Being Peace

Asia, big picture stuff, Religion

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.

Share Button


  1. moonbat  •  Sep 28, 2007 @7:43 pm

    This touches on a subject that’s been brewing in my mind for several years, namely what is the proper response here at home – IOW, my response – to our outlaw government’s actions?

    In these last six or seven years, I’ve moved through stages of: disbelief, horror, outrage, resignation/resolution, and peace – very roughly in that order. I was thinking of writing about this, but I have only the tiniest amount of sample data to base it on – my own reactions – and so it hasn’t materalized yet. I also thought about talking about this geographically: how some areas (zip codes) are well along in this progression (if that’s what it is), and how others are only now waking up – in outrage – to what is going on. A recent trip from the left coast of California to the heartland highlighted this temporal difference. I was blue way before it was cool.

    During this multi-year nightmare, one piece of advice that has stuck with me came from Doreen Virtue, who advocated, above all, Being Peace, the title of your posting. Her advice hasn’t been easy to put into practice, but it always stuck with me as being the sanest, most fundamentally practical thing to do. Being Peace fortunately is getting easier with each ridiculous misstep of BushCo and his band of enablers, but there is still a part of me that is holding its collective breath until January 20, 2009.

    There is a lot more I could say about this, but it’s a tangent to what you wrote here.

  2. Doug Hughes  •  Sep 28, 2007 @8:27 pm

    Way too many Christians in America consider the example of Jesus; what he said and what he did according to the accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – consider what Christ did as irrelevent in todays social & political reality.

    The subject of pacifism is my favorite example. On the night he was arrested, Jesus healed an ear that one of his disciples severed from some Roman guard. There are other examples of kindness and mercy to the oppressors of Israel. There is only ONE example of Jesus becoming violent, with the money changers in the Temple. Corruption in the House of God was intolerable, but nothing else that was happening to Israel brought Jesus to violence or even criticism. And the Roman occupation provided plenty to be outraged by.

    Occasionally, a leader, such as MLK will put the priniciples of pacifism to work, and discovers that the power is overwhelming. The magic is not tied to any theology, as Ghandi proved.

    Couragous people are getting the truth and pictures out of Burma. If the people of Burma can keep the faith, and maintain the demonstrations, the governement will fall. Before anyone else says it, keeping up the pressure is easy to suggest from the chair I sit in.

  3. Dan S.  •  Sep 28, 2007 @9:10 pm

    maha, you may well have linked to it before, but I just wanted to mention hilzoy’s excellent post on nonviolence vs. violence as a means of liberation:

    During this [1983] conference, there was a recurring disagreement about the role of violence in fighting deeply unjust regimes. On one side were the women from India, who argued against the use of violence, generally on Gandhian grounds. On the other were many of the women who lived under deeply unjust regimes; I recall, in particular, the South Africans arguing that however laudable nonviolence might be, their situation was sufficiently desperate that they could not afford the luxury of waiting for nonviolence to work. . . .

    . . .many of the arguments made by the Indians turned on the effects that achieving self-government through violence had on one’s own people. Don’t do this, they seemed to be saying: once you win your freedom, you will find that you and your people have grown accustomed to settling disputes by force and to demonizing your opponents. Think now about how to use the struggle you are waging to teach yourselves how to become citizens and to practice self-government. Do not wait until you win your independence to discover that self-government requires not just political power, but political responsibility . . .

    (I should add that your post is excellent as well)

  4. SteveG  •  Sep 29, 2007 @9:47 am

    I think the comment in question does raise interesting questions. Are there conditions under which non-violent resistance is more likely or less likely to be successful? Are there sociological, historical, or cultural facts about the society that are operative? If so, where is Burma on these factors? Why did Ibrahim Rigova in Kosovo fail to energize a non-violent movement the way Gandhi did? Does there need to be a charismatic non-violent figure at the head of the movement or is it a shift in collective consciousness? Does the non-violent movement have to be tied to a religious (broadly construed) movement?

  5. felicity  •  Sep 29, 2007 @10:54 am

    “In Buddhism, good and evil are not thought of as attributes one may or may not possess…” An extremely important point to keep in mind. Catholicism, correctly interpreted cautions against striving to ‘be good.’ Instead, one must seek to be good – seek being the key word. The former allows the individual to define ‘good,’ while the latter admits to not being able to define it.

    How long will it take human beings to realize that war is not a solution to anything. Afterall, human beings decided that throwing beautiful youths off cliffs did not solve the problems of droughts or floods. At one time, and not that long ago, an insult demanded a two-man face-off at dawn resulting in the death or severe injury of one or both participants. We’ve managed to outlaw human sacrifice and dueling as solutions to anything, surely war could reasonably follow.

  6. wplasvegas  •  Sep 29, 2007 @2:56 pm

    Bodhidharma is credited as the founder of the “martial arts” so that Shaolin monks could protect themselves from outlaws whose attacks were destroying the temple by the time he arrived in China. It is of note that practitioners refer to their study as ‘the art of self-defence,’ the essence of which (to my thinking) depends on ‘what self are you defending’?

    I believe it was Ho Chi Minh who stated that, “Gandhi’s non-violence would not have prevailed against the French.” The answer to that is moot, but it may explain why Ho is a hero to his people, while Gandhi is a hero to the world.

    Gandhi himself complained that non-violence was always defined as the ‘absence’ of violence, when what he was doing was simply revolution by other means than violence.

    The western notion of progress comes to us courtesy of science. After all, if you can plan for next year’s rice crop, why shouldn’t you plan for next year’s civilization? Which reminds me of the old joke: Q. What makes God laugh? A. Men making plans.

  7. Mike  •  Sep 29, 2007 @10:53 pm

    One gun in the hand of a monk would change the dynamic from one where the monks are unstoppable to one where they are completely outgunned.

    There are no means, there are no ends. There are only actions and desires. An action is what it is – violence is violence, kindness is kindness.

  8. Nathanael Nerode  •  Sep 30, 2007 @7:30 am

    Person quoted by Maha:
    >> 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.

    By the 1960s there were very substantial “moral limits”, compared to the antebellum period. And the civil rights movement only succeeded due to federal government sending in *troops* anyway!

    When there were really no moral limits, in the 1850s, the issue of slavery was only settled by the *Civil War*.

    Not a perfect counterargument there. 🙁

    Nonviolence is powerful. But nonviolence *alone* has rarely succeeded (South Africa counts, I suppose; India doesn’t).

    Perhaps the crucial balance is to retain legitimacy by *never* attacking anyone; *never* firiing first. The North bent over backwards to avoid starting the Civil War; the Allies made extreme efforts towards peace in World War II; these are probably the only reasons why those wars are still remembered as “just”.

    After this *second* set of bloody massacres of nonviolent protestors, and indeed bystanders, by the Burmese Junta, a violent reaction would be considered legitimate by pretty much everyone. Previously it would not have been.

    A small amount of violence may, in the end, be the only way to oust the junta. But violence will only work under very particular circumstances, which require that the junta be super-massively unpopular within Burma *and* either for the junta to lose its external (China, India) support, or for the democratic forces to have comparable external support. This situation cannot be created by violence and *can* be created by nonviolence.

  9. maha  •  Sep 30, 2007 @7:57 am

    By the 1960s there were very substantial “moral limits”, compared to the antebellum period.

    By 1960 public lynchings were no longer popular, but in the South a white man could still murder a black man without having to worry much about being punished for it.

    BTW, your reference to “the antebellum period” suggests you have no clue what went on between 1865 and 1960 regarding race relations. It was ugly.

    And the civil rights movement only succeeded due to federal government sending in *troops* anyway!

    Other than Little Rock 1957, I don’t remember [federal] troops being sent anywhere, yet that phase of the civil rights movement spanned the years 1955 (the Montgomery bus boycott) to 1968 (death of MLK). It is enormously ignorant of you to think none of that would have succeeded had troops not been sent to Little Rock in 1957.

    When there were really no moral limits, in the 1850s, the issue of slavery was only settled by the *Civil War*.

    As I said, sometimes you have to fight. But if you think the standard American white supremacist was substantially more “moral” in 1960 than he was in 1860, you are naive.

  10. Longhairedweirdo  •  Oct 3, 2007 @3:21 pm

    An interesting thing I remember hearing about was a debate between South African women and Indian women about how to progress on civil rights. I don’t remember if it was during Apartheid or not.

    The point being made was that, in India, because Ghandi fought for justice, without violence, there was a sense that the point was to keep pressing, non-violently, towards justice. There was a notion raised that, if violent revolution makes things better, if things start to go bad, it’s time to have another violent revolution.

    As you said, there is no “end”; there’s just the wheel turning over and over, and wherever you get by violence isn’t likely to be where you want to be… even if it’s what seems necessary (like “I’m still alive”).

    I had an insight where I was pondering why and how injustice to a person far away “should” mean as much to me as an injustice done to me, and I realized that there shouldn’t be a difference… injustice should be painful and ugly. It’s not “injustice happened to (another)” or “injustice happened to me”, but “injustice occurred”.

3 Trackbacks