My friend Conrad Romo is a lifelong salesman who’s hocked everything from pens to chimney cleaning services to fresh meat to computer diskettes. He’s also a devout practitioner of Zen Buddhism who studies at the Zen Center in midtown Los Angeles.
A few years back, the Zen Center experienced a series of break-ins by a convicted sex offender. The perpetrator (who turned out to be an ex-student of the Center) entered the premises at night and sexually assaulted female residents. Conrad, who had several years training in the Israeli martial art of Krav Maga, volunteered to serve as an all-night security guard. In accordance with non-violent Buddhist teachings, he carried no weapon. He armed himself solely with a can of mace.
The first two nights passed without incident. Conrad caught up on his reading and wrote letters to friends. By the third night he was exhausted. He found himself struggling to keep his eyes open. Sometime after midnight he fell asleep. He was awakened by a loud noise in the kitchen. He opened his eyes, disoriented and confused. He reached for the mace knocking his eye glasses to the floor.
A blurry figure moved through the kitchen toward the adjacent residence hall. Filled with fear and surging adrenaline, Conrad moved toward the figure. The perpetrator attempted to enter one of the dorm rooms.
“Don’t move,” Conrad yelled. He pointed the mace toward the man. In the darkness, the man mistook the mace for a gun.
“Don’t shoot me, please.”
Conrad did a quick mental calculation. The guy could be on drugs. He could have a gun. He could have grabbed a knife from the kitchen.
Aware of the danger, Conrad aimed the mace and unleashed a heavy dose of pepper spray. Unfortunately, the canister was pointed backwards and Conrad maced himself. He screamed. The suspect ran past him into the kitchen. Conrad gave chase.
Conrad reached the man as he was halfway out the kitchen window (the same way he’d broken in). Conrad doused the man’s face with three heavy sprays of mace. The man yelled and fell outside. Conrad called the police then spent five minutes rinsing his own eyes. The man escaped but would never break in again.
A few years later, Conrad learned the man had committed suicide. The Zen Center conducted a special ceremony blessing the man’s soul. Conrad objected to the ritual. The man had terrorized the facility. He shouldn’t be celebrated.
At the ceremony, the Roshi lit candles around a wicker basket representing the “hungry ghost” or departed one. Residents were asked to place offerings in the basket to help the man’s passage into his next incarnation. People brought flower petals, pieces of fruit, little carved Buddhas. Conrad waited for everyone to leave before adding his own tribute. He placed a small canister of mace in the center of the basket. He wanted to make sure the man would never return.