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.
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.