Buddhist Pacifism: Opening the Question

This piece started out as a straightforward book review and then began to stir up some personal disquiets. The book that started this train of thought is Buddhist Peacework: Creating Cultures of Peace, edited by David Chappell (Wisdom Publications, 1999, £10.95). This is another in the seemingly endless succession of symposia on engaged Buddhism. There are eighteen essays in this one, half of them by already familiar writers. On the other hand, the publication of such anthologies is welcome evidence of a lively public interest in engaged Buddhism. And on Buddhist peacework I do not recall a similar book since Kenneth Kraft edited Inner Peace, World Peace: Essays in Buddhism and Nonviolence back in 1992 (State University of New York Press). And it was Kraft who, eight years later, in Christopher Queen’s Engaged Buddhism in the West (Wisdom, 2000), suggested it might now be “an opportune time to undertake a fresh critique of Buddhist pacifism …Can it be that pacifism and just-war reasoning are equally valid options for present-day Buddhists? The question deserves more attention than it has yet received.” (p493).

David Chappell’s emphasis on “creating cultures of peace” is a necessary antidote to any assumption that Buddhist peacework is primarily about stopping wars after they have broken out. As Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us in this book: “To prevent war, to prevent the next crisis, we must start right now. When a war or a crisis has begun, it is already too late. If we and our children practice ahimsa in our daily lives, if we learn how to plant seeds of peace and reconciliation in our hearts and minds, we will begin to establish real peace and, in that way, we may be able to prevent the next war”(p159). And (in a useful update on Sarvodaya Shramadana) A.T.Ariyaratne takes the argument further: “People expect quick solutions to the culture of violence that prevails today. They forget that this culture has been caused over a long period of time by multifarious factors, including a lack of social vision, violent technologies that eat up our ecological wealth and destroy our environmental health, and highly centralised political and economic institutions that do not suit our [Buddhist] value systems.” (p75).

The Three Fires

Social violence originates ultimately in the Three Fires that burn at the very root of our human condition – acquisitiveness, aggressiveness, and ignorance of our true nature. Through the historical and social dynamic these “fires” become structured and institutionalised in the many varieties of us and them. The rich inflict the violence of poverty upon the poor (though individually they may bekind and generous). Dominant ethnic groups violate the human rights of those of a different blood and belonging (though their members may, again, have many personal virtues). Human society violates nature. And so it goes on.

Some of the essays in this book give the misleading impression that society is no more than an aggregate of individuals, and if we all become sufficiently mindful then a radically different culture will be born of its own accord. This is sociologically naïve, and a reminder of the failure of engaged Buddhism to develop a sophisticated social theory. For this mindfulness is also needed for the great work of transforming negative social structures and norms, and to do so without replacing them with something little better. Judith Simmer-Brown, writing here of “Shambhala: ‘Enlightened Warriorship’ for Peace”, observes that, “in contemporary society the factors which contribute to a degradation of dignity of human life are systemic, environmental and complex, rendering merely individual efforts insufficient to the task” (p114).

Opening the Fourth Eye

Stephanie Kaza identifies “root cause analysis” as one of the major arenas of peacemaking – “In-depth examination is necessary to address the entrenched patterns of systemic violence” (p85). Well informed, we need to open the “Fourth Eye” of social understanding, or “social mindfulness” as Chappell calls it. The shocking episode of Japanese imperial Zen should be reminder enough – or the hawkish monks of the Sinhala Heritage movement reported in our last issue. Such root cause analysis is one of the concerns of my latest book, titled Liberation is Indivisible (still without a publisher). True social liberation is today at one with the existential liberation taught by the Buddha.

Socially speaking, the dominant culture in which we live is intrinsically violent and delusive, which is why it periodically breaks out here and there into the open mass violence of war and civil unrest. Furthermore, to confine our definition of peacemaking to the remedying of such open violence would be to condone the social injustice and misery which arises from the daily “violence” of our social institutions. Sulak Sivaraksa spells this out as follows:

In order to create a culture of peace, first we must make society more just, more fair, and give equal rights to all people. The imposition of so-called peace has, in fact, at times been a tool of repression. Look at the many programs for pacification undertaken throughout history and the world. In many cases the institutional definition of peace is tantamount to the suppression of righteous struggles for equal rights and justice. In other cases, the institutionalisation of peace is really propaganda for maintaining the status quo of an unjust government or system. (p45)

In short, a culture of peace needs to be very broadly defined, as it is in this book, so that it touches on virtually every aspect of engaged Buddhism.

Remaking the World

How, then, can we skilfully apply our mindfulness practice to the work of eco-social transformation?

From the different essays it is possible to piece together the beginnings of a strategy. The “soft power” of small groups organised in networks is widely acknowledged (p121). Lokamitra, writing of “The Dhamma Revolution in India”, links it to “spiritual friendship”. Contributors also draw attention to the need to be well informed and have organisational skills. These are the resources for resistance, and Stephanie Kaza quotes many examples of the resistance of “ecosattvas” (p85). Thus, “The Net of Vows” in Robert Aitken’s essay includes this one:

With tropical forests in danger

I vow with all beings

to raise hell with the people responsible

and slash my consumption of trees.

David Chappell maintains that “if Buddhists are motivated by compassion for others and wish to develop Buddhism for everyday life and for everybody, then the institutional structure of politics and economics are two important areas that need Buddhist attention.” He proposes a variety of strategies (pp216-8) which anticipate the broad and growing movement against global free market capitalism. (See Diana Winston in our last issue, on the Buddhist presence at the Seattle meeting earlier this year). Resistance needs to be accompanied by building alternatives -- of which the Sarvodaya Shramadana movement in Sri Lanka, featured in this book, is the most impressive Buddhist example. For a comprehensive set of proposals for Dhammically informed social change, see my book Beyond Optimism (Jon Carpenter,1989). There is something there for everyone.

The Questions Begin

My own questions begin where this book ends. How do we create a culture of peace in times and places which are pregnant with an open violence which might nevertheless be nipped in the bud? There have been persuasive proposals as to how this might be done – and could have been done -- in flashpoint situations in Africa, the Balkans and elsewhere. They entail a very wide range of strategies. These range from addressing some of the underlying causes of violence (like poverty and injustice) through to the slow and unglamorous work of unravelling hatred through conflict resolution and reconciliation. This work requires multi-skilled teams in which a conventional military presence would play at most a small part. A start has been made, most notably through the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Building on its experience in Yugoslavia, OSCE is establishing Rapid Expert Assistance and Cooperation Teams (REACT). These will be trained in conflict prevention, crisis management and post-conflict rehabilitation. The problem is that this work is not well known nor publicised and funding is inadequate.

Surprisingly I can find no reference to mediation in Chappell’s book. It would have benefited greatly from a contribution by Adam Curle – one of the world’s most experienced mediators, and very much a Buddhist one at that. (See his engaging book To Tame the Hydra: Undermining the Culture of Violence, published by Jon Carpenter).

To take the argument further, is any Buddhist peace work possible in cases where widespread and bloody violence has already broken out, antagonisms are inflamed, and opposing positions solidified? An increasing number of conflicts are fuelled by ethnic hatred, and may be confusing and elusive in character, with much “mindless” violence and a general breakdown of the state and civil society (with the drug crazed adolescent soldiery of Sierra Leone as an extreme but not unique example). Five years ago, in his book Another Way: Positive Response to Contemporary Violence (Jon Carpenter, Oxford) Adam Curle argued that the global spread of this new chaotic violence has substantially invalidated the earlier models of negotiated and mediated conflict management.

The above kind of conflict is also impervious to economic sanctions, which would make matters worse. Economic sanctions have been an important pacifist resource, but have always been problematic. They appear to have contributed positively to the non-violent transition in South Africa. And the Burmese democracy movement values them as a means of putting pressure on the ruling junta. But their use in Iraq has been widely condemned as imposing terrible hardship on ordinary people whilst having little impact on the ruling elite. The value of economic sanctions, like so many other peace making strategies, is clearly situational and not absolute.

The Ultimate Purpose of the Precepts

There are indeed fundamentalist Buddhists who endeavour to interpret the ethical precepts literally. However, if phenomena which are the subject of ethical decisions are ever changing, and exist only in their interconnectedness, their interbeing with other phenomena, then a Buddhist peace ethic must surely be situational. Circumstances alter cases. Certainly in situations of international and civil conflict there are many different factors to be taken account, some of which we may be ignorant or inadequately informed. Moreover, what would be a wise decision one week may be folly the next. Ethical principles are guidelines to be interpreted and applied contextually. Thus, in the Zen tradition there are the “Four Positions”, of which Zen Master John Daido Loori has observed: “There is no way to make a viable set of rules for what you should do, because what you should do is always determined by time, place, position, and degree – by consideration of how much action is necessary.” *

The self tends to cling to the certainties of absolute virtue; we like “to know where we stand”. But the ultimate purpose of ethical action is to relieve suffering, not the literal enactment of the precepts. It requires the wisdom and compassion that come from an open awareness and a selfless empathy.

There are many situations in which the spirit of a precept may be violated by its literal interpretation, and this is widely recognised by Buddhists. It is not difficult to appreciate, however, why the first precept, against the ready destructiveness of violence and killing, has almost unanimously been made the exception. However, I believe that there are now situations and possibilities evolving in the world which make it desirable to apply the first precept also situationally.

Beyond Buddhist Pacifism

It is also worth at the same time turning inward, and for Buddhists to subject Buddhist pacifism to Buddhist scrutiny. For pacifism is also an ism, another ideology. That is to say, it tends to simplify complex and uncertain situations into black and white choices and treats the evidence selectively in order to sustain a fixed subjective standpoint. In the Chappell book José Cabazón, writes of a “top-down” peace making model, which “seeks to make peace descend into our midst from the heaven of ideals” as being “doomed to failure”. “This is not only because such a model often disregards the causal process, but also because it encourages a kind of unhealthy clinging to the ideal of peace. Peace … becomes imagined (a more accurate term would be ‘reified’) and then clung to as an absolute that is independent, not only of causes, but of time, place, cultures and the beings that inhabit these. In the end peace becomes reified/deified as a transcendent and ultimately unattainable absolute, and our proper relationship to it devolves into one of worship and awe. The deleterious side effects of such an attitude will be obvious” (p186).

If not Kosovo, then Sierra Leone, and if not Sierra Leone, then, sooner or later, there will be somewhere else where an irresistible case arises for skilful international intervention which will undoubtedly save many lives and restore peaceful conditions – but only if the use of arms is not ruled out. As a matter of urgency we need to work for the creation of international intervention agencies which are authentically benevolent and uncompromised by the influence of nation states or transnational corporations. I believe this is now a realistic prospect.

A peacemaking that lets go fearlessly and unreservedly into the realities of a violent situation, dropping even pacifist conviction, is scary, liberating and potentially creative. As elsewhere in a situational ethics, the self assumes that, bereft of supporting beliefs, things will somehow fall apart. In fact, given some maturity of wisdom and compassion, we do know what to do, and our revulsion at killing and violence is undiminished -– but it is no longer absolute and unconditional. However, we will have no certainty about our knowing what to do and will have to make the best judgements that we can. Inaction is one possibility, but it carries the same responsibility as does this or that course of action. The young United Nations Dutch conscripts at Srebenica exemplified a perverse form of ahimsa which condemned hundreds of innocent people to a cruel death. I can empathise with Buddhists who unconditionally refuse to condone the taking of life. But take issue when this becomes a dogma which is not open to question. Yet none of this detracts from a belief in nonviolence as a necessary ideal and goal.

Helen Tworkow, the influential editor of Tricycle magazine, wrote this in an editorial:

“The first Buddhist precept is non-killing. A literal interpretation demands a crystallized commitment to pacifism. This is a position for which I have enormous respect, but it’s not one that I share. I am drawn to those schools of Buddhism in which ‘killing’ becomes part of a more complex conversation; in the Balkans the alleviation of suffering emerges as the prime motive for war, and the strategies accommodate paradox and contradiction. I cannot look at pictures of the Nazi death camps and fault the U.S. decision to enter the European theater; and as this winter went on, the massacres in Kosovo invited comparisons. Yet saving lives by bombing Milosovic into the ground doesn’t make war holy” (Tricycle, 8(4) Summer 1999).

This kind of response of many Buddhist to the Kosovo crisis suggests that in the twenty-first century pacifism will no longer be an almost universally held Buddhist belief. Will it be the last Buddhist dogma to be relinquished? And will the next book about Buddhist peace work be courageous enough to open up this question?

This exploration has ended with discussion of the ethics of tactical, fire-fighting kinds of peacemaking – or, more properly, violence damping. Such emergency operations to save lives and win time are controversial and attention-grabbing. They should not detract from the long term, in depth work to develop cultures of peace for which a Buddhist perspective is particularly valuable.

* John Daido Loori Mountain Record of Zen Talks (Shambhala 1988) pp139-40. The origin of the “Four Positions” appears to be uncertain.