Monday, October 15, 2007

Buddhism and the Pacificst Dilemma

I finished Aidan Delgado's book, "The Sutras of Abu Ghraib" over the weekend, and I do want to give it some thought in these pages. I need to take a bit more time, however, to let it all sink in, and don't want to write about it under the kind of pressure that Monday morning inevitably brings as we prepare for the return to Los Angeles from the beach. So please stay tuned. I know that I'll have something to say a little later in the week.

In the meantime, yesterday was the monthly visit to our sitting group from Thanissaro Bhikkhu. It's always a great pleasure and a great learning experience when Than Geoff comes. He leads us into an hour-long sit with guidance that is by now long familiar, but which is still a helpful reminder of the meditation practice that he teaches. After the sit, he answers questions for another hour--always with patient wisdom, a profound sense of humanity, and often just plain good sense. Gifted with a wry and generous sense of humor, he often has us laughing at the predicament of simply being human, at ourselves and our pretensions, even at himself.

He brings books, too. He has written so many of them that I sometimes suspect that he's up every day at four and has another one ready for the press by eight. They are all give-aways, their production and distribution made possible, I suppose, by the generosity of those who support the Metta Forest Monastery of which he is the abbott.

(This beautiful photo comes from the monastery's website.) Aside from the books, Than Geoff's articles are constantly appearing in Tricycle--and probably other journals of which I'm unaware. A naturally quiet and scholarly man, he seems to have some kind of inner fount of wisdom that is inexhaustible. Added to which, I'm sure that the focus and concentration developed through years of intense meditation practice enable this incredible creative flow.

I asked him about Buddhism and warfare and, thinking of Aidan Delgado and, of course, Burma, whether it would ever be permissible for a practicing Buddhist to engage in military action. His answer was a clear "No." He was critical of those Burmese monks for stepping beyond that line in marching in the streets. The monk's true moral authority, he said, comes from the ability to turn his bowl upside down in a gesture that refuses alms--and the blessings and implicit approval that the donor can expect to receive in return. That gesture, in a Buddhist country like Thailand or Burma, is itself sufficient reproof and political protest. To march in the streets, as Than Geofff sees it, is to sacrifice a good part of that moral authority.

A fellow sitter asked about the history of the samurai warrior and Zen Buddhism: was this not a warrior tradition with Buddhist underpinnings? Than Geoff argued that the samurai myth was an invention of 19th century Japanese revisionists, who needed for political reasons to discredit the pacifism inherent in Buddhist teachings. Interesting. Was there anything, ever, I wondered again aloud, that would justify a true Buddhist taking arms? Than Geoff remained clear and unambiguous: nothing. Ever.


Paul said...


I'm glad to hear Ajahn Thanissaro's comments. When the US government responded to the events of September 11, the head teacher of the community where I once practiced (no names, please) took an activist stance.

Sunday evening "dharma talks" were more like anti-war rallies complete with instructions on how to send faxes and make phone calls to Congress. I, and a few others, found this disturbing, but the majority of participants jumped right on the bandwagon.

I did not believe that the Dharma Hall was the place for this. I also thought there was a missed teaching opportunity on, for example, the practice of equanimity.

I posted my concerns several times on the community's listserv, but it got to the point where people who didn't know me began to suspect I was in favor of the war and a supporter of GWB.

One person had come across a story of a talk given by the Dalai Lama on the war. Her comment to me was something like: "If the Dalai Lama can talk about it in his Dharma Hall, so can we." So there!

Another person, a junior teacher, suggested I needed to "look within" for the source of my disturbance. He then commended the teacher in question for doing such a fine job.

Oh well.

robin andrea said...

You always pose the most interesting questions, Peter. When I think of the actions of Buddhist monks and how profoundly they can change the zeitgeist, I am always reminded of the monk, who in 1963 sat in a busy road way in Saigon, and self-immolated. I was 12 years old when I saw that photograph, and the image has stayed with me ever since. Why did this monk take such an action? I agree that pacifism is an absolute, but positions of conscience and enlightened action seem utterly appropriate. I could be wrong, as you know I am not a practicing Buddhist, but the world changes when monks take a stand.

carly said...

P: I said before, Silence would be the best route. Nothing is so powerful as silence.

What's more, as covered by our western cultural teachings, violence begets violence. Even opposition, especially if you are the weaker, is counterproductive in most cases, because it gives your superior enemy a resistance to combat further and overwhelm. However, resistance can be achieved by "non-action".

Eastern philosophy and martial arts often absorb the energy of an opponent, draw back, and bring the opponent to a standstill, which weakens him. As is also taught in our culture, to take the wind out of his sails. (warfare at sea)

All possible scenarios are clearly laid out in the iChing, where it is shown how weaker opponents can be victorious. And Western culture, too, covers every point and possibility in conflict and struggle. Some Americans have clearly shown their weakness and lack of wisdom in these matters. Others understand the principles of struggle and do not rashly act. Our critics fail to realize this, preferring to label all Americans as stupid.

For Buddhists to openly resist, given their weakness and position, is disaster. It changes nothing for the positive. It does not influence people the way Robin says. For reasons I don't have time to explain. That they do take to the streets shows the world something weak, egotistical, and unwise in them, because it is not based on real power in the subtler sense.

PeterAtLarge said...

Silence is powerful, yes, Carly. I should probably just shut up, myself! But I don't think so... Something there is that makes me speak. Cheers, PaL

Cardozo said...


Man, I really identify with your predicament...

How do you influence a group of generally like-minded people without being accused of betraying the group?

Its such an incredibly important question (it makes the difference, for example, between a Democratic Party responsible for Free Trade, and one responsible for Fair Trade), and I suppose maybe the answer is leadership.

Anyway, I hope you continue to creatively speak your mind...

Thanks for the great post today, Peter.

thailandchani said...

I have to agree with Carly on this one. While I can understand the impulse to make political statements, I just don't see a place for it in this context. Buddhism trying to influence western culture outside of spiritual influence feels a bit too much like investment, too much like playing footsie with the devil.

Lots of mixed metaphor.. but I'm sure you understand. :)



carly said...

Well, P., in western culture, when Teddy Roosevelt wielded power, he said, "Walk softly, but carry a big stick." Conversely, if you don't have a big stick, walk away silently. Voltaire and others had much wisdom about taking positions against power. I am sure The Bard said something wise about bucking authority.

But I agree with this explanation. Silence according to iChing goes something like this; one should think long and hard before he speaks. Then if he thinks appealing words can influence the situation, he is careful in speech, says it once, and is then silent. In this case, the words are diplomatic and the following silence gives power to the words. But words should not be used, when there is nothing to back it up.

In your case, the pen may well be mightier than the sword. And when the force of truth is on your side, words may be used to unite. Just don't stand in the street to say them. The best way to use words is within the power of art. That is one way of 'non-action' which shapes man's world. Likewise, the Buddhist, like any other man, should engage in 'non-action'. Which doesn't mean, do nothing.

PS. The only man I can think of who used words in the street that earned just fame was Paul Revere. Ha.

carly said...

P. Here is another favorite passage I recall, roughly. "If a man sits alone in his room and his words are not well-chosen, he meets with disagreement for a hundred miles. But, if a man sits in his room and his words are well-spoken, he meets with agreement for a thousand miles".

khengsiong said...

"...ability to turn his bowl upside down in a gesture that refuses alms..."
Apparently this works only against devout Buddhists. But even in Burma, I am not sure if the generals are "devout"...

Anonymous said...

Hello. Am sharing a site with you:

TaraDharma said...

Peter, I, too, finished The Sutras over the weekend. I could not put it down. I don't feel ready to write about, and I am looking forward to your post. That 'kid' has my undying respect. The dilemmas he poses are things I wish more in the military would ask themselves. But then, I guess if they did, they could not continue to war.