Active Non-Violence and More: TWM Interviews Alan Senauke
Have you ever wondered if non-violence is really enough in the face of corporate and political violence and pollution? Many Buddhists believe in non-violence and that all beings are Buddha. But does seeing Donald Trump as Buddha move the discussion forward, or does it just give him a pass to keep doing harm? To answer these questions, we’re posting a series of interviews with prominent BPF members, including this week’s talk with Hozan Alan Senauke, BPF’s director from 1991 through 2002. Stephen Crooms sat down with Alan recently to talk about Buddhism, non-violent resistance, and paths to change.
Stephen: In terms of Buddhist activism, I feel like a lot of times when we’re at a protest or at activist circles, we see “the bad guys.” We look at bankers or oil company executives, and we see these people who are doing wrong in the world, and I’m wondering what would be a Buddhist take on that. How do we look at compassion for people who are doing wrong? What’s the proper framework to look at them?
Alan: A non-dualistic perspective is to see all beings as Buddha. Now if you want to look at that through another lens, which is extremely important to me, is that MLK also had a non-dualistic way of looking at society. He was extremely critical of actions, and he knew where the actions came from but he was advocating with different language than you would use quite in Buddhism: a kind of unconditional acceptance of people, and not an acceptance of actions. So there’s a distinction between actions and people. And then that’s all very well and good, but how do you actually change people’s minds? How do you help people to see the larger context of their actions, and what may be distorted about that? I think that’s a radical assumption that all beings are Buddha or that it’s our challenge to love everyone. If you come to conflict or social difference with that in mind then you may act in a different way. It would lead you along a path that was generally non-violent, but what’s really important is that it does not mean the letting go of power.
Stephen: What do you mean?
Alan: People have this idea of nonviolence as— when I was growing up we heard a lot about passive resistance. But I’m talking about active non-violence, which means intervening in a way that interrupts an action. It may mean intervening in a way that brings the violence upon oneself, but not retaliating. So the power has two edges. First of all there has to be the internal power, which is something that we cultivate, you have to be trained. If I were to insult you, if you’re not trained in non-violence or non-reactivity, you’re going to do what you’re trained to do. You might insult me back, you might hit me or whatever.
Stephen: I’ll retaliate in some way.
Alan: You’ll retaliate how you were trained. So, the first thing to do is to cultivate the power and potentiality that you have to practice patience, to practice what is personal, what isn’t personal, and what might be useful to respond, to and what not. And all that calls for very careful discernment.
Alan: Right. So that’s one place and then, you have to figure out what is in Buddhism called Upaya. Skilful means, which is another manifestation of power. What are the skilful means? If I’ve insulted you, what are the skilful means that you can bring to bear that help me see the impact of my actions or to help me change my mind. So there’s no distinction between inner and outer, but they’re both areas that we have to cultivate in ourselves. So, that’s non-violence means not without the use of power or force, but that force is doesn’t fall into the realm of coercion, manipulation retaliation, or physical violence.
Stephen: So what do you think would be some good examples of the correct way of going about this?
Alan: Well, if I’m going back historically, if we look at some of the campaigns in the fifties and sixties in the civil rights movement, they were quite brilliant. What they did was to aggregate the power of a community in opposition to a set of conditions or laws or whatever, that were oppressive and dehumanizing. They operated essentially locally, and there they always had an eye on a national constituency. And while there were victories in Montgomery, in Birmingham, in different places, those victories were also played out on the scale of a national perspective. Which ultimately led to changes in legislation, to some structural changes. It didn’t eradicate racism, as you may be aware…
Stephen: I heard.
Alan: But the change in consciousness is large, and in some places it doesn’t exist; there are backward places everywhere. But those were relatively successful nonviolent activities that had a large effect. I think the reason they worked, and the reason that later campaigns that King and others in the civil rights movement were not successful… my feeling is that [the successful campaigns] began in a spiritual context. They began in a community context; those things were sort of inseparable. So when King went to Chicago, he did not succeed. Because they were dealing with a community that was much more atomized, was not spiritually centered, was politically fragmented and he wasn’t able to have an effect there.
So leaping ahead, how change happens is mysterious. Right now we’re experiencing large change in Burma; there’s so many different threads, but essentially a non-violent movement is bringing the demise of a violent regime. [In the United States] I don’t know. I don’t think that the problem that my inability to articulate a Buddhist strategy for social change in America. I don’t think it’s a Buddhist failure. I think nobody has a strategy here. I don’t hear any Left strategy or progressive strategy. I mean nobody fucking knows what to do about the election; it looks like we’re able to count on the Republican party sort of tearing itself to pieces and so Obama, who generally I support, critically support, may very well win the election. But you know we’re gonna face another four years of complete stonewalling by the forces of reaction in this country, and I can’t see why it’s gonna be any different than the last four years. And I don’t see that the burst of energy and excitement around Occupy, which was really remarkable, once those places are no longer occupied, there’s not a basis for power. I mean that was real power; that was emotional power, intellectual power, image power, and it had to be shut down. You knew that was coming. So, I don’t know. I don’t have a particular encouraging vision.
Stephen: I guess we can see examples in the past where skilful means have been used and people really have come to see the error of their ways, and it’s happening now, but if it were that easy to come up with a new one in each particular situation, the world would probably be in much better shape.
Alan: And it’s never been easy. And despite the fact that all beings are essentially Buddha, we’re beset with greed, anger, and delusion and unless we sort of tackle that in a personal and systemic way, it’s not gonna go away, and those forces will be really powerful.
Stephen: Moving on to another topic, what project are you excited to be working on right now?
Alan: Well, I have a small non-profit right now called the Clear View Project, and I would say that the emphasis has been working with Buddhists internationally, both learning from them, and offering whatever resources we might have that have evolved here in the West from Buddhist traditions; and in a sense returning some of what has been offered to us so generously over a long period of time back in situations where it can be of use. So in India for the last four or five years, I’m working with what was formerly called Untouchables, or Dalit. I’m working primarily in a school in Nagpur for Buddhist youth, which is a yearlong program that they have, and aside from going there each year I’ve been raising money and supporting students in this school. They learn about meditation. They learn how to do it, how to teach it, how to lead it; they also learn about the teachings of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, and about basically social thought and how to deconstruct various caste barriers that they encounter, which are still very high.
Stephen: I know [Dr. Ambedkar] was a Dalit that converted to Buddhism…
Alan: Right, he was a Dalit who was highly educated and highly involved in his community. He had decided somewhere in the 1930s, he said, “I was born Hindu, but I will not die Hindu.” So he literally went on an exploration of all the great religious traditions to see which tradition he thought was the best fit for the wide community of Untouchables. And he landed on Buddhism as a path that he saw as essentially rational, and also indigenously Indian. So in 1956, he converted in the presence of 400,000 people, and then turned around and converted them, and at the same time there were other mass conversions that went on in India at that time. And then three weeks later he was dead.
Stephen: So he went out with a bang.
Alan: Yeah. And, he left this incredible legacy, but this legacy was to some degree unfulfilled. There was very little contact with the outside wider Buddhist world for a variety of reasons. And so one of the things that I do working with the communities that are functioning there on a religious level and on a social level, I see myself as a kind of link to the wider Buddhist world, which is very meaningful to them. Also, since we have, to the extent that some of us have, privilege or access to resources, to try and make those resources accessible to them.
Stephen: So I was gonna ask about that. You said, Buddhism in the western world, in terms of transmitting that back to the place that it came from, what do you feel we have—
Alan: I didn’t say that—it’s an important distinction, I wasn’t saying transmitted, I meant repay.
Stephen: Yeah so what I meant was, we have resources, as Western Buddhists, that they don’t have access to?
Alan: Well, we have material resources that they don’t have access to, and in a place like India and also the work that I’m doing in Burma, there’s very little resources in the kind of education and training that people are craving… I think that we also have some intellectual resources and ways of thinking about Buddhism and modernity that are relevant and different from some of the traditional ways that Buddhism has manifested in different parts of Asia. And I think that by way of inviting a critical perspective that’s also something useful that we can offer, so long as that we are not consciously or unconsciously imposing privileged Western values on other cultures.
Stephen: Right, you might imagine neo-colonialist Buddhism.
Alan: Absolutely. It’s not even just neocolonialism. What you see here, to have a critical view of Buddhism, certainly in the United States, there’s just a relentless tide of commodification of anything of value of any social values. So you can see that having manifested in the civil rights movement, in the feminist movement, in the left. And of course it’s going to; it’s the American way. It’s going to manifest in Buddhism as well, so that’s not something that you wanna do. I really believe in, the people that I’m working with are grassroots people, not top level people. So that I think coming from the West we really have to be very tuned into that hazard. Even our magazines I mean, if you look at some of the major Buddhist magazines, it’s really interesting to see the same people on the cover; I mean, can they go an issue without an article about Thich Nhat Nanh? Or the Dalai Lama? It’s the establishment of personality and brand; there are hundreds of really strong grounded teachers, articulate, and most of them you don’t hear anything about.
Stephen: I have one final basic question. We’re doing this for new members to see who they’re getting involved with. So, why are you involved with BPF or Clear View Project? You could probably write a book on that.
Alan: I did write a book on that. [laughs] Because I feel like there is no way to be free without seeing the circumstances of everyone in the world. And because I feel a responsibility to help people see the places both in ourselves and in our world that they might not otherwise see. I feel that that is the responsibility that I’ve been given. They’re not very many people in the Buddhist world who have the perspective that I do. There are some. But I’ve had the opportunity to encounter people in a lot of different settings internationally—there are not many American Buddhists who are internationalists. There’s aren’t. They might relate to their particular tradition which comes from another country, but other than that, they’re not looking at Buddhism widely, and at the same time looking at the destructive effects of globalization, and also the other side, the opportunities of global connection. And that’s my responsibility and it’s also a responsibility to remind people here because we’re so self-obsessed.
Alan: Yeah, remind us, hey this actually came from someplace. So it’s sort of a multi-faceted sense of responsibility.