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.