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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?

Comments (3)

  • Mushim

    Regarding the quote, “Hatred does not cease by hatred, but by love alone” — I personally have found it tremendously instructive that translator and Buddhist teacher Gil Fronsdal, in his excellent translation of The Dhammapada, says that the Pali word translated here as “love” is correctly translated as “non-hatred.” Fronsdal says in the notes that he does not think that the English word “love” is an accurate translation of the original text. Therefore, hatred only ceases by non-hatred, is a more accurate translation of this teaching.

    This is not a tautology when studied and heard in the context of the Buddha’s teachings. Rather, it points to the *process* and the disciplines through which a human being might realize a state of non-hatred, non-greed, and non-delusion.

    Also, the quote doesn’t say we should just sit around passively on our butts if someone is committing hate crimes. It simply points out that if we ourselves become full of hate as we seek revenge for acts of hate, then that karma continues and amplifies.

    Many of the convert U.S. Buddhist whom I meet are laboring under the delusion that, historically, Buddhists have all been pacifists, that both monastic and lay Buddhist have not gone to war, and have not taken up arms in self-defense, killed animals in order to eat them. This is simply not true. There are and have been many Buddhist soldiers in armies throughout the world; I believe there are Buddhist chaplains in the U.S. armed forces. In various countries, there have been times when monastics have used guns to defend their temples and monasteries when under attack. And most of the Buddhist world is not vegetarian. (Theravada and Tibetan monastics eat meat, I believe, when it is offered to them. Buddhist laypeople, globally, do not automatically take a principled stand of refusing to eat meat or fish although they might eat vegetarian food on specific days of the month or at certain times of the year.)

    To my knowledge, the only religions in which people automatically declare conscientious objector status and will go to prison if necessary during a time of a draft, are Quakers and Jehovah’s Witnesses.

  • Murray Reiss

    Coincidentally, I was just reading an article in Dissent on Gene Sharp’s work (I think you have to be a subscriber but Sharp’s work is easily accessed). Gene Sharp, as many of you probably know, is a theorist and author of groundbreaking works on the dynamics of nonviolent conflict, who has been called the “dictator slayer,” the “Machiavelli of nonviolence,” and the Clausewitz of unarmed revolution.

    A couple quotes from the article seem particularly relevant to kicking off this discussion, particularly, in the Buddhist context, his comments on “converting” one’s opponent:

    “Sharp’s analysis of nonviolent struggle is unflinching. He recognizes that withdrawing cooperation is not always easy. If the target of nonviolent action is a tyrannical regime, repression can be severe. ‘There must be no illusions,’ he writes. ‘In some cases nonviolent people have not only been beaten and cruelly treated but killed…in deliberate massacres.’ Nor does he promise success: ‘the simple choice of nonviolent action as the technique of struggle,’ Sharp explains, ‘does not and cannot guarantee victory, especially on a short-term basis.'”

    “With a similar lack of sentimentality, Sharp breaks with pacifists in his understanding of how movements achieve success. He argues that, while it may be desirable, it is not necessary that activists express love for their adversaries or make enemies see the errors of their ways. In fact, insistence on ‘conversion’ of the opponent can be counterproductive. As an alternative, Sharp approvingly quotes civil rights leader James Farmer: ‘In the arena of political and social events, what men feel and believe matters much less than what, under various kinds of external pressures, they can be made to do.’ Farmer elsewhere concludes: ‘Where we cannot influence the heart of the evildoer, we can force an end to the evil practice.'”

    And when it comes to broadening the appeal of non-violence, Sharp’s findings when he was reading through old newspaper coverage of Gandhi’s 1930 satyagraha in India, strike me as important. “He found evidence that most participants in the resistance campaign did not embrace nonviolence out of a sense of moral commitment. Instead, they used nonviolent action because they believed it worked.”

    Non-violent civil resistance is a huge topic, one that I believe is crucial to our struggles; I’m delighted to see that you’re opening a space for discussion of it in this forum.

  • Jeff

    The question of whether violence is justified in achieving social justice is challenging but somewhat hypothetical at this point in the context of existing movements within developed countries such as the United States. Aside from rocks and spray paint, the machinery of violence is overwhelmingly in the hands of the State, which deploys it unhesitatingly against any serious threat to its control, however nonviolent. Yet once a movement becomes large, courageous, and persistent enough, its demands are listened to.

    Most Buddhists I know could not see themselves picking up a gun and fighting in the streets. Those who could often cite a “terrorist threat” as a just cause (e.g., Batchelor), and fewer still would support a popular armed insurrection to overthrow an oppressive regime (in some other country).

    If we don’t want to witness increased killing by the system, its victims, or its opponents, we need to do more than deepen our private spiritual practice. Exploitation and its vicious enforcement will not dissolve simply by a slow osmosis of loving kindness across class and global divisions. As we come to grips with the violence in ourselves, we must not permit the continued institutionalized violence of poverty, war, racism, and climate rape to go on. We should be voices for compassionate and organized change where we work, live, and meditate.

    Dr. King, responding to criticisms of his peaceful tactics, made it very clear that nonviolence does not mean nonresistance. Our weapons against systemic violence should include broad solidarity and a stubborn determination not to quit.

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