Why Soft is More Powerful Than Shove

Why Soft is More Powerful Than Shove December 22, 2022

She was curled into a furry ball on the green chair, her tail pumping weakly as she greeted me through her morning sleepiness. I tickled her ears a little, and scratched her neck. As I gently stroked her she lifted her head and leaned back, exposing first her chest and then her soft belly. Soon she was all stretched out, happy, and utterly relaxed.

Yesterday I listened to a podcast on the colonisation of Buddhism with Dr. Wendy Dossett. In it she speaks about how the West has paid too much attention to the texts of Buddhism, and not enough attention to the way that Buddhism is actually practiced by ordinary people. This reminds me of the book* I’m reading on the role of the wives of Pure Land priests in Japan, who are known ‘bōmori’ or temple guardians. They hold the temple community together as they slip between the back room and the shrine room, preparing food, tending to people, and (according to the author) performing just as important a role as the priests.

Where is the softness in Buddhism? Has it been overlooked by academics as they focus on the louder, powerful men rather than the quieter wisdom of women? Our world is steeped in patriarchy, and so of course we will find it in the Buddhist world too. I found myself a little tired last night after reading koan after koan featuring two posturing men, often ending with one of them hitting the other with a stick. Where are the women, or rather the qualities that women have traditionally held? How much are we missing out on?

The power of softness

I believe in the power of softness. I love the Aesop’s fable about the Sun and the North Wind, arguing over who could get a man to remove his coat first. The North Wind was powerful and gave it his best shot, blowing a gale around the man, who just pulled his coat tighter and tighter around himself. When the Sun had his turn he just warmed him, gently, until the man took off his coat willingly. The North Wind pushed and shoved, but the Sun made a gentle invitation.

In my own experience, I am more likely to respond to gentle invitations. This is true when the invitations come from outside or inside of me – a friend pressuring me to go to a party with them, or a part of me that tells me I mustn’t eat cake, or else. There is also more likely to be a kickback when I do surrender to pressure – I turn up to the party grumpy, or eat double the cake the next day.

Just as you are

Just like Aiko, I am more likely to reveal my vulnerability when I feel safe, and when I am being treated with kindness. This is my experience of my relationship with Amida Buddha – the Buddha who is known for accepting people just as they are. Like the sun’s rays, Amida’s warmth helps me to relax and soften, melting away my egoic self-protection bit by bit.

I’m going to keeping seeking out the softness. I’m going to keep listening for the quiet, encouraging voice – the voice that acknowledges how difficult it can be to be human, and that doesn’t judge us for our failings. The one who is patient with us, and who offers us consolation. Shakyamuni Buddha tried self-mortification, and it didn’t work. Gentleness is what will lead me towards enlightenment.

Go gently _/|\_


How do you respond to pushing and shoving, and to gentleness? What beliefs do you hold about the necessity of pushing? How might you bring more gentleness into your life?


* Guardians of the Buddha’s Home: Domestic Religion in Contemporary Jodo Shinshu by Jessica Starling

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