Getting Real About Nonviolence: October on TWM
The above cartoon baffled and irked some of the folks at Waging Nonviolence, but to us, its message rings loud and clear. Does nonviolence really “work”? How do we measure its success? If gains from the Civil Rights Movement later backslide into mass incarceration and the New Jim Crow, can we truly claim that this historic, beloved, nonviolent movement has “solved” something?
Precisely because nonviolence remains a cornerstone of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, precisely because we take it seriously, we want to set aside easy answers (or the appearance of them) and get down to brass tacks. Rather than a feel-good, fuzzy acceptance of nonviolence as a virtue, we want to examine it as a lived decision that comes at different costs in different contexts.
In this endeavor, we find ourselves in good company: even among Buddhists. Stephen Batchelor turned a critical eye toward some cherished Buddhist beliefs about nonviolence, shortly after the September 11th attacks on the Twin Towers.
The Buddhist response, both in eleventh-century India and in twenty-first-century America, has been a consistent refusal to resort to violence. “Hatred will not cease by hatred,” said Buddha in the Dhammapada, “but by love alone. This is the ancient law.” One can imagine this verse being intoned by Indian Buddhist monks while their monasteries burned, just as now devout e-mail messages are dispatched to the White House urging restraint and compassion. And just as its sentiments were ineffective in turning back the tide of Muslim aggression in India, so they may be equally ineffective in halting the course of violent retaliation against latter-day Islamic terrorism.
That “hatred will not cease by hatred but by love alone” is true because the statement is a tautology. If an old lady were being driven to distraction by noisy neighbors, how would she benefit from being solemnly told: “Noise will not cease by noise but by silence alone”? The Dhammapada verse, like this hypothetical advice to the woman, is true at such a level of generality that it offers little help in dealing with specific situations. It merely states the conditions under which a long-term solution to hatred would be possible. It may reinforce one’s faith that human beings can relinquish hatred and inspire one to seek to love others unconditionally, but it doesn’t answer the question of how to respond to an act of violence that threatens one’s way of life here and now.
The challenge for Buddhists is not to let a commitment to the principle of nonviolence blunt one’s critical acumen or deflect one’s gaze from looking steadily into the nature and origins of violence. It is far too simplistic to think of violence as originating solely in the psychology of hatred and anger. Violence is intrinsic to the function of the nation-state. Our freedoms and privileges in a liberal democracy are ultimately guaranteed by the willingness of the state to use violence to protect them.
We may not agree with all of Batchelor’s characterizations of the nation-state, but we appreciate his willingness to pierce some of the dogma around Buddhist nonviolence, focusing on the real political consequences.
We want to approach nonviolence with a “beginner’s mind”: carrying more questions than answers. How do we define nonviolence? What are our experiences with it? What would we like to learn that we don’t already know?
How does a person’s lived experience of oppression affect their decision to commit (or not) to nonviolent methods of resistance? Is nonviolence in danger of being co-opted into the status quo, and actually reinforcing certain forms of “soft power” and oppression?
Continuing our year-long practice of interpreting the Five Precepts of Buddhist ethics in systemic terms, we also want to ask how the First Precept — the practice of abstaining from killing — manifests collectively.
Violence and nonviolence often find symbolic form in shapes like this revolver, by Swedish sculptor Carl Fredrik Reuterswärd. But death by firearm is not the only kind of killing that concerns us.
How do we understand the various forms of institutionalized violence? The violence of poverty, inequality, mass incarceration, capital punishment, toxic pollution, and slow poisoning through modified foods or precarious nuclear industries are no less deadly.
How shall we, as Buddhists committed to social justice, compassionately confront these fundamental problems?
We are so excited to dig in to these questions with you for the month of October! As always, disagreement and dialogue is welcome — just try to speak from your own personal viewpoint.
As we begin our month of Getting Real About Nonviolence, what are some of your questions coming into these few weeks? What would you like to learn or clarify for yourself about nonviolence?