I want to respond once again to this fellow, who thinks the Burmese monks are saps for not leading an armed resistance against the military junta instead of a nonviolent protest.
The monks and their followers have caught the world’s attention, I’ll grant you that. (That and a subway token…) International pressure is probably the only hope right now, but see what good that’s done for Tibet or Darfur. Or against Iran. Or against the Taliban. I don’t need to continue. …
… These people don’t want to lose, and they’re prepared to fight a lot dirtier than the monks are.
But we already knew that.
As for Gandhi (and Martin Luther King), they knew that their opponents, bad as they were, had moral limits.
The blogger may be a graduate of the Michael Medved School of History; I don’t see many “moral limits” in the history of racial violence in America.
The American government sent the military to enforce civil rights, not suppress them. If the protestors thought they were up against similar foes, they misjudged badly. The protests are gone, and people have died.
Isn’t it only decent to ask what for?
In other words, means justify ends. But Buddhists don’t think that way. In fact, one of the differences between Eastern and Western thought is that westerners tend to think of events in terms of ends, or results, whereas easterners are more likely to think in terms of never-ending cycles of cause and effect. Ends are not, in fact, ends. Even after great victories — or defeats — the wheel of existence does not stop, and in time “ends” dissipate like smoke. Because cause and effect are locked together in a great, eternal continuum, means do not justify “ends,” ever. Even if you achieve a desired goal, sooner or later you will enjoy — or suffer — the fruits of whatever means you used to achieve it.
As my first Zen teacher said, often, “What you do to others is done to you.”
There was an article in the Spring 2007 issue of the American Buddhist magazine Tricycle — available to subscribers only, alas — about political action and nonviolence. In “The Disappearance of the Spiritual Thinker,” Pankaj Mishra wrote,
It may be hard to conceive of nonviolence as a viable force, especially as we appear to be in the midst of a worldwide upsurge of violence and cruelty. Nevertheless, the history of the contemporary world is full of examples of effective nonviolent politics. The movements for national self-determination in colonized countries, the Civil Rights movement in the United States, the velvet revolutions in Russia and Eastern Europe, the end of apartheid in South Africa, and the gradual spread of parliamentary democracy around the world–the great transformations of our time–have been essentially peaceful.
Every time a peaceful resistance is put down, somebody is bound to say they should have used guns. But when an armed insurgency is put down, or when it turns into a cycle of violence and vengeance dragging on for generations, for some reason this doesn’t count against the effectiveness of armed insurgency. And how often does the residual anger from one war blossom into the next one?
In fact, I’d say nonviolent resistance has a pretty good track record, particularly as far as long-term results are concerned.
I particularly like this next paragraph (emphasis added):
And there have been activists and thinkers in our own time, such as Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Thich Nhat Hanh, Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi, and Václav Havel, who rejected politics as a zero-sum game (in which the other side’s loss is seen as a gain) and adopted moral persuasion and conversion as means to political ends. As the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh wrote to Martin Luther King, Jr., after a spate of Buddhist self-immolations in Vietnam in 1965, “The monks who burned themselves did not aim at the death of the oppressors, but only at a change in their policy. Their enemies are not man. They are intolerance, fanaticism, dictatorship, cupidity, hatred, and discrimination, which lie within the heart of man.”
This touches on Pankaj Mishra’s thesis, that the western concept of “shaping history,” or pushing mankind toward some idealized future by any means, is the chief cause of much of the violence of the past couple of centuries. And I acknowledge that much of Asia got sucked into the game of shaping “history” by force — Japanese militarism of the 1930s, China under Mao. But it’s a very un-Buddhist way of interacting with the world.
“Their enemies are not man. They are intolerance, fanaticism, dictatorship, cupidity, hatred, and discrimination, which lie within the heart of man.” If you observe long enough, you notice how easily un-self-aware people become like their own enemies. Consider the McCarthyite or Bushie, eager to flush the Bill of Rights down the toilet in the name of “freedom.”
The monks of Burma make a conscious choice not to become what they are trying to defeat. They choose not to give in to intolerance, fanaticism, dictatorship, cupidity, hatred, and discrimination. That’s the point of chanting the Metta Sutta as they march. To do otherwise would betray everything they have vowed to maintain as monks.
Pankaj Mishra continued,
Imprisoned by the totalitarian regime of Czechoslovakia, Havel echoed a Buddhistic preoccupation with actions in the present moment when he warned that “the less political policies are derived from a concrete and human ‘here and now,’ and the more they fix their sights on an abstract ‘someday,’ the more easily they can degenerate into new forms of human enslavement.” In his own political practice, Gandhi opposed any mode of politics that reduced human beings into passive means to a predetermined end–it was the burden of his complaint against history. He insisted that human beings were an end in themselves, and the here and now was more important than an illusory future.
This has always baffled or disappointed those who measure nonviolent political action in terms of the regimes it changed. But for Gandhi, nonviolence was not merely another tactic, as terrorism often is, in a zero-sum game played against a political adversary. It was a whole way of being in the world, of relating truthfully to other people and one’s own inner self: an individual project in which spiritual vigilance and strength created the basis for, and thus were inseparable from, political acts. Gandhi assumed that whatever regimes they lived under–democracy or dictatorship, capitalist or socialist–individuals always possessed a freedom of conscience. To live a political life was to be aware of that inner freedom to make moral choices in everyday life; it was to take upon one’s own conscience the burden of political responsibility and action rather than placing it upon a political party or a government.
As Gandhi saw it, real political power arose from the cooperative action of such strongly self-aware individuals–the “authentic, enduring power” of people that, as Hannah Arendt presciently wrote in her analysis of the Prague Spring of 1968, a repressive regime or government could neither create nor suppress through the use of terror, and before which it eventually surrendered.
Many of Gandhi’s own colleagues often complained that he was delaying India’s liberation from colonial rule. But Gandhi knew as intuitively as Havel was to know later that the task before him was not so much of achieving regime change as of resisting “the irrational momentum of anonymous, impersonal, and inhuman power–the power of ideologies, systems, apparat, bureaucracy, artificial languages, and political slogans.”
This power, the unique creation of the political and economic systems of the modern world, pressed upon individuals everywhere–in the free as well as the unfree world. It was why Havel once thought that the Western cold warriors wishing to get rid of the totalitarian Communist system he belonged to were like the “ugly woman trying to get rid of her ugliness by smashing the mirror which reminds her of it.” “Even if they won,” Havel wrote, “the victors would emerge from a conflict inevitably resembling their defeated opponents far more than anyone today is willing to admit or able to imagine.”
This takes us back to what Glenn Greenwald wrote in (A Tragic Legacy: How a Good vs. Evil Mentality Destroyed the Bush Presidency:
One of the principal dangers of vesting power in a leader who is convinced of his own righteousness — who believes that, by virtue of his ascension to political power, he has been called to a crusade against Evil — is that the moral imperative driving the mission will justify any and all means used to achieve it. Those who have become convinced that they are waging an epic and all-consuming existential war against Evil cannot, by the very premises of their belief system, accept any limitations — moral, pragmatic, or otherwise — on the methods adopted to triumph in this battle.
Efforts to impose limits on waging war against Evil will themselves be seen as impediments to Good, if not as an attempt to aid and abet Evil. In a Manichean worldview, there is no imperative that can compete with the mission of defeating Evil. The primacy of that mandate is unchallengeable. Hence, there are no valid reasons for declaring off-limits any weapons that can be deployed in service of the war against Evil.
Equally operative in the Manichean worldview is the principle that those who are warriors for a universal Good cannot recognize that the particular means they employ in service of their mission may be immoral or even misguided. The very fact that the instruments they embrace are employed in service of their Manichean mission renders any such objections incoherent. How can an act undertaken in order to strengthen the side of Good, and to weaken the forces of Evil, ever be anything other than Good in itself? Thus, any act undertaken by a warrior of Good in service of the war against Evil is inherently moral for that reason alone.
It is from these premises that the most amoral or even most reprehensible outcomes can be — and often are — produced by political movements and political leaders grounded in universal moral certainties. Intoxicated by his own righteousness and therefore immune from doubt, the Manichean warrior becomes capable of acts of moral monstrousness that would be unthinkable in the absence of such unquestionable moral conviction. One who believes himself to be leading a supreme war against Evil on behalf of Good will be incapable of understanding any claims that he himself is acting immorally.
In Buddhism, good and evil are not thought of as attributes one may or may not possess. Rather, they are the consequences — beneficial or detrimental — of thoughts, words, and volitional acts. A practicing Buddhist doesn’t think, well, I’m a good person, and my cause is just,and my intentions are good, so whatever I do to attain this goal is OK. Believe me, after a few years of meditation practice, when a thought like that comes up you recognize such an idea as folly and let it go.
Of course, sometimes you have to fight. I don’t know where Burmese Buddhism falls on the pacifism scale, but Zen Buddhism in particular has a long association with the martial arts. However, even the most proficient martial artist should recognize there’s a time to fight, and a time to walk away from a fight.
The monks of Burma have chosen nonviolent resistance, as did the monks of Tibet and the monks of Vietnam, who still face oppression from Communist leaders. Short-term, this may not seem an effective strategy. Long-term, I suspect it is the wisest course.