Tuesday, April 16, 2013

On Bombings and Buddhism and 武道

I have a take on this horrible terrorist act that is in response to posts by  Nathan and Brad.

Nathan's responding to Brad, but I read his piece first, so here goes. Nathan wrote:

[I]t's a little too easy to go there. To make the leap from soft interpretations of the first precept to "we should kill people who commit terrorist acts." [Brad's]  desire for punishment is, again, understandable. A pretty human impulse certainly. And yet it's also so Old Testament God. Or a really raw and unprocessed sense of karmic justice that screams Buddhist fundamentalism.

In addition, this who thing about having powerful militaries and police forces so "we" (whomever we are) can practice seems like a nice excuse for fascism. For "just" wars in "terrorist" nations. And for continued oppression of anyone here, in the U.S., who is deemed to be "disruptive" or "potentially" disruptive. Our government, regardless of the political party in power, is quite fond of pre-emptive strikes, "precautionary" measures, and the like. Not that they give a shit about meditation practitioners really. That's really not what they're concerned with. And it wasn't what the governments in medieval Japan were concerned with, nor the various royal factions in India during Buddha's time. Whatever space they "provided" for "safe" meditation practice and Buddhist study was a byproduct of power and resource control. Of oppression of one group by another. Of bloodshed and ecological destruction.

 I don't like parts of what Warner wrote there; in particular the idea that Buddhism only flourished because of strong military power.  I'll have more to say on that shortly. 

I think that's not historically true in general, and WWII era Japan is a case in point: while it's true that there was Yasutani, it's ALSO true that this had pretty much zilch to do with Buddhism. And State Shinto was favored over Buddhism.

It is undeniable though that religion prospers to the extent the powerful allow it to do so.   That's true of all culture that is the dominant "culture" of a "society."  It does no good to be fixed on decrying it, though; because that's being attached to the culture and to power by different means.  Let me put it plainly: decrying the power structures or the use of force or to advocate the use of force with a Dharma justification is the same thing: attachment.


It's not about "Omigod we need fascism!" The true spirit of 武道  - or if you like Western paradigms, military science - really does involve the cessation of violence - it's about, when attacked, doing as little damage as possible to create a peace as deep and long as possible.

And my response to Brad:

You wrote:

Our societies have to be stable before we can engage in our practice. This is an absolutely necessary prerequisite. That means we have to be able and willing to defend our societies against those who would disrupt them. There have to be very strong penalties against doing things like blowing up the Boston Marathon. In his comedy special broadcast this weekend, Louis C.K. made jokes about how great it is that there are laws against murder. “Because if there weren’t, everybody would murder at least one person.” Those who hadn’t murdered anyone, he said, would be seen as weirdos in a society where murder was legal. It was funnier when he said it. 
So I, for one, hope they find the piece of shit who did this and rip him to shreds. He deserves it. Whether they find him or not, his own actions will be his undoing. It can’t happen any other way. And yes, this news makes me angry. I wouldn’t be a real human being if it didn’t.
Still, society needs to make efforts to resolve matters like this without anger. Because an angry response leads to further tragedies, like the angry response of the people West Memphis, Arkansas that led to the wrongful conviction of the “West Memphis Three.” Still, one can expect anger as a response to something like this. I suppose the worthless motherfucker who perpetrated this bombing intended it that way. In the end, it doesn’t matter. Society has every right to remove him from its midst in any way it sees fit.

No Brad "society" does not have the right to remove the perpetrator from its midst in any way it sees fit; in fact it has the obligation to respond to this even in a way that creates as much of a stable, peaceful, caring and harmonious environment as possible, even if it requires a certain degree of violence to achieve that end.   But it should require absolutely no more than is necessary, and it should be understood that this act has meant that we, as a society, have failed in what Sun Tzu would have called the supreme excellence of achieving that peaceful, caring, harmonious, stable society without violence.  We have failed.  But we are not absolved of the responsibilities that come with our existence.


Jayarava said...

It's not the first time that Brad Warner has written in praise of the military - especially the military who read his books! The word "quisling" comes to mind.

I think your assessment of Buddhism's relation to power is closer to the historical facts. Buddhism has often been an enabler of feudalism and military dictatorships which oppressed their populations.

Warner, weirdly, thinks of Buddhists as citizens and yet in most times and places ordinary people have been subjects or serfs in feudal and/or military regimes. Citizenship is an invention of French revolution and did not spread to the Buddhist world until the mid 20th century in most cases (or when Buddhism spread to democratic countries. Both in the wake of WWII.

Brad's desire for punishment is still incomprehensible from a Buddhist point of view, since punishment only causes more suffering. Buddhism supposedly allows karma to run it's course, though with some fudging in the Mahāyāna. The idea that punishment balances out evil is a pernicious legacy of Christianity. Though Muslims will recognise the sentiment too.

America is beset with enemies within and without. This is a direct consequence of a long policy of waging war, and adopting threats and economic sanctions to bludgeon even friendly states into supporting USA economic interests. This marathon thing was awful, but it happens every week in Waziristan, with US drones causing carnage. A strong military breeds fear and insecurity and eventually leads to collapse and chaos - or so history tells us in Rome, Persia, Russia, Europe and China. Indeed all militaristic empires eventually auto-destruct. Unfortunately when regimes colllapse chaos follows.

What provides stability and religious freedom is being on good terms with your neighbours and healthy trade. A well fed, busy, productive population does not revolt. But if we prosper at the cost of impoverishing our neighbours, let alone use force to push them around then we can expect trouble.

No one who understands the modern history of UK and USA interventions in Iran, for example, can fail to understand and sympathise with their desire for a nuclear deterrent.

Brad would be more plausible in his outrage if it was for all victims of mindless terrorist attacks. But he reserves this attitude for Americans and he's quite happy to have American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, and US drones operating in Waziristan and Pakistan. He doesn't seem to mind foreigners dying senseless deaths at American hands; but he's ready to see someone who kills Americans "torn to pieces" . He's part of the problem, not part of the solution.

Edward Colcord said...

The practice requires realization of a world as it is. Beings, skillful and unskillful, follow precepts or do not follow precepts. Action takes care of its own. Very good thoughts, all.^^

Nathan said...

I disagree about the issue of decrying power structures and the use of force. You're right that people who do so frequently come from a place of attachment, but I don't think that's always the case. Was Robert Aitken attached to the structures and culture of war he spoke out against? How about Thich Nhat Hanh? Maybe both are/were. Maybe not. Seems to me that there's a place where one can speak out, be very pointed and direct about injustice and it's causes/conditions, and also fully accept what's happening right now.

I agree with Jayarava's assessment here as well. It speaks directly to one of the points of my post, which is that our (the American public especially) focus isn't on the big picture. We get profoundly upset at events like the marathon bombing, but the majority of us fail to recognize the culture of war and oppression that leads to such events. Right View is pretty absent, even amongst a lot of American Buddhists.

Mumon K said...


I don't abjure the use of challenging the status quo at all.

But it can't be done effectively without understanding the underlying mechanisms of its way, and working with that way. (This isn't "liberal compromise," as I see it. I can speak nasty about Obama and drones and solitary confinement and Wikileaks with the best of 'em.)

Yeah, speak out against injustice, but one should not rule out the use of force by those in power when it's justified.

As for ...


I agree that America hasn't been skillful at all in its accumulation of enemies and empire and what-not.


When you set of bombs in a venue like the Boston Marathon, you can't but expect such a power to get medieval on you. But we should expect at least aiming in the direction of mitigation of conflict, even if conflict is required to that end, which, sometimes it is.

Sometimes you do have to do things that might be violent to protect people and save lives, and it's yet another form of the poisons claim such things are never needed. Even Thich Nhat Hanh spoke highly of the monk who self-immolated.

Nathan said...

There's a big difference between violent/forceful acts in protecting the lives of self and/or others in a particular, immediately dangerous situation - and state sanctioned warfare or "military interventions." Most of the justifications throughout American history for the latter have turned out to be lies and propaganda. I think the bar for such acts needs to be much, much higher than it is.

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