Buddha said, “There are people who torment themselves. There are people who torment others. There are people who torment both themselves and others. There are people who torment neither themselves nor others.”
In our modern world there are two particular applications of this teaching that we should pay special attention to. One is that nowadays much of this tormenting is psychological, in addition to the vast amount of physical brutality that still goes on. The other is that in our modern social system many roles and occupations institutionalise torment and the people who take such a role thereby fail to practise right livelihood.
If one’s day to day activity involves cruelty, oppression, harm or restriction of others, there are likely to be unforeseen psychological consequences. Furthermore, psychological consequences tend to work out in practical ways in the real world.
Often it is difficult to see exactly where is the line. Many occupations - immigration officer, policeman, politician, tax inspector, etc - have a perfectly legitimate function, but can easily slide over into oppression, prejudice and cruelty.
The institutionalisation of torment spreads the karma thereof. We all feel sullied by what our country does. We feel out of tune with our fellow citizens and our leaders.
Yet, we are advised to “live spreading thoughts joined to goodwill, to compassion, to joy, and to equanimity in all directions, everywhere, in every way, in the entire world, abundantly, boundlessly, unrestrictedly, peaceably, benevolently”.
One might well ask, how is this possible? The answer must lie in recognition of universal ignorance - forgive them for they know not what they do - which can only come about as we begin to recognise similar limitations in ourselves. As we come to see our own deficiency, we more and more rely upon faith, upon mindfulness of the Dharma that we have learnt and that works upon us, both consciously and unconsciously, so that ultimately life becomes a life of refuge rather than of self-assertion.
We torment ourselves to try to free ourselves from our tormenting of others, but the tormenting of others is mostly projection of our tormenting of ourselves, so, as Buddhist psychology demonstrates, we are caught on a wheel. A fault-finding mind is hard on self and hard on others, and brings much misery. When we see the folly of this, we can, perhaps, cease the perfection project and relax into the arms of the Dharma.
The Buddha torments neither self nor others. He long ago saw the uselessness of self-harm and his compassionate heart radiates joy in all directions.