“Make your nerves strong,” said Swami Vivekananda, “What we want is muscles of iron and nerves of steel. We have wept long enough. No more weeping, but stand on your feet and be men. First of all, our young men must be strong. Religion will come afterwards.”
That religion will come after — and in some sense must be based upon — manliness is a very radical idea, in the West and perhaps also in many parts of the East as well.
We’ve come to equate “spirituality” with what might be called feminine qualities: peacefulness, indiscriminate love, pacifism, and so on. While Western society might not want to acknowledge it, this perception is largely based upon the image of Jesus, who advised his followers to “turn the other cheek,” and to be meek and mild.
It’s an issue, because while the equating of spirituality with pacifism, pleasantness, and so on, appeals to many men and women in the West, it inevitably means that many more “manly men” see spirituality as completely alien to them, and opposed to what they stand for. But it’s not. The men who need it the most are getting it the least.
Of course, Dharma, whether Buddhist, Hindu, or through some other expression and manifestation, does teach compassion for all creatures (humans and animals), and does encourage peacefulness, both in ourselves and in the world. But, we also learn from authentic sources that the Buddha was regarded as nothing less than what we call today “a man’s man.” The Buddha was seen, in his birth place of India, as physically powerful, good at archery, and attractive to women. We read in the Bhagavad Gita that Lord Krishna taught his disciple Arjuna on the battlefield, telling him not to flee from the coming battle with the unrighteous, and nor to act in a way that could be construed as cowardly.
One of the major problems today is what we’ve come to identify with the adult male (or “manliness”): showing off, selfishness and egocentrism, leering, making vulgar comments (especially about women), drunkenness, lack of self-control, the sort of “strength in numbers” mentality of the group, violence (nearly always against someone who is obviously disadvantaged), “goofing off”. All of this is really the behavior of the man-child, the emotionally stunted man, not the authentic man.
Luckily, this isn’t the only image of masculinity. Robert Bly’s book Iron John: A Book About Men helped spawn the probably now defunct “men’s movement,” a movement that tried to embrace masculinity in a more authentic, perhaps more primitive, more spiritual and ethical way. Whatever their successes or failures, the book and movement did at least acknowledge the positive qualities of the more rugged man.
Recently we’ve seen the “Real Men Don’t Rape” campaign go global, not least of all because of high profile gang rape cases in India. While we certainly agree with the sentiment of the campaign, and with the fact that rape and violence against women is an issue that needs to be tackled head on, it’s unfortunate that the campaign casts “real men” as essentially passive. Real men “don’t.”
To grasp the nature of the authentic man — the powerful Buddha-like man — we need to think not only of what he doesn’t do, but what he in fact does do, because real men do do things: real men protect women, real men stop rape, real men defend those who are being taken advantage of, real men hate injustice, real men are selfless.
We could keep adding to the list. But one thing that Bly got right in Iron John was that he asserted that the problem wasn’t that men had become too masculine, but that men who were a problem to themselves and to society lacked authentic masculinity. Mostly they had not had any good example around them. Often, violent offenders in prison have grown up without a father or otherwise with a father who beat his children (is violence against a child or a woman manly behavior? No, obviously not).
While it might be controversial to say it, men and women are different. (Personally, I’d encourage women to take up martial arts, so that they have the ability to defend themselves if it ever becomes necessary, and so that they can have the confidence of knowing that they can.) But I’d also advise men to take up a martial art as well, not just so that they can defend themselves or gain in confidence (though this is obviously good in itself), but so that they can begin to understand the meeting point of spirituality and physical strength, endurance, action, and pushing beyond physical and mental limitations. While my experience may be limited, it’s my observation that those who show off, like to be intimidating, or are generally unpleasant, simply do not last in martial arts. It takes humility, especially perhaps at the beginning.
The Bhagavd Gita tells us:
It is hard to renounce all action
Without engaging in action;
the sage, wholehearted in the yoga
of action soon attains freedom.
For the spiritual man, “muscles of iron and nerves of steel” (to invoke Vivekananda) are not an impediment, but can aid in and be part of his development, which requires mental and moral improvement as well. Developing his body and mind not only teaches him discipline and humility, but will help him to choose right over wrong, peace over violence, to help rather than to hurt, and to be selfless rather than selfish. In Krishna teaching Arjuna, in the Buddha, the warrior monks of the Shaolin temple, the samurai, and doubtlessly many other examples we could mention, we see embodied an almost abundant masculinity against materialism.