding that a hard question to answer.I was thinking possibly using the word negative .Possibly using positive negative to describe actions or feelings,doesn’t’ seem adequate though.

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      • I think this question is an important one to ask… maybe in the asking we will be given new insight

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      • On the issue of darkness and light, I happened to reread this today:
        https://blackstonehermitage.net/2017/05/what-is-sacred-endarkenment/

        In Old Europe black and darkness symbolized transformation, not evil; light and darkness were understood to be part of the cycle of birth, death, and regeneration. It was the Indo-Europeans who introduced the dualism of light and darkness, life and death into our symbol systems.

        There are plenty of specific words we can use to describe behaviors that tear rather than repair the web, for example, dominating unloving, harmful, and so on.

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      • Indigenous peoples like inhabitants of Old Europe see much the same thing when it comes to darkness. It is a time to rest, reflect, dream etc – It is “being” time. The cycles of the bear embody this cycle of death and regeneration by making this descent into the earth to sleep and then bear’s return in the spring. Many of the most sacred ceremonies are held during the winter months. Darkness is a time of great spiritual power.

        Because I have been fascinated by the faces of the dark goddess, I really appreciated the article. Thank you.

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      • As a result of the ancient and indigenous understandings of darkness — to which I subscribe — I end all of my letters and emails, “Love, light, and healing darkness.” I believe we need to change the conversation, not just critique it.

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      • We absolutely do. As a woman with Indigenous roots I am well aware of the positive powers of darkness – like everything else darkness and light exist on a continium that includes both positive and negative poles.

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  6. Thank you for speaking up on behalf of sex workers!

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  7. You always write the most beautiful, brave, and healing narratives. Thank you for the reminder that my judgment and violence has separation at its root, meaning when I see myself as separate, instead of from others’ perspective, it is much to easy too judge. I will try to remember it this week, to see myself as connected to all. Inhumane capitalism, as you put it, allows little time for self-development. Perhaps that’s why we are struggling to learn these basic, universal lessons.

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