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The Shakubuku Effect: Do We All Just Need A Swift Spiritual Kick To The Head?

A homeless man sat at an outside table in front of McDonalds. Placed next to him were his only possessions in the world stuffed into a black plastic garbage bag. It was a hot Saturday afternoon.

The families of my little league baseball team had gathered at the restaurant after a particularly challenging rivalry game to celebrate our victory. We ate ice cream and recounted the exciting events of the game. I was ten years old.

My family and the Roberts family were the last to leave the restaurant. We picked up a bit of the mess left by the kids, said our goodbyes and headed for the parking lot. Our cars were parked on opposite sides of the parking lot, but from our vantage point, my family could see something that I’ll never forget.

Once Mr. Roberts’ family was packed into the car, he walked back to the homeless man and “picked up” a twenty-dollar bill that had magically appeared on the ground next to the man. He said, “Sir, I believe you dropped this bill.”

“Oh, no. That’s not my money,” the man replied. “It must be. It was sitting right here next to you,” Mr. Roberts answered. He handed the homeless man the twenty-dollar bill. They exchanged a few pleasantries and Mr. Roberts returned to his family. He had no idea we were watching.

My dad was clearly moved by the gesture. I didn’t understand what had happened, so I asked my father why Mr. Roberts had pretended to find that money next to the homeless man. “He wanted to help the man, but he also wanted to preserve his dignity,” he said.

Just a note of context, at that time in our country the homeless were called “bums,” “drifters,” or “hobos.” These were not terms of endearment. Why would Mr. Roberts go out of his way to preserve the dignity of someone who seemingly had no dignity?

This past weekend, I was flipping channels searching for something interesting to watch. It was late. My wife was already asleep. If I didn’t find something soon, I would give up and go to sleep myself. Then, I stumbled on Grosse Point Blank—a movie I’ve seen countless times. I caught it right at the opening credits and got sucked in.

Oddly, it was Grosse Point Blank that introduced most of us to the term shakubuku, which was described as “a swift, spiritual kick to the head that alters your reality forever.” It is a jolt that gets us back on the (presumably) right path.

In reality, the movie’s interpretation of the term was romanticized and a bit misleading. Shakubuku is a Buddhist concept. It means to correct someone else’s false views and awaken them to the truth (of Buddhism). This approach doesn’t sound very Buddhist, but there you go.

Shakubuku doesn’t work. It seems to be the preferred method of persuasion of our day, but evidence of its disastrous results may be seen on television nightly. Shakubuku is “let me tell you how and why you are wrong.” As a purveyor of persuasion, I can assure you this approach only serves to further entrench the other person’s view point, primarily because it shows a complete lack of respect for the individual.

Shakubuku manifests in confrontation… verbal, physical, emotional and spiritual. When human dignity has been ignored, you can forget any sort of productive intellectual debate.

Thankfully, the Buddhists offer an alternative to shakubuku. It is a more effective method of persuasion called shōju. It means “to lead others to the correct teaching gradually, according to their capacity and without directly refuting their religious misconceptions.” This teaching goes far beyond the specific religious practices or beliefs of one Buddhist sect over another. It gets to the heart of human connection and persuasion--dignity.

Dignity is about respect. Without respect, there is no open dialog. When our defenses go up, our rational cognitive processing system shuts down. You may “win” the argument, but you won’t change the mind.

Persuasion is helping others find the “answer.” It is about leading, not directing. Remember: if you push it; they will reject it. But, if they find it; they will own it.

Mr. Roberts was a good man. He taught me a valuable lesson about treating others with dignity and respect. No, he wasn’t practicing shōju. He wasn’t trying to influence the homeless man or show off his altruistic nature for the benefit of an audience. He simply showed compassion for another human being in need. A human being others purposely avoided.

We can’t get around having differences of opinion, but we can control how we behave when confronted by someone with whom we disagree. It is my hope that we will begin to adopt a shōju approach and leave shakubuku to the movies.


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by the Seven Deadly Sins of Decision Making & Influence

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