If, like a broken bell,
You do not reverberate,
Then you have attained Nirvana
And no hostility is found in you. (translated by Gil Fronsdal)
This colorful simile represents a test for us. If we are attacked with words or actions, how do we respond? If we respond in kind, then we have not attained Nirvana, we haven’t managed to eliminate our reactivity.
From SN 7.2 translated by Bhikkhu Sujato:
The brahmin Bharadvāja the Rude heard a rumor that a brahmin of the Bharadvāja clan had gone forth from the lay life to homelessness in the presence of the ascetic Gotama. Angry and displeased he went to the Buddha and abused and insulted him with rude, harsh words. When he had spoken, the Buddha said to him:
“What do you think, brahmin? Do friends and colleagues, relatives and family members, and guests still come to visit you?”
“Sometimes they do, Master Gotama.”
“Do you then serve them with a variety of foods and savories?”
“Sometimes I do.”
“But if they don’t accept it, brahmin, who does it belong to?”
“In that case it still belongs to me.”
“In the same way, brahmin, when you abuse, harass, and attack us who do not abuse, harass, and attack, we don’t accept it. It still belongs to you, brahmin, it still belongs to you! …”
While the ideal of never reacting to criticism or rudeness may seem utterly removed from our experience, we may notice that there are degrees of reactivity, in ourselves and in others. What are the distinguishing features?
When we observe an angry person, we may try to avoid them, or we may try to “set them straight” or talk them out of the angry attitude. An alternative would be to know that their anger is self-generated and doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with us; we could feel compassion because an angry person is a suffering person.
A general key to wise responses is to avoid taking things personally. Even if someone is attacking us specifically, it may simply be their anger or agitation finding a ready target. In each case when we are annoyed or feel imposed upon, we can measure the degree of our own hostility by looking into how much we are responding in terms of “me”, “my needs”, “my displeasure”, “my dislikes”. What if we could remove ourselves from the narrative? The other person would be boxing with a shadow. With this deep wisdom, we can experience deep peace.