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The Sword that Heals

The Sword that Heals

If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.

Frederick Douglass, in an 1857 address on West India Emancipation

The Five Precepts are a seemingly straightforward component of Buddhism; they are, as Walpola Rahula explains in What The Buddha Taught, the “minimum moral obligations of a lay buddhist.” The first, and some may say most important of these precepts is not to destroy life. This is typically seen as a fairly simple command, the issue of taking lives being considerably more black and white than, say, the misuse of intoxicants. According to Rahula, the Buddha proclaimed “nonviolence and peace as [his] universal message” and that he did “not approve of any kind of violence or destruction of life.” Furthermore, the Buddha was not passive in this conviction, going so far as to intervene on the battlefield between between the Sakyas and Koliyas.

This absolutist orientation towards nonviolence also emerges in in the domain of activism under the banner of ‘nonviolent civil disobedience.’ Broadly, this is understood as a commitment to nonviolent resistance, even when acting in a way that violates laws of commands of an institutional power. Generally all of the major Engaged Buddhist projects as well as most leftist social justice organizations subscribe to this framework.

Woman holding feather confronts police line at Mi’kmaq-led anti-fracking blockade. Photo credit: Ossie Michelin, APTN reporter

But where exactly do we draw the lines of nonviolence? At what point does the civil disobedience itself become violent? These questions surfaced this week during the First Nations protest on Mi’kmaq traditional territory in Rexton of New Brunswick, Canada. The protest was in resistance to plans to begin shale gas fracking. At the height of the tension, the police fired pepper spray and bean bags at the protesters. Amidst the chaos, five police vehicles were torched and 40 protesters were arrested for various charges including failing to abide by a court injunction to clear their blockade.

Descriptions of the protest in the media inevitably described the day as violent, with particular emphasis laid on the burned vehicles. For some within the protest, this was an unacceptable action, while others saw it as part of the movement’s right to resist and defend itself.

Is property damage violence? Is shooting pepper spray (legally) an act of violence? If property is damaged as an act of self defense, is it still violent? While violence may initially seem to be a fairly simple concept, attempts to clearly define it reveal a number of complications. I would like to explore three related challenges for a black-and-white understanding of nonviolence:

1. its muddy real world application,

2. the politicization of the term, and

3. the possibility that knee-jerk reactions against violence often stem from positions of privilege.

Inaction as Nonviolence

Two illustrative scenarios immediately surface a tension for absolutist approaches to nonviolence. The first case is a Buddhist story, attributed to the early Mahayana text, the Upaya Kausalya Sutra, or ‘skillful means’ Sutra, which contains stories that challenge simple interpretations of the precepts. Tibetan Dzogchen teacher Chögyal Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche retells one of these stories in his book The Crystal and the Way of Light, which emphasizes that the intention behind one’s action is as important as the action itself.

The story concerns a disciple of the Buddha who happened to be a rich merchant. This merchant was returning by boat from a trip with about 100 other merchants in pursuit of various valuables, when he discovered that one of the other travellers on the boat planned to kill everyone on board and steal the collected goods. The merchant agonized over what action to take; he knew the man in question well enough that he was confident he could indeed kill the passengers. As Namkhai Norbu explains:

In the end, despite the fact that he had taken a vow with the Buddha never to take the life of another being, he had no alternative but to kill the would be robber. He was very ashamed of what he had done, and as soon as he returned home he went to the Buddha to confess his bad action. But the Buddha told him he had not done wrong, because his intention had not been to take life, but to save life. Furthermore, since he had in fact saved the lives of hundreds of people, and has saved the robber from the very negative karma of killing hundreds of people and the inevitable consequences of such a bad action, the Buddha explained that the merchant had in fact done a good action.

While Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche emphasizes a Mahayana lesson on intention in evaluating the ethics of our actions, the story also presents a conundrum where there is no obvious nonviolent option. Instead, the merchant can choose to commit an act of violence with the intention of preventing much greater suffering, or opt not to directly intervene and allow this much greater suffering to occur.

This same tension is presented in a famous thought experiment from Western philosophy commonly called the trolley problem, first formulated by English philosopher Philippa Foot. The setup goes as follows: there is runaway trolley car heading at high speed down a track toward five individuals that it will kill if it isn’t redirected. You are at some distance from the track near a level that if pulled, would redirect the trolley car down an adjacent track where there is just one individual tied to the tracks. With mere seconds to act, what do you do?

The details of the case are sometimes changed to alter the weight of the options. Does it matter if it is 50 people on one track and one on the other? If you would pull the lever to save 50 lives, would you push a single person into the track if that would save 50 people further down? These details certainly change our comfort with acting under such circumstances. Regardless of the details, both stories present situations where there is no clear harmless choice. The absolutist nonviolent orientation leans towards inaction, despite the fact that choosing not to act yields more collective suffering. Does choosing not to act keep one’s hands ‘karmically clean?’

The two stories also challenge the common claim that violence is ‘the easy way out.’ It is hard to characterize the merchant’s action as lazy or cowardly. To choose not to act and allow allow for the greater harm to occur seems like the more timid or fearful decision.

Within the Western literature on moral philosophy, the choice to act is often understood to derive from a utilitarian ethic; to act in a way that creates the greatest good. Like any well trodden territory in ethics, there is a vast body of literature discussing its strengths and weaknesses, and this form of utilitarianism certainly isn’t immune from criticism. Perhaps the most obvious and broad concern is that it is often unclear whether a violent act will ultimately minimize harm. Certainly, some of the 20th centuries greatest inflictions of suffering, from the policies and actions of the Khmer Rouge to Stalin’s reforms, were done in the hope that they would result in a collective reduction in suffering.

Unfortunately, there will always been some uncertainty when trying to weigh out the factors for our ethical decisions. As much as we might wish for Buddhism to drop clear ethical answers into our lap — unambiguous rules that, if heeded, make us the heroic saviour Bodhisattva — moral decisions are often much messier. Many of our real world decisions more closely resemble the merchant’s situation or the trolley problem than a simple choice between killing and not killing. When we’re prescribed antibiotics, does the mass slaughter of microorganisms in our gut or bloodstream give us pause? What about the various incidental deaths of animals in the cultivation of various crops?

Under reflection, very few of our actions are entirely free of any rippling harm, and many ultimately result in the destruction of some form of sentient being. I see an analogy here with the notion of using a ‘harm reduction’ framework in public policy decisions, the most common example being the distribution of clean needles through needle exchanges.

I had my own taste of the double-edged sword of harm reduction while working with individuals struggling with both homelessness and alcoholism. I worked at a housing site that allowed for the consumption of alcohol, and in fact, actually helped facilitate it. For some of these individuals, the possibility of going through delirium tremens, a severe withdrawal reaction that causes neurological and bodily damage, was a constant danger. As a result, many of the individuals were making extensive use of medical resources including ER rooms, detoxing centers and jails. I would help these individuals pace out their alcohol consumption during a month so as to avoid going through such a withdrawal. On the one hand, I worried about enabling a life destroying addiction, but this assistance also improved the quality of life for many individuals working with tremendous histories of trauma and mental illness. To assist these individuals and meet them halfway I had to get my hands dirty in this particular samsaric cycle of harm.

The Political Application of the Term ‘Violence’

The lack of an entirely nonviolent choice in some circumstances is only one wrinkle for an absolute nonviolent orientation. A secondary issue concerns the application of the label ‘violence’ in political contexts. Specifically, the designation of what is and isn’t violent often emanates from the oppressor rather than the oppressed. When was the last time a massive environmentally destructive act such as an oil spill or clear cutting operation was described as violent? What about economic policies that result in tremendous inequality?

In both cases, direct physical harm is done to sentient beings. The development of the Alberta tar sands has resulted in the destructive of natural landscapes, devastating many local animal populations. Local communities such as Fort Chipewyan have also reported unusually high levels of cancer. Similarly, hundreds of thousands of people die every year of entirely preventable diseases, both in the US and abroad, where effective treatments exist but remain unaffordable. These systemic or structural forms of violence are rarely labelled as such.

However, when a young distraught youth, disturbed by the state of the world, throws a brick through a Nike window during a May Day rally, the act is immediately labelled as ‘violent.’ We have become accustomed to applying the emotionally powerful category of violence to the destruction of property, and forgotten it in cases of gross systemic suffering.

Privilege and the Denigration of ‘Violent’ Resistance

This political manipulation of the ‘violence’ label is just one concern for black and white approaches to the subject. In How Nonviolence Protects the State, activist and author Peter Gelderloos argues chapter by chapter that nonviolence is racist, patriarchal, statist, and ultimately strategically inferior. To summarize and evaluate all of these arguments is beyond the scope of the present piece, so I’m going to briefly discuss Gelderloos’ claim that there is an underlying racism in stringent requirements of nonviolence. Gelderloos writes:

I do not mean to exchange insults, and I use the epithet racist only after careful consideration. Nonviolence is an inherently privileged position in the modern context. Besides the fact that the typical pacifist is quite clearly white and middle class, pacifism as an ideology comes from a privileged context. It ignores that violence is already here; that violence is an unavoidable, structurally integral part of the current social hierarchy; and that it is people of color who are most affected by that violence. Pacifism assumes that white people who grew up in the suburbs with all of their basic needs met can counsel oppressed people, many of whom are people of color, to suffer patiently under an inconceivably great violence, until such time as the Great White Father is swayed by the movement’s demands or the pacifists achieve that legendary “critical mass.”

But what about the examples of Gandhi and MLK Jr.? Gelderloos argues that in both cases, the history is much more complicated. For example, Gelderloos points out that Martin Luther King Jr. himself often felt the backlash from other activists who would prefer he not disturb the status quo too greatly. In a 1965 interview for Playboy with Alex Haley, Martin Luther King Jr. described his frustration with fellow white activists who, failing to understand the depth of the problem, ended up offering patronizing demands for greater pacifism:

Apart from the bigots and the backlashers, [a lack of understanding] seems to be a malady even among those whites who like to regard themselves as “enlightened.” I would especially refer to those who counsel, “Wait!” and to those who say that they sympathize without goals but cannot condone our methods of direct action in pursuit of those goals. I wonder at men who dare to feel that they have some paternalistic right to set the timetable for another man’s liberation. Over the past several years, I must say, I have been gravely disappointed with such white “moderates.” I am often inclined to think that they are more of a stumbling block to the Negro’s progress than the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner.

As Martin Luther King Jr. powerfully expresses here, people with privilege must be careful in demanding ‘nonviolence’ from those whose struggles they do not understand, or whose lack of privilege they do not share. It appears that in many cases when we label the strategies of others as ‘violent’, we are really simply expressing our discomfort with the degree of disruption in these acts.

Worse still, there is a risk of uncritically adopting language and orientations already loaded with oppressive and privileged perspectives. Of course, Martin Luther King Jr. insisted on a path of nonviolence, but in the same interview emphasized that it was a militant nonviolence — or, in his words, “a weapon fabricated of love. A sword that heals.” It is militant in its dedication to surface injustices and bring them into public consciousness, regardless of how uncomfortable they can be. He explains:

Our nonviolent direct action program has as its objective not the creation of tensions, but the surfacing of tensions already present. We set out to precipitate a crisis situation that must open the door to negotiation. I am not afraid of the words “crisis” and “tension.” I deeply oppose violence, but constructive crisis and tension are necessary for growth. Innate in all life, and all growth, is tension. Only in death is there an absence of tension. To cure injustices, you must expose them before the light of human conscience and the bar of public opinion, regardless of whatever tensions that exposure generates.

How far can we go in pursuit of the surfacing of tension? This seems to be the heart of the dispute. But it seems that we should exercise caution in criticizing methods of direct action that exceed our own levels of comfort with respect to their degree of disruption. What may appear as an unacceptably ‘violent’ act of protest for us may be a necessary act to bring a relatively unknown suffering to light for another.

Skillful Means in a Convoluted World

This is not to say that we should rush out and start smashing windows or performing acts of physical harm without consideration. The impulse towards nonviolence, even when expressed naively, comes from a deep and compassionate place that continues to motivate choices made through a harm reduction or utilitarian framework. The goal remains to reduce the suffering of sentient beings.

Recall that the story of the merchant boat originates in the Upaya Kausalya Sutra, or ‘skillful means’ Sutra. Certainly, navigating many of the ethically complex situations in life demand both skill and careful consideration. Perhaps, in particularly murky waters, where the exact outcomes and ripples of our actions are unclear, we are best to adhere strictly to the letter of the law. Going off track requires much skill and often carries tremendous risk. At the same time, we can remain aware as to the limits of our perspective so that we may be flexible and open minded to other tactics of struggle.

Vietnamese Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh emphasizes this point in the first of his fourteen precepts of engaged Buddhism: “Do not be idolatrous about or bound to any doctrine, theory, or ideology, even Buddhist ones. Buddhist systems of thought are guiding means; they are not absolute truth.” Furthermore, his second precept encourages us to recognize that our views will change with time.

Famous poet and activist Gary Snyder went through his own evolution with respect to the nexus of Buddhism, social engagement and the question of violence. In a 1961 essay entitled ‘Buddhist Anarchism’, Snyder laid out his vision for an integration of these two forces committed to liberation. He wrote that being committed to overcoming social injustices may require engaging in “civil disobedience, outspoken criticism, protest, pacifism, voluntary poverty and even violence if it comes to a matter of restraining some impetuous redneck.” In 1969, he updated the piece, adding the word ‘gentle’ before the word ‘violence.’ He was asked about this alteration in an interview with Peter Barry Chowka in 1977. Snyder responded as follows:

If I were to write it now, I would use far greater caution. I probably wouldn’t use the word “violence” at all. I would say now that the time comes when you set yourself against something, rather than flow with it; that’s also called for. The very use of the word “violence” has implications we know what they are. I was trying to say that, to be true to Mahayana, you have to act in the world. To act responsibly in the world doesn’t mean that you always stand back and let things happen: you play an active part, which means making choices, running risks, and karmically dirtying your hands to some extent. Thats what the Bodhisattva ideal is all about.

Snyder’s mature position acknowledges the ethical calling to be engaged in the play of the world, while simultaneously recognizing that for many people the notion of ‘violence’ continues to communicate an uncomfortable and alienating tone. Nevertheless, to echo Frederick Douglass again, those of us who want to alleviate suffering without karmically dirting our hands “want rain without thunder and lightning.” As engaged Buddhists, our decisions will not be easy, and our hands will not always come out clean. Hopefully, we can all aspire to act in the world skillfully, with compassion in our hearts, navigating the inherent streams of violence with a gentle touch.


Gelderloos, Peter. How Nonviolence Protects the State. South End Press: Cambridge, 2007.

See The Failure of Nonviolence: From The Arab Spring to Occupy (2013) for his most recent
work on the subject.

Haley, Alex. Interview with Dr. King Jr. Playboy. January, 1965.

Namkhai Norbu, Chogyal. The Crystal and the Way of Light. Snow Lion Publications: Thaca, NY,

Rahula, Warpola. What The Buddha Taught. 2nd edition. Grove Press: New York, 1974.

Snyder, Gary. “Buddhism and the Coming Revolution.” Earth House Hold. New Directions: 1969.

Snyder, Gary. “Buddhist Anarchism.” Journal for the Protection of All Beings #1. City Lights:

Snyder, Gary. The Gary Snyder Reader. Jim Dodge, Ed. Counterpoint: Washington DC, 1999.

Thich Naht Hanh. 14 Precepts of Engaged Buddhism.

Zander Winther lives in Pittsburgh, where he works at an emergency homeless shelter and volunteers as an instructor for Acharya Fleet Maull’s Path of Freedom curriculum at the Allegheny County Jail. He has an MA in philosophy from the University of Waterloo in Ontario. He is presently writing a book which brings together insights from anarchism and Buddhism.

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Comments (9)

  • Dzung Vo

    An interesting article, one that I will need to sit with and contemplate some more.

    A few points:

    1. Nonviolence does not (necessarily) mean “inaction,” “just waiting,” or “doing nothing.”

    2. Nonviolence is a practice that can arise from a deep insight of interbeing and non-self. This insight is not necessarily reflected in some of the western philosophies, but is given voice by many spiritual teachers such as MLK Jr. and Thich Nhat Hanh. At a recent retreat that I attended with Thich Nhat Hanh, he said that we should not be misled by signs and forms of what we call “war.” That war is already present, in our own hearts and minds, and that war is not just when there is shooting and bombs dropping. So, the practice of engaged Buddhism is to transform violence into compassion, both in our own hearts as well as the hearts of those we might consider our “enemy.” “We” inter-are with “them,” they are not separate from us.

    Here is an interesting Q&A session with Thich Nhat Hanh, where he addresses nonviolence, engaged Buddhism, and some other related topics.

  • mel lozano

    All this talk and ‘reflection’ on ‘violence’ and ‘non-violence’, when the truth is, there is no real violence being done by First Nations people in Canada against the government or any corporate entity….Idle No More, as a movement have braved the elements, walked across countless miles and stood their ground literally, all to prove a point- no simpler than establishing their right to exist as sovereign nations and ask for the simple decency of making the governments and corporations respect and honour the treaties. Now, i do realize that this article is using the recent events in Canada with the confrontation of the Mi’kmaq people and the RCMP, only as one example for Buddhists (or even those from other spiritual traditions) to reflect upon and contemplate the ongoing question of “violence vs. non-violence” in our contemporary world, in light of spiritual tradition. However, there are several things that come to my mind first and foremost, rather than focusing on “what would Buddha say” (or “what would Buddha do”).
    First of all, these recent events are by no means a shocker, either to First Nations people across Canada nor to any Aboriginal people worldwide, since this is nothing new to us, and in fact has been in Aboriginal media for years before these recent events, (only the mainstream press has not paid as much attention to it as it has today).
    Secondly, the question of ‘violence’ and “non-violence” is utterly absurd when it comes to dealing with the ruling colonial powers versus Indigenous peoples (both as communities as well as individuals), since the violence has always been perpetrated, first and foremost by the colonial power against the Indigenous people, and no amount of ‘violent’ acts done by any Indigenous people (individually or otherwise) can compare with the ongoing violence done by oppressive colonial rule towards Aboriginal people.
    Last but not least, in my mind, the act of Chief Theresa Spence, in fasting last winter in her attempts to bring light to the urgent issues of not only her own tribal community, but all First Nations communities across Canada and their government’s continued ignorance of their plight, was one of tremendous compassion and courage, which was a shining example to many people worldwide.

    Many non-Native/Aboriginal people do not realize how much courage and even compassion it takes for Indigenous people to live and survive day-to-day given the many difficulties and tribulations we have to deal with (i.e. dire poverty, etc.), living in a society and a dominant culture that at best ignores our right to sovereignty or even basic human rights; and at worst, clashes with our communities when we assert ourselves as a voice against a repressive government and society that denies us to simply to be who we are and our rightful place in the greater circle…..which in the case of these recent events with the Mi’kmaq, is not simply about their tribal communitiy, nor even limited to Aboriginal rights or issues, but in the larger vision, about defending the earth as our Mother, herself and all the violence perpetrated against her, especially today.

    Perhaps in the attempt to “stand our ground” against the RCMP, the government or corporations like Enbridge; Aboriginal people are doing a greater act of compassion that encompasses not only their own communities, but all human beings and all living beings on Mother Earth who are affected by the blatant violence that is being aggressively done against us all.

  • Laura Hawkins

    Today in Pittsburgh (Zander’s home town), as this article is posted, a group of Quakers (Earth Quaker Action Team) carried out plans of nonviolent direct action at 10 PNC Banks. This is just one set of actions that are part of a 3 year ongoing campaign to end Mountain Top Removal Coal MIning in Appalachia. Several members were arrested. This may be a team to watch and learn from. Thank you for the article.

  • Murray Reiss

    I want to add this link — — to a piece by Leanne Simpson, a writer of Mississauga Nishnaabeg ancestry, “Another Story from Elsipogtog.” To quote:

    “The story here, the real story, is virtually the same story in every indigenous nation: Over the past several centuries we have been violently dispossessed of most of our land to make room for settlement and resource development. The very active system of settler colonialism maintains that dispossession and erases us from the consciousness of settler Canadians except in ways that is deemed acceptable and non-threatening to the state.

    “We start out dissenting and registering our dissent through state sanctioned mechanisms like environmental impact assessments. Our dissent is ignored. Some of us explore Canadian legal strategies, even though the courts are stacked against us. Slowly but surely we get backed into a corner where the only thing left to do is to put our bodies on the land. The response is always the same: intimidation, force, violence, media smear campaigns, criminalization, silence, talk, negotiation, “new relationships,” promises, placated resistance and then more broken promises. Then the cycle repeats itself.”

    The the cycle repeats itself. The question is: What breaks the cycle? In the ’80s I was active in solidarity work with the Nicaraguan revolution. It had been a violent revolution that overthrew a dictator through armed struggle. Where the Sandinistas tried to break with the cycle of violence was after their victory. In these situation the question comes up: what do we do with the defeated dictator’s goon squads? And the usual answer is: Kill them. The Sandinistas didn’t. Influenced by the liberation theologists in their midst (and in their government) they released them from jail, offering them an opportunity to take part in the 2nd, non-violent phase of the revolution: spreading healthcare & education to the poor. But the cycle repeated itself anyway. The US government armed Somoza’s goons, turning them into the contras, and used them to wage a proxy war against what Oxfam used to call “the threat of a good example.” We are all interconnected. The lesson I took from that experience was that without a revolution in the United States there could not be a successful revolution in Nicaragua.

  • Nathan G. Thompson

    It seems to me at times that “pacifism” gets conflated with “non-violence” in this article, which is a problem. Non-violent action is highly diverse, and often cannot be equated with “inaction, doing nothing, or privileged attempts to limit or moderate responses. Is Peter Gelderloos arguing against all non-violent movements, or the pacifist and/or privileged elements within them or falsely allied with them?

    I think it’s very helpful to make distinctions between inanimate objects and living beings (even if such distinctions only hold in the relative world). Property damage in the middle of conflicts like the Mi’kmaq blockade is not violence in my opinion. Or isn’t violent in the way physical harming or killing a person or animal is. We can debate whether burning police cars is helpful or harmful to the movement as a whole, but that’s another discussion. In addition, I think it’s foolhardy to assume that non-violent movements will never, ever have moments where the line is crossed into violence. And that if that line crossing happens, they are not non-violent movements anymore. Intention and overall direction of action are most important as far as I’m concerned. This, and a continual reflection on the direction and intention as events unfold. As Mel points out, a handful of “violent” acts by Native folks in the context of generations of systemic, colonialist violence does not make a violent movement.

    Since Frederick Douglass was referenced, it’s important to remember that he was in the middle of numerous debates about violence and line crossing. He rejected John Brown’s armed raid on Harper’s Ferry, as well as plans for an armed slave rebellion, and yet he also eventually rejected William Lloyd Garrison’s approach to non-violence, and pushed for inclusion of black soldiers in the Union army. There are a lot of conflicting writings on whether Douglass outright supported violent resistance, or whether he recognized that violence – under the conditions of the day – was probably going to be part of the situation, no matter how much non-violent effort/intention was put forth. Personally, I think it’s more the latter, given the rest of his life as a whole.

  • Dzung Vo

    We are all Buddhas-to-be. We are all in the process of awakening, and have the potential to realize our true nature of interbeing and emptiness. This is true for me, for you, and also for those with whom I disagree or consider to be the oppressors.

    For me, the practice of engaged Buddhism – whether I want to consider an action “violent” or “nonviolent” – is about whether or not my action helps me to awaken, and helps water the seed of awakening in other beings in the conflict, no matter what “side” they seem to be on.

    This is what Thich Nhat Hanh practiced, when his (my) country was being bombed and destroyed by the US military. He came to the US, not to condemn or to blame or argue, but to help Americans wake up to their best and truest nature.

  • Katie Loncke

    Very interesting conversation — and thank you, Laura, for sharing that inspiring bit of news! Go Quakers! And boo mountain-top removal mining.

    Nathan, I think your question about the difference between pacifism and nonviolence is a good one, and they may get conflated in the popular imagination quite a bit… When you ask “Is Peter Gelderloos arguing against all non-violent movements…” it seems like the answer is yes, insofar as a nonviolent “movement” means that the entire strategy and ideology embraces nonviolence all the time, period. If there were a possibility of armed struggle within the movement, it would cease to be a nonviolent movement, right? Whereas a mass movement that does not label itself “nonviolent” may still be able to deploy the full range of nonviolent tactics and mini-strategies, as you’re saying.

    Dzung Vo, what you say about considering whether an action supports awakening, whether violent or nonviolent, resonates with me, too. Would you mind saying more about that? Could you give an example of a time when it was perhaps difficult to tell which path or action would support awakening, and how you made your decision? Thank you for bringing more of Thich Nhat Hanh’s wisdom into the discussion, too.

    By the way, for folks interested in this conversation, I hope you can join us for our monthly BPF member phone call with the co-founder of Waging Nonviolence, who will be exploring all kinds of juicy topics around major nonviolent movements of today, and practical advice or considerations for those of us trying to practice nonviolent tactics in the context of social movements.

    The call is on Sunday, October 27th at 6pm PST / 9pm EST, and the dial-in info is available to members. If you’re already a member, you should have received an email about it from us, and if you’d like to become a member, you can do so here!

  • Dzung Vo

    @ Katie – I thank you for continuing this conversation. I must admit, it is a difficult conversation for me, as some uncomfortable feelings are arising. That is OK, I am practicing to embrace them with mindfulness.

    re: your question about watering the seeds of awakening. Last month, I participated in the Truth and Reconciliation events in Vancouver, British Columbia. These events to me, were a beautiful practice of Deep Listening and Loving Speech (Fourth Mindfulness Training in Thich Nhat Hanh’s translation). It was about listening deeply to the truth of centuries of suffering of Aboriginal Peoples in Canada. It was also about practicing loving speech, so that the truth served to water seeds of awakening, rather than to water the seeds of anger, fear, resentment, blame, guilt etc…

    That is not to say that difficult things don’t arise. Truth can hurt sometimes. People have a right to be angry because of what has been done. When I hear anger arising – I practice just listening. I practice understanding where the anger comes from. And, I practice breathing and smiling to it with mindfulness and lovingkindness, trying not to continue to manifest anger in myself and in my own presence and actions and interactions with others.

    I was especially moved on the last day of the events in Vancouver, which was a Walk for Reconciliation. We heard some powerful speakers, both from First Nations, as well people of European descent. In fact, many (most?) Aboriginal peoples in Canada have mixed ancestry, so karma is all interwtined. The keynote speaker was Dr. Bernice King, daughter of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. She reminded of us our sisterhood and brotherhood, all beings on the planet, and reminded us of her father’s teaching of nonviolence and on building the beloved community. (You probably also already know that MLK and Thich Nhat Hanh were friends and mutual admirers).

    I am under no illusions that a walk for peace will, in itself, bring peace or transform centuries of oppression. But I also experienced it as an important practice of “selective seed watering.” Thich Nhat Hanh teaches that violence is in the hearts of humans, not just in outward actions or behaviors that can be judged “violent” or “nonviolent.” Seeds of anger, blame, guilt — are already in itself a form of violence, awaiting to manifest as concrete actions. We are all in this thing together, and because of interbeing, we share these seeds through our collective consciousness. “We” are not separate from “them.” So, which seeds we water in ourselves and in the other, has a profound influence on the direction of our engagement: towards more violence, or towards more peace, in the collective heart of humanity.

    I also try to practice this on a micro-level, with my own internal conflicts and judgments, and in my relationships with those around me. My practice is imperfect, and always changing and growing.

  • Zander Winther

    Thank you everyone for these really considerate comments. I began to outline replies to them but I think doing so would be longer than the piece itself. I apologize if my piece was frustrating or unsettling. I probably could have presented some of the ideas with greater clarity, as I think I agree with just about everything that has been said in these comments.

    Dzung Vo

    I am glad you brought up Thich Naht Hanh’s notion of interbeing, as conceptual framework really underlies a lot of my socially engaged impulses.

    It is my understanding that Peter Gelderloos, the primary inspiration for this piece and the author of How Nonviolence Protects the state (2007) and The Failure of Nonviolence: From The Arab Spring to Occupy (2013), holds similar views. Here is a quote from an essay of his on community, family and anarchism:

    “Western civilization has never understood what freedom is, in fact it is pathologically afraid of freedom, and to me this is evident in its history of slavery, conquest, and political rights. My freedom does not exist individually; it is something I create with others. And I do not end where another begins. My self is not confined to the biological limits of my physical body. I understand that this type of individual exists in other worlds, and it is the Platonic ideal of the Real World, but in my world the idea of truly separate individuals is insane and naive. In my world, the human immune system is collective property, as we all go sharing germs and antibodies and the sickness of one affects all. In my world the trees are a part of my respiratory system as much as my lungs are part of the forest. I don’t know how people in the Real World breathe, but in my world, someone who destroys a forest is killing all the surrounding communities, and if someone is trying to kill you, you have every reason to stop them by any means necessary.”
    – Peter Gelderloos, in “Other Worlds”:

    Echoing Katie Loncke, I am also interested in your suggestion that what is important is whether an action supports awakening, regardless of its categorizing on some scale between violence and nonviolence. I think I hesitate to delve into this subject myself too deeply because I am really still a novice when it comes to Buddhist practice. In an earlier draft of this piece I briefly touched upon crazy wisdom however, which I think surfaces some of the anxieties about awakening and more unsettling/aggressive actions.

    Vancouver is actually the city that most feels like home to me, and hearing you talk about activities there really makes me miss it! Local (unceeded coast Salish Territories) First Nations activist Gord Hill was actually instrumental in opening my eyes to some of the complications for ‘nonviolence’ as well as colonial issues more generally.

    Laura Hawkins

    I’m embarrassed to admit that I was unaware of the local action by the Earth Quaker Action Team! Thank you for mentioning it here.

    Mel Lozano

    I hope my brief mention of the recent blockade in New Brunswick didn’t come across as critical of the protesters actions. I mentioned him above, but I think you may appreciate the works of Vancouver first nations activist Gord Hill (especially his 500 Years of Indigenous comic book). Thank you for reminding me of Chief Theresa Spence and filling out the picture of first nations struggle in Canada.

    Nathan G. Thompson

    You are correct that I am conflating nonviolence with pacifism, in the sense that more active forms of protest are often discouraged through accusations of ‘violence.’ I probably failed to convey that as clearly as I could have in this piece.

    I think the distinction between inanimate and living beings is indeed a helpful one in accessing the ‘violence’ of an action, but it is not sufficient for a completely informed picture. Manipulation of inanimate matter indirectly affects living beings, so to some extent it has to be weighed together. The question of violence remains murky.

    Murray Reiss

    Thank you for sharing the experience of the Nicaraguan revolution. Sometimes the recognition of the true depths of interdependence results in daunting realizations.

© 2017 Buddhist Peace Fellowship

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