Violence & Non-Violence: Situations of Karmic Force In Action

By: Rev. David Xi-Ken Shi

From the very beginning of our Buddhist studies we learn about the Three Pure Precepts – Do no harm, Do only good, Do good for others; and the Ten Precepts, the first being to abstain from taking life, or as we creatively re-describe it ‘I undertake the training of loving-kindness in all possible circumstances, I will abstain from hurting sentient (all) beings’. We recognize that by acting with encompassing and corrective effort that we gradually train our body-mind to act spontaneously for the good. The way we tackle life’s experiences and situations will seem spontaneous to others but we quickly learn that they come from practice and commitment to the path we have chosen to walk. Our Buddhist Precepts can be considered as positive and constructive resolutions that are sincerely and voluntarily undertaken. They awaken in us how the truly wise behave, beyond any sense of self or other; the realization that mutability is the foundation upon which we are built.

Malevolent behavior springs from an ego-mind deluded about our nature as human beings, and it takes the characteristics of hatred, aggression, and craving for unnatural control over others. It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it unjustly and without consent. These behaviors feed upon themselves and become strongly rooted in the way we see the world around us and our dominating dispositions, not only in individuals but in whole cultures. Physical aggression, as expressed in war like action, is no more than their most spectacular and bloody expression. In Buddhism the cultivation of situational ethics reflected in expressions of compassion by our attempting to follow the Precepts is an aspiration toward breaking this karmic cycle. It is a primary step towards resolving the egocentricity of dominating willfulness, and cultivating sincere awareness of others. The Precepts invite us to remove those filters through which we view the world in negative terms and to aspire to promoting harmony and reconciliation where it is needed. Whether, and to what extent, we keep the Precepts is the responsibility of each individual. But we must remain fully aware of the intent of our actions while we engage the hard issues of our day.

The karmic force of violent behavior will be affected by the circumstances in which it occurs. There is surely a difference between wars of conquest, religious intolerance and self-interests, than wars of defense. History has recorded some conflicts for national independence from foreign exploration in Buddhist countries that became established in some Buddhist schools tradition as examples of just actions to counter acts of tyranny since freedom was essential to the spiritual as well as the material progress of the indigenes community. We may deplore the historic destruction of the great Indian Buddhist heritage in the middle-ages undefended against the Mongol and Muslim invaders, for example. However, it is important to understand that according to Buddhism there is nothing that can be called a ‘just war’ which is only a false term coined and put into circulation to justify and excuse hatred, cruelty, ignorance, violence, suffering, and the philosophy of relativism. Why does the violence inherent in radicalism so often undercut the humanistic nature of ones cause? To declare war is easy, to work for a diplomatic and just resolution is difficult. We call individuals that initiate war in third world countries as ‘warlords.’ But when war is sanctioned by those in control in the modern world we call them ‘heads-of-state.’ If a war is enviable, no matter the necessity, there is always suffering on both sides. And there is no justice in that. War has no goodness, only outcomes. Someone is always on the winning or losing side. It is doubtful that peace by conquest or by empirical strength, as accomplished in the past, could be the only way in which the modern world would experience a stable world governance resulting in a lasting peace as well as a universal one. In this modern time the ideal is at least stated in terms of peaceful methods for achieving peace by law, not by force; by consent, not by imposition. But reality reflects a different lesson. We speak in terms of peace, but act in terms of war. The intent, I think, is clear. Augustine put it this way, “…with the desire for peace that wars are waged….Every man seeks peace by waging war, but no man seeks war by making peace. For even they who intentionally interrupt the peace in which they are living have no hatred of peace, but only wish it changed into a peace that suits them better….Even those who they make war against they wish to make their own, and impose on them the laws of their own peace”. It is an unfortunate fact that not only have Buddhist rulers undertaken violence and killing in the name of justice, but also monks of many traditions in Buddhism. Nonetheless, Buddhism has no history of a specific instance where war was fought for imposing Buddhism upon reluctant believers.

Violence is deeply corrupting in its effect upon all involved, and in our Buddhists practice we should strive to avoid direct involvement in violent action or in earning our living in a way that, directly or indirectly, does violence. The Buddha specifically mentioned the trade in arms, in living beings and flesh. However, the Buddha was not a strict pacifist either. The problem is whether, in today’s “global village” we are not all in some degree responsible for war and violence to the extent that we refrain from any effort to diminish them. Can we refrain from killing a spider on our porch and yet refrain, for fear of political involvement, from raising a voice against the systematic torture of prisoners, or not extend the rights we live under as a civilized society to those we are attempting to convince our way of life is more just, but just not now until we win the conflict? A situation where “we will do this to you, but god forbid you do this to us” distorted moral stance. I am not talking hypothetically here I’m sure you realize.

These are questions which are disturbing to some of those Buddhists who have a sensitive view of social and moral conscience. Or even a strong sense of patriotism. This is understandable. Yet, a well informed Buddhist must not forget that awareness of our moral responsibility as a social-self originates from a voluntary act affirming the knowledge we have associated with the harmful nature of acts of violence. Keep in mind here the three A’s: Awareness, Acceptance, Action. If acceptance is absent, neither the responsibility for our actions, nor the karmic guilt we may feel, will arise to generate the energy to act. But failure to protest publicly against injustice or wrong-doing does not necessarily constitute a participation in malevolent acts. Voices of protest should be raised when there is a chance that they are heard. We are called to apply skillful means. Our actions should be taken when we have a reasonable expectation that they will influence the national dialogue, or work behind the scenes in order to act in ways that counter-balance the causal chain of events in positive ways.

While current events are being played out on the world stage, there is today still some opportunities where a Buddhist can and should work for the cause of peace and reducing violence in human lives. No efforts should be spared to convince people that violence does not solve problems or conflicts. We can do this in our vary communities, and with friends and families, even. If we sponsor the countering of violence with violence we will deepen the separation through thoughts of bitterness and revenge, and add to the chain of negative karma. Taking no action, is still action from a Buddhist point of view. The Dhammapada says: “Never by hatred is hatred appeased, but it is appeased by kindness. This is an eternal reality” (I – 5) Buddhist non-violent social action seeks to communicate, persuade, and startle by moral example. The Dhammapada says again, “One should conquer anger through kindness, wickedness through goodness, selfishness through charity, and falsehood through truthfulness”. (XVII – 3)

Well known is Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violent struggle against religious intolerance and British rule in India, and also the Rev. Martin Luther King’s civil rights movement in the United States. Also is the ongoing effort of the Dalia Lama to establish peace and justice between Tibet and China. Their efforts result in world change, and their karmic legacy is still influencing events today. It is living proof of the power one individual can have when their cause is just. A familiar situation for many people today is the mass demonstration against authority, which may be conducted either peacefully or violently; legally or in acts of civil disobedience. Whither successful or not, acts of folly or not, it is the intent of our actions that remain important. Situations may arise in which our actions are mutually conditioned, but where we must in some sense take sides in establishing the ultimate responsibility we have toward social and individual justice. If we do not speak out when we have a chance, then we bow only to the situation and accept the endlessness of suffering and the continuation of negative karma.

We generally understand the word “violence” to mean a physical act. But in a broader view it can mean an unjust use of power, or abuse or injury to an ideal, expressions of art, civil behavior, or human dignity, – even a fervor vehement self-expressions or profound over-the-top emotions, passions or convictions. We often see this type of violence in our political dialogue today. Can we, under this definition, refer to actions or behaviors that do not actually result in physical assault, but have as their intent to do harm, as violence? As Buddhists, you be the judge.

Where I find no virtue in acts of violence, I do find virtue in social actions of nonviolence. Nonviolence is perhaps the most exacting of all forms of struggle, not only because it demands first of all that one be ready to suffer unsatisfactoriness without violent retaliation, but because it excludes mere transient self-interest from its considerations. In a very real sense, someone who practices nonviolent resistance must commit himself not to the defense of his own interests or even those of a particular group, but he must commit himself to find avenues of action that do not promote or results in the vary situation that he is protesting against. Nor should the “resister” be content to prove to himself that he is virtuous and right, and that his hands and heart are pure even though the adversary’s may be defiled. Nonviolence works best from a position of strength, when it is used and conceived pragmatically. Mahatma Gandhi’s efforts to win independence from Great Britain is a good example of this model in action. No one wins when both the action and the protest result in the same outcome, dividing not uniting. We can never win with the attitude that violence can be overcome with violence and hope to achieve a win-win situation in the long run. If a protest is too political, and violent, it becomes drawn into the power struggle and identified with what is being challenged. Gandhi was careful to walk a fine line balancing the needs on both side of the issue. To suggest that if the ISIS attack in Paris this weekend would have resulted in less deaths if the innocent were also armed with guns, doesn’t just show an ignorant mind but a lack for understanding the element of compassion in a morally just society.

Nonviolence seeks to win not by destroying or even by humiliating the adversary, but by convincing him that there is a higher and more certain common good than can be attained by violent acts, even if it is waged by use of the global web with words. While there is a value in displays of anger, it takes a wise person to know how to effectively communicate it in a encompassing and corrective way. Receiving and posting classified and restricted state documents without consideration of the results, to mention one of the most recent examples of weighing competing rights, especially considering the current global conflict, is not only irresponsible and reckless, from this monk’s point of view, it has little merit and will only result in karmic repercussions for those that hit the send button.

Finally, the current conflict in the Middle East is the type of situation in which the truly massive folly of the conflict, no matter the initial justification, leaves nothing to work with and there is space left only for personal sacrifice to bear witness to that folly. Yes, there are compassionate acts of goodwill by many of our warriors that feel compelled and moved out of respect for human decency for the innocent caught in the causal chain of indifference. But it is the suffering of the many for the bad acts of the few that history is consistently witness to. It is easy to feel a since of delusion and despair when one sees no end in sight. Such was the choice of the Buddhist monks who burnt themselves to death in the Vietnam war, surely one of the most savage and despairing conflicts of modern times, in which a heroic group of Buddhists had for some time struggled in vain to establish an alternative. That violence left a country in economic ruin, destruction of cultural values, families destroyed, and regional instability. All for what? It is almost a sure bet that today’s global conflict will have a similar result. A reasonable person is left shaking their heads.

What can nurture nonviolent, compassionate, pure-hearted people? The building of lasting peace depends on how many people capable of self-restraint can be fostered through a spiritual practice. Power in numbers. If modern Buddhism can respond to the needs of contemporary times, it should nurture in its practitioners the spiritual base for becoming good citizens of the world. Thus the cultivation and perfection of a person’s character are considered in the Buddhist tradition to be the true goals of spiritual training for promoting human flourishing. Articulating these goals, and the process by which we can promote useful and productive change, will both serve as a symbol of a global movement for sustained freedom and representative rule, and answer one of our most pressing needs for the twenty-first century.

It is a testament to the power of the human spirit, though, that despite all the suffering in the world today, a new lotus can emerge.

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