Monday, August 22, 2011

Buddhism and Violence

Brad is at Tassajara Zen Monastery where there's no Internet access. Here is an oldie but goodie written for SuicideGirls to tide you over till he gets back.

While I was in Phoenix, a friend turned me on to an article called “Spaces in the Sky” written by Stephen Batchelor in response to the events of September 11, 2001. It originally appeared in the Winter 2001 issue of Tricycle magazine and is now on-line at Batchelor’s website. My friend recalled the article as stating that our right to practice Buddhism is underwritten by violence. That’s not what the article says exactly, but it’s easy to see how he could have remembered it that way. What Batchelor actually says is, “Our freedoms and privileges in a liberal democracy are ultimately guaranteed by the willingness of the state to use violence to protect them.” Later he asks, “Is an open society that tolerates dissent even possible without its being underwritten by violence?”

Batchelor points out that the Buddhist dictum in the Dharmapada that, “Hatred will not cease by hatred but only by love alone” is often used by Buddhists to justify a complacent attitude when their freedom to practice was threatened. Batchelor gives examples of cases where Buddhists have allowed themselves to be massacred in order to uphold their commitment to non-violence. He also points out that Tibet accepted military protection from China hoping they would be allowed to continue practicing their faith without having to protect it militarily themselves. This strategy backfired big time.

Whether Batchelor actually said it or not, the idea that our freedom to practice Buddhism is underwritten by violence is an important one. It's worth looking at closely especially for practitioners in the United States today. In my travels around the country I’ve noticed that most American Buddhists are strongly opposed to President Bush and his military policies. This opposition seems to stem from their notion that, as Buddhists, we must stand opposed to all forms of violence. But I wonder if it’s realistic for Buddhists to be opposed to all forms of violence in the way that most Buddhists in the US conceive of that notion.

Yesterday I got to talk to the members of the band Millions of Dead Cops, a group that the band I was in, Zero Defex, opened up for numerous times in 1982-83. Back then the subject of anarchism used to come up a lot in our discussions of punk philosophy. The idea of anarchy sounded very cool. But, as much as we hated the cops, all of us knew the truth. Our ability to walk down the streets of Akron, Ohio in 1982 in our green Mohawks and leather jackets was largely underwritten by the threat of violence. The many rednecks in the area who would likely have massacred us gleefully if not for fear of reprisal by the police. The cops were there to protect our freedom of expression. Were it not for them, the less forward thinking elements of the community might not have been so tolerant of the way we flaunted their conventions. We found this out in a very concrete way when we played a show in a rural town in Southern Ohio and had to be saved by the cops from an angry mob of bearded bikers who didn’t care for the way we looked or the music we played.

In much the same way in the world at large today the freedom we have in Western countries to practice Buddhism is guaranteed to a large extent by the fact that we are protected by the biggest and scariest military force the world has ever known. There are certainly plenty of folks out there who would like to see us stop practicing whatever beliefs we have and be forced to adopt theirs or die.

The world is a sandbox in back of an elementary school. The exact same dynamics that play out in the playground play out in the world of politics and nations.

It is true that Buddhism seeks to end the need for the use of violence. However, we can’t jump to the conclusion that if we only just all disarmed right now everybody would be cool. The problem is to understand why we still need violence to underwrite freedom.

We won’t stop violence by dressing up in paisley frocks and sticking daisies in the barrels of AK-47s. Such action is still motivated by ego. It is based on the idea that I, Mr. Buddhist Pacifist, am better than you, you nasty Republican warmonger. The very same force that makes violence an unavoidable part of human life is the one that tries, through a different kind of violence, to overcome violence. This is really what Buddha meant by saying that hatred is not overcome by hatred. We need to find a way to completely step out of our habitual modes of reaction in order to find the real solution to our very pressing problems.

The only way to do this is to truly understand who we are and to allow that understanding to spread gradually throughout the world. As Buddhists it may not be necessary for we, ourselves, to go out and participate in the violence perpetrated to protect our right to practice — though there is certainly nothing at all wrong with being a practicing Buddhist and member of the military. But it also does not benefit our practice to stand in the way of the necessary steps being taken to uphold our right to practice.

War is bad. I’m going to write that again just so no one mistakenly thinks I believe otherwise. War is bad. War is very, very bad.

It’s a tragedy when non-combatants are injured and killed by war. It’s also a tragedy when combatants are injured and killed by war. I want war to end just as passionately as anyone else. But unrealistic solutions only serve to delay the real solution to the problem. This is an urgent problem, one that requires serious attention. What I see in the pacifist movement more often than not these days, I’m afraid, is a lack of serious commitment to the real ending of war.

Batchelor states that, “One can imagine this verse (about hate only being overcome by love) 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.”

Right on, brother.

The solution to the problem of violence is complex and I’m not even going to try to outline some course of action right here on Labor Day on Suicide Girls. But I think it’s vital that we understand the way the threat of violence, as well as real violence itself, makes it possible for us to practice. Nuff said, for now.


mysterion said...


mark said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Khru said...

This is probably the worst comment thread I've ever seen on Bradley's blog...

Mumon said...

I should post more on the relationship of Chan/Zen and the martial arts...

Anonymous said...

Brad certainly makes some good points. I think most Americans who protested the invasion of Iraq felt President Bush to be not honest with the American public. Believing the invasion motivated by greed and not retaliation against 9/11, and if that is the truth then this greed is the root of that particular violence.

The emergence of Mahayana Buddhism was an extension of Buddhism's ideals into the dynamic of human life specifically through that dictate, "Save all Sentient Beings". Bodhidharma is the founder of Chan, but also considered the founder of Shaolin Martial Arts, now the emergence of the spiritual warrior.

I do not believe war to be a good thing; however, when the Bodhisattva is not realized in each of us then are we each in some way responsible for the brutality in the world? One can also ask if force is necessary to stop aggression, is that violence?


Bob said...

War is a continuation of politics by other means. Many of the folks who protested Bush's actions weren't protesting against war itself, but the fact that the his wars were launched and continued through the purposefully misleading of the American people. The government lied to us, just as all governments have lied to start all wars. Bush lied just as much as the Taliban lied to the people of Afghanistan. Just as much as the Chinese government lied to justify the invasion of Tibet. There has never been a war not based on lies. And lies come from a lack of understanding.

There will always others who seek to stop you practicing as long as there are others who are tied up in a wrong understanding of what a human being truly is and therefore think that by lying, by deceiving others and by employing violence they can somehow gain something for themselves. Whether that be 'safety' or 'control' or 'power' it is all just fleeting ideas.

As I see it the Buddha's truest, most fundamental teaching is this: suffering is attachment. As long as you are attached to the idea of your self you may justify reacting violently to action against that idea or lying to produce some gain for that idea. And though Buddhism might vanish from the world if no Buddhist was willing to fight for their life... what would really vanish from what?

Apuleius Platonicus said...

Probably the most important scholarly study of Buddhist attitudes toward violence, and the use of military power in particular, was done by Matthew Kusota back in 1997: "The Buddha and the Four-Limbed Army:
The Military in the Pali Canon". Here's a link:

The bottom line is that there is no basis for the idea that Buddhism opposes the use of military force in all circumstances. None.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post.

I "became" a buddhist right before the 9/11 attacks. It was a wild time for me to try to wonder if I "had" to believe in reincarnation and also apply a doctrine of non-violence to everything. Talk about a world upside down!

Hope you're enjoying the retreat!
--Matt Koogler

Anonymous said...

"...Such action is still motivated by ego. It is based on the idea that I, Mr. Buddhist Pacifist, am better than you, you nasty Republican warmonger..."

Yeah, I'm sure all the people who let themselves die over an ideal are all a bunch of egoists....

Brad and Mr. Batchelor are no different than the pacifist. Except Brad and Mr. Batchelor are "egoists" in that they feel they "I" have the duty to ensure the continuation of Zen. The point is both the pacifist who lets him/her self die and Brad Warner, cling to a certain ideal that appeals to their ego.

What I'm saying is I can just as easily state that those proposing that our freedoms are "underwritten" by violence and that violence is necessary or else Temples will burn is an egoistic approach of thinking, "I, Mr. Pragmatic Buddhist, and my Buddhism, are so important that I must insure the survival of both myself and my practice."

There is always another side to the coin. So who is right, who is wrong? Who is the egoist?

Anonymous said...

Stephen Batchelor is

And the cause of wars
is not politicians,
but the assholes who
follow their orders.

"Just following orders"
does not absolve one
of moral responsibility.

If you "just follow orders",
enjoy the karma,

Or, if you're a
decent human being,
The Politics of Obedience
Étienne de La Boétie.

(Betcha this one
doesn't make it
past the censor ;)

Stinks of Zen said...

Following the path of our soundbyte society, I have some more Camus. And if anyone reads him and in their mind sees some similarities between his philosophy and Zen Buddhism they may not be unjustified.

Still, to "depart three inches from the hook..." Anyway here's one.

"We used to wonder where war lived, what it was that made it so vile. And now we realize that we know where it lives, that it is inside ourselves." Albert Camus

Anonymous said...

Andre the Giant
Robert Anton Wilson
a rough bar...

Stinks of Zen said...

Still on a Camus kick.

I thought I'd share some excerpts from his "Letters to a German Friend" written during WW2 and published after the Liberation. At the risk of not having my comment published at all, I'll link to my blog as the excerpts alone are too long to be published on Brad's blog.

Anonymous said...

Make love, not war. Tune in, turn on, drop out.

K Grey said...

War is ignorance. Anti-War is arrogance. Same problem.

Anonymous said...

Dude, the best thing about your blog
was that it was the only uncensored
buddhist blog out there. Now you've
gone and thrown the baby out with the
bathwater just because some pussies
who read the Huffington Post might
read your blog?

Horrors! They might be offended!
Or shocked! Or bored... Or

Guess the punks are not good
enough for you anymore and now
it's time to ditch your old friends
to hang out with the more popular crowd.

As Kurt Vonnegut once said:
"Life is high school".

"But, Monsieur, the censorship
is only wafer-thin."

Yeah, whatever, fuck you.

So much for the meaning of life.

Manny Furious said...

I don't know why I care so much. It must be my ego. But it really chars my brisquets when Brad makes these silly little arguments to justify what he seems to consider his "Pragmatic Zen."

Look, I don't know the answer to any of this. I don't know if our freedoms (or what's left of them) are "underwritten" by violence. To be honest, I don't think we can know something like this. Brad and Batchelor might be right.

However, what I take issue with is Brad's half-assed reasoning. I don't understand how he can be an expert in Zen and/or Buddhism and not understand that the pacifist approach, in theory, has more to do with the idea that violence stems from fear and fear stems from "attachments" that the ego has for itself. For example, let's take possibly the most violent man in history, Hitler. Hitler was so violent because he had a big ego that he had to protect. He was afraid that the Jews were affecting "his" freedoms and "his" safety "his" country. On a lesser scale, a gang member is attached to "his" reputation and is fearful of being seen as a "punk" or a "bitch" and so his ego reacts to protect itself in violent ways.

I'm oversimplifying of course, but the overarching points are relevant. And the idea of pacifism is that I will not allow my ego's attachments to influence my behavior in such a way as I cause harm to others.

So while certainly there is that population of Buddhists who believe they are better beings for being pacifists, it also seems to me that people like Brad (and his ego) seem to get off on being the aforementioned "pragmatic" Buddhists. Both are still just playing roles (such as myself as the "objective" observer).

Anonymous said...

When the fascists come
door-to-door in your
neighborhood, look out
for yourself and your
neighbors. Be prepared.
Take a few of them down.

Even the Dalai Lama
wishes his fellow Tibetans
had rifles in 1950.

Anyhow, be prepared.

Anonymous said...

Μολὼν λαβέ

Anonymous said...

Khru writes the worst comments I've ever seen on Bradley's blog...

Johnny Tet said...

State sanctioned violence: If one pays taxes, if one votes, you are a participant and beneficiary.

Soldiers: You want a good smattering of people that are free thinkers and question authority constantly distributed through the ranks, this keeps it as clean and moral as killing can get. Awake people make good soldiers the more often know what they are doing.
Breathe and you are participating in violence.
Breathe and you are participating in peace.
“Opting out” is not a selection choice.
Breathe like you mean it.

buddy said...

It's true that the 'freedoms' we in the west experience may indeed be 'underwritten by violence', and violence may indeed be helpful in protecting the innocent from someone else's violence. But I really question the wisdom of a Buddhist using that argument in terms of their freedom to practice, since the essence of that practice is simply sitting and, more fundamentally, an invisible interior orientation. If someone tells you to stop sitting, tell them to go climb a pole. The worst they can do is throw you in jail (which is a perfect place to focus intensely on one's practice) or kill you (in which case, depending on your views of the afterlife, you will have died a martyr and be reborn in glory, or at least your troubles will be over).

buddy said...

K Grey said 'Anti-War is arrogance.' No, it's just basic human decency. Making pithy, absolutist pronouncements is arrogance.

Anonymous said...

This is a damn good essay, Brad. Your blog has had quite a few new and interesting topics lately. Keep it up!

Awakened Yeti said...

anonymous, did you just now figure out that brad warner is about as punk as a catholic acolyte?

better late than never, right?

Seagal Rinpoche said...

You have to start with what you are, where you are now. Concept cannot exist in the present state, but awareness is very much there. You are aware of the present state. You are now. In that state of awareness, you don’t need to cling to a concept about what you are or who you will be.

merciless said...

yeti is such a waste of valuable seconds.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous @3:53

Actually, I too, have really enjoyed re-reading these old posts Brad originally wrote for Suicide Girls
when he was writing for them...when they were paying him.

It made me slad (sad and glad). Glad, because the guy can write!
Sad because it seems when he isn't paid for it, his writing, well, isn't so much--just look at postings prior to his going to Tassajara work/practice--True
he has been busy on lecture/talk/sesshin tour, I'm sure that has impact too.
Settle down Brad, give yourself the time and space to write. You really do have a way of putting it out there, it does us all a world of good.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for setting us straight on that one, SR.

Mr. B said...

When is the regular posting going to be back?

Wolfgang Brinck said...

quote of Brad quoting: "Batchelor states that, “One can imagine this verse (about hate only being overcome by love) 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.”

Right on, brother. "

Yikes, these guys have lapsed into fixit mode and yes "violence is bad but necessary in the pursuit of our aims" kind of thinking. Violence is violence and it is what it does and it does what it does to the minds to the people who resort to it. I am under the impression that Buddhists a while back decided that violence has more bad side effects than good ones even if a policy of no violence leads to the situation where monks are criticized for getting a free ride on the back of somebody elses violent behavior.

James Roberts said...

This article makes some good points, but glosses over the point of spiritual non-violence. Political power might rely on violence, but political power isn't Buddhist freedom.

The Buddha teaches that liberation is just the mind. Cultivation of a mind of contention leads to suffering. Cultivation of a mind of non-contention leads to the end of suffering. So do you want to suffer, or not?

You can talk about other angles, but isn't this our main concern as Buddhists?

Doug said...

A well-written piece. I recall in the Pali Canon, there is metnion of a war between two kingdoms around Shakyamuni Buddhia: Kosala and Magadhi. Magadhi was the aggressor and tried to invade Kosala, and in the Canon, the Buddha openly expresses Kosala's right to defend itself.

Obviously, if Kosala had turned upon Magadhi and become the aggressor, the Buddha wouldn't have endorsed this. Eitehr way, he was very clearly concerned about the lives of men, women and children would have been harmed by Magadhi's invasion, and understood the role of Kosala's army to protect their livelihood.

Clearly, the Buddha was wise as he was pragmatic.

Tao1776 said...

Didn't you ever watch "Kung Fu"? "There is a strength in us that can shatter an invincible object with a hand which comes from a strong and disciplined body. There is another strength that allows us to feel the pain of others and give comfort where comfort is needed. This comes from a compassionate heart. True strength must combine both for that is in harmony with the duality of our nature." - Po

Anonymous said...


It seems like the shameless censor has not been very busy deleting posts but maybe he has been. There are less comments than before so perhaps this is a clue that he has been deleting some. But as the regulars leave I suppose he has less to wade through and consider for family friendly content. And those people who get turned-on seeing their naughty thoughts instantly appear before them have departed too or are in some kind of troll limbo. The blog is very different now. It seems rather blustering and inacurate to call it "Hardcore Zen" any longer. I suggest you change the blog name. How about 'Mr. Warner's Neighborhood'?

Harry said...

Brad wrote: "There are certainly plenty of folks out there who would like to see us stop practicing whatever beliefs we have and be forced to adopt theirs or die."

Really? I think the relatively small number of extremists who exist, say, in the Muslim world who feel like that are in no small part a product of American foreign policy, its blatantly self-interested interference in other nations' affairs, and its imperial aspirations etc.

There are no Muslim hoards gathering on your borders, just a few traumatised impressionable youth somewhere, and a few twisted old war dogs, whose minds have been poisoned and turned against you. It is very much in the interests of certain political forces for you to believe that there are blood thirsty Muslim hoards waiting to have a go at you good, clean-living yankees.

The vast majority of the Muslim world just wants to get on with their lives, and make that life a bit better, much like you and me.



Harry said...

Muslim 'hordes' even... ;-)

Awakened Yeti said...

If I did not say anything, then you would not be able to bitch about me saying it... and oh how hollow would life be if we cant bitch about other people saying things!

I offer you this eternal wisdom with no expectation of like in turn. Please study it well, for you may never encounter such a powerful truth for the rest of your life.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for that mys.. er yeti.

BillZ said...

In this article by Brad he describes violence as defending the freedoms that allow Buddhists to practice. I think Brad is a breath of fresh air in the dowdy corridors of established institutional religion. There are issues I disagree with but who agrees with everything?

But this one is major. In my view he appears not to have used his insight to investigate the political reality of the MIC in controlling US global policy. Does he perceive the reality of the Third World War as described on LINK this blog and elsewhere? This issue of the global violence of war is far different to the violence that is part of law and order - the violence that gave him the freedom to walk safely(?) down the street as a punk. State forces that offer such protection are essential in society so long as they are protecting personal freedoms, but that protection is far different from what is done in the name of democracy in the War on Terror - or as been described as the Third World War.

When speaking to meditators there is no statement that I would want them to believe. But there are questions. Have these meditators taken their insight and awareness off the cushion into the political reality that is the "War on Terror?" Has Zazen taken them into looking at the number of deaths in Iraq? Afghanistan? How has the murder of these people by US forces or mercenaries protected the right of meditators to sit on a cushion?

Or has their meditation allowed a tacit acceptance of these deaths?

Should Zazen not lead to action if there is injustice?

Mr. Martial Arts said...

Terrific post.

Wondering said...

I am new to Buddhism and Zen and the biggest idea that strikes me is Karma. The Zen notion of Karma that every action you take, or don't take, has an effect and you are responsible for that effect.

I truly believe that the path to bringing peace to our world is through positive action, and if everyone else believed the same way life would be great. Walk that path and see how it works out for you.

The fact is that there are people that will use violence for there own ends. And just as each of us has a responsibility to assist every sentient being whenever we can we have a responsibility to stop violence against others, by violence if needed, whenever we have the ability.

Awakened Yeti said...

Any time, robot.. err, "anonymous".

Zenleo said...

Oh by the way in Brads Previous Blog Posting Harry said:

I think 'spitting on people to see them fizz' is just a type of entertainment (very often not 'wholesome' entertainment, like The Walton's, for example), but maybe it also addresses our need to connect with others in some strange and convoluted way?

I understand this atitude completely and have engaged in it myself. I have also observed (two in particular) people at work whose most primal form of connection seems to be mocking, degrading or just messing with others. What I have noticed is that those that engage in that sort of behavior frequently seem to also lack empathy.

Cheers! ....

voltayre said...

Interestingly, none of the commentators arguing about the status of violence in Buddhism and human relations defined violence, or evaluated the standard definitions. How then can the status of violence in Buddhism be evaluated. I have patented a definition of violence and in pursuit of its improvement, I welcome comments: "Violence is nonverbal or non-communicative action carried out in the context of a unilaterally or mutually perceived conflict of interest and directed at the bearer of such interest or a surrogate." By implication, assumptions about self and others, "human nature," the means of life, the role of reasoning in human relations are matters of interest in understanding violence. We reason and communicate our way into perceptions of conflicting interests, which are intrinsically optional and changeable. Attachments hinder critical re-framing when regarded as derived from a god, nature, "human nature," science, society, . . . Then conflicts of interests appear intractable and violence unavoidable. Its antidote is educators' cultivation of dispositions to reason, to evaluate reasoning, and to use language with clarity and logical consistency.

Anonymous said...

This is probably the worst comment thread I've ever seen on Bradley's blog...

Anonymous said...

If my knowledge is correct then, the violence started in the Buddhist country can be related not very long ago.
Even during dark age of Buddhism in India, there was no violence of Buddhist in India and they fled to other neighbouring countries.