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Can Meditating Cure Violence? Scofield Says No

Questioning His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s now-famous assertion that “If every 8 year old in the world is taught meditation, we will eliminate violence from the world within one generation,” scholar, yoga instructor, and activist Be Scofield offers historical evidence and personal experience testifying that, far from a panacea for interpersonal and institutional harmdoing, spiritual practice is ethically neutral.

From Tikkun.org:

 We’re all part of larger systems, many of which are incredibly damaging to people and the planet. Along with air force bomber pilots, racists, pro-life extremists, corporate crooks, Japanese soldiers in WWII and (you fill in the blank), we can all experience what we sincerely believe to be spiritual transformation or awakening, yet remain oblivious to the dangers of our surrounding culture. In fact, “spirituality” is rather easily incorporated into any social system, including market capitalism, government, and militarism, as a regime of thought control.

Besides, Scofield points out, how can we presume to eliminate “violence” before we have come to a common understanding of what violence is?

Take these few examples [of what some would call "violent"]: spray painting over a sexist billboard, using [force] to defend against rape, eating meat, the prison industrial complex, throwing tear gas canisters back towards the police who fired them, the capitalist system, racial microagressions, stealing food to support oneself…etc. Many would argue that abortion is violent. Would this be eliminated with meditation? There are so many forms of violence and ways that we all participate in systems that are violent that it would be nearly impossible to reach a consensus on who’s criteria of violence gets to be used. How can one eliminate something if we can’t agree on what it is that is being eliminated?

What say ye, BPFers?  Read the whole thing and tell us what you think!

Comments (4)

  • Charles

    Great points. And following the link to Scofield’s full article is even more enlightening. Abstractly, it seems like a no-brainer that meditation and other spiritual practices *must* somehow dislodge us from participating in the violence and injustices our society is based on. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to work that way in the real world. Breaking with habitual patterns of body, speech, and mind is apparently a lot harder than we imagine–and there’s probably a fair amount of delusion involved when we think we’ve pulled it off.

    The whole “Buddhists at war” theme is fairly obvious. I find the less in-your-face forms of complicity even more disturbing–perhaps because so seemingly natural. For instance, if, as Max Weber claims, “the state is a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of violence within a given territory,” does that mean that any support of or participation in the State supports and participates in violence?

  • Chris

    I am Chris and this is what I have to say;
    I assume the organizers of this website included this posting in the hope it would provoke some discussion, as it did on the site where it was originally posted. While it may be appropriate for Be Scofield’s site (tikkun.org), I think it was an unfortunate choice for the Buddhist Peace Fellowship’s. The piece and most of the responses to it were confused and are confusing.

    Be begins the piece by quoting the Dalai Lama (“If every 8 year old in the world is taught meditation, we will eliminate violence from the world within one generation.”) The piece then goes on to offer a criticism based on the premise that the Dalai Lama is confused about the nature of meditation. I have personally received teaching from the Dalai Lama on three occasions, listened to recording of other oral teachings, and read many of his books. The Dalai Lama is not confused.

    Any argument that rests on the notion that His Holiness is confused about meditation and its purpose is off to a shaky start. I recommend that readers study the Dalai Lama’s book Stages of Meditation, based on the root text by Kamalashila, if they wish to understand what he meant when we suggested teaching meditation to 8-year-olds. In Tibetan Buddhism, as in all Mahayana schools, Dharma practices (which include meditation) is by definition motivated by the sincere desire to benefit all living beings. It cannot be ethically neutral.
    A useful exercise would be take the examples Be gives as ethical dilemmas (…spray painting over a sexist billboard, using violence to defend against rape, and so on) and reflect upon them from this perspective of benefiting all beings to see what sort of clarity will come to you.

  • Katie Loncke

    Charles, I’m so glad to see you! And I think your points are super important. To me they both speak to a sense of “I” that so stubbornly persists in spiritual and political work. The delusion that arises when “we think we’ve pulled it off” (“it” being opting out of violence), as well as this desire to be non-complicit in structural and institutional violence, to be somehow individually pure and free from perpetuating violence, so often seems to come from self-righteousness, rather than frank assessments of reality and pragmatic attempts to change society. (Like figuring out how to dismantle the form of the State and its attendant structures of violence, for example.)

    I’m excited to have a whole month or two next year to really dig deeply into questions about violence, nonviolence, and what it means to work to end violence universally. And I’m so glad that your perspectives will be part of that conversation! For real.

    Chris, hi, thanks for sharing your thoughts! I’m a little confused about what you’re saying, and hoping to understand more. Are you disagreeing with the way Be critiques the specific, widely-publicized claim about meditation having the power to end global violence? Or are you saying that the critique is too totalizing about HH the Dalai Lama’s knowledge of meditation? Personally I didn’t read Be as saying that His Holiness is confused about meditation *in general* — obviously he knows a thing or two about meditation, as well as suffering, its causes, and ways to liberate oneself from it. He is probably a fantastic teacher of meditation. And yet, the now-famous statement about meditation potentially ending violence worldwide deserves some reflection, no?

    Perhaps the statement was taken out of context — I’d be glad to know more about what HH might have meant by it, so thank you for that recommendation. And I think I agree with you that *Buddhist* meditation, as a spiritual practice designed to liberate beings from suffering, would have as its foundation, in order to be effective, “a sincere desire to benefit all living beings.”

    At the same time, “meditation” (even Buddhist meditation) means different things to different people. Where I live, many people like to use meditation to reduce stress, gain focus, enhance performance in various activities, promote peace through spectacle, or even to attract wealth, fame, and sensual pleasures. Right now Tricycle has an interesting article called The Scientific Buddha that explains a bit about why, historically, we might be seeing these trends. That’s why I think Be’s analysis is useful: it points out that there are various aims and objectives of meditation, and even Buddhists who meditate do not automatically arrive at wholesome political conclusions. Again, none of this is to demean His Holiness’ knowledge of Dharma, but to enrich a mainstream conversation about meditation (and, implicitly, Dharma) that is already happening.

  • Chris

    I am Chris and this is what I have to say;
    Katie, I am sorry if my comment was confusing. The point I was trying to make was that when the Dalai Lama talks about meditation, he has a very clear definition in mind. “Meditation” may mean many things to many people today and be put to many uses, but the Dharma has been developed over centuries and provides a clear path to understanding. Through Dharma practices, we come to see that the ultimate root of violence is self-grasping and the antidote is the realization of the emptiness of self.
    If our goal is to benefit ourselves rather than others, our practice will never advance. I think if I had begun learning this when I was eight years old, I would not be such a confused 60-year old today.

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