Friday, June 22, 2012

Violence and Buddhism? What about 功夫 ?

I'm glad other bloggers are looking at the Burma violence situation.  But there are some points that have been made in the blogosophere, especially regarding violence, that I think merit a reply. First of all, I think Barbara's got a point here:

There is a knee-jerk assumption that if an individual or group self-identified as Buddhist commits an act of violence, Buddhism must be the cause. This is unvarnished bigotry, of course. Since Buddhism unequivocally condemns hatred and violence, blaming Buddhism for violence makes no more sense than blaming any other attribute one could assign to the perpetrators, such as race or ethnicity.

But then there's this:

At Wildmind, Bodhipaksa offers some valuable comments on what it is to "be" a Buddhist who commits violence. As he says, there is no justification for violence in Buddhist scriptures or teaching. He continues,

There is no Buddhist doctrine of "just war" or evesn of "righteous anger." The Buddha condemned all forms of violence, and famously said that even if bandits were sawing you limb from limb, you should have compassion for your torturers.

What I don't want to leave hanging here is the phrase "there is no justification for violence in Buddhist  scriptures or teaching."    That may be.  I have to admit that I haven't seen in Buddhist scriptures any such justification...However...

The history of Buddhism and martial arts, particularly in Japan and China, is very well known.  In fact, this history of Zen is not without its bits of violence, even if some of the stories are more fictional than they have been handed down to be.  I would find it difficult to think that the folks who gave us that were rank pacifists.  In fact, even if you read Bodhipaksa's comment above, I think the wrong takeaway would be "Therefore Buddhism recommends pacifism."   There is no Buddhist doctrine of just war that I know of.  But there is also no Buddhist doctrine of doctrinaire pacifism, either, to my knowledge.

And I don't think there could be or would be.  This is because doctrinaire pacifism is itself contrary to the Buddhist precepts, in some cases. For those who would doubt otherwise, reading a work like Rollo May's Power and Innocence, though not Buddhist in nature, is enough of a trenchant critique  of innocence as a way of avoidance of confrontation  that it is difficult not to see how his argument exists in a Buddhist perspective; that is, the morality of Buddhism suggests we have a duty to actively help others, even if that means that we must violate the precepts to do so. (And of that you can certainly find examples in Buddhist scriptures - the parable of the Burning House does feature a father saying untrue things to children to save their lives, for example.)  And also because Buddhist scriptures, as all well know, aren't read like Christian scriptures either; they are also not black-and-white-infallible "musts."

Still, having said all of that, I did want to go to see what the Dhammapada said about the subject:

P1    P2    E2  137. He who inflicts violence on those who are unarmed, and offends those who are inoffensive, will soon come upon one of these ten states:
P1    P2    E2  138-140. Sharp pain, or disaster, bodily injury, serious illness, or derangement of mind, trouble from the government, or grave charges, loss of relatives, or loss of wealth, or houses destroyed by ravaging fire; upon dissolution of the body that ignorant man is born in hell.
P1    P2    E2  141. Neither going about naked, nor matted locks, nor filth, nor fasting, nor lying on the ground, nor smearing oneself with ashes and dust, nor sitting on the heels (in penance) can purify a mortal who has not overcome doubt.
P1    P2    E2  142. Even though he be well-attired, yet if he is posed, calm, controlled and established in the holy life, having set aside violence towards all beings - he, truly, is a holy man, a renunciate, a monk.
P1    P2    E2  143. Only rarely is there a man in this world who, restrained by modesty, avoids reproach, as a thoroughbred horse avoids the whip.
P1    P2    E2  144. Like a thoroughbred horse touched by the whip, be strenuous, be filled with spiritual yearning. By faith and moral purity, by effort and meditation, by investigation of the truth, by being rich in knowledge and virtue, and by being mindful, destroy this unlimited suffering.
P1    P2    E2  145. Irrigators regulate the waters, fletchers straighten arrow shafts, carpenters shape wood, and the good control themselves.  

Umm... I see that  the qualifier for the laity, at least, is as far as bad things happening the operative word is "unarmed." Self defense is not an issue for the laity, at least.  But it would also seem to be the case that verse 142 seems to mean that the lay person has achieved the state of the monk if he is able to set aside violence towards all beings. But what really strikes me about this is verses 143 and 144: the restraint from violence as "modesty" seems to be cultivated in the manner in which a horse is trained.

A horse is a being, of course, of course. And the way in which we should avoid violence is as though one were training one's self as though one were a horse; i.e., with a whip.

Isn't that kind of, umm...violent?

I think that simile is there deliberately.  I think verse 144 can be said to mean: as one who has been the recipient of violence, cultivate yourself to destroy this unlimited suffering.

"Destroy," too, is not a word commonly associated with supine pacifism.

In other words, I think the point of the passage is quite clear: one should avoid initiating violence, and one should renounce violence against those who cannot defend themselves unequivocally.


Finally, I'd like to return to the issue of Buddhism and the martial arts.  I must say that among the people I've met, the most skilled of martial arts practitioners are also among those that are the calmest and most peaceful; they really have their stuff together, as it were.  I don't think this is an accident.  I think it is because there is a spiritual aspect to the martial arts, despite what some might think.  When one comes into possession of the ability to wreak violence upon someone, the desire to wreak violence on someone can attenuate; much anger that leads to violence is rooted in feelings of impotence, as May writes.  Remove the feelings of impotence, and inculcate a calm, relaxed approach to deal with life, and even if you were to meet the Buddha on the road, you'd have no problem killing him.

But that doesn't mean you would kill him. Get it?  That's what it means to practice 功夫  (kung fu).

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