Action and Force in Engaged Buddhism: Public Policy and the Koan of Engagement

by

Christopher A. Ford
Dissertation Submitted in Partial Satisfaction of Requirements for Chaplaincy Ordination

Prajna Mountain Order of Soto Zen Buddhism
Upaya Institute and Zen Center Santa Fe, New Mexico 1st February 2010

Any merit generated in the preparation of this paper is dedicated to the awakening of all beings, and to the cessation of their suffering – as Buddhists understand this term. I am thankful for the teaching and guidance of Roshi Joan Halifax of the Upaya Zen Center, and of the coordinator of Upaya’s pioneering chaplaincy program, Maia Duerr. I suspect that I part company from these teachers in some or many of my own views and interpretations of the politics and policy programmatics of Buddhist engagement, but I remain deeply and humbly grateful for their wise guidance and good counsel.

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I.

Introduction

Engaged Buddhism is sometimes said to be nothing special at all – just the natural result of any open-hearted being’s compassionate encounter with the world, with the desire to alleviate suffering manifesting itself as a determination to live out compassionate action in dealings with others. It is this. At the same time, however, Engaged Buddhism also embodies a paradox, for there is yet a tension between its devotion to effecting systemic and transformational change in the phenomenal world of cyclic birth and death (samsara), in order to relieve suffering, and the fundamental Buddhist understanding that samsara cannot, within its own frame of reference, be “fixed.” If samsara is by definition delusive – characterized by the pervasive inescapability of suffering, which cannot be ended for any being short of the transcendence of enlightened awakening – how can we presume to be able to alleviate such anguish merely by action within that world? It is a common characteristic of samsaric ideologies to assume – to put it in Buddhist terms – that the conventional, relational world of cause-and-effect transformations can be redeemed and transformed through adherence to some particular program of action. Such ideologies seek Utopia within samsara by remaking it to their specifications. To the political theorist Eric Voegelin, this kind of utopianism – which he described as aiming for the “immanentization of the eschaton,”1 the end, through transformation or destruction, of the present world – was both worrisome and dangerous, tending toward an incipient totalitarianism that he felt to be a characteristic weakness of the political left, but which had its roots in the Gnostic heresies of Christianity. From a Buddhist perspective, however, such approaches to remaking the world seem doubly problematic. First, the manipulative “intervention-mind” of seeking instrumentally to bring about such deliberate and programmatic reshaping seems untrue to the spirit of open, nonjudgmental awareness – embodying the precepts of not knowing and bearing witness2 – to which the Buddhist practitioner aspires. It is indeed true, as David Chappell has pointed out, that Buddhists should be “wary of doctrines” because if “held too tightly” such schemas become impediments to enlightenment.3 This surely applies no less to socio-political theories and prescriptions as it does to specifically religious formulations.

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See, e.g., Fred Dallmayr, Margins of Political Discourse (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989), at 90 (quoting Voegelin). The terminology used here follows that developed by the Zen Peacemaker Order (ZPO) founded by Roshi Bernard Glassman within the White Plum Lineage of Soto Zen, and which has been continued by Glassman’s dharma heir Roshi Joan Halifax in the Prajna Mountain Order. These terms appear in the ZPO’s particular formulation of the core precepts of Buddhism, but analogues can be found across the various Buddhist traditions. David W. Chappell, “Introduction,” in Buddhist Peacework (David W. Chappell, ed.) (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1999), at 15, 17.

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Second, and in a sense more fundamentally, there is something inherently problematic, from a Buddhist perspective, about presuming that an real release from the world’s suffering (dukkha) can be achieved by changing the world around – rather than specifically by awakening through the practice of the dharma (Skt; Pali dhamma), the teachings of the Buddha. How, in other words, can we contribute to liberation through a mere rearrangement of the samsaric deck chairs on which deluded, self-identifying sentient beings sit? Even apart from concerns about the coercive excesses to which world-transformative ideologies tend to give rise, therefore, Buddhists should probably join Voegelin in being deeply suspicious of theories that seem to immanentize the eschaton. Yet Engaged Buddhism does seek action in the world, and indeed to transform it. It seeks to serve the cause of Mahayana compassion – promoting the liberation of all sentient beings – by just such concrete intervention in the structural and institutional circumstances of samsara. Engaged Buddhists do not simply teach the dharma: they march for world peace, feed the hungry, succor the dying, and offer ministry in prisons and hospitals. If such engagement is not simply to be a lazy re-labeling of garden-variety samsaric social and political activism as “Buddhist” action, however – and if it is not itself to fall prey to a depressingly conventional ideologization – Engaged Buddhism must come to grips with the paradox of action in samsara. From a specifically Buddhist perspective, how can changing the circumstances of samsara contribute to the liberation of beings? If “policymaking” is the process by which institutions make choices about action in the relational world, the challenge for Engaged Buddhism is thus to reconceptualize Mahayana compassion as a policy problem while yet keeping that policy recognizably Buddhist. It demands of us not merely not knowing and bearing witness but also concrete strategies and objectives – and criteria for assessing progress – with which to equip actors within samsara in their work to change it. In short, Engaged Buddhism must be able to answer the question: “Can we discern any specifically Buddhist guidance for making policy choices in the relational world?” This paper seeks thus to explore “the problem of action” in compassionate engagement – with a particular, but by no means exclusive, focus upon the troubling question of the use, legitimacy, and modalities of violence in or by a Buddhist society – through a survey of the literature on Engaged Buddhism and relevant dharma texts and explications. Any conclusions reached in this regard are, of course, merely this author’s opinions, offered in full awareness of the diversity of Buddhist thought and of the ancient understanding that, in the figurative phrasing offered by Thich Nhat Hanh – the famous Vietnamese Zen monastic and peace activist who is credited with coining the term “Engaged Buddhism”4 – there are “84,000 dharma doors” through which one can travel the Path.5

4 5

See, e.g., Christopher S. Queen, “Introduction: A New Buddhism,” in Engaged Buddhism in the West (Christopher S. Queen, ed.) (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2000), at 1, 6. Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching (New York: Broadway, 1999), at 162.

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The views articulated herein are thus not intended to be a “knowing” of the sort against which Buddhist psychology warns us in its quest to forestall the development of harmful attachments. Rather, it is my hope to articulate here a legitimate perspective – and to some degree, I hope, a persuasive one – that deserves contemplation from thoughtful and serious practitioners. Particularly because modern Buddhists in the West sometimes seem to approach policy issues as though such matters were ones of crystalline clarity and inarguable doctrinal requirements, however, it is my hope that my discussion will prove at the very least thought-provoking and enriching. With regard to the philosophical and doctrinal conundrum of engagement, it is, in my view, probably possible to begin to identify at least some characteristics or factors in the samsaric world that may make enlightenment more accessible to sentient beings. As a result, deliberate intervention in that world may be compassionately defensible in specifically Buddhist terms if such action is devoted to the creation or preservation of such facilitative circumstances. However reflexive some of its incarnations might seem in conventional political or ideological terms, I thus believe there is no reason to reject Engaged Buddhism as being necessarily problematic. My hypothesis, however, posits an indirect link to the compassionate liberation of other beings.6 Because of this merely indirect connection, engagement with samsaric
6

Some writings on Engaged Buddhism also attribute a motivation for “engaged” practice not merely in alleviating the suffering of other beings, but in facilitating the enlightenment of the engaged actor himself or herself. Citing the 8th-Century Indian sage Shantideva about how service to others provides an especially quick path to enlightenment, for instance, Joanna Macy suggests that engagement is driven at least in part by the desire to speed one’s own enlightenment. See Joanna Macy, “In Indra’s Net: Sarvodaya & Our Mutual Efforts for Peace,” in The Path of Compassion: Writings on Socially Engaged Buddhism (Fred Eppsteiner, ed.) (Berkeley: Parallax Press, 1988), at 170, 173. Kenneth Kraft has also suggested that “[a]nother justification for involvement in the social realm” is that “individual enlightenment cannot ripen fully without a corresponding degree of social awareness.” Through this lens, engagement is at least in part about using “engaged activity” as a sort of meditation for the benefit of the engaged actor himself: at least some “individual Buddhists now approach social action as a skillful means for deepening their practice.” Kenneth Kraft, “Wellsprings of Engaged Buddhism,” in Not Turning Away: the Practice of Engaged Buddhism (Susan Moon, ed.) (Boston: Shambhala, 2004), at 154, 156 & 161. Cynthia Eller has described this approach as a theory of “action meditation,” and says that it has indeed been adopted by some activists. From this perspective, “political activism [is] a way of pursuing enlightenment” in its own right. Eller, “The Impact of Christianity on Buddhist Nonviolence in the West,” in Inner Peace, World Peace: Essays on Buddhism and Nonviolence (Kenneth Kraft, ed.) (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992), at 91, 104. In this sense, the suffering of other beings seems almost incidental, taking a secondary position to the enlightenment of the “engaged” actor himself. All this may be true, but the role of compassionate engagement in advancing the actor’s own spiritual progress is a question I will not discuss further herein. By such a yardstick of individual enlightenment, social engagement is functionally indistinguishable from solitary meditation practice, with the presence or absence of others (or the actual degree of their suffering) being merely incidental. (Indeed, by eliminating the external referent for compassionate moral action, moreover – specifically, the criterion of judging actions by whether or not they are in fact conducive to alleviating the suffering of other sentient beings – “action meditation” would seem to incline even more toward operational permissiveness than compassion-based engagement. If consideration of the impact upon others is irrelevant, any sort of conduct would be allowed if it

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circumstances should thus not be undertaken with the specific expectation that it will in itself relieve suffering. (After all, Buddhists presumably believe that changing the architecture of the samsaric world cannot do this, for it is not adverse circumstances that create suffering as much as it is our unhealthy and delusively self-obsessed relationship with them. That relationship, in turn, is only curable through a sentient being’s own progress along the path of enlightenment.) Rather, the point is to bring about conditions in which sentient beings are more likely to be able to achieve awakening. Engagement is about creating conditions maximally conducive to spiritual practice and progress within an inescapably confused and unavoidably anguish-ridden environment. The policy prescriptions toward which I believe such a supposition points us – or at least which such an interpretation of Buddhist ethics permits – may not necessarily be precisely those advocated by most “Engaged Buddhists” in the contemporary West. But it nonetheless seems to me quite possible to speak of Engaged Buddhism as at least potentially a genuinely Buddhist phenomenon. Given that meaningfully Buddhist engagement would thus seem to be possible, what does it allow? Despite modern stereotypes, particularly with respect to issues such as the use of warfare and capital punishment, the dharma, I contend, is not nearly so prescriptive as one might assume. As we shall see, even with regard to such supposedly “easy” questions, Buddhism seems to provide a remarkable range of apparently canonically-supportable policy options – not least in making it possible to speak defensibly of coercive and even deadly force being, under certain circumstances at least, legitimately available as a tool of government or social policy. In undertaking public policy choice through the prism of Buddhist engagement, it is both our responsibility and our challenge, as moral actors, to choose on an ongoing basis between a wide range of articulably “Buddhist” options, and to do so without the crutch of doctrinal clarity. In this context, what constitutes for Buddhism a “right” or a “wrong” answer – if indeed that is clearly resolvable at all, which we should not necessarily presume – may be an extraordinarily complex calculation involving issues of motive, context, and intention going far beyond questions of simple rule-compliance or conventional effectsconsequentialism. Within the ambit of compassionate engagement, however, I believe that while the responsibilities of public policy choice are inescapably challenging – constituting, at it were, an awkward and perilous dance around the margins of dangerous and seductive enlightenment-impeding “knowings” – such policy choice is not impossible, and is coherently defensible even in specifically Buddhist terms. The following pages will explore these issues in some detail.

facilitates the actor’s spiritual progress. Cf. Eller, “The Impact of Christianity on Buddhist Nonviolence in the West,” supra, at 104.) What is distinctive and interesting about Engaged Buddhism is the degree of its genuine – rather than merely instrumental – concern for the suffering of others, and its focus upon addressing such suffering by addressing the institutional, political, economic, and social circumstances of samsara.

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II.

Engaged Buddhism

The term “Engaged Buddhism” was apparently first used by Thich Nhat Hanh, in his 1963 book by the same name,7 and is generally used today to describe a particular “flavor” of modern Buddhist practice that deliberately, purposively, and explicitly involves itself in seeking to bring about change to various institutional and structural aspects of human society. Although Hanh himself believes that all Buddhism is intrinsically “engaged” with the world around it – and that it would not in fact be Buddhism were it not so8 – many authors in recent years have treated Engaged Buddhism as a distinctive approach to dharma practice that departs in significant ways from most traditional approaches. Christopher Queen, for instance, describes the movement as being “unprecedented,” and a “new chapter” or “new paradigm” in the history of Buddhism. Citing a comment by B.R. Ambedkar, in fact, Queen suggests viewing Engaged Buddhism as nothing less than a Navayana – a Neo-Buddhism, “a fourth yana in the evolution of the Dharma.”9 In exploring this distinctiveness, many observers who discuss the development of Engaged Buddhism draw a distinction between what they describe as two different veins of contemporary Buddhist thinking. On the one hand, writes Kenneth Kraft, there is a strong element in Buddhism that emphasizes the importance of what might be called inner work, such as meditation practice, mindfulness contemplation, mantra and visualization work, and so forth. In the taxonomy of practice suggested by Ken Jones, such a focus upon meditation, mindfulness, personal experience, and individual acts of kindness makes one a “soft” Buddhist practitioner.10 According to Kraft, followers of this inwardly-focused path, which he feels is the more traditional approach, tend to be skeptical of any form of Buddhism that advocates an activist engagement with samsaric circumstances: “A reform movement that is pursued only from a sociopolitical standpoint, they assert, will at best provide temporary solutions, and at worst it will perpetuate the very ills it aims to cure. Effective social action must also address the greed, anger, and ignorance that cripple us as groups and as individuals.”11

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9 10

11

Kenneth Kraft, “Prospects for a Socially Engaged Buddhism,” in Inner Peace, World Peace, supra, at 11, 18. Patricia Hunt-Perry & Lyn Fine, “All Buddhism is Engaged: Thich Nhat Hanh and the Order of Interbeing,” in Engaged Buddhism in the West (Christopher S. Queen, ed.) (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2000), at 35, 36. Queen, “Introduction: A New Buddhism,” supra, at 1, 1-2; see also id. at 23 (quoting Abdedkar). See, e.g., Sandra Bell, “A Survey of Engaged Buddhism in Britain,” in Engaged Buddhism in the West, supra, at 397, at 405. Queen similarly suggests categorizing practitioners along a continuum from “mindfulness-based practice to service-based practice.” See Queen, “Introduction: A New Buddhism,” supra, at 8. Kraft, “Prospects for a Socially Engaged Buddhism,” supra, at 12.

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According to Cynthia Eller, this inwardly-focused tradition sees the primary work of peacemakers as being that of clearing their own minds of mental conflict.12 Indeed, Kraft offers Thich Nhat Hanh himself as an example of this school, noting Hanh’s belief that peacework is principally inner work, rather than outer work.13 According to Kraft, this strain of Buddhist thought approaches the challenge of relieving suffering in the world through the assumption that “cosmic harmony is most effectively preserved through an individual’s spiritual practice.”14 Because “[o]ur well-being is the well-being of others,” it has been said, “‘[i]f you take care of your mind, you take care of the world.’”15 By contrast, some authors assert that social engagement is something new in the history of Buddhism because it departs fundamentally from the more quietist approach to socio-economic and political issues that is said traditionally to have been taken by Buddhism in East Asia in recent centuries. Nelson Foster, for instance – one of the founders of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship – laments that on Buddhism’s long journey through East Asia, it lost its way by abandoning an interest in social justice. As he describes it, “Chinese society effectively bottled up the social impulse in Buddhism,” which led it to become “over-specialized” in wisdom and the arts, and having only a diminished feel and concern for “the sangha’s relationship with the society beyond its gates.”16 Gary Snyder has also complained that Buddhist philosophy traditionally cared more about “psychology” than about “historical or sociological problems.” In fact, Snyder sees “Institutional Buddhism” as having traditionally ignored – or perhaps actually accepted – “the inequalities and tyrannies of whatever political system it found itself under.”17 Similarly, David Chappell has written that traditional Buddhist approaches failed to “adequately address” the “special problems of organized society, of structural violence, of social oppression and environmental degradation.”18 Engaged Buddhism is thus said to depart from the political passivity of “traditional Buddhism in the Asian cultural context”19 by adopting a stance of explicitly involving practitioners in changing the world around them. Nevertheless, there is not agreement on the degree to which this reactive “engagement” actually comes from Buddhist sources. While Foster and Thurman believe that authentic and original themes of social engagement in early Buddhism have been lost and now need to be restored, Peter Harvey sees modern Engaged Buddhism as a cross-cultural hybrid with its roots in “the meeting of Buddhism with Western values in the colonial era, especially in Sri Lanka from the late nineteenth century.”20 Cynthia Eller similarly sees in Engaged Buddhism a “blending of Buddhist self-cultivation and a Western or Christian desire for
12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20

Cynthia Eller, “The Impact of Christianity on Buddhist Nonviolence in the West,” supra, at 102. Kraft, “Prospects for a Socially Engaged Buddhism,” supra, at 19. Kraft, “Introduction,” in Inner Peace, World Peace, supra, at 1, 2. Joan Halifax, Being With Dying (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2006), at 93. Nelson Foster, “To Enter the Marketplace,” in The Path of Compassion, supra, at 47, 50. Gary Snyder, “Buddhism and the Possibilities of a Planetary Culture,” in Engaged Buddhist Reader (Arnold Kotler, ed.) (Berkeley: Parallax, 1996), at 123, 123. David W. Chappell, “Buddhist Peace Principles,” in Buddhist Peacework, supra, at 211. Kraft, “Wellsprings of Engaged Buddhism,” supra, at 154. Peter Harvey, An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), at 112.

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nonviolent social action” – and as fulfilling, at some level, a need to “satisfy the cryptoChristian conscience.”21 Historically speaking, Christopher Queen follows Harvey in seeing the origins of Engaged Buddhism in 20th Century East Asian socio-political dynamics, most notably the movement of Indian caste “untouchables” into Buddhism during the 1950s and 1960s in search of equality and social progress, the development of the Sarvodaya Shramadana movement in Sri Lanka, and the founding of Thich Nhat Hanh’s Order of Interbeing in Vietnam.22 Whatever its pedigree, however, Engaged Buddhism embraces an explicitly activist and purposeful involvement in the world. Operating more, in Ken Jones’ terms, toward the “hard” than the “soft” end of practice, Engaged Buddhists inn some sense seek to redefine what is meant by “practice” in the first placed. No longer, they contend, should it include only inward-looking practices such as meditation and mindfulness, coupled merely with narrowly-focused acts of personal generosity or compassion. Rather, Engaged Buddhists seek to expand the ambit of dharma practice to incorporate socio-political engagement, broadening their approaches to include ethics in action in the broader world.23 To be sure, many authors seem to exaggerate the contrast between “hard” and “soft” varieties of Buddhist practice. The sharp distinction between inwardly- and outwardly-focused practices may be analytically (or polemically) convenient, but it oversimplifies. It is probably a mistake to regard the two approaches as being diametrically opposed, or to suppose that modern Buddhists exist in discrete clumps that can be associated with one or the other approach. As suggested by the frequent argument that “inner” school devotees include Thich Nhat Hanh himself – a monk who rose to fame as an anti-war protester during the Vietnam era – it certainly cannot be said that this group does not care about improving the conditions of the world. Nor is there any evidence that the more political activists of Engaged Buddhism eschew meditative practice and “inner” cultivation. Instead, the question thus seems to be one merely of tendency, emphasis, and degree. Both approaches seem committed to living out Buddhist ethics in the world so as to help alleviate suffering, and both can find inspiration in the Buddha’s own decision to start teaching the dharma rather than remaining passively in meditative bliss – a decision, Kenneth Kraft has argued, teaching us that “spiritual maturity includes the ability to actualize transcendent insight in daily life.”24

21

22 23 24

Eller, “The Impact of Christianity on Buddhist Nonviolence in the West,” supra, at 104-05. At the very least, Engaged Buddhism does seem to incorporate “social justice” themes that are in some ways closer to what one sees in the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam than to the approaches traditionally taken in the Buddhist societies of Asia. See David Loy, The Great Awakening: A Buddhist Social Theory (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2003), at 16. Queen, “Introduction: A New Buddhism,” supra, at 4. See Stephen Batchelor, “The Future Is in Our Hands,” in Engaged Buddhist Reader, supra, at 243, 243. Kraft, “Introduction,” in Inner Peace, World Peace, supra, at 4.

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Not surprisingly, therefore, Engaged Buddhists insist that they are not solely about engagement with broader social structures, and that “engaged” practice must not neglect inner work. Kraft emphasizes, for instance, that “the heart of Buddhist social activism, its sine qua non” is still individual transformation. Engagement pursued “only from a social/political standpoint, without this transformative element,” he suggests, is not really Buddhist – and may both “fail to achieve real results and … even perpetuate the ills it aims to cure.”25 David Loy’s account is illustrative. He advocates an engagement that revolves around work for social justice as an outgrowth of Buddhist ethics. Dukkha, Loy writes, can have many causes, but Engaged Buddhism recognizes that “[i]n the end, our efforts to reduce contemporary dukkha cannot avoid bumping up against institutional and structural issues” in the society around us.26 Ultimately, however, Loy does not feel that social and individual transformation and social transformation can be distinguished. Activist engagement with the world is necessary, he feels, because the sickness of the ecosystems and social systems around us so severe as to deny us the luxury of “devoting ourselves only to our own enlightenment.”27 Nevertheless, we cannot neglect “our own awakening,” and without work on transforming our delusions, “our efforts to address their institutionalized forms are likely to be useless, or worse.”28 Nevertheless, Engaged Buddhism does aim to add a new and quite explicit emphasis upon social justice and activism in seeking to alter the circumstances of samsara. This is depicted as a natural outgrowth of Buddhist compassion – particularly when viewed through the prism of Mahayana ethics and the bodhisattva ideal of seeking to ensure the salvation of all sentient beings – and the key Buddhist concept of nonduality. Kraft has written, for instance, that “no enlightenment can be complete as long as others remain trapped in delusion,” and that “genuine wisdom is manifested in compassionate action.” In his description, “[t]he touchstone for engaged Buddhists is a vision of interdependence in which the universe is experienced as an organic whole, every ‘part’ affecting every other part.”29 Joanna Macy similarly chastises “[m]any spiritual teachers and gurus” for preaching “a detachment that appears suspiciously akin to sublime indifference,” arguing that real understanding of the Buddhist concept of dependent co-arising makes such indifference impossible. In its place, “we see ourselves as co-participating in the existence of all beings and in the world we co-create with them.”30 For Christopher Queen, it is characteristic of Engaged Buddhism that practitioners – as indeed all Buddhists should – refuse to draw a fundamental distinction between themselves and the rest of the world. For them, the “imperative of action” in the world is the result of seeing
25 26 27 28 29 30

Kraft, “Wellsprings of Engaged Buddhism,” supra, at 157. Loy, supra, at 16-17. Loy, supra, at 198. Loy, supra, at 35 & 198. Kenneth Kraft, “Engaged Buddhism: An Introduction,” in The Path of Compassion: Writings on Socially Engaged Buddhism (Fred Eppsteiner, ed.) (Berkeley: Parallax Press, 1988), at xi, xii-xiii. Macy, “In Indra’s Net,” supra, at 171.

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others’ suffering as their own.31 Insight into nonduality (advaya), therefore, is said to provide the engine for engagement. Through this lens, engagement is the derivative of compassion, and a necessary one. Kraft, quoting Nelson Foster, describes engagement as “‘a natural result of Buddhist practice, a spontaneous response of wisdom and compassion to the social and ecological problems we face.’” In this sense, “[t]here can be no such thing as disengaged Buddhism.”32 It may be – in Nelson Foster’s words – “peculiar” that Buddhism “lacks a clear tradition of social service,”33 but Engaged Buddhists define themselves by their commitment to filling that gap. It is doubtless true that as a socio-political movement, Engaged Buddhism is still “in the process of definition,”34 and that it parameters are therefore somewhat hard to pin down with specificity. Nevertheless, its practitioners are characteristically active in seeking to change the world around them, frequently policyoriented, and often explicitly political. They aspire to alleviate suffering by changing the dukkha-producing or dukkha-exacerbating structures and institutions of human society. It is the aim of engagement, says Sulak Sivaraksa, to bring “awakened presence” to the task of “influence[ing] the situation” for the alleviation of suffering.35 According to Queen, this approach is shaped by a recognition of “the social and collective nature of experience,” which is shaped in particular by “cultural and political institutions that have the power to promote good or evil, fulfillment or suffering, progress or decline.” Out of the assumption that such social structures contribute to suffering arises “the necessity of collective action to address the systemic causes of suffering and promote social advancement in the world.” As a result of this focus upon systemic and institutional issues, the individual practitioner is no longer the sole relevant “unit” of compassionate engagement. Engaged Buddhists tend to feel that they must also consider “the effects of personal and social actions on others, particularly in the realms of speech and symbol manipulation … and in the policies, programs, and products of large and small institutions.”36 This is why Engaged Buddhism is said to be “radically different”: in contrast to the more traditional Mahayana path of altruism, it is specifically “directed to the creation of new social institutions and relationships.”37 Organizations such as the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, for example, stress that suffering must be addressed not just in its individual form but in its structural and social aspects as well. Unjust social structures create suffering, and it is the job of engagement to work to remake these structures.38 This can give rise to a full-spectrum socio-political activism. Roshi Philip Kapleau, for example,
31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38

Queen, “Introduction: A New Buddhism,” supra, at 6-7. Kenneth Kraft, “Wellsprings of Engaged Buddhism,” supra, at 156-57. Foster, “To Enter the Marketplace,” supra, at 49. Kraft, “Wellsprings of Engaged Buddhism,” supra, at 154. Sulak Sivaraksa, “Buddhism in a World of Change,” in The Path of Compassion, supra, at 9, 11. Queen, “Introduction: A New Buddhism,” supra, at 3. Queen, “Introduction: A New Buddhism,” supra, at 17. Judith Simmer-Brown, “Speaking Truth to Power,” in Engaged Buddhism in the West, supra, at 67, 80.

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believed that it was “[a] major task for Buddhism in the West” to work to “forestall the potential catastrophes facing the human race” and “lend our physical and moral support to those who are fighting hunger, poverty, and oppression everywhere in the world.”39 This, its practitioners aver, is the “revolutionary activity” of engagement, aiming to “turn civilization to a harmonious course”: it is “the politics of prajna.”40 Although, as we have seen, some authors have described Engaged Buddhism as an unprecedented “fourth yana” of the dharma on account of the explicitness of its commitment to social change, Engaged Buddhist practitioners commonly also – or alternatively – see their approach as an act of recovering or reclaiming, if also expressing in a new and distinctively modern way, an ethical heritage that had been lost or forgotten over Buddhism’s long history. In this regard, it is perhaps the case with Engaged Buddhism, as so often with cultural expressions and socio-political innovations in the history of East Asian cultures, that novelty is expressed and defended most powerfully in a legitimacy discourse of “rediscovery” or “return” to ancient roots. As Roger Ames has noted of the Chinese intellectual tradition, cultural discourse is “generally characterized by a commitment to continuity,” requiring that a thinker achieve prominence therein not by feeding a Western-style fetish for novelty but rather by stressing “the degree to which he embodies, expresses, and amplifies his tradition.” Novelty is, in other words, customarily expressed within the tradition, not by its repudiation.41 Whether or not explicit “structural” social engagement is in fact a genuinely new phenomenon within Buddhism, modern Engaged Buddhist writers frequently describe it as being a rediscovery of something that was present from the very earliest years of the dharma – even if it was for a long while forgotten. Nelson Foster, for example, cites various Pali texts in arguing that from the beginning, “Buddhism was aware of itself as a force for social good. Shakyamuni appears in the Pali suttas as a peacemaker, provides guidelines for good rulership, criticizes India’s caste system, emphasizes morality as the foundation of practice, and so forth.”42 As an inspiration for modern engagement, Dhammachari Lokamitra cites the Buddha’s exhortation to go forth for “the welfare and happiness of the many.”43 Similarly, Kraft finds inspiration and legitimacy for the “engaged” approach in seminal early Mahayana writings such as the work of the 2nd-Century Indian sage Nagarjuna, as well the scriptures of early Buddhism. According to Kraft,

39 40 41 42 43

Kenneth Kraft, “Engaged Buddhism,” in Engaged Buddhist Reader, supra, at 64, 65 (quoting Kapleau). Foster, “To Enter the Marketplace,” supra, at 53. Roger T. Ames, The Art of Rulership: A Study of Ancient Chinese Political Thought (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994), at xx-xxi. Foster, “To Enter the Marketplace,” supra, at 49. Dhammachari Lokamitra, “The Dhamma Revolution in India: Peacemaking Begins with the Eradication of the Caste System,” in Buddhist Peacework, supra, at 29, 32.

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“[t]he Pali canon provides evidence to indicate that Shakyamuni Buddha saw individual serenity and social concord as inseparable, and he left guidelines for the development of just social institutions. Nagarjuna, the second-century Indian founder of Madhyamika, also discussed the application of Buddhist principles in the social realm. … Nagarjuna envisioned ‘the broad outlines of an individualist, transcendentalist, pacifist, universalist, socialist society.’ Buddhist popular literature can also be interpreted in this spirit. In the Jataka tales, Rafe Martin notes, ‘the Buddha is shown not as withdrawing from the world, but as acting with compassion and wisdom for the benefit of all beings.’” 44 For his part, Roshi Bernard Glassman, founder of the Zen Peacemaker Order, looks to more recent models, recounting that his teacher Maezumi Roshi lauded the founder of Japanese Shingon Buddhism, Kobo Daishi (a.ka. Kukai [774-835]), as an example of how one can recognize a Buddha by his activities in service to others. Kukai, Glassman says, was a social activist, keen on building dams and great social works; modern Buddhists should follow this example, adapting it to the modern world.45 Kenneth Kraft has argued that while there does exist a “Mahayana tradition of political inactivity,” this attitude is merely a cultural artifact rather than anything inherent in Buddhism per se: such passivity is no more than a byproduct of the “restrictive social environment which Buddhism encountered in China and Japan” and is “not inherent to the Buddha way.”46 Robert Thurman agrees, arguing that Buddhism developed an ethic of political passivity – and even a fear of openly exercising political power – during its long years of survival in East Asia after its collapse in its Indian home. Buddhism in East Asia, Thurman says, lost the experience of “having to be responsible for an entire society,” and even came to think that there was something wrong with having political power.47 (As we shall see later, Thurman has no such worries.) Quite apart from questions of actually holding political power, however – a somewhat idiosyncratic recurring interest for Thurman, who departs from most Engaged Buddhist authors by actually holding up Tibetan theocracy as a model for the contemporary political world48 – it seems clear that most Engaged Buddhists today see their approach to practice as stemming from specifically Buddhist antecedents and understandings rather than as representing something entirely new. The activist drive for social justice may be a distinctively modern manifestation of Buddhist ethics, but its fountainhead is said to be ancient, and to derive directly from the Buddha’s own fundamental insights. This may have implications for our effort to explore the contours of “engagement” in the context of modern public policy decision-making, for it
44

45 46 47 48

Kraft, “Wellsprings of Engaged Buddhism,” supra, at 155. Jataka tales are stories of the Buddha’s past lives, ubiquitously employed for purposes of moral education and in order to encourage emulation of the Buddha’s enlightenment-facilitating choices. Christopher S. Queen, “Glassman Roshi and the Peacemaker Order: Three Encounters,” in Engaged Buddhism in the West, supra, at 95, 120 (citing Glassman). Kraft, “Wellsprings of Engaged Buddhism,” supra, at 155. Robert Thurman, “Buddha’s Mother Saving Tibet,” in Not Turning Away, supra, at 186, 193. See, e.g., Thurman, “Buddha’s Mother Saving Tibet,” supra, at 193.

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underlines the importance of understanding Engaged Buddhism through the prism of Buddhist doctrine – and of looking to Buddhist traditions of scholarship and interpretation for help as we struggle with what “engagement” may properly be said to permit. These traditions, in turn, may offer a startlingly wide range of apparently canonically-“approved” alternatives. III. The Challenge of Action

To understand the peculiar challenges that Engaged Buddhism faces in approaching the task of alleviating suffering in the samsaric world, it is useful to begin with as clear an understanding as possible of what precisely Buddhism means by “suffering” in the first place. The specifically Buddhist meaning of the term is not necessarily coextensive with how the word is used in conventional discourse, with the result that any departures from ordinary usage may have profound implications for how to ensure that one’s effort to effect change in the broad social and institutional structures of the world remains an “engagement” that is specifically Buddhist. Some writers discussing Engaged Buddhism have asked pointed questions about “to what extent” the actions of Buddhist activists in society “are distinctively Buddhist examples of socially engaged practice.”49 Others, among them Kenneth Kraft, have even wondered whether there has to be anything distinctively Buddhist about Engaged Buddhism.50 If indeed modern Buddhist engagement with social justice issues is to claim intelligible roots lying specifically in the dharma, however – rather than just constituting something in which certain Buddhists happen to be involved, much as would be the case with a Buddhist basketball league or train-spotting club – it would seem that Engaged Buddhism needs to be able to point to something identifiably “Buddhist” about its approach. Because it is the distinctive ambition of Engaged Buddhism to express compassion by “engaging” with social structures in order to lessen or eliminate the suffering of other beings, it seems reasonable to begin assessing its dharmic legitimacy with a close analysis of what Buddhism means by suffering. Only by understanding the concept of suffering as Buddhism sees it can one begin to parse what sorts of “engagement” for its alleviation are distinctively Buddhist ones. A. The Idiosyncrasy of Suffering

The Buddha’s teaching of the Four Noble Truths – the truth of suffering (dukkha), the origin of suffering (samudaya), the cessation of suffering (nirodha), and the way to achieve its cessation (magga)51 – are at the core of Buddhism. As explained in Acariya Anuruddha’s classic treatise of Abidhamma philosophy, the noble truth of the origin of
49

50 51

Darrel Wratten, “Engaged Buddhism in South Africa,” in Engaged Buddhism in the West, supra, at 446, 449 (emphasis added); see also Kenneth Kraft, “New Voices in Engaged Buddhist Studies,” in Engaged Buddhism in the West, supra, at 485, 496 (quoting question raised by Helen Tworkov of Tricycle magazine about “What Makes engaged Buddhism Buddhist?”). Kraft, “New Voices in Engaged Buddhist Studies,” supra, at 496-97. See Walpola Rahula, What the Buddha Taught (New York: Broadway, 1959), at 16.

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suffering identifies its roots in a single factor, craving (tanha), which is identical with the cetasika (mind-event) of greed (lobha). Coupled with its derivative phenomenon of clinging, craving constitutes, in effect, a description of an unhealthy relationship with the samsaric world. In the traditional account, craving can have three aspects, as distinguished by their objects – craving for sense pleasures (kamatanha), craving for continued existence (bhavatanha), or craving for annihilation (vibhavatanha)52 – but the basic idea is that craving is the result of a feeling that arises through contact with some circumstances in the world. Such craving gives rise to clinging (upadana), and thus by turns the whole mass of suffering.53 Craving produces clinging because we wish feelings of pleasure to continue and feelings of pain to stop. (Either way, we cling. We cling to what we like because we like it, and we cling to what we hate as an object of hatred.) The outcome of this clinging response is suffering (dukkha),54 which we create by denying ourselves happiness. In Pema Chödrön’s words, this happens as we “spend all our energy and waste our lives trying to recreate … zones of safety [for ourselves], which are always falling apart. That’s the essence of samsara – the cycle of suffering that comes from continuing to seek happiness in all the wrong places.”55 The pleasurable is not genuinely enjoyed because our fear of its impermanence leads us to smother potential happiness with desperate efforts to hold on to its surrounding circumstances, while that which is unpleasant becomes the focus of unhealthy aversive obsessions rooted in our fear of it not being impermanent. There is no peace, and can be no genuine or lasting happiness, for anyone caught in the whipsaw of such clinging. Because the “overriding practical aim of the Buddha’s teaching” is to bring about deliverance from suffering, Buddhist practice necessarily becomes in part an enterprise of mental re-training, a “psychological ethics” of “noble living and mental purification”56 through which we learn how to have progressively more joy and peace in the present moment of the world we experience. Critically, however, suffering is not seen as being the result of the circumstances in which we find ourselves in samsara – or at least not in any direct way. The mediating role of the mind is crucial. Suffering is the result, in effect, of the nature of our dialogue with our circumstances: it arises not from those circumstances, per se, but as a result of “our tainted attitudes”57 in encountering them. Buddhism thus tends to hold that

52

53 54 55 56 57

Acariya Anuruddha, Abhidhammattha Sangaha: A Comprehensive Manual of Abidhamma (Bhikku Bodhi, ed.) (Mahathera Narada, trans.) (Onalaska, Washington: BPS Pariyati Editions, 1999), at 289. Anuruddha, supra, at 297-98. Andrew Olendzki, “Meditation, Healing, and Stress Reduction,” in Engaged Buddhism in the West, supra, at 307, 312-13. Pema Chödrön, Comfortable with Uncertainty (Boston: Shambhala, 2003), at 24. Bhikku Bodhi, “Introduction,” in Anuruddha, supra, at 5. Bodhi, “Introduction,” supra, at 5.

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“achiev[ing] happiness … only happens through the mind,”58 for the root cause of our problems is not “an external agent of this life, but rather an internal agent developed over many lifetimes59 – the habitual tendencies of our own minds. … The body might be well fed, and the eyes might look upon beautiful sights, but it is the mind alone that translates this into happiness. Conversely, the body might have pain, and other people might pour abuse into our ears, but it is the mind alone that translates this into suffering. … Nothing good or bad happens to us unless our mind labels it such. The state of our mind alone determines happiness and unhappiness.”60 As Andrew Olendski has similarly explained, “[t]he content of our experience is entirely benign – the sights and sounds, flavors, odors, and physical contacts that make up the data of our experienced world are never, in themselves, causes of suffering. … But how we respond to this experience, to what extent we succumb to the motivation to pursue pleasure and avoid pain by clinging in various ways – this is the crucial point at which it is determined whether we suffer, or claim our freedom to simply be aware of our experience in all its natural diversity. It is in this sense that the expression is used by a number of modern meditation teachers, ‘Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.’”61 Whether our experience is good or bad – and even the idea that it has to be good or bad – is a creation of our mind and its relationship to the world around it.62 Not for nothing, therefore, does Buddhist practice focus upon mental training and the reconstruction of the

58 59

60 61 62

Geshe Tashi Tsering, Buddhist Psychology (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2006), at 1. The truth of this statement does not depend on taking literally the common Buddhist references to our progress through multiple “lifetimes.” As we shall see, an allegorical interpretation, in which it is understood that we progress continuously through bardo-stages of innumerable “minibirths” and “minideaths,” see, e.g., Stephen Batchelor, Buddhism Without Beliefs (New York: Riverhead Books, 1997), at 74 – stands up equally well, and makes no less psychological sense. Buddhism does not seem to require that one pick one interpretation or the other, for this distinction would not seem to have much bearing upon the imperative or nature of dharma practice in our present “life,” whatever that might mean. Tsering, supra, at 3, 10, & 19. Olendzki, “Meditation, Healing, and Stress Reduction,” supra, at 313. One may perhaps see this idea reflected in the old Zen story of “good luck/bad luck,” in which a farmer loses his mare, to which other villagers console him by saying, “bad luck.” When the horse returns, however, followed by a strong stallion, they congratulate him on his “good luck.” These smiles turn to condolences again when the farmer’s son falls off the stallion and breaks his leg – “bad luck” – but the villagers pronounce it “good luck” once more when that injury prevents the son from being conscripted for a bloody war. The farmer, however, reacts with detached wisdom throughout: “Good luck or bad luck? Who can say?” We are clearly meant to emulate his detached perspective. See Maha Ghosananda, “Letting Go of Suffering,” in Engaged Buddhist Reader, supra, at10, 10.

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deep habits of mind that structure and shape the kind of dialogue we have with our circumstances. It is not that our state of mind is wholly disconnected from what happens in the external world, of course, for “[a] happy state of mind might be brought about by a nice word from a friend, or a good meal.” Nevertheless, the experience of suffering is not the direct result of such occurrences, but rather the outcome of how we approach them: the “substantial cause” of suffering (or happiness) is not something in the world but instead “a preceding moment of mind.” As Geshe Tashi Tsering colorfully puts it, “[a] good meal cannot turn into a mind.”63 We may not be able – at least not prior to our enlightenment, at any rate – to achieve nonsuffering entirely independently of our samsaric circumstances, but “our state of mind plays a crucial role in our experience of happiness and suffering,” and “if we can maintain a calm and peaceful mind, our external surroundings can only cause us limited disturbance.”64 Because of the dependence of happiness (nonsuffering) upon our state of mind, therefore, “our understanding of the mind must extend to the crucial relationship between the mind and the external, material world.”65 This is why Buddhist conceptions of suffering can depart, sometimes significantly, from conventional usage. In everyday secular discourse, to experience violence, discrimination, poverty, hunger, or illness is to suffer: no distinction is drawn between adverse circumstances and suffering, and, by definition, fixing the circumstances ends that suffering. Buddhism, however, takes a more nuanced view, because if it is true that “by transforming our minds, we can free ourselves from dependence on external conditions,”66 it follows that, from the perspective of Buddhism, to experience awful circumstances is not necessarily to suffer. To the extent that one refuses to have an unhealthy psychological dialogue with one’s circumstances, one does not suffer in the Buddhist sense. Thus could Milarepa, living in threadbare cotton in an icy Himalayan cave, declare that for him, “everything is comfortable.”67 And thus could Thich Nhat Hanh recount facing racial discrimination in old South Vietnam, but yet observe that “I didn’t suffer, I didn’t suffer at all.” (With practice of the Buddhist “perfections” of virtue, or paramitas [Skt; Pali paramis], Hanh says, “what has made you suffer in the past is no longer capable of making you suffer anymore.”)68 As Pema Chödrön describes it, in fact, concrete circumstances – and even physical harm – are not really the issue in dealing with suffering. “If you got burned or cut, it would hurt,” she admits, but “this is not really what causes us misery in our lives.”69 Pain, for instance, according to Roshi Joan Halifax, is “physical discomfort, while suffering is the story around pain.” One can, and should be able to, declare in terrible circumstances that “I am in pain, but I am not
63 64 65 66 67 68 69

Geshe Tashi Tsering, Buddhist Psychology (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2006), at 13. Tsering, supra, at 11 & 19 (citing comments by XIVth Dalai Lama). Tsering, supra, at 11. Tsering, supra, at 67. Harvey, supra, at 68. Hunt-Perry & Fine, “All Buddhism is Engaged,” supra, at 54 (quoting Thich Nhat Hanh). Pema Chödrön, Practicing Peace in Times of War (Boston: Shambhala, 2007), at 66.

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suffering.”70 Traditionally, Buddhism has been much more about retelling this story than specifically addressing the circumstances of discomfort. Conversely, it follows from this that improved physical circumstances also do not necessarily translate into nonsuffering. In the Magandiya Sutta, the Buddha helps Magandiya understand, in Olendzki’s words, that it is “not just the lack of physical affliction in the body at any particular time [that constitutes health], but rather a deeper experience of well-being that is accessed when the mind no longer clings in the presence of pleasure or pain.”71 For Chödrön, similarly, preventing or ending physical pain or other adverse circumstances is not the answer to transcending suffering. Rather, the objective is to heal the mental relationship we have with our circumstances, whatever they are. “Even if you were the Buddha himself,” she notes, “you would experience death, illness, aging, and sorrow at losing what you love.”72 The key is what one does with the rawness of that encounter. B. Suffering and “Engagement”

This conception of suffering has great implications for Buddhist “engagement” in changing the social, political, and economic institutions of samsara. Simply put, if such activism is indeed to be distinctively Buddhist, it will need to be built around some theory of the relationship between the external “structural” samsaric circumstances and the internal experience of suffering by sentient beings who face such circumstances. It is not enough, in other words, simply to follow conventional activism in assuming that adverse circumstances are suffering, and seeking to alleviate those circumstances on that basis. Instead, if engagement is to be Buddhist, it would seem to require a theory of how and when circumstances translate into real suffering (as Buddhists understand it), and what sort of changes to those circumstances will therefore translate back into the lessening of suffering. Some of the literature of modern Engaged Buddhism recognizes this challenge. David Loy, for instance, suggests that Engaged Buddhists face two basic alternatives. First, he says, we might simply “buy our social theory ready-made, more or less off the rack”73 – by which he apparently means importing a framework and an agenda from the non-Buddhist world and simply relabeling it as Buddhist: adopting conventional approaches to politics and social activism and simply calling them Buddhist, without developing a specific chain of reasoning rooted in the dharma to justify these particular answers. Alternatively, Loy suggests we might “consider alternatives inspired (or at least informed) by what Buddhism has to say about human dukkha (suffering) and its
70 71 72 73

Halifax, Being With Dying, supra, at 72-73. Olendzki, “Meditation, Healing, and Stress Reduction,” supra, at 311. Chödrön, Practicing Peace, supra, at 66. Loy, supra, at 18.

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causes.”74 He clearly considers the latter approach preferable – and more genuinely Buddhist – and urges the development of a dukkha-based social theory. The example of fighting poverty is perhaps illustrative of the problem. The Buddha advises us in the Dhammapada that “[h]unger is the most extreme of afflictions,”75 but is this allegory (i.e., a general statement about the mental phenomenon of craving)76 or should it be taken only literally (i.e., a comment about the lack of physical nourishment)? Conventional social activism certainly abhors having people face hunger and poverty, but from a Buddhist perspective we must remember that these ills do not intrinsically result in suffering. (Just ask Milarepa.) Nor is abundance and economic comfort necessarily a ticket out of dukkha: from the perspective of Buddhist ethics, “one is still blameworthy if one’s attitude to one’s wealth is greed and longing, with no contentment or heed for spiritual development,”77 and such tainted attitudes will ensure that prosperity brings no escape from suffering. As David Loy summarizes, “[h]appiness cannot be gained by satisfying desire, for our thirst means there is no end to it. Happiness can be achieved only by transforming desire.”78 Properly speaking, Buddhist nonattachment seems quite circumstanceindependent: it “specifies an attitude to be cultivated and expressed in whatever material condition one finds oneself.” The problem of dukkha, therefore, is “primarily spiritual.”79 If by “poverty” one simply follows conventional usage in meaning lowly financial circumstances – rather than a quality of mind (“poverty-mind”) characterized by a fixation upon the possession (or lack) of monetary wealth80 – there would thus seem to be, from a Buddhist perspective, nothing wrong with poverty per se.81 After all, Buddhism has had 2,500 years of monks surviving on alms and without personal possessions. If anything, poverty may be more spiritually advantageous than attachmentproduced and attachment-encouraging wealth: Shakyamuni Buddha felt it necessary to abandon his pampered princely life in order to find his way to awakening.

74 75

76

77 78 79 80 81

Loy, supra, at 18. See, e.g., Hammalawa Saddhatissa, Buddhist Ethics (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2003), at 12728 (quoting Dhammapadda., at v.203); see also Harvey, supra, at 196 (translating same passage as “[h]unger is the greatest illness”). The juxtaposition of “hunger” with “health” – as opposed, for instance, with “satiation” – would seem to suggest an allegorical meaning, cf. Saddhatissa, supra, at 127-28 (quoting Dhammapadda., at v.203-04), but one should perhaps be cautious about reading too much into the subtle linguistic distinctions that seem to exist in translation. Harvey, supra, at 187. Loy, supra, at 28 (see also 32 (noting that fulfillment of desire does not provide happiness, only transformation of desire). Loy, supra, at 78-79. According to Loy, in fact, “[a] world in which envy and miserliness predominate cannot be considered one in which poverty has been eliminated.” Loy, supra, at 57. If anything, it should be noted, Loy seems to feel that an avaricious prosperity may be worse for spiritual practice than a general impoverishment. He argues that “there is a fundamental and inescapable poverty built into consumer society,” and that “[a]n intense drive to acquire material riches is one of the main causes of our dukkha.” Loy, supra, at 58 & 74.

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On the other hand, truly abject poverty might distract from, and thus impede, spiritual insight and ultimate liberation. Arguably, the Buddha himself could be said to have discovered this in finding extreme, body-weakening asceticism not conducive to his meditative progress. In accepting the famous bowl of milk from the passing maiden Sujata82 – a step that horrified the ascetic extremists with whom the wayward prince Siddhartha Gautama had until that point been practicing – he perhaps illustrated the idea that too much conventional poverty can indeed impede spiritual progress. To this extent, and perhaps to this extent only, Engaged Buddhism would thus seem to have a distinctively Buddhist reason to help the very poor and the hungry. To put it bluntly, however, without such a theory – and without some conception of what it means to be so needy that one’s prospects for enlightenment are imperiled – there is no reason for a Buddhist, as a Buddhist, to care how poor someone is. (Nor, at least in these terms, would there appear to be any reason to care about how great a gap exists between the poor and the rich.) In this regard, genuinely Buddhist engagement thus seems to part company with non-Buddhist activism. The secular social activist,83 Ken Jones says, merely “sets himself the endless task of satisfying th[e] desire” that is at the root of suffering in samsara. For this reason, such an activist cannot succeed in eliminating that suffering. By contrast, the Buddhist “is concerned ultimately with the transformation of desire,” which is the only way in which suffering will truly cease.84 This distinction is a profound one, for it would seem to pit Buddhist ethics resoundingly against any engagement in society that seeks merely to provide deluded and suffering sentient beings with what their delusion leads them to want. As Robert Thurman recounts Nagarjuna observing centuries ago, “[t]he foremost type of giving” is not satisfying material needs, but rather leading them to “freedom and transcendence and enlightenment.”85 If Engaged Buddhism is really to be engaged Buddhism, therefore, it requires a theory of the causal connection between specific actions to change the conditions of samsara and sentient beings’ ability to transcend their delusive attachments therein. It cannot be enough, we might conclude, simply to provide people with what they desire; our involvement must aim at helping them overcome such desires. This requirement hardly precludes work to satisfy some desires (e.g., for food, shelter, prosperity, safety, defense against aggression, or social justice), but Engaged Buddhism would need to insist that any such provision have the clear objective of transcending samsaric desires – and that any action taken be based upon a plausible theory of how each step contributes to this ultimate goal. If Engaged Buddhism is really to be Buddhist, in other words, it cannot just lazily “rebrand” conventional social activism.

82 83

84 85

See Thich Nhat Hanh, Old Path, White Clouds (Berkeley: Parallax, 1991) at 37. Jones refers to conventional engagement as “secular,” but this is probably too narrow. It might equally stem from motives having their roots in the Judeo-Christian traditions (e.g., Christian charity). Perhaps “non-Buddhist” would have been a better term. Ken Jones, “Buddhism and Social Action: An Exploration,” in The Path of Compassion, supra, at 65, 66 (emphasis added). Robert A. F. Thurman, “Nagarjuna’s Guidelines for Buddhist Social Action,” in Engaged Buddhist Reader, supra, at 79, 82. (This appears to be Thurman’s paraphrase.)

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There is an old Buddhist story that on the night Shakyamuni Buddha was to attain enlightenment, Mara appeared before him and launched a fusillade of arrows at the Buddha in order to distract him from becoming enlightened. This assault came to naught, however, because with his awareness, the Buddha transformed the arrows into flowers. Pema Chödrön offers this story in exhorting us to learn to become comfortable with the inevitable uncertainty and instability in our lives,86 but we might also take it as a teaching parable for social activism. Conventional social activism, one might say, is about trying to block the arrows fired at us by our samsaric circumstances, or to prevent them from being fired in the first place. Buddhism, however, is about teaching us how to transform such missiles into flowers. Indeed, it tends to deny that arrows can be blocked. Ultimately, there is no escaping at least some degree of discomfort in samsara, which is why Chödrön urges us to “use discomfort as an opportunity for awakening, rather than trying to make it disappear”87 – and why Joan Halifax observes that “pain can be our greatest teacher, once we stop frantically fleeing its presence.”88 From a Buddhist perspective, therefore, one might conclude that to engage in social activism without a theory of how mere changes to our external circumstance translate into genuine internal transformation is to make a basic category mistake – and to set oneself up for failure. This presents a deep challenge, for Engaged Buddhism is based upon something of a paradox. Specifically, while Buddhism posits at a very fundamental level that “[a]nguish emerges from craving for life to be other than what it is,”89 this activist movement for transformational systemic change in the institutions and structures of the samsaric world is about nothing if not trying to make worldly life other than what it presently is. Engaged Buddhism, therefore, needs to explain why this is not a contradiction. IV. Fumbling for a Buddhist Social Theory

Adherents what one Ken Jones might call the “soft” school of Buddhist practice, perhaps, need not worry too much about the distinction between conventional and Buddhist notions of suffering – or about any need to provide a theory explaining how purposeful changes to samsaric circumstances will redound to the benefit of beings’ enlightenment. Their approach to practice, after all, addresses such enlightenment directly: it is an inwardly-focused answer that deals with suffering in the same basic way in all cases – through ministry to the individual heads and hearts of practitioners. Peace in the world and in its larger political and socio-economic structures will be addressed, in this view, as the myriad individual participants in such systems make spiritual progress, as individual hearts are awakened one by one. Through this lens, as it were, all suffering – and all redress – is retail.

86 87 88 89

Chödrön, Comfortable with Uncertainty, supra, at 41. Chödrön, Comfortable with Uncertainty, supra, at 201. Halifax, Being With Dying, supra, at 71. Batchelor, Buddhism Without Beliefs, at 40.

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Even among writers expressly dedicated to some form of socio-political engagement, it should be noted, there remains a strong commitment to the “inner work” of self-cultivation. As Kraft phrases it, Buddhism offers a “fresh contribution[] to politics” in the notion that “personal peace is connected with world peace on a fundamental level.” As a result, “we cannot meaningfully ‘work for peace’ as long as we feel upset, angry, or confrontational.”90 Thich Nhat Hanh emphasizes that our task of changing the world begins inside, because our leaders are “in each of us.” This is why he sees inner work as the key to peacemaking: we must change ourselves if we wish to change the world.91 Similarly, the Dalai Lama contends that we must start peacework in our own hearts, by “controlling the mind” by “cultivating less anger, more respect for others’ rights, more concern for other people, more clear realization of the sameness of human beings.”92 Such inward-directed work is felt likely to have an impact upon the external world – and thus to fit well with the broader socio-political agenda of engagement – in part because one who has become calm and compassionate through such cultivation can have a profound impact in catalyzing peace around him. According to Thich Nhat Hanh, “[w]e need such a person to inspire us with calm confidence, to tell us what to do. … Only with such a person – calm, lucid, aware – will our situation improve. … I think that if peaceworkers are really peaceful and happy, they will radiate peace themselves.”93 Similarly, Robert Thurman describes Nagarjuna’s Jewel Garland of Royal Counsels as articulating an “individualist transcendentalism,” in which the best thing a king can do for his people is to “perfect himself.”94 From this perspective, inner work is of the utmost priority.95 Nevertheless, it is the hallmark of engaged Buddhism to maintain that this inner work is not always enough: “[e]fforts to change the environment and to change the individual are both necessary.”96 Because Engaged Buddhism aspires to a wholesale engagement with suffering, its explicit social activism does not allow itself to work exclusively on a one-heart-at-a-time basis. As we have seen, engagement is impatient with such an approach, and feels it necessary to address dukkha at the level of systems, not just individual beings. Accordingly, it is probably inadequate to argue – as does
90 91 92 93 94 95

96

Kraft, “Engaged Buddhism: An Introduction,” supra, at xiv. “We always deserve our government.” Thich Nhat Hanh, “Please Call Me by My True Names,” in The Path of Compassion, supra, at 31, 33-34. Tenzin Gyatso, the XIVth Dalai Lama, “Hope for the Future,” in The Path of Compassion, supra, at 3, 5. Hanh, “Please Call Me by My True Names,” supra, at 37. Thurman, “Nagarjuna’s Guidelines for Buddhist Social Activism,” supra, at 122. Indeed, Thich Nhat Hanh suggests, one could hardly expect to have any meaningful impact upon one’s external environment without such cultivation: “we know how difficult it is to change the environment if individuals are not in a state of equilibrium.” Thich Nhat Hanh, “The Individual, Society, and Nature,” in The Path of Compassion, supra, at 40, 44. Hanh, “The Individual, Society, and Nature,” supra, at 44.

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Cynthia Eller, citing the views of monks from the Sri Lankan Sarvodaya movement – that internal work and social action are precisely “the same teaching.” She contends that “[w]hether you put it on the psycho-spiritual plane or on the socio-economic plane, there is suffering and there is cessation of suffering.”97 This seems to oversimplify the problem, however, conflating conventional and Buddhist notions of suffering, and ignoring the need for a theory of connection and redress that can serve to tie Buddhist suffering to specific circumstances and explain how rearranging the samsaric deck chairs will lead to a lessening of dukkha. Nevertheless, there are many accounts of modern Engaged Buddhism which appear simply to proceed from the assumption that troubling samsaric circumstances simply equate to suffering in the Buddhist sense – and that seem to assume that assume Buddhist social activism is a fairly simple matter of fixing those bad things in the world around us. It is surely true that “the world is full of dukkha,” but it does not seem adequate simply to list varieties of suffering as conventionally understood, such as “the dangers of impending world destruction through nuclear weapons, atomic fallout, air land, and sea pollution, population explosion, exploitation of fellow human beings, denial of basic human rights, and devastating famine.”98 Even Ken Jones – who appears to understand that one cannot simply translate conventional social activism directly into a Buddhist framework and who, as we will see, offers a hint as to how this might work – is sometimes vague about the specifically Buddhist foundation for the specific engagement he advocates. He urges the creation of a society “free of the degradation of poverty and war”99 but while one could certainly argue that these ills inhibit or prevent enlightenment, he apparently sees little need explicitly to make that case. Similarly, Nelson Foster argues that “[t]he hungry need food dharma, the tortured need justice dharma, and the besieged need peace dharma,”100 but he fails to explain whether or not this is precisely the same thing as saying that the hungry actually need food, the tortured justice, and the besieged a cease-fire. One might think it essential to a specifically Buddhist theory of social engagement to offer an account of when these two statements are synonymous, and when they are not, but most authors seem to miss the distinction.101
97 98 99 100 101

Macy, “In Indra’s Net,” supra, at 179. Sivaraksa, “Buddhism in a World of Change” [hereinafter “World of Change II”], in Engaged Buddhist Reader, supra, at 70, 77. Jones, “Buddhism and Social Action: An Exploration,” supra, at 72. Foster, “To Enter the Marketplace,” supra, at 53-54. In fairness, it may not simply be modern writers who appear to have skirted the issue of how precisely it is that action in samsara contributes to beings’ enlightenment. Peter Harvey describes accounts of bodhisattva ethics in the lengthy literature of the Mahayana tradition as revolving around the idea of “benefiting sentient beings” by “ministering to the needs of others” through doing good deeds such as “protecting from wild animals, kings, robbers and the elements,” “giving to the destitute,” “comforting those stricken by calamities,” and even “compassionately humbling, punishing or banishing others in order to make them give up unwholesome ways and take to wholesome ones.” What is less clear, however, is how such specific samsaric gains translate into their recipients’ increased chances for enlightenment. Harvey, supra, at 131.

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Perhaps it is simply the case that although many modern Buddhists clearly feel a need to undertake social activism, Engaged Buddhism, as a movement, has not yet matured to the point where it can offer a well-developed grounding theory for itself. According to Eller, it is one of the challenges of engagement that Buddhism still lacks a clear doctrinal underpinning for such socio-political activism. Quoting other authors, she makes a point of noting Buddhism’s underdeveloped thinking in this regard: “As Ken Jones laments, ‘Buddhism has no explicit body of social and political theory comparable to its psychology or metaphysics.’ Or as Nelson Foster comments, ‘It is remarkable that Zen lacks a clear tradition of social action.’ One searches in vain for a body of teaching equivalent to the ‘social gospel’ of Christianity.”102 David Loy argues similarly Buddhism – as a whole – lacks an “intrinsic social theory,” and that anyone searching for such a guiding framework thus “cannot look to its traditional texts for perspectives on contemporary issues.”103 On the other hand, some authors do at least hint at the type of answer Engaged Buddhism must provide if it is to defend itself as a specifically Buddhist variety of activism addressed to suffering as Buddhists understand the term. Kenneth Kraft, for example, has suggested that “inner serenity is fostered or impeded by external conditions.”104 He has not, however, spelled out the critical details that any such theory would have to provide in order for Engaged Buddhists to be able to articulate an intelligible plan for social action. Despite his prioritization of internal work, Thich Nhat Hanh has also articulated a clear call for creating conditions favorable to other beings’ enlightenment: in order for individuals to recover from the mental sicknesses of the world and be whole, he says, they must be in “an environment favorable to healing.” Analogizing spiritual progress to psychiatric treatment, he declares that health “requires environmental change and psychiatrists must participate in efforts to change the environment.”105 Sulak Sivaraksa has also suggested that engagement is necessary to improve the conditions of samsara because “[w]ithout freedom from want and oppression, people cannot be expected to appreciate more sublime forms of personal liberation.”106 This is genuine insight, but more is needed: such vague generalities are still a thin reed upon which to hang a serious public policy agenda. David Loy has attempted to provide a specifically Buddhist theory of social engagement – a full-blown “Buddhist Social Theory” – in some detail. For each type of
(Interestingly, in this list of good deeds, the only one having any direct and explicit connection to facilitating others’ liberation would seem to be the last – forcing the wicked to adopt wholesome ways – and this is a notably coercive idea.) Eller, “The Impact of Christianity on Buddhist Nonviolence in the West,” supra, at 102. Loy, supra, at 41. Kraft, “Introduction,” supra, at 2. Hanh, “The Individual, Society, and Nature,” supra, at 44-45. Sulak Sivaraksa, “Buddhism and Contemporary International Trends,” in Inner Peace, World Peace, supra, at 127, 136.

102 103 104 105 106

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dukkha described in the Pali suttas, for instance, he tries to articulate what this category would mean as applied in the social sphere: he asks whether it has a specifically “communal” manifestation. He suggests, for instance, that dukkha-dukkhata corresponds in the social realm, in part, to things such as the gap between rich and poor, or the “deteriorating biosphere.”107 This translation from individual to social, he thinks, is what helps give him the conceptual traction to articulate a political agenda of engagement, prescribing specific policies and structures suited to addressing this form of suffering. Unfortunately, however, Loy’s ambitious articulation of “social” suffering still fails to provide a clear theory of connection and redress – an account of what circumstances in the samsaric world promote enlightenment and which ones impede it, and of how social activism can help increase the frequency of the former compared to the latter. As we will see, Loy has much to say about what specific policies he believes Buddhists should promote in their activism to change the circumstances of samsara. He does not, however, always clearly or compellingly ground such recommendations in a theory of why such steps contribute to ending suffering in the very specific sense that Buddhists use the term. This is not to say that such a theory is impossible. Quite the contrary. Such writers would seem to be right to intuit that there exists a rationale for social “engagement” in an appreciation for the fact that – notwithstanding Buddhism’s understanding that suffering arises not from conditions themselves but from how we relate to them through the delusive attachments of the ego-self – there exists some nexus between the circumstances of the samsaric world and the likelihood of sentient beings being able to achieve enlightenment. Circumstances may not be the fundamental causes of suffering, this argument might run, but neither are they entirely irrelevant to its alleviation. As Tashi Tsering reminds us, while the Dalai Lama has noted that our external surroundings can only cause us limited disturbance if we maintain a calm and peaceful mind, “His Holiness does not say that once we have a calm mind, we will never be disturbed by external things. His Holiness presents a more realistic view.”108 Engaged Buddhists, one might argue, are realistic as well. Some circumstances, in other words, are likely to be more conducive than others to sentient beings’ progress toward awakening, and it is the job of Engaged Buddhists to bring about more (rather than less) enlightenment-facilitating circumstances out of the messy raw materials of samsara. A Buddhist social theory might not care about changing samsaric circumstances per se, but it should care about worldly conditions to the extent that they create an environment more or less conducive to the enlightenment of the sentient beings therein. Buddhist social engagement, therefore, should be about creating ever more enlightenment-facilitating conditions. In Jones’ words, “[t]he social order to which Buddhist social action is ultimately directed must be one that … offers encouraging conditions for its citizens to see

107 108

See Loy, supra, at 20-23. Tsering, supra, at 19.

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more clearly into their true nature and overcome their karmic inheritance.”109 A Buddhist politics, therefore, would presumably focus upon developing theories about how to do this, and policies designed to achieve this end of creating enlightenmentconducive circumstances. Such work inescapably involves us in the classically political and policy-focused tasks of finding levers with which to manipulate the conditions of the modern world. Some policy agendas might seem to flow relatively easily from this insight. As we have seen with the example of the Buddha’s decision to abandon his harsh asceticism because hunger and weakness prevented proper dharma practice, it may be possible to conclude that there exists at least a minimum set of concrete circumstances that are necessary to permit the kind of spiritual endeavor needed for Awakening. If so, a Buddhist social policy would presumably devote itself to helping ensure that members of the public did not fall below this “floor” of practice-impeding absolute penury, wracking illness, civil chaos, or wartime bloodshed. Nelson Foster has suggested that the prevention of nuclear warfare is an easy case for a Buddhist policy priority, wryly quoting the slogan of one group within the Buddhist Peace Fellowship that “[n]uclear war is bad for our practice.”110 To propose a minimalist social safety net and a desire not to unleash nuclear Armageddon, however, is a long way from identifying the wisest policies for achieving these goals, setting the detailed parameters of a public policy agenda on such issues, and knowing how best to conduct policy and resource trade-offs among specific competing sub-proposals or other matters one also identifies as a high priority for a distinctively Buddhist politics. Such challenges would seem to require sustained study and analysis, and a distinctively worldly entanglement with theories of social, economic, political, and military cause and effect. A number of Engaged Buddhist authors have struggled to define dharmically legitimate public policy agendas, sometimes even with “enlightenment-facilitation” as a relatively explicit guiding principle, with varying degrees of success. A. Politics

It is not always easy to identify direct teachings in the Buddhist canon that speak to what, if anything, it means to have a distinctively Buddhist approach to politics. As Hammalawa Saddhatissa recounts, the Buddha left no equivalent to Plato’s Republic – that is, no teachings directly relating to the “political construction of an ideal state.” Indeed, according to Saddhatissa, the Buddha did not even give explicit thought to “any reform in the existing political setup.” He argues that “the attitude expressed in the Nikayas is clear enough to be compared with Plato’s,” but this would appear to be little consolation for any proponents of Engaged Buddhism searching for an explicit political and policy agenda for engaging with the world of samsaric political structures and
109 110

Jones, “Buddhism and Social Action: An Exploration,” supra, at 77. Foster, “To Enter the Marketplace,” supra, at 62.

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institutions. As Saddhatissa puts it, the Nikayas teach that affecting politics must necessarily begin with improving oneself: the community is secondary, and progress toward its improvement will depend upon people having first made progress within their own hearts. According to the Dhammapada, each must “establish himself in that which is proper.” Only then should he “advise others, and not become impure.”111 This teaching by the Buddha, therefore, was one that could address itself to any particular form of government by urging upon it benevolent behavior. This was, in other words, universal advise – and all the more universal because the Buddha refrained from offering that government advice on what sort of government one should have. As Saddhatissa explains, “[b]ecause of the importance the Buddha assigned to man’s moral standards and outlook … one must look for a description of the qualities of the people who will operate a scheme rather than for any intrinsic virtue in the scheme itself. If the scheme is an autocracy, such as prevailed in the Buddha’s day, then one must look for political teaching that will render that autocracy benevolent; this will consist in injunctions to the kings and their proclaimed duties to their peoples.”112 Whatever one’s basic theory of governance, many Engaged Buddhist writers have tried to draw out themes from Buddhist sutras, history, and commentary that suggest the sort of policies that would prevail under essentially any genuinely benevolent government. Peter Harvey’s account of traditional Buddhist writings, for instance, says that these texts see a Buddhist ruler as having a responsibility to ensure a peaceful and harmonious society through various means. The Aggañña Sutta, in fact, articulates a view of governance-as-benevolent-service that Harvey describes as a sort of “socialcontract model of kingship” that permits no abuse of the people.113 Elsewhere, he recounts, it is also made clear that role of the cakkavatti (Pali; Skt. cakravartin) – the holy, “wheel-turning” dharmic ruler – is to look after all his people, prevent crime, and give to those in need.114 In discussing what a Buddhist social policy might look like, Engaged Buddhist writers frequently invoke the memory of the Indian emperor Ashoka, who ruled the Mauryan dynasty in the 3rd Century BCE. Robert Thurman, for example, believes Ashoka offers a model of enlightened politics that should guide modern politics.115 For his part, David Loy agrees that the emperor offers a model of “reforms that remain exemplary.”116

111 112 113 114 115

116

Saddhatissa, supra, at 113 & 115 (quoting Dhammapada, supra, at v.158) (emphasis added). Saddhatissa, supra, at 116. Harvey, supra, at 113-14 & 118. Harvey, supra, at 114. See, e.g., Robert Thurman, Inner Revolution: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Real Happiness (New York: Riverhead Books, 1998), at 117 & 166-67; Thurman, “The Edicts of Asoka,” in The Path of Compassion, supra, supra, at 111. Loy, supra, at 31.

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Ashoka is frequently commended for having felt – as he put it in his Sixth Rock Edict – that no task is more important than promoting the well-being of all the people. His official commitment (when in power, at least117) to nonviolence, welfare policies, public works, the establishment of rest-houses and hospices, religious tolerance, efforts to care for prisoners and their families, are commonly held up by modern writers as examples of benevolent Buddhist rule worthy of emulation today.118 (Peter Harvey even recounts Ashoka as having undertaken efforts loosely analogous to modern foreign aid projects, by supporting public works even outside own empire.119) Interestingly, with Ashoka we apparently also have a strong and explicit commitment to the idea of developing what one might call a “politics of enlightenment.” In the 12th of the famous Rock Edicts which he had inscribed around India during his reign, the emperor proclaimed the objective of government policy to be “the promotion of each man’s particular faith and the glorification of the Dharma.”120 The specific import, for us today, of the Mauryan emperor’s political program, however, is not obvious. David Loy, for instance – while he applauds that king’s rule as having been “exemplary” – adds that Ashoka’s example should not slavishly be followed. What made sense for pre-industrial, agrarian India, he plausibly argues, will not necessarily work for modern society. Instead, says Loy, we need to find our own way, taking inspiration from such models, perhaps, but developing a “creative response” to our own unique circumstances.121 The Buddha’s refusal to expound upon explicitly political matters and the unclear relevance of ancient models such as that provided by Ashoka, however, has not kept Engaged Buddhist writers from drawing political conclusions relevant to modern engagement from various sutras and learned commentaries. Many authors seem to tend to agree with Sivaraksa that “[p]olitics must be related to religion,” and that it is “the duty of any religious person” to point out injustice,122 and while some are quite vague about what this means – and what Buddhist principles actually call for in the political arena – others have been quite specific. (1) Buddhism and Democracy

One theme to which many writers seem frequently to return is the importance of ensuring that the political system in a good society protects what one might broadly term political and civil rights: freedom of expression, debate, and conscience, and the citizenry’s ability to participate in government. It is not hard to see why one might think this has to be so.

117

118 119 120 121 122

The means of Ashoka’s acquisition of power, however, are a different question entirely, though these are much less frequently discussed by writers who see his virtue in its exercise. See infra, note 377. Loy, supra, at 31; Harvey, supra, at 116. Harvey, supra, at 116. Thurman, “The Edicts of Asoka,” supra, at 115 (quoting XIIth Edict). Loy, supra, at 31-32 & 55. Sivaraksa, “World of Change II,” supra, at 70, 74.

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It may be the basic task of public policy in a Buddhist society to work to establish “conditions which allow for the freedom to discover within oneself the characteristics of the spiritual life,”123 but at the same time Buddhism asks dharma practitioners not to cling tightly too any doctrines or other pre-established answers. Through the prism of the First Precept, for instance – interpreted by the Zen Peacemaker Order, as we have seen, as the precept of not knowing – Buddhism would seem strongly resistant to the kind of political certainties that are commonplace in ordinary public policy discourse. Buddhism would not be Buddhist, one might say, if it approached public policy issues with the confidence in its own inerrancy that characterizes so many other participants in the political arena. This necessarily reduces Engaged Buddhists’ ability to offer specific prescriptions and defend them as being mandated by the dharma. As David Loy has thus noted, Buddhism provides no fixed recipe for how to ameliorate institutionalized dukkha through social policy. He himself feels that certain principles are “more or less obvious” – among them a commitment to the ideal of nonviolence, a “basic level of social welfare,” and an “emphasis on education” – but these broad guidelines “allow for many possible social structures.”124 Debate and some degree of contestation, therefore, will be inherent in any Buddhist society as its members grapple with deciding which policy recipes best serve the common good. This has led several writers to endorse democratic governance as the political ideal for a Buddhist society. Robert Thurman, for example, advocates “universal democratism,” because he feels it to be the “institutional governmental style” that can best implement the principles of an enlightenment-facilitating society.125 His phrasing is nonstandard, but by “democratism,” Thurman apparently means “democracy,” for he contends that this form of government is “the form of social organization (or disorganization) that encourages individual empowerment most directly.”126 Because Loy feels that Buddhism does not provide inarguable “Buddhist” answers to detailed social policy problems, he expects there will exist “a plurality of approaches to human illbeing and well-being” as we seek to discover sound ways of meeting these challenges, and seems generally to support democratic political means of deciding between them.127 For his part, David Chappell also defends democracy – though more specifically on humanitarian grounds, because history shows that “dictatorships are deadly,” having shown that “nondemocratic governments” have a tendency to kill people in the millions.128 It seems fundamental to various writers’ conception of a good Buddhist society that it not force its members to toe any official ideological or policy line: freedom of expression and dissent is vital, for it is with such liberty that minds have the greatest leeway to explore and develop spiritual insight. One of the few teachings Saddhatissa
123 124 125 126 127 128

Acharn Sulak Sivaraksa, “Buddhism and a Culture of Peace,” in Buddhist Peacework, supra, at 39, 45. Loy, supra, at 34. Thurman, Inner Revolution, supra, at 129. Thurman, Inner Revolution, supra, at 274. Loy, supra, at 68. Chappell, “Buddhist Peace Principles,” supra, 222.

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sees the Buddha having left us of direct political relevance is a teaching on the importance of “freedom of thought,” for such freedom is clearly necessary in order to proceed toward Awakening. Saddhatissa emphasizes that “the process of reasoning” is for all Buddhas – and, impliedly, in all cases – a necessary predicate (though hardly the only one) for enlightenment.129 It would seem to follow, therefore, that a Buddhist society has a strong interest in preserving its members’ freedom to engage in such reasoning. The basic liberty that must be protected thus apparently includes some right to dissent, at least in matters spiritual. Saddhatissa stresses the importance of practitioners’ ability to engage in the kind of careful, skeptical, probing testing and evaluation of doctrines which the Buddha said should be our precondition for their acceptance. The Tathagata explicitly repudiated blind faith, seeing it as being, in Saddhatissa’s words, “merely a form of ignorance that retards one’s purification and therefore one’s development.”130 This is perhaps most famously seen in the Buddha’s remark to the Kalamas of Kesputta that one should evaluate teachers’ claims for oneself – analyzing and testing them carefully, “as a goldsmith would test the quality of the gold.”131 The Kalamas Sutta thus demonstrates the importance of being sure to “investigate every doctrine before adopting it”: “Do not accept anything because of report, tradition, hearsay, the handing on in the sacred texts, or as a result of logic or inference, through indulgent tolerance of views, appearance of likelihood, or as paying respect to a teacher.”132 Pursuant to this exhortation, therefore, “teachings are not to be simply accepted,” but rather “used, investigated and, as far as possible … confirmed in experience.133 Most intriguingly, the Buddha made no exception even for his own teaching, carefully noting that “[a]s a wise man uses gold as a touchstone, heating and cutting, so you, bhikkus, should take my words after investigation and not because of reverence for me.”134 This is clearly a powerful invocation of spiritual non-absolutism, a conception strongly resistant to the development of regnant orthodoxies. Could an Engaged Buddhist conclude that this ethic carries over also into the realm of politics? Very likely. To the extent, in fact, that Engaged Buddhism’s very engagement is an outgrowth of the dharma – that is, to the extent that Engaged Buddhism is in distinctively Buddhist, as opposed merely being a lazily “rebranded” variety of conventional social activism – it would seem almost inescapable that the Buddha’s antipathy to unquestioned prescriptions must also apply in the political arena. It would be hard to imagine Engaged Buddhists
129 130 131 132 133 134

Saddhatissa, supra, 16-17 & 116. Saddhatissa, supra, 31. Tsering, supra, at 7 (quoting Kalama Sutta). Saddhatissa, supra, at 32 (quoting Angutaranikaya, vol. I (R. Morris, ed.) (Pali Text Society, 2nd ed.,1961), at 189 ff.). Harvey, supra, at 10 (quoting Kalama Sutta (A. I.188-93)). Saddhatissa, supra, at 32 (quoting Tattvasangraha, vol.II, (Gaekward’s Oriental Series, no. xxxi, Baroda, 926) v. 3588).

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accepting the principle of not knowing in their spiritual life and yet legitimately insisting upon a rigid ideological orthodoxy in matters political. The importance of not becoming entranced by one’s own political certainties – or at least not so bewitched by them that one becomes inclined to force such ideas upon others – is reflected in the First Precept of Thich Nhat Hanh’s Order of Interbeing, which exhorts practitioners not to be “idolatrous about or bound to any doctrine theory, or ideology, even Buddhist ones.” Buddhist systems of thought, it stresses, “are guiding means; they are not absolute truth.”135 In this respect, the Order picks up themes present in Thurman’s account of Nagarjuna’s view that inflexible “belief-systems” are sicknesses. The great Indian sage, Thurman writes, “want[ed] the social space filled with doorways to Nirvana, shrines of liberating Truth, facilities for Teaching and Practice, where ‘things,’ ‘duties,’ ‘laws,’ ‘religions,’ and ‘doctrines’ can be examined, criticized, refined, used, transcended, and so forth.”136 Similarly, in Ken Jones’ description, the good society needs to accommodate the inevitable pluralism of views and policy prescriptions among its constituent parts by providing “a means, an environment, in which different ‘ways,’ appropriate to different kinds of people, may be cultivated in mutual tolerance and understanding.” As he sees it, this necessarily entails a commitment to “some kind of diverse and politically decentralized society.”137 Robert Thurman adopts an even more explicit commitment to preserving an individual’s freedom within social structures. The Buddha, he says, made clear that in order to “develop the power of critical wisdom,” people needs to be able to claim a degree of “freedom from belief systems” that “mandate[] patterns of ritual actions, social structures, and ethical norms.”138 For Thurman, Buddhist politics is about protecting and empowering “[r]adical individualism,” which “the key to preserving the openness necessary for a truly political society.”139 If the basic notion of having rights boils down to the articulation of ways in which others – including the society as a whole – cannot act against one, Thurman’s argument is all about rights: his “transcendental individualism acknowledges the supremacy of the individuals’ happiness over the polity’s collective needs for security, productivity, order, and celebration.” The “collective” must understand that “none of its interests as a collective is as important as its individuals’

135

136 137 138 139

See Fred Eppsteiner, “In the Crucible: The Order of Interbeing,” in The Path of Compassion, supra, at 150, 150. (Inexplicably, however, Thich Nhat Hanh’s own description of the basic rights that persons need to enjoy in order “to create a civilization of mental health” does not mention the critical political right to participate in determining the direction and speed of the public policy agenda. See Hanh, “The Individual, Society, and Nature,” supra, at 42.) Thurman, “Nagarjuna’s Guidelines for Buddhist Social Activism,” supra, at 134. Jones, “Buddhism and Social Action: An Exploration,” supra, at 78-79. Thurman, Inner Revolution, supra, at 59. Thurman, Inner Revolution, supra, at 93-94.

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interest in development toward freedom and happiness.”140 The key, above all, is to give individuals more power to “determine their own goals and paths, to place the highest priority on their duty to the living self, over and above the numerous duties to others that constitute the social fabric of family, profession, clan, nation, religion, and so forth.”141 Such visions would thus indeed seem to be as inescapably hostile to political as to spiritual orthodoxy, and thus to provide a powerful grounding for political freedom – and hence democracy. Robert Thurman, for one, makes this quite explicit, noting that “[i]n the twentieth century, more people were killed by their own governments than by enemies in wars,” and that “there cannot be world democracy until all peoples feel truly represented by their national governments.” (In support of the democratic ideal, in fact, he feels that we “must be uncompromising in our dealings with the remaining dictatorships”142 – though he is notably vague about what that actually means.143) At any rate, the fundamentally individually-empowering approaches articulated by Thurman, Jones, and others clearly have powerful implications for the form of government best suited to a Buddhist society. If the right political “answers” are not transcendently obvious derivatives of a clear and prescriptive dharma, such a society – even after the enlightenment of its members – would seem stuck with the need to adjudicate fairly among alternative, competing conceptions freely arrived-at by the moral agents who make up its body politic. As applied to the challenges of setting the public policy agenda in a good society, therefore, the Buddha’s exhortation to a skeptical, empirical approach to doctrines of all sorts – including the Buddha-dharma itself – thus forms an argument for the kind of policy-political indeterminacy and malleability inherent in democratic self-rule. Policymaking, one might say, is too important to be left entirely to those who believe they know the same “right answer,” or who simply happen to be in positions of power at the time: it must always be left open for contestation and adjustment by an empowered citizenry. Democratic deliberation, therefore, arguably emerges as the political analogue to the careful inquiry that Saddhatissa describes, in the spiritual realm, as producing the sort of confidence – sraddha or saddha: “confidence born of understanding” – which the Buddha called “the greatest wealth of man in the world.”144 Not for nothing, therefore, does Thurman argue that the “free individuals” in a society must “elect” their chief executive.145
140 141 142 143

144 145

Thurman, Inner Revolution, supra, at 120-21. Thurman, Inner Revolution, supra, at 119. Thurman, Inner Revolution, supra, at 306 & 308. As we will see in our discussion of compassionate violence, however, one should not assume that Thurman’s methods in implementing such an “uncompromising” approach would necessarily be exclusively nonviolent. Saddhatissa, supra, at 32 & 35 (quoting Suttanipata (Dines Anderson, ed.) (Helmer Smith, 1948), at 182; Udanavarga (N.P. Chakravarti, ed.) (Paris, 1930), at X, v.3.) Thurman, Inner Revolution, supra, at 319-21.

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Yet some Engaged Buddhist writers do not quite seem to make this leap, nor to draw the next obvious conclusion about the potential dangers of government power. In offering their prescriptions for a Buddhist theory of politics – and the substantive policy agenda items that they feel flow therefrom – some display a notable ambiguity in dealing with the issue of power. Many, in fact, tend to be quite sanguine about the scope and depth of government power, perhaps because they assume the end point of their political program: the achievement of a benevolent and compassionate Buddhist polity. Remarkably little thought, however, is generally given to what Buddhism might have to say about the exercise of power before that point, of the need to limit the selfaggrandizing reach of political authorities, or of how one might remove from power leaders who overstep their bounds. As we have seen, many Engaged Buddhist writers seem partial to democratic governance as means of helping society settle harmoniously upon the right course of action in a context of substantive not knowing. There is more to be said for democracy than just that, however: it is also a powerful tool for ending the power of particular individuals or groups, and in effecting abrupt changes of course in the direction of public policy. Yet this is an issue that many Engaged Buddhist writers seem to approach awkwardly and with some ambiguity, for while they display an almost reflexive horror when faced with economic power – and particularly corporations and market economics146 – they are less sure what to make of government power. On the one hand, they seem to have a clear appreciation for the injustices perpetrated by existing political systems, but they also appear to expect that future government officials in a Buddhist society will benevolently wield vast power over al the citizenry. It does not occur to them that this may be inconsistent. David Loy, for instance, condemns corporations for their self-interested abusiveness and even decries what he says is our near-pathological fear of each other,147 but he does not seem to think there could be any reason to fear our own government, at least not in a future Buddhist society. He seems to assume that the state itself is immune to the temptations of selfaggrandizement at the people’s expense. It would seem difficult to have things both ways, however. If some future, generalized level of Buddhist enlightenment can make the power of the government bureaucracy entirely benign, why would not corporations become so as well? And if corporations will always need coercive regulation, Buddhists should perhaps still fear government over-reaching too. Nor is democracy itself a phenomenon with which all Engaged Buddhist thinkers are completely comfortable, for they seem to fear that voters will choose policies different from those these writers advocated. Again, Loy offers a good example. As noted, his outline of a Buddhist social theory says things that sound generally supportive of the idea of pluralist democracy. Nevertheless, he still seems to view it with a degree of ambivalence, even as he embraces the state as an apparently intrinsically benevolent
146 147

See, e.g., A.T. Ariyaratne, “Waking Everybody Up,” in Engaged Buddhist Reader, supra, at 91; Loy, supra, at 87 & 94-95. Loy, supra, at 142.

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social actor. The problem with which he appears to be grappling is what Engaged Buddhism might need to say about limiting government power, and indeed the majority’s ability to tie the political system to its freely-expressed preferences. Loy’s embrace of democracy is limited, for instance, by his declaration that certain things (e.g., “racist and totalitarian practices”) should not be tolerated. When addressing how to decide what things to allow and what to prohibit, however, he offers little more than a dodge: he suggests merely that a good society should rely upon “genuine democracy and, just as important, freedom of religious practice.”148 Loy is quite unclear about what such a “democratic” check upon the actions of government (in a democracy!) would be. His use of the qualifier “genuine” seems to suggest that he feels existing democracy to be incomplete in some fashion, or even fraudulent. His blanket prohibition upon “racist and totalitarian practices” also indicates that he would impose substantive outcome-tests upon the policymaking process – tests that would preclude certain results (e.g., racist policies) even if such outcomes were the result of genuinely democratic procedures. At any rate, democracy and religious freedom would seem to be an answer only to abuses of power generated by government elites themselves, or by a political minority. Almost by definition, democratic checks and freedom of religion would be an inadequate answer to the challenge of what to do, for example, about religiously-inspired bigotry by a majority of voters, expressed in the voting booth in order to bend a democratic government to its will. The ambivalence Engaged Buddhism displays toward democracy, of which we may merely take Loy’s arguments as one example, would seem to derive from the paradox of trying to articulate a Buddhist politics at all. In a sense, Engaged Buddhism might be said to face a dharmized version of the classic tension inherent in the politics of the modern American Left. If the dharma really does suggest the need for certain specific courses of action in the world of samsaric politics – and indeed, for policy prescriptions expressly designed in some sense to remake that world in the image of the dharma149 – then democracy is only good to the extent that it produces these “right answers.” (Otherwise, it is to be feared and resisted, as an expression of voters’ tainted attitudes of ignorance, fear, anger, greed, envy, or other varieties of delusive attachment.) On the other hand, to the extent that Engaged Buddhism takes its not knowing seriously – and embraces the politics of democratic value-contestation implicit in the manifestation of this precept in the external, social environment – it has little reason to impose any substantive limits upon the outcomes reached by free debate and democratic selfgovernment by an empowered citizenry. Political philosophers have struggled with
148 149

Loy, supra, at 68. This is not a problem entirely unique to the Left, of course: the tension between exogenous values and the principally process-focused orientation of self-rule is to some extent inherent in all democratic politics. (What do you do if the voters traduce a principle you hold to be of fundamental importance?) The challenge, however, would seem more acute for those on the Left, whose political tastes tend toward the transformative, rejecting more conservative ideals of cautious, organic development in favor of an ethic devoted to reshaping political reality around an ideal of social justice – and doing so by policy fiat rather than through gradual evolution. Not for nothing did this manuscript begin with a reference to Voegelin’s warning about “immanentizing the eschaton.”

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analogous questions for years,150 but Engaged Buddhist writers seem so far only to have skirted or ducked them. (2) Robert Thurman’s “Buddhaverse”

One modern writer who has been in no way shy about drawing political conclusions out of his reading of the dharma is Robert Thurman. Though Thurman’s own Buddhist roots are firmly in the Tibetan tradition, he seems to take inspiration from a demystified conception of a Buddhist “pure land,” which he defines as “the environment created by a fully enlightened being so that as many others as possible have the potential also for developing into fully enlightened beings.”151 This concept – envisioned not as an otherworldly paradise established by a powerful intercessor and maintained for the happy enjoyment of the faithful after death, but rather as a genuinely and politically realizable environment in this world – helps Thurman define his socio-political objective: creating a society that will “provide the individual with the opportunity to cultivate [enlightenment].”152 “A social buddhaverse,” he writes, “is a place where everything is geared toward enlightenment, where every lifetime is made meaningful by dedication to optimal evolutionary development.”153 Thurman sees this paradisical “buddhaverse” as an achievable objective within samsara, and calls for us to “understand what life, liberty, and happiness are in the context of the work of enlightenment,” so we can become “real participants in the politics that aims for those goals.”154 As we have seen, this approach commits Thurman to a vision of democracy (or “democratism”) as the best system through which to empower individuals in exercising and maintaining the freedom they need in order to pursue spiritual development. His politics, therefore, purports to be a sort of grass-roots spiritual revolution, for “Shakyamuni turned politics on its head and proved that the best way to build a healthy society was from the bottom up – through the development of the individual – not from the top down.”155 It is not entirely clear, however, precisely what Thurman’s commitment to “universal democratism” would actually mean in practice, for in his writings it coexists
150

151 152 153 154 155

These issues are actually addressed quite explicitly in the U.S. political system through a system of checks and balances between coordinate branches of government – one of which is a judicial institution charged, among other things, with enforcing a pre-established set of constitutional principles against the will of the democratic majority that is represented in the other two branches. Democratic outcomes are allowed within the parameters of constitutional principle; change to those parameters themselves is permitted democratically, but only through specified supermajority procedures coupled with demanding procedural hurdles. Thurman, Inner Revolution, supra, at 25. Thurman, Inner Revolution, supra, at 168. Thurman, Inner Revolution, supra, at 32. Thurman, Inner Revolution, supra, at 92. Thurman, Inner Revolution, supra, at 95.

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with a strong predilection for monastic theocracy. He seems attached to monasticism, and its specifically political role, to a degree that would surely make some modern Western Buddhists – and many others besides – distinctly uncomfortable. In fact, Thurman offers an impassioned defense of premodern Buddhist theocracy in Tibet as a political model for national and world order in the future. According to Thurman, ancient Buddhist India was a “garden of Eden” which we should seek to emulate today. Since that time, however, “the dharma sangha in Buddhist countries has never controlled the military authority, and social activism has always been countercultural, balanced against a political authority that had responsibility without enlightenment.”156 These old politically passive attitudes, he thinks, need to be overturned. In their place, he advocates “a monastic industrial revolution” in which “the industrial product becomes an enlightened person.” In such a Buddhist society, all of government would be devoted to “support[ing] everybody becoming selflessly enlightened.” Thurman’s model in this regard is old Tibet – a state ruled both in name and in fact by a monastic establishment, with the Dalai Lama as its supreme leader, because “the enlightened person has to take responsibility, take power, in fact. And Tibet is the only place on this planet where political power and enlightenment became the same thing. … Tibet represents an alternative direction for the entire planet, a peace direction that the planet could have gone in four hundred years ago. Tibet is a manifestation of the fact that we can have paradise, we can have Shambhala, we can have Eden again. Easily.”157 (In Thurman’s imagination, it should be added, the monastic community – in its exercise of political power – should also enjoy a lot of political power. He calls for “strong executive leadership” under “a strong, dedicated, trusted, and empowered chief executive.”158) In defending his remarkable notion of a monastic putsch in which the enlightened apparently have a duty to take over the reigns of power, Thurman cites the example of Ashoka, who reportedly tried to deed his whole empire over to the Indian monastic community of his day. The monks, in fact, allowed him to make this extraordinary donation in order to “let him have the merit of the gift.” To be sure, they then returned the empire to his Mauryan dynasty in return merely for a monastic endowment,159 but

156 157 158 159

Thurman, “Buddha’s Mother Saving Tibet,” supra, at 193. Thurman, “Buddha’s Mother Saving Tibet,” supra, at 194 & 196. Thurman, Inner Revolution, supra, at 319-20. Thurman, Inner Revolution, supra, at 137.

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Thurman seems to think that it is merely the monastic community’s option whether or not to exercise political power over the rest of the population. Even if it does not actually initially choose to exercise outright rule, moreover, Thurman clearly feels that the monastic community must serve as society’s guide. He describes, for instance, a historical process by which at first the “countercultural monastic movement” of Buddhist enlightenment has to “lie low,” but after a while comes into the open and “is able to give the ruling powers advice, spiritual and social.” At this point, “[e]nlightened sages can begin to advise their royal disciples [i.e., government officials] on how to conduct the daily affairs of society, such as what should be their policies and practices.”160 In time, Thurman expects, this guiding role will develop into overt political power: eventually, “the countercultural enlightenment movement becomes mainstream and openly takes responsibility for the whole society.”161 This gradual evolution to monastic political supremacy, he says, is precisely what “eventually happened in Tibet.”162 Premodern theocratic Tibet, in other words, is for Thurman the enlightenment society personified, and it is a model that we should emulate today as we hybridize and integrate what he calls its spiritual “inner modernity” with the “‘materialistic’ or ‘outer’ modernity” of the contemporary West.163 (Interestingly, Thurman sees it as America’s task to lead this development in the modern world.164) Thurman’s argument is thus a strangely ambiguous one, since his belief in “democratism” and freely elected executive leadership coexists with a commitment to creating an essentially theocratic Tibet-inspired, monastic-run political order. His is, however, an expressly “Buddhist” conception of politics. Whatever else might be said about it, Thurman’s “buddhaverse” is a political vision that clearly does not simply represent a shallow “rebranding” of conventional political activism. B. Economics

In general, it seems to be the case, as Peter Harvey has recounted, that with regard to money and wealth, Buddhism worries more about its mode of acquisition than about its distribution.165 Nor, of course, do most Engaged Buddhist writers take Buddhism to be “an infallible system that holds all the answers to the problems we face.” As Kenneth Kraft has phrased it, “[i]n the realm of socioeconomic policy, engaged Buddhist thinkers

160 161 162 163 164 165

Thurman, Inner Revolution, supra, at 166. Thurman, Inner Revolution, supra, at 166. Thurman, Inner Revolution, supra, at 166. Thurman, Inner Revolution, supra, at 247 & 257. Thurman, Inner Revolution, supra, at 280. Harvey, supra, at 201. Historically, moreover, Buddhist receptivity to ideas of distributive justice seem to have been inhibited by the lingering notion that at least some economic inequality in the current life is due to karmic baggage accumulated in past lives. Id. at 202.

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are willing to take points from a variety of other systems and faiths.”166 Buddhism, in other words, appears to be rather flexible regarding a society’s choice of economic system. In David Loy’s analysis, for instance, the dharma requires no particular model.167 Notwithstanding Sulak Sivaraksa’s belief that “[w]e really need Buddhist economics,”168 therefore, it is not obvious that such a thing exists. As we saw earlier in our discussion of the Buddha’s acceptance of milk from Sujata, however, a case can be made that it should be the objective of economic policy to ensure that members of the public do not fall below some fundamental level of poverty that would – e.g., by causing debilitating hunger – impede their ability to make spiritual progress. And indeed there is a suggestion in the early Buddhist canon of a sort of a “minimum needs” idea. According to the Anguttara Nikaya, “[c]ircumstances which facilitate spiritual striving are that a person is young and healthy, there is no food shortage, people are friendly to one another, and the Sangha is harmonious.”169 This link between some kind of economic “safety net” and the minimum needs of the Buddhist practitioner is made explicit in some modern Engaged Buddhist writing. Loy, for example – for whom a “crucial issue is whether an economic system is conducive to the ethical and spiritual development of its participants”170 – believes that the community must ensure that no one lacks “the basic material requirements for leading a decent life.” By analogy to the “minimum material needs” that Buddhism has long recognized that meditating monks must have met by the larger society if they are to continue their practice – “the traditional four requisites of the bhikku (monk) and bhikkuni (nun)” – he suggests that citizens must have food sufficient to alleviate hunger and maintain health, clothing enough to be socially decent and protect the body, shelter “sufficient for serious engagement with cultivating the mind,” and health care sufficient to cure and prevent illness.171 Ensuring this “basic level” of support, Loy contends, should be the goal of public policy. On the other hand – echoing the old Buddhist idea that material welfare is not an end in itself, and is in fact a potential danger to spiritual progress172 – Loy also argues that government should not try to do more than providing this minimum, lest it feed a public “preoccupation” with satisfying desires.173 Gary Snyder would seem to agree that too much encouragement of people’s tendency to want to satiate their material desires can impede enlightenment. Modern societies, he warns are cultures of greed and acquisitiveness, distorting true human potential by “creat[ing] populations of preta –

166 167 168 169 170 171 172 173

Kraft, “Engaged Buddhism,” supra, at 67. Loy, supra, at 86. Sivaraksa, “Buddhism in a World of Change,” supra, at 13. Harvey, supra, at 196 (citing Anguttara Nikaya, III 65-6). Loy, supra, at 78-79. Loy, supra, at 32 & 55. Harvey, supra, at 196. Loy, supra, at 32 & 34.

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hungry ghosts, with giant appetites and throats no bigger than needles.”174 As others have noted, after all, “[m]oney alone is a heavy burden,” and “[t]rue wealth is a rich network of loving people.”175 Some degree of economic welfare may be a requisite for human happiness, but the Buddha “did not recognize progress as real and true if it was only material, devoid of a spiritual and moral foundation.”176 At any rate, there are sutras that articulate the idea that satisfying at least such basic needs is a key to ensuring good order in society. The Cakkavatti-Sihanada Suttanta Sutta, for instance, relates how the successors of the legendary universal monarch Dalhanemi failed in their duties by allowing poverty to become widespread. This led to a general decay of social order in which “[t]hieves now began to conduct their operations with violence, and murder became common. … A further succession of evils arose: immorality, abusive speech, trivial talk, covetousness and ill will, false opinions, lust, and poisonous greed.”177 The message here would seem to be that “if rulers do not prevent the spread of poverty in their domains they not only induce disorder therein but create disrespect for all recognized forms of authority, so contributing to the deterioration of the human race.”178 The Cakkavatti-Sihanada Suttanta Sutta is frequently invoked to support the argument that poverty is a root of social disorder, and that it should thus be the responsibility of government to ensure that it does not become too extreme.179 In a message also echoed in the Theravadan Maha-vastu, the Mahayana Maha-sudassana Sutta, and the Lion’s Roar Sutra, the Kutadanta Sutta similarly advises rulers that rather than undertaking repressive criminal justice measures, they would do better to prevent crime from arising in the first place, by giving economic help to those who need it.180 Nagarjuna’s Raja-parikatha-ratnamala also advises King Udayi to support what has been described as “a welfare state … a rule of compassionate socialism.”181 Such writers see in Buddhism some degree of mandate for what moderns might call a progressive economic agenda182 – at least with respect, at any rate, to ensuring the satisfaction of

174 175 176 177 178 179 180 181 182

Snyder, “Buddhism and the Possibilities of a Planetary Culture,” supra, at 83. Thurman, Inner Revolution, at 322. Walpola Rahula, “The Social Teachings of the Buddha,” in The Path of Compassion, supra, at 103, 106. Saddhatissa, supra, at 117-19. Saddhatissa, supra, at 121. See, e.g., Rahula, “The Social Teachings of the Buddha,” supra, at 104 & 107; Harvey, supra, at 197-98; Loy, supra, at 46, 57, 75, & 129. Harvey, supra, at 198-99; Loy, supra, at 57 & 129. Harvey, supra, at 199. Rahula, “The Social Teachings of the Buddha,” supra, at 106.

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some bundle of absolute minimum needs. As it is put in the Dighanikaya, “[w]hoever in the kingdom should be without means, to him should be handed some.”183 Beyond the idea of preventing absolute poverty, however, there seems to be little agreement among Engaged Buddhist writers about the proper scope of government involvement in the economy. Some go rather beyond the mere provision of “minimum needs,” and advocate steps that tend generally toward what modern politics would regard as socialism. A.T. Ariyaratne, for example, says that “[i]nternational trade should be restricted, because it produces injustice.”184 For his part, Ken Jones calls sweepingly for the “cooperative management and ownership of productive wealth,” and argues that the “use of modern technology” should be controlled by the government so that it is employed only “selectively.”185 Even Loy, who worries about the impact upon spiritual progress if the government goes beyond the provision of basic needs, calls for “democratic supervision of international markets” – whatever that means – and “public supervision of privately owned corporations.”186 In keeping with the Buddha’s advice to householders not to give away all their money but rather to achieve prosperity and use the resulting deep pockets for good purposes,187 however, Robert Thurman argues that an enlightenment society’s commitment to individualism requires and approves of maintaining “an economic surplus.” To this end, he advocates “ascetic self-restraint in consumption” and “the investment of wealth” into “productive” activities – coupled with generosity – so that “more is available for future consumption.”188 But he does not disapprove of capital accumulation per se. Indeed, Thurman concedes that “the basic idea of capitalism … has a good impulse at its core,” because it encourages one “to produce more than [one] consume[s] and thereby save concentrated value for others and for future generations, reflect[ing] detachment, self-restraint, even generosity.”189 At least to this extent, at least, Thurman feels that a bodhisattva is “pro-wealth.”190 Buddhist traditions would indeed seem to allow a good deal of latitude in interpreting the programmatic import of “Buddhist economics.” C. Criminal Justice

Most Engaged Buddhist writers abhor retributive justice, preferring instead a rehabilitative approach which emphasizes the use of punishment solely for the “education and reformation” of criminals.191 In this regard, the canonical text most frequently cited for support is the Angulimala Sutra, the tale of the Buddha’s reformation of Angulimala, a brutal serial killer known as “Necklace of Severed Fingers” on account of his
183 184 185 186 187 188 189 190 191

Saddhatissa, supra, at 118 (quoting Dighanikaya, vol.III (J.E. Carpenter, ed.) (1960), at 60-61). Ariyaratne, “Waking Everybody Up,” supra, at 92. Jones, “Buddhism and Social Action: An Exploration,” supra, at 79. Loy, supra, at 87. Saddhatissa, supra, at 142. Thurman, Inner Revolution, at 94 & 190. Thurman, Inner Revolution, at 273. Thurman, Inner Revolution, at 322. Loy, supra, at 46; see also id. at 125.

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predilection for wearing just such an adornment. Despite his terrible deeds, this horrid criminal was able to overcome his violent past and become an exemplary monk – eventually even achieving Nirvana. Angulimala’s story is said to show how the basic Buddhist principle of impermanence means that even the most hardened hearts can change: that literally anyone can awaken from his ignorance and wrong-headedness into a life of exemplary awareness and compassionate right action.192 The great early Mahayana Indian sage Nagarjuna is also frequently cited in support of a rehabilitative approach to criminal justice. His Jewel Garland of Royal Counsels, offering advice on statecraft to King Udayi of the Satavahana Dynasty, stresses not just the importance of fairness in the criminal justice system, but opposes capital punishment193 and urges that the aim of the criminal justice system be rehabilitation.194 In Nagajuna’s view, the purpose of punishment must be rehabilitative, and those who administer criminal justice should always “generate an attitude of help, even for all beings who have committed the most appalling sins.”195 Some Engaged Buddhist writers have gone beyond an individually rehabilitative approach, offering instead a broader vision of criminal justice which aims also to repair the societies out of which criminals come, and to alleviate the collective societal brutalization to which their criminal acts contribute. David Loy, for instance, makes such an argument – finding inspiration in the Angulimala Sutra, in which it is recounted that angry villagers, encountering Angulimala in his new role as a humble monk, viciously stone the man who had previously terrorized them. For Loy, the message of this part of the story is that reforming the criminal must be accompanied by “restorative or transformative justice that takes account of his effects on society.” It is important, Loy says, to “attempt to ‘make things right’” by repairing the tears that crime causes in the fabric of society.196 Lest one stereotype Buddhist visions of criminal justice, however, it is worth emphasizing that – as we will see later with the issue of “compassionate violence” – traditional ideas of the exercise of compassion can sometimes encompass activity that seems quite harsh to modern eyes. In the context of criminal justice, for instance, some sutra texts and traditional commentaries still leave civil authorities a great deal of coercive power for use in fighting crime. In his account of bodhisattva ethics in the lengthy literature of the Mahayana, Peter Harvey relates that this tradition allows

192

193

194 195 196

Virginia Cohn Parkum & J. Anthony Stulz, “The Angulimala Lineage: Buddhist Prison Ministries,” in Engaged Buddhism in the West, supra, at 347, 347-49; see also Harvey, supra, at 34-35; Loy, supra, at 46 & 125. Robert Thurman follows this, calling for the elimination of capital punishment in favor of incarceration involving some kind of “evolutionary-transformation program” aimed at rehabilitating criminals. See Thurman, Inner Revolution, supra, at 310. Parkum & Stulz, “The Angulimala Lineage: Buddhist Prison Ministries,” supra, at 349. Thurman, “Nagarjuna’s Guidelines for Buddhist Social Action,” supra, at 86-87 (quoting Jewel Garland of Royal Counsels). Loy, supra, at 127.

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“compassionately humbling, punishing or banishing others in order to make them give up unwholesome ways and take to wholesome ones.”197 Moreover, despite his commitment to rehabilitative justice, Nagarjuna appears to have believed that some criminals were not corrigible – or at least that they were not feasibly so. (It took the Buddha himself, after all, to reform the vicious Angulimala. We should perhaps not expect such high standards of rehabilitative performance from our own efforts at criminal justice.) One should not mistreat even the fiercest murders, Nagarjuna wrote, but it was nonetheless perfectly acceptable to banish them: “Once you have examined the fierce murderers and judged them correctly, you should banish them without killing or torturing them.”198 It was, in other words, entirely legitimate for the state to deal with “those murderers, whose sins are horrible”199 by somehow removing them permanently from society, for its protection. Perhaps most harshly of all, in fact, the Arya-satyaka-parivarta Sutra also contains passages endorsing quite harsh conduct by a king vis-à-vis his own subjects. The king is urged not to mistake compassion for sentimentality, for too much of the latter can lead to disorder and to the ruler’s downfall. Manifesting loving-kindness, or maitri (Skt; Pali, metta), and compassion (karuna), the king is permitted by this sutra to “bind, imprison, terrorize, beat, and harm uncivilized people” – though he should refrain from mutilating criminals, depriving them of their senses, or executing them.200 In the Aryasatyaka-parivarta Sutra, violence against criminals seems to have been permissible to the extent that it serves rehabilitative purposes by helping retrain the criminal. Mutilation, execution, or driving a prisoner insane did not admit the possibility of full rehabilitation, however, so these punishments were not permitted. Remarkably, however, according to Steve Jenkins, in an earlier Pali version of this text the Buddha makes clear that an anointed king does have the power to execute those criminals who need to be executed.201 There is also apparently some canonical support for the idea that rulers who engage in torture – in the proper context, for rehabilitative purposes, and presumably only with genuinely compassionate intent – are undertaking an auspicious action. (Such activity is likened to that of parents who inflict disciplinary pain upon their children for the children’s own good and without wishing them harm.)202 There apparently is, therefore, a great diversity in Buddhist accounts of the techniques available for managing criminals.

197 198 199 200

201 202

Harvey, supra, at 131. Thurman, “Nagarjuna’s Guidelines for Buddhist Social Action,” supra, at 87 (quoting Jewel Garland of Royal Counsels). Parkum & Stulz, “The Angulimala Lineage: Buddhist Prison Ministries,” supra, at 349 (quoting Jewel Garland of Royal Counsels). Steve Jenkins, “Compassionate Violence, Torture, and Warfare in the Bodhisattva Ideal,” remarks at the Institute for Buddhist Studies, Berkeley, California (April 17, 2009), Part I, available at http://podcast.shinibs.edu/content/episode_24.mp4. Jenkins, supra, at Part I. Jenkins, supra, at Part II, available at http://podcast.shin-ibs.edu/content/episode_25.mp4.

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D.

Education

If indeed it is “the basic principle of Buddhist social action” – and thus one of the guiding themes of a Buddhist politics – to foster the “complete self-transformation” of individual persons and facilitate “complete world-transformation” on the broader social stage,203 it stands to reason that education must be an important part of the public policy agenda. A dysfunctional education system, or one that teaches the wrong things, can greatly set back its pupil’s spiritual progress. As we have seen, Gary Snyder feels that “most modern societies” are “vicious distorters of true human potential,” but he envisions a harmonious Buddhist future of “a world of relatively mutually tolerant small societies attuned to their local natural region and united overall by a profound respect and love for the mind and nature of the universe.”204 To help create such a future, Ken Jones feels that it should be the goal of government policy to “fashion and sustain a society whose citizens are free to live in dignity and harmony and mutual respect, free of the degradation of poverty and war. In such a society of good heart, all men and women find encouragement and support in making, if they will, the best use of their human condition in the practice of wisdom and compassion. This is the land of good karma – not the end of human suffering, but the beginning of the end, the bodhisattva-land, the social embodiment of sila.”205 If the government, as the government, is to have a role in creating such a utopia, education policy seems one place to start. Accordingly, a number of Engaged Buddhist writers have stressed the importance of education as a key agenda item for a Buddhist politics, arguing that an enlightened society must carefully and broad-mindedly educate its citizenry. According to Robert Thurman, for example, “[a] society geared to uncovering truth and spreading enlightened attitudes will necessarily focus intently on education, mak[ing] it one of the chief preoccupations of policy.”206 The educational system, he feels, is “the individual’s doorway to liberation, to enlightenment.”207 (In this regard, as in so many other ways, Thurman finds inspiration in Nagarjuna’s advice to King Udayi. The Jewel Garland of Royal Counsels, he contends, evinces a “complete commitment to a pluralistic, enlightenment-oriented educational effort, considered the major business of the whole nation.”208) “[L]ifelong education for all citizens” should therefore be “the nation’s top priority.”209

203 204 205 206 207 208 209

Thurman, “Nagarjuna’s Guidelines for Buddhist Social Action,” supra, at 79. Snyder, “Buddhism and the Possibilities of a Planetary Culture,” supra, at 83 & 85. Jones, “Buddhism and Social Action: An Exploration,” supra, at 72. Thurman, Inner Revolution, supra, at 125. Thurman, “Nagarjuna’s Guidelines for Buddhist Social Action,” supra, at 82. Thurman, “Nagarjuna’s Guidelines for Buddhist Social Action,” supra, at 127. Thurman, Inner Revolution, supra, at 315.

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In Thurman’s account, it is important to ensure that the educational system does not “become a servile establishment in service of the elites of existing societies.” Instead, it should encourage “liv[ing] transcendentally”210 and the development of “critical thinking.”211 It should teach students, he argues, to value Truth “above all personal considerations,” and to be “intensely critical of all falsehood, pretense, delusion, [and] sham.”212 The ideal of a strong government commitment to education is a compelling one, and indeed a notion already reflected – if surely incompletely, and to varying degrees – in government policy in all developed countries. Thurman’s vision, however, has a somewhat more coercive aspect to it, which coexists awkwardly with his ostensible commitment to fostering nonconformity, individualism, and critical thinking. In his eyes, the commitment to “education” seems to entail a role for government in controlling far more than just classroom education. Instead, he writes, real education must entail shaping the entire environment in which people live, including the arts and mass media.213 Suggesting that an enlightened society might sometimes face challenges from persons who still perceive “self-interest” in ways that are not congruent with the society’s master plan for facilitating enlightenment, Thurman contends that they must be “provide[d] education to enlighten them” out of such attitudes.214 For all Thurman’s rhetoric about tolerance being “the firmest basis for a politics of enlightenment” and the need to cultivate “a social matrix that extends support to nonconformity,”215 therefore – and for all that we have seen about the likely inherent pluralism of “Buddhist” viewpoints even in an enlightened society – he seems to regard nonconformity with some discomfort. In his vision, it is the role of the government-run education system gradually to eradicate disagreement. Many Engaged Buddhists genuinely committed to pluralist debate in a democratic society might find this idea somewhat uncomfortable. V. The Challenge of Force

By reputation, Engaged Buddhism is profoundly pacifist, and there is much truth to the stereotype. It has been said, for instance, that opposition to war is a “characteristic issue” for Engaged Buddhism,216 and that “most” Engaged Buddhists feel that dharma practice must be nonviolent.217 It is less clear, however, that this has to be so, and when examined more closely, both traditional Buddhism and its modern manifestation of “engagement” seem much more doctrinally accommodating to the idea of force than the pacifist stereotype would suggest. There is reason to suspect, therefore, the need for a
210 211 212 213 214 215 216 217

Thurman, “Nagarjuna’s Guidelines for Buddhist Social Action,” supra, at 135. Thurman, Inner Revolution, supra, at 94. Thurman, “Nagarjuna’s Guidelines for Buddhist Social Action,” supra, at 84. Thurman, Inner Revolution, supra, at 126. Thurman, Inner Revolution, supra, at 120. Thurman, Inner Revolution, supra, at 94 & 172. Kraft, “New Voices in Engaged Buddhist Studies,” supra, at 491. Queen, “Introduction: A New Buddhism,” supra, at 7.

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more nuanced or sophisticated interpretation of Buddhist ethics with regard to the use of force. A. The Complexity of Nonviolence

It may be that to some extent, modern Buddhism’s image of absolute pacifism reflects merely the literalist sensibilities of contemporary practitioners – especially those of Western Buddhist converts raised in legalistic Abrahamic religious traditions inclined to see precepts as absolute commandments – encountering the ancient Buddhist precept of ahimsa, a Sanskrit term that translates as “nonharming” or “harmlessness.”218 It should be stressed, however, that literalism far from exhausts one’s interpretive repertoire. In Zen, for instance, it is said that there are three aspects to each of the moral precepts, including the precept against killing: (1) a literalist interpretation (“which relates to the Sravakayana219 cast of mind”); (2) the aspect of Mahayana compassion (“positively nurtur[ing] beings” by seeking to alleviate their suffering and facilitate their enlightenment); and (3) the “‘essential’ or Buddha-nature aspect” of Absolute Truth, which is wholly nondual in its perspective.220 If the aim is to adjudge “Buddhist” policy prescriptions, these differing interpretive lenses may perhapa point one in somewhat different directions. Most accounts of Buddhism, moreover, do not regard its precepts as being rigid laws, the violation of which is wholly forbidden: they are not seen as being analogous to Judeo-Christianity’s Ten Commandments as absolutist “Thou Shalt Nots.” The transition from “external authority” to “inner determination” as a source of ethical constraint,221 in fact, has been described as a “creative paradigm shift” of enormous importance to the development of Buddhist spirituality.222 Ken Jones, for instance, has emphasized that “the Buddhist ‘Precepts’ are not commandments; they are ‘good resolutions,’ sincere aspirations voluntarily undertaken. They are signposts.”223 Similarly, Cynthia Eller describes Buddhism – including Engaged Buddhism – as not being governed by unbreakable laws. As applied to the complexities of the socio-political world, she feels, Buddhist ethics may “require[e] consistency of means and ends,” she writes, but it is nonetheless not “rule-bound.”224 David Loy agrees, declaring that the precepts are not commandments, and that such rules are valuable not specifically for the degree that they are actually followed, per se, but rather for their effect in encouraging “personal development and spiritual

218 219 220 221 222 223 224

See Thich Nhat Hanh, “Ahimsa: the Path of Harmlessness,” in Buddhist Peacework, supra, at 155, 155. This is a Mahayana term that translates as the “vehicle of hearers” (i.e., disciples) and refers to the path of an arhat in early Buddhism – that is, a pre-Mahayana or Theravadan perspective. Harvey, supra, at 144. Hunt-Perry & Fine, “All Buddhism is Engaged,” supra, at 50 (discussing interpretation of Buddhist precepts offered by Thich Nhat Hanh’s Order of Interbeing). Queen, “Introduction: A New Buddhism,” supra, at 13 (citing Charles Prebish). Ken Jones, “Buddhism and Social Action: An Exploration,” supra, at 73-74. Eller, “The Impact of Christianity on Buddhist Nonviolence in the West,” supra, at 106.

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progress.”225 Making compliance obligatory in the strict legal sense – as, for instance, has historically been a common tendency in Abrahamic societies with their rules, at least in theory – undercuts this purpose. (If anything, compliance has greater moral value if it is freely chosen and not compelled. As Confucius once put it, the morally cultivated gentleman exercises caution even when alone – an idea later stressed by the Song dynasty neo-Confucian philosopher Zhu Xi, who advocated “vigilance in solitude.”226 By the same token, in Buddhism, an enlightened practitioner, or arhat (Skt; Pali arahant), is said to follow virtue for its own sake, not because of precepts and vows.227) This is perhaps why Peter Harvey sides against ethical compulsion: “People can be offered opportunities to change, but it is up to them if they take them.”228 If one derogates from a precept, regret is wholesome, but the main idea is simply always to seek to do better in the future, “taking the precepts as ideals that one is seeking to live up to in an increasingly complete way.” In Harvey’s characterization, while the rules of Buddhist ethics are “respected ideals that are to be striven for,” it is also understood that the precepts are difficult to keep fully, and that people often cannot. This, it appears, is why the precepts are offered “in the form of a personal undertaking, a promise or vow to oneself, rather than a ‘commandment’ from without.”229 If indeed the precepts are less like laws and more like practice guidelines, undertaken in and reliant upon good faith but not intended to be applied slavishly and rigidly, it is thus not beyond imagination that practitioners could be justified in – or forgiven for – departing from them in extreme circumstances, and when they are as confident as human frailty permits about the necessity of such derogation. This, of course, could have important implications when considering the legitimacy of using force in defense of self or others. Quite apart from any flexibility and acknowledgment of human fallibility that may be built into Buddhist approaches to preceptual compliance, moreover, “not killing” does not even appear to be the precise meaning of ahimsa in the first place – a fact which ought to have particularly profound implications for the literal-minded. As Christopher Chapple recounts, the Sanskrit word ahimsa (the avoidance of violence) comes from the Sanskrit root hims. Hims, in turn, he says, is a form of the verb han, which means to kill or injure or strike. “Prefixed with the privative ‘a,’” Chapple thus notes, ahimsa “can be translated as ‘absence of the desire to kill or harm.”230 Arguably, therefore, ahimsa does not necessarily mean the absence of violence as conventionally understood (i.e., the nonuse of force in and of itself), but rather the avoidance of any action driven by desire to harm.231 (We must also bear in mind what “harm” might itself actually mean in a
225 226 227 228 229 230 231

Loy, supra, at 37 & 131. See, e.g., Huang Tsung-hsi, The Records of the Ming Scholars (Julie Ching, trans., Honolulu: University of Hawaii, 1987), at 5 & 59. Harvey, supra, at 45. Harvey, supra, at 37. Harvey, supra, at 68 & 80. Christopher Chapple, “Nonviolence to Animals in Buddhism and Jainism,” in Inner Peace, World Peace, supra, at 49, 50-51 (emphasis added). This intentionalist interpretation is hardly inevitable, however. According to Luis Gomez, the Jains greatly prize the principle of ahimsa as well, but generally take a different view of intentionality than do Buddhists. For Jains, there exists a connection between the action and the

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specifically Buddhist sense: as we have seen with our discussion of the meaning of “suffering,” it is not a given that Buddhist understandings will coincide in all respects with the ways the word is used in conventional discourse.) Translations of ahimsa which render it crudely as “not killing” may tend to flavor the First Precept with an absolutist pacifism, thus contributing to literalist and rigidly legalistic tendencies in its interpretation. Ahimsa, however, may actually mean something subtly different: not a blanket prohibition upon force but a prohibition instead upon force employed out of a desire to harm. Accordingly, even without turning to Zen’s third perspective – that of absolute and non-dual truth in which, “ultimately, there is noone killed and no act of killing”232 – we may therefore conclude that a more sophisticated understanding of the First Precept is possible (and perhaps necessary) as we seek to address the challenges of Buddhist “engagement.” Yet another reason why it is so hard to approach the issue of violence through clear and crisp rules of thumb is simply that real-life situations present a richness and complexity that defy easy ethical treatment. Thich Nhat Hanh, for example, offers a parable of how even inaction can sometimes be harmful: in his example, a monk sees a woman drowning, and does not help her for fear of breaking his vow of celibacy by touching her. Such a monk may keep his precept, Hanh notes, but “he will violate the most fundamental principle of life.” (Clearly, the Vietnamese peace activist does not approve of such a choice.)233 As the Dalai Lama himself has conceded, sometimes not acting with physical violence can sometimes be more truly violent, in the Buddhist sense, than actually using force. In this regard, His Holiness tells the story of a monk who saves a drunken man flailing around in a rushing river by punching the inebriate senseless in order to subdue and thus be able to rescue him.234 Is this violent? Yes. Was it necessary and compassionate? Yes also. Refraining from the use of force in this c ase, at least, would have left the drunk to drown. Such ambiguities present great challenges for those devoted both to worldly engagement and to the ideal of nonharming. Thich Nhat Hanh’s Order of Interbeing, for instance, aims to end war and work for social justice “without taking sides.”235 It is not always clear, however, how one can avoid taking sides in some of the trying and terrible circumstances of samsara. Patricia Ellsberg, for instance, seemed to relish displaying her pacifist colors by decrying the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 1991 as the “the Gulf Massacre,”236 but it is very hard to distinguish between opposing that intervention and condoning Saddam Hussein’s brutal occupation and pillage of Kuwait. Was it more

232 233 234 235 236

resulting karma irrespective of intentions. (As an example, therefore, stepping on a bug, even accidentally, still brings evil karma.) See Luis O. Gomez, “Nonviolence and the Self in Early Buddhism,” in Inner Peace, World Peace, supra, at 31, 38-39. Harvey, supra, at 144. Thich Nhat Hanh, “Ahimsa: the Path of Harmlessness,” supra, at 158. Kraft, “Introduction,” in Inner Peace, World Peace, supra, at 6. Hunt-Perry & Fine, supra, at 40. Patricia Marx Ellsberg, “The Five Precepts and Social Change,” in Engaged Buddhist Reader, supra, at 240, 241.

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compassionately “nonviolent” to allow his forces to remain, or to support their forcible ouster? Sometimes “not taking sides” is to take a side: the side of the status quo. Engaged Buddhists clearly understand this point in the context of other social justice issues, but many of them remain curiously resistant to admitting it in the arena of organized violence. It would also seem difficult for anyone seriously committed to social justice to contend that no side is ever worth taking in this complicated world. Particularly if one is committed to changing the circumstances of samsara in order to reduce the violence and oppression suffered by other beings, can one really contend – as Joanna Macy seems to believe237 – that there is no moral distinction at all between the American preacher Jerry Falwell and the brutal Iranian theocrat Ayatollah Khomeini? Can a moral and compassionate person really accept David Loy’s extraordinary assertion of moral equivalency between the United States and the terrorists of al-Qaeda?238 Is Buddhist “engagement” really possible or defensible if one believes that there is never a side worth being on? Nor is it the case that we always have an entirely nonviolent option when confronted even by the difficult choices presented by everyday life. Even if we devote ourselves wholly to the alleviation of suffering, the complexity of life can present difficult choices between alternatives that are all violent in some way and to some degree: it is our challenge to pick between these violences in a coherent and morally defensible way, but true “nonviolence” may sometimes simply be unavailable. As Kenneth Kraft has noted, “[o]rdinarily, no clear-cut boundary separates nonviolent and violent behavior, and it is impossible to adhere to an absolute standard (we kill tiny beings whenever we boil water). Thus the ideal of nonviolence is more a direction than a fixed position.”239 This is acknowledged quite explicitly, for example, in the precepts of the Order of Interbeing. These precepts, as Kraft describes them, are deliberately “administered in a tolerant manner, because it is recognized that even the best-intentioned people cannot adhere to them absolutely. A single footstep, for example, may kill many beings too small to see. So, ‘even the Buddha, while he was walking and drinking and eating, could not be entirely nonviolent.’”240 Thich Nhat Hanh himself seems to admit that complete nonviolence is impossible. For him, the Buddhist practice of nonviolence seems to be primarily a question of good
237 238 239 240

See Joanna Macy, “World As Lover, World As Self,” in Engaged Buddhist Reader, supra, at 150, 153. See, e.g., Loy, supra, at 44 & 104. Kraft, “Introduction,” in Inner Peace, World Peace, supra, at 5. Kraft, “Prospects for a Socially Engaged Buddhism,” supra, at 21-22.

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faith efforts in the right direction, compassionate attempts to choose the best among the bad paths that may be available, and careful attention to gradations of degree: “It is very difficult to say that someone is nonviolent or violent. We can only say that a person is more or less nonviolent at a particular time. When I drink tea, I know that it is not entirely nonviolent because in the cup there are many tiny living beings. It is a question of direction. If you think that violence is sometimes needed, then I think you need more awareness and more love. Then I am sure you will go the other direction. Even a General conducting a war can be more nonviolent or less violent. In planning strategies, he can avoid killing more people, so there is a little bit of nonviolence in his violent act. You cannot just separate people and say some are violent and some are not. That is why people with love, compassion, and nonviolence should be everywhere, even in the Pentagon, in order to encourage nonviolent attitudes within those we think are our enemies.”241 Admitting that “[w]e cannot be completely nonviolent,” Hanh urges simply that we should keep trying “to proceed in that direction.” In his view, as suggested above, anyone can practice nonviolence, even soldiers in wartime: generals, for instance, should “conduct their operations in ways that avoid killing innocent people; this is a kind of nonviolence.”242 Such a perspective seems to pull “nonviolence” back in directions that would not be unfamiliar to a modern military lawyer. After all, principles of necessity, proportionality, and discrimination in the use of force are key tenets of the modern law of armed conflict, and military operational law stresses the importance of minimizing the suffering, especially by non-combatants, caused by military operations. From the broader perspective, therefore, it would seem that the problem of when to accept violence within an ethic of nonviolence is ubiquitous, and cannot simply be wished away. The point may be “to uphold the spirit of each precept as faithfully as possible,”243 but we cannot escape challenging and contested judgment calls about what this actually means in practice – and it may not always be morally possible to avoid using some violence. Alan Senauke, for one, seems to have understood the moral tension inherent in the question of how to respond compassionately in a brutally violent world. Speaking of NATO’s military intervention in Kosovo, he declared that “I wonder right at this moment how to respond to American bombs in Serbia and Kosovo when I really have no practical alternative in mind.”244 At least some Buddhists, among them Bodhin Kjolhede of the Rochester Zen Center, felt with regard to that 1999 conflict that pure nonviolence had failed to prevent Serbian atrocities, and that genuine compassion entailed “a responsibility to respond” militarily if that was necessary in order to stop them:
241 242 243 244

Hanh, “Please Call Me by My True Names,” supra, at 38. Hanh, “Ahimsa: the Path of Harmlessness,” supra, at 155. Kraft, “Prospects for a Socially Engaged Buddhism,” supra, at 21-22. Kraft, “New Voices in Engaged Buddhist Studies,” supra, at 491-92 (quoting Senauke).

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“If there is such a thing as a justifiable war, then this would appear to be it. What else should NATO have done under these circumstances, when [Serbian President Slobodan] Milosevic would not cease and desist from his ethnic atrocities, in spite of what many would argue were extraordinarily patient efforts to find a nonviolent resolution? I am willing to come out and say that we needed to intervene militarily.”245 Kraft also quotes Helen Tworkov, the editor of the Buddhist magazine Tricycle, that it is sometimes necessary to move beyond simple pacifism. She said she is “drawn to those schools of Buddhism in which ‘killing’ becomes part of a more complex conversation.” In the context of the Kosovo conflict, Tworkov felt that “in the Balkans, the alleviation of suffering emerges as the prime motive for war, and the strategies accommodate paradox and contradiction.” 246 Luis Gomez believes that Buddhist thought has too long avoided investigating how to handle the problem of compassionately choosing from among violent alternatives.247 Kraft has similarly argued that the question of whether just-war reasoning is legitimately available to Buddhists “deserves more attention than it has yet received.”248 For him, questions of the permissible scope of violence within Engaged Buddhism “are only beginning to be explored in a profound and systematic way within the Buddhist tradition,” and “remain unresolved.”249 Yet however one approaches it, this issue does not seem to be one that a thoughtful Engaged Buddhist can easily sidestep. The challenge, in fact, emerges as a general one. The problem of violence is really a problem of action that derives simply from living in the everyday world; it is inherent in the project of any engagement, and no Buddhist can entirely escape it. In the words of Christopher Chapple, “laypersons continually encounter a need for violence, however subtle[,] in order to survive.”250 If there is an answer to be found to this koan of violence-within-nonviolence or nonviolence-within-violence, it is therefore one that will resonate powerfully across the whole range of Buddhists’ engagement with the world. The need for an interpretation of ahimsa more nuanced than the literalist and pacifist stereotype would admit may explain why there has sometimes seemed to be a whiff of evasion behind high-profile modern Buddhist pronouncements on the issue of force. Sulak Sivaraksa, for instance, has on multiple occasions recounted the story of asking Thich Nhat Hanh – during the Vietnam War – whether the monk would rather have peace under the Communists, “which would mean the end of Buddhism,” or victory

245 246 247 248 249 250

Kraft, “New Voices in Engaged Buddhist Studies,” supra, at 492 (quoting Kjolhede). Kraft, “New Voices in Engaged Buddhist Studies,” supra, at 492 (quoting Tworkov). Gomez, “Nonviolence and the Self in Early Buddhism,” supra, at 41. Kraft, “New Voices in Engaged Buddhist Studies,” supra, at 493. Kraft, “Engaged Buddhism,” supra, at 69. Christopher Chapple, “Nonviolence to Animals in Buddhism and Jainism,” supra, at 59.

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of “the democratic Vietnam with the possibility of Buddhist revival.” Hanh, Sivaraksa recounts, replied that “his answer was to have peace at any price.”251 Hanh’s reply is apparently often taken as an affirmation of the imperative of a thoroughgoing pacifism presumably grounded in an absolute prohibition upon the use of force: no price would justify the pursuit of victory through violence. Sivaraksa’s further explanation of Hanh’s answer, however, makes this seemingly bold reply sound more like rhetorical misdirection than dharmic clarity. The Vietnamese monk, Sivaraksa recounts, went on to explain his response by saying that no sacrifice of lives should be made to preserve Buddhist institutions and practices, because Buddhism will be reborn later when peace and freedom are cultivated.252 This suggests that Hanh’s “peace at any price” response was a dodge: Sivaraksa had posed to him a hypothetical choice between peace at the price of Buddhism’s repression and destruction under Communist tyranny and Buddhism’s survival in a democratic South Vietnam at the price of warfare to preserve the political system that protected it. Hanh’s answer thus really boiled down to little more than the assertion that Buddhism will survive in Vietnam either way, so there’s no point fighting for our freedom to practice. Sivaraksa’s postulated choice between peace and freedom was thus slyly recast, and sidestepped. Despite the dramatic phrasing, Hanh actually did not describe a position of preferring peace at any price. Instead, he recast peace as having a comparatively low price, and carefully avoided saying what he would do if really confronted by a choice between the destruction of all opportunities to practice the dharma and forestalling such a catastrophe through military resistance. Even His Holiness the XIVth Dalai Lama has sometimes engaged in such evasiveness when addressing the question of force. Notionally, he takes an instrumental view, implying that we should support whatever tactics are most useful in securing peace, even if this happens to include violent methods. In practice, however, he makes clear that he thinks no route to real peace could involve violence, or even mere preparations for it: “If through weapons we could achieve real, lasting peace, all right. Let all factories be turned into weapons factories. Spend every dollar for that, if that will achieve definite, lasting peace. But it is impossible. … Weapons do not remain stockpiled. Once a weapon is developed, sooner or later someone will use it.”253 This argument, however, is a bit of a straw man, since it is very likely that no one has ever argued that “every” factory and “every” dollar should be devoted to munitions, and
251

252 253

Sulak Sivaraksa, “Buddhism in a World of Change,” supra, at 16; see also Sulak Sivaraksa, “World of Change II,” supra, at 70 (recounting same story). Elsewhere, Hanh himself explains that “[a] civilization in which we must kill and exploit others in order to live is not a civilization of mental health.” Thich Nhat Hanh, “The Individual, Society, and Nature,” in The Path of Compassion, supra, at 40, 42. Sivaraksa, “Buddhism in a World of Change,” supra, at 16. The Dalai Lama, “Hope for the Future,” in Engaged Buddhist Reader, supra, at 248, 251-52; see also Tenzin Gyatso, “Hope for the Future,” supra, at 7.

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no one contends that weapons alone can forever secure peace in any event. As Kraft has recognized, the more interesting question, which His Holiness avoids, is “whether a person who embraces nonviolence is entitled to resort to violence in extreme situations – such as self-defense, defense of innocent people, or defense of one’s country.”254 Merely to state blandly that “[a]nger cannot be overcome by anger,”255 is not to answer it. In Kraft’s account, some Buddhists also try to avoid explicitly addressing the issue of violence by contending merely that “people who have trained themselves to live each day consciously and nonviolently will intuitively know how to react in a given situation.” 256 This position finds it both impossible and undesirable to specify rules in advance for dealing with any particular type of situation. Such thinking may lie behind the comments of Thich Thien-Minh, a colleague of Thich Nhat Hanh’s, in explaining that “[t]he techniques of nonviolent action are not nonviolent action itself. They are merely forms of action, not the essence. Once we are motivated by love, once we are inspired by love, and when we directly face our problems and difficulties, we shall be creative in our effects to find forms of action appropriate to a given situation.”257 In this same vein, Sulak Sivaraksa offers an “outline for building peace” pursuant to which one take action “based on an honest appraisal of causes and conditions, looking at the root causes and attempting to remedy the problem through cultivating a proper frame of mind and letting action follow in a more spontaneous than rational fashion.”258 Thich Nhat Hanh also refuses to specify what Buddhist ethics permits even if someone “breaks into your house and tries to kidnap your daughter or shoot your husband.” According to him “[t]he answer depends on your state of being. If you are prepared, you may react calmly and intelligently, in the most nonviolent way possible.”259 Through such a lens, Buddhism might seem to offer no formulae for dealing with the issue of violence, or any other issue for that matter. Every case is sui generis, and the appropriate response will simply be apparent to the enlightened actor at the time. There is a logic to this position that is not inconsistent with Buddhist ideas of spontaneous nonconceptual action and the importance of avoiding the entrapments of “knowing.” By effectively denying the possibility of having any articulable understanding of the
254 255 256 257

258 259

Kraft, “Introduction,” in Inner Peace, World Peace, supra, at 5. The Dalai Lama, “Hope for the Future,” supra, at 250. Kraft, “Introduction,” in Inner Peace, World Peace, supra, at 5. Cynthia Eller, “The Impact of Christianity on Buddhist Nonviolence in the West,” in Inner Peace, World Peace, supra, at 91, 106 (quoting Thien-Minh, “Non-Violent Action from a Vietnamese Buddhist Viewpoint,” in Religion for Peace: Proceedings of the Kyoto Conference on Religion and Peace (Homer A. Jack, ed.) (New Delhi: Gandhi Peace Foundation, 1973), at 133)). Sivaraksa, “Buddhism and a Culture of Peace,” supra, at 42. Thich Nhat Hanh, “Ahimsa: the Path of Harmlessness,” supra, at 159.

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meaning of the precepts, however, this view would rob Engaged Buddhism of its coherence as a policy program: no one who was not already enlightened would be able to acquire any purchase on what Buddhist ethics actually requires, and even a bodhisattva would be unable to predict in advance what the right course of action would be in any particular set of circumstances. What could it possibly mean to pursue a public policy agenda of socio-political change under such conditions? For Engaged Buddhism to be intelligible as a policy program, therefore, it would seem essential to maintain that at least something coherent can be said, from the perspective of Buddhist ethics, about how social, economic, political, and other institutions should function within society. Precisely because it is their distinctive agenda to seek to change of and within such institutions, Engaged Buddhists cannot avoid having to interpret the precepts, articulate specific policy goals, and generally take positions in advance on what should (or should not) happen in the world. The problem of violence, it would seem – and indeed the broader related problem of action itself – cannot be sidestepped if there is to be any programmatic “engagement” at all. B. Pacifist Antecedents

There certainly are passages in Buddhist scripture that tend to give support to the rigid pacifism of modern stereotype. Luis Gomez, for instance, points to some early exemplars in the Theravadan tradition of what would seem to be an absolutist approach to nonviolence – among them the ascetic Ksantivadin (“Speaker of Patience”) in one Jataka tale, who peacefully allowed a king to cut off his limbs one by one while refusing to defend himself against the false charges that had elicited this punishment. Gomez describes this as an example of “the selfless acceptance of violence.” The famous tale of the Buddha, in a previous incarnation, feeding himself to hungry tigers offers a similar motif of what Gomez calls “total surrender.”260 Rafe Martin similarly cites numerous additional Jataka tales which offer dramatic accounts of the Buddha’s willingness, in past lives, to risk his life or even to sacrifice himself for others: as a Deer King, for instance, the Buddha risked his own life to save all creatures; as a monkey he saved an ungrateful hunter; as a lion he saved all the beasts from their own fears; as a parrot he flew through flames to save those in a burning forest; as an elephant he offered his own flesh to starving people; and as a king he offered his own flesh to save a dove.261 It is not always obvious, however, what window such Jataka stories offer upon the problem of violence as it perplexes Buddhist “engagement.” Sacrificing oneself for others is one thing, but the problem of violence is most acute when it is not merely one’s own life that hangs in the balance. After all, a practitioner might well choose to face an attack with thoroughgoing nonviolence; that is presumably his own choice to make, if it is anyone’s. The awkward challenge for public policy, however, is where third parties are involved – or indeed whole societies. Jataka examples of self-sacrifice do not necessarily suggest the rectitude of standing idly by while others are being harmed, if we

260 261

Gomez, “Nonviolence and the Self in Early Buddhism,” supra, at 32-33 (emphasis in original). Rafe Martin, “Thoughts on the Jatakas,” in The Path of Compassion, supra, at 97, 99.

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have the power physically to intervene. Can Buddhist compassion tolerate inaction in such circumstances? To be sure, Buddhist pacifism can turn to stories that speak more directly to this problem of violence than Jataka tales merely describing a willingness to sacrifice oneself. Walpola Rahula, for instance, points to stories of the Buddha’s peacemaking activity during his lifetime, recounting that the Tathagata is said personally to have intervened on a would-be battlefield to talk opposing armies out of war over water access between the Sakyas and Koliyas. The Buddha’s words are also said to have prevented King Ajatasattu from attacking the kingdom of the Vajjis.262 But arguing that such peacemaking is preferable to war is an easy case to make. Far harder to address is the situation in which the would-be attacker perseveres nonetheless, and not undertaking violent intervention or self-defense seems likely to lead to catastrophic harm. There is one Jataka tale in which a bodhisattva was a king, and refused to defend his kingdom by violence when it was attacked. This turned out well, however, because after this king surrendered, his conqueror came to see the wrongness of the invasion and thereafter departed, leaving the kingdom in peace.263 Yet such a happy ending also evades the tough questions. (It would not be so hard to consider surrender to a violent attacker if one knew that capitulation would turn out to be as costless, and the status quo ante so quickly restored, as this story suggests.) More apropos is the legend, recounted by Kenneth Kraft, about how Shakyamuni Buddha, “after failing twice to turn back an invader nonviolently, stands aside and allows his clan to be massacred.” Here the issue becomes as pointed as it could possibly be, and Kraft does not shy away from the draconian choice implied in this tale: “Are our only options violent self-defense or genocidal self-sacrifice?”264 Where there seems to exist a real possibility of that sort of outcome, the problem of (non-)violence in compassionate worldly “engagement” becomes acute indeed. C. Buddhist Violence in History

Historically, whatever doctrinal support for such activity may or may not have existed, Buddhists have certainly not always avoided involvement in warfare. Kraft has admitted that “[o]n the specific issue of peace, the record [of Buddhism] is mixed,” but he stresses that “Buddhists did not fight holy wars – there were no Buddhist Crusades or Inquisitions – and the religion did exert a pacifying effect during certain eras.”265 On the other hand, Buddhists did fight each other at various times, and it is not quite true that nothing akin to a “holy war” has appeared in Buddhist history. As Peter Harvey has summarized, Buddhism clearly aims for nonviolence,
262

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Rahula, “The Social Teachings of the Buddha,” supra, at 107; see also Harvey, supra, at 241 (recounting Buddha defusing conflict over water access by showing the contending groups of kshatriya nobles that their objective was not worth its likely cost in terms of their own lives). Harvey, supra, at 242. (In this account, however, the victorious opponent came to see the error of his ways as a result of being tormented by “a burning sensation in his body.”) Kraft, “Engaged Buddhism: An Introduction,” supra, at xvii; see also Kraft, “Engaged Buddhism,” supra, at 69. Kraft, “Wellsprings of Engaged Buddhism,” supra, at 154.

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“[y]et those who are not yet perfect, living in a world in which others may seek to gain their way by violence, still have to face the dilemma of whether to respond with defensive violence. Pacifism may be the ideal, but in practice Buddhists have often used violence in self-defence or defence of their country ….”266 Offering an example of a Buddhist religious war, in fact, the Maha-vamsa – a Sri Lankan text from the 5th or 6th Century – recounts the story of how the Tamil general Elara was defeated by King Dutthagamani, a Sinhalese Buddhist hero. In the Mahavamsa, Elara is depicted as a threat to Buddhism, and the text justifies warfare against him specifically on these grounds. In the story, moreover, arhats reassure Dutthagamani that the blood he causes to be shed in the war is no obstacle to his own enlightenment: he will incur no karmic cost because his is a war against wicked men on behalf of the dharma. According to Peter Harvey, this Sri Lankan conflict was “the nearest thing to a ‘holy war’ in Buddhist history.”267 Though such conflicts tended to revolve less around issues of Buddhist doctrine than simple “temple politics,”268 medieval Japan saw frequent clashes involving sohei, or “warrior monks,” contingents of which were maintained by powerful monastic institutions such as the Tendai and Shingon orders.269 Pure Land Buddhism became fiercely militant as well, and in the period following the Onin War in Japan’s Sengoku Jidai (Age of Warring States), enthusiastic Pure Land devotees under the Jodo Shinshu270 banner featured in numerous popular uprisings and riots, eventually operating in large military contingents out of fortified monasteries, and controlling considerable territory much in the manner of other rulers in feudal Japan.271 Indeed, the famous Ikko-ikki (“single-minded league”) of Jodo Shin fanatics led by the monk Rennyo (1415-99) promised paradise as a reward for death in battle.272 Followers of the 13th Century monk Nichiren also formed self-governing, largely militarized organizations not unlike Ikko-ikki organizations, complete with their own “Lotus Warrior” military cadres who clashed with the Ikko-ikki.273 (This presumably raised no doctrinal problems for them, as Nichiren had declared himself sympathetic to the instrumental use of violence for good ends. For him, “[k]illing one to let tens of thousands live is pardonable.”274) The sohei legions of the establishment monasteries and

266 267 268 269 270 271 272 273 274

Harvey, supra, at 249. Harvey, supra, at 256. Stephen Turnbull, The Samurai and the Sacred (Oxford: Osprey, 2006), at 43. See, e.g., Harvey, supra, at 266-67. Interestingly, though perhaps merely coincidently, the Jodo Shinshu sect is the only Buddhist denomination today authorized to provide chaplains to the U.S. armed forces. Stephen Turnbull, Japanese Fortified Temples and Monasteries AD 710-1602 (Oxford: Osprey, 2005), at 7-11. Turnbull, The Samurai and the Sacred, supra, at 77-78. Stephen Turnbull, Japanese Warrior Monks A.D. 949-1603 (Oxford: Osprey, 2003), at 17-18. Harvey, supra, at 271.

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the more populist Ikko-ikki remained powerful military forces in Japan until their bloody suppression by the warlords Oda Nabunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi.275 Zen monks apparently did not directly participate in the endemic warring of medieval Japan, but they did emerge as important mentors and educators of the bushi – the warrior class better known in the west as the samurai – and Zen subsequently became closely associated with Japanese warrior ethics and came to suffuse Japanese martial arts forms during the Tokugawa peace.276 As Peter Harvey recounts, the long relationship between Zen and Japanese martial practices was facilitated by older Chinese Ch’an (i.e., Zen) texts that described the act of killing as being fundamentally dreamlike and unreal.277 (Doing something that has no reality, it may have been assumed, cannot be too very objectionable.278) One Chinese Ch’an text of the 7th Century, for instance, declared that there was only evil in killing if the person killed were not recognized as being empty and dreamlike. The basic Buddhist insight into the emptiness of things – a technical term meaning the absence of independent or inherent existence – was thus seen to dissolve the evil in violence. In this view, killing was not legitimately available to anyone who persisted in seeing the victim as a person or living being standing out from emptiness. One who had overcome such delusions, however, might kill quite freely – bringing death not by acting upon anger or attachment, but instead with the awful, detached equanimity of a terrible storm or a collapsing cliff.279 As can be seen in the Heiho Kaden Sho, a classic text of Japanese swordsmanship consisting of writings by three 16th-Century sword masters, Buddhist notions of spontaneous, non-conceptual action and nonattachment to outcome were also regarded as essential elements of martial mastery.280 Even largely secular accounts of bushi ethics and mental training make clear that Japanese approaches to warfare and killing techniques drew powerfully upon Zen notions of no-self, non-discriminating focused awareness, and the fundamentally dreamlike nature of reality. As one sword master explained it, he did not know how to defeat

275 276 277 278

279

280

See, e.g., Turnbull, Japanese Warrior Monks, at 19-20; Turnbull, Japanese Fortified Temples and Monasteries, supra, at 15. See generally Brian Victoria, Zen at War (New York: Weatherhill, 1997), at 35, 95-129; Harvey, supra, at 267. Harvey, supra, at 266-67. Such an interpretation is perhaps not wrong as a matter of Buddhist principle, but these Zen teachers and their bushi audiences may have over-made their case by reading with a selfexoneratingly literalist eye Ch’an texts that in fact dealt with the question of violence from the Absolute perspective of thoroughgoing nonduality. In Zen teaching, neither of these perspectives is invalid, but it is also important not to confuse these two levels of analysis. Harvey, supra, at 266-67. Compare this idea to Thich Nhat Hanh’s story of having seen a film clip – before the 1991 Gulf War – of an American soldier doing bayonet training. In such preparation for killing, he said, “[y]ou … train yourself to become a beast, jumping and screaming.” Thich Nhat Hanh, “The Practice of Peace,” in Not Turning Away, supra, at 147, 148. Kamiizumi Kidetsuna, Yagyu Muneyoshi, & Yagyu Munenori, The Sword and the Mind (Hiroaki Sato, trans.) (New York: Barnes & Noble, 2004), at 72, 74-75, 93, & 98.

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others: his secret was in being able to defeat himself.281 The 17th Century warrior and Zen teacher Suzuki Shosan felt martial and religious practice to be closely related – even suggesting that the warrior might be better able to achieve spiritual progress than a monk, because “a strong mind is an essential factor in religious practice,” and a samurai “cannot afford to be careless. He must have the energy to draw his long or short sword and advance with a shout.”282 All in all, according to the Heiho Kaden Sho, “Swordsmanship agrees with Buddhism and is in accord with Zen in many ways.”283 Though it is less important in so-called jutsu martial arts forms (i.e., those with more combat-focused training) than in do forms that emphasize character building and moral development as much as technical applications, Zen’s close relationship with Japanese martial arts continues to this day. The additional association of many figures and institutions of Zen and other sects with the militarized Imperial Japanese state in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries surely seems today an embarrassment for Japanese Buddhism. As described in Brian Victoria’s authoritative account, “Institutional Buddhism” in Japan responded to Meiji-era persecution by zealously adopting the militant nationalism of the period and allying itself to the expansionist imperial state.284 Comments by the Zen master Soyen Shaku about the Russo-Japanese war helped set the tone for broad Buddhist support for Japanese militarism,285 and soon Zen and other sects became the ideological handmaidens of militarized Japanese nationalism. In David Loy’s account, Zen’s entanglement with training the bushi led to a situation in which devotion to one’s lord – above all, in battle – came to be more important than one’s personal path to enlightenment, or than the principle of ahimsa. The reified feudal loyalty of this “samurai appropriation of Zen” was in turn duly transferred to the brutal and expansionist Empire, with all its excesses.286 Buddhist societies, therefore, have clearly not always distinguished themselves as models of nonviolent rectitude. One may perhaps still favorably contrast its overall performance with that of other religions – notably the ethnic cleansing and genocidal enthusiasms of the Old Testament, the bloodletting of the Crusades, the confessional wars of 17th-century Europe, Christianity’s anti-Semitic pogroms, Islam’s long wars of

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282 283 284

285 286

See Yamamoto Tsunetomo, Hagakure (William Scott Wilson, trans.) (New York: Kodansha, 1983), at 27; see also 82 (discussing reality as dream) & 146 (citing Buddhist master in discussing non-discrimination). Suzuki Shosan, Warrior of Zen (Arthur Braverman, trans.) (New York: Kodansha, 1994), at 34. Kemiizumi et al., supra, at 106. See Victoria, supra, at 6 & 12-13, 18, 25, 30, 64-65, 79, 88, 135-44. Not all Buddhists, of course, did so. Victoria spends one chapter discussing a group of Soto Zen practitioners who fought this trend, and another chapter on other Buddhists who resisted Japanese militarism. See id. at 38-48 & 66-78. See Harvey, supra, at 269-70. See Loy, supra, at 143-52. Loy argues that the co-optation of Buddhism by the secular Japanese power structure was made all too easy because Zen training was basically “amoral,” and failed to equip practitioners for “the moral dilemmas and temptations that their positions expose them to.” Id. at 149. In fact, he thinks this a characteristic weakness of Zen, worrying that it may similarly be co-opted by what he feels is the dominant ideology of our time: Western consumerism. Id. at 155.

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conquest and conversion, and the rabid psychoses of modern jihadist fanaticism – but Buddhism’s record in practice can only be described as mixed. D. Compassion and Violence

Regardless of the actual historical practices of Buddhists, our examination of the problem of violence in Buddhist engagement cannot escape an examination of how Buddhist thinkers have understood the problem of violence over the centuries. In this respect, it is worth stressing that while there exist, as we have seen, Buddhist precedents for a strong form of pacifism, there are also elements in the Buddhist tradition that clearly support the use of violence when undertaken under the right circumstances and for the right reasons. Both sides in this debate can apparently cite legitimate authorities, and depending upon what sources are consulted, the answer appears sometimes to be “no,” and sometimes to be “yes.”287 No position seems to hold a monopoly upon canonical support, with the result that the debate between violence-prohibiting and violencepermissive interpretations has not been authoritatively settled. In fact, it may be that the debate between violence-prohibitive and violencepermissive interpretations of Buddhist ethics actually cannot be conclusively resolved, for the easy availability of such an authoritative solution might make things – in a moral sense – too easy. Arguably, rules of crystalline clarity interpreted with absolutist vigor are inconsistent with a philosophical system such as Buddhism, which is aimed at developing our moral capacities and cultivating in us the insight necessary for progress toward enlightenment. If we did not at some level, in other words, confront deep uncertainty and outcome-unpredictability in our engagement with the world, we would not be moral agents at all, but instead merely be rule-following automatons, slaves to invariant commandments and mechanical decision-making algorithms. Conceivably, therefore, it is vital that Buddhist ethics does not inarguably rule out violence, for otherwise we would never be permitted to navigate these treacherous moral shoals for ourselves by taking responsibility for making grave decisions about when, and to what degree, to employ force. Luis Gomez has actually hinted at such a view. Noting the importance to Buddhism of moral self-cultivation, he suggests that there is an “indispensable link between nonviolence and self-cultivation” because nonviolence forms part “a morality of abstention, in which one’s own daily behavior is the starting point of any campaign for peace.” In this moral system, Gomez seems to feel that ambiguity is important to the coherence of the Buddhist ethical scheme: “If ethical behavior is to be governed by principles that would provide, in all circumstances, an unambiguously moral and rational course of action, then self-cultivation would center on compliance, and we would no longer be able to speak of virtue.” 288

287 288

See Gomez, “Nonviolence and the Self in Early Buddhism,” supra, at 32-33. Gomez, “Nonviolence and the Self in Early Buddhism,” supra, at 46.

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Indeed, Buddhists should probably be deeply suspicious of any effort to cling strongly to a rigid “nonviolence” that admits no moral ambiguities and always provides a clear and inflexible rule of conduct anyway: such certainty smacks of the kind of delusive “knowing” against which we are so frequently warned. Such certainty is an enlightenment-impeding, dukkha-encouraging attachment. As Sivaraksa has phrased it, “[f]or a Buddhist, being in touch with the truth is being grounded in a deep, critical doubt about beliefs and prejudices, including one’s own.”289 As the Buddha told Subhuti, all dharmas are empty.290 It is our task to learn from them as best we can, but we cling slavishly to doctrines at the expense of our own spiritual progress. This key principle of nonabsolutism may have important implications for Buddhist nonviolence: if even the notoriously scrupulous pacifism of the Jain religion can make some “provision for committing violence out of self-defense,”291 perhaps Engaged Buddhists can learn flexibility from it as well. (1) Violence and Karma

Many modern Buddhists, one suspects, have struggled over what precisely to make of the doctrine of the spiritual actions or deeds that drive the cycle of suffering in samsara – that is, the concept of karma (Skt; Pali kamma), and its associated notion of cyclic rebirth. Rebirth, of course, is traditionally interpreted quite literally, as entailing a process whereby wrong actions are in a sense “repaid” by the actor’s rebirth as a lower form of life, or in a hell realm of suffering and torment. Less literalist views see the rebirth process as psychological allegory – as a description of what happens on a moment-by-moment basis within our heads and hearts as we move continuously through the intermediate states, or bardos (Tibetan; Skt antara-bhavas), of our developing consciousness, with talk of hell realms really referring to unhealthy and imprisoning states of mind. Stephen Batchelor, for instance, finds traditional views of literal rebirth incompatible not only with Buddhism’s fundamental emphasis upon the illusory nature of self, but also with the modern science of brain function.292 He urges us to reconceptualize “rebirth” through the prism of metaphor, as a way of talking about the progression of mental states we experience within the span of a biological lifetime – making our lives into “a succession of minibirths and minideaths.”293 After all, as Roshi Joan Halifax has written, the inescapable and continuous everyday condition of impermanence “is just another form of dying.”294

289 290 291

292 293 294

Sivaraksa, “Buddhism and Contemporary International Trends,” supra, at 132. See The Large Sutra on Perfect Wisdom (Edward Conze, trans.) (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), at 615. Chapple, “Nonviolence to Animals in Buddhism and Jainism,” supra, at 59. After all, Chapple observes, “[t]he Jain philosophy of nonabsolutism, an outgrowth of the ahimsa doctrine, would not allow a Jain to hold a rigid attitude about this or any other situation.” Batchelor, Buddhism Without Beliefs, supra, at 36-37. Batchelor, Buddhism Without Beliefs, supra, at 74. Halifax, Being with Dying, supra, at 47.

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Leaving aside the specific meaning of rebirth, however – and whether adverse karmic baggage sends us to a literal hell realm or simply into a more anguished mental condition – our examination of the problem of violence in Buddhist engagement may be able to learn something from exploring the theory of karma. In general, whether or not an action is considered to be kusala – that is to say, karmically blameless or “wholesome” – will depend upon the motivations behind it, its direct effects in terms of causing suffering or happiness, and its impact upon spiritual development.295 In assessing the karmic impact of an act, traditional analyses of Buddhist ethics seem to have given the most emphasis to the actor’s intentions: primacy is placed upon “the nature of the act of will behind an act.”296 Karma, the Buddha is said to have declared, is intention.297 As Christopher Chapple has recounted, “[t]he doctrine of karma does not dwell upon the effects of human action on society,”298 at least not in the conventional sense. To the contrary, in fact, traditional Buddhism has often tended to feel that “the most significant feature of harming others is the effect on the mind of the agent.”299 Since the “wrongness” of an action is at least partly determined by “the state of mind in which it is done,” the impact of a bad act can thus be greatly attenuated if it is done for a good reason.300 (As an example, Peter Harvey recounts an old text in which a monk is recounted to have committed the great offense – in ancient India, at least – of addressing other monks as if they were outcastes. For this, however, he is held to be karmically blameless: the text describes his sinfully insulting condescension as being no more than a thoughtless habit left over from his from past lives. Since he had no real hatred in his heart, he was blameless.301) Indeed, since it seems to be believed that “only when there is greed, hatred and delusion can fruit-bearing karma originate” in the first place,302 it may be that actions undertaken with purely good motives – the absence of greed (lobha), hatred (Pali dosa; Skt dvesa), delusion (moha)303 – simply cannot give rise to karmically harmful outcomes at all. This is actually quite consistent with what we have seen in Chapple’s account of the etymology of the Sanskrit term ahimsa itself, as meaning the absence of a desire to harm.304 There is, in fact, even reason to question whether an action taken without the desire to do harm can really be termed “violence” at all. If “violence” is to be defined simply as the non-consensual use of force against others, as it most commonly is in the conventional world, then the question becomes one of whether any derogation from the principle of nonviolence can be permitted – and if so, under what circumstances. This is
295 296 297 298 299 300 301 302 303 304

Harvey, supra, at 42 & 46-48. Harvey, supra, at 87. Stephen Batchelor, “The Future Is in Our Hands,” supra, at 245. Chapple, “Nonviolence to Animals in Buddhism and Jainism,” supra, at 58. Gomez, “Nonviolence and the Self in Early Buddhism,” supra, at 35. Harvey, supra, at 57-58. Harvey, supra, at 53. Harvey, supra, at 44. Harvey, supra, at 46-48. Chapple, “Nonviolence to Animals in Buddhism and Jainism,” supra, at 50-51.

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the conventional approach. If, however, we follow the intentionalist theme of Buddhist ethics and “define violence as force used in connection with hatred, anger, or aggression,” then the taking of life by for compassionate or otherwise blameless reasons, as Robert Thurman has pointedly observed, “is not violence” in the first place, because it does not grow from those unhealthy seeds.305 Such purity of motive may, of course, be quite rare in practice, but Buddhist texts also recognize that good and bad motives can coexist in an action; this is called a situation in which “both dark and bright” are present, or with “dark and bright result.”306 In such cases, the balance between good and ill intentions helps determine the degree of karmic impact. One’s fault is lessened when “the mental defilements of the attack” are relatively mild, and greater when they are greater.307 In the Mahayana, it is said that the thought behind an action is “heavy” or “light” depending upon “the degree of viciousness in it,”308 and that an action “an action becomes more unwholesome as the force of the [improper] volition behind it increases, for this leaves a greater karmic ‘trace’ on the mind.”309 Given this emphasis upon intentionality, it is not surprising to find that Buddhist commentaries have traditionally excused all harm that is caused unknowingly, for such harm is, by definition, not intentional.310 There is no fault where there is no intention – such as accidentally treading upon an insect.311 It becomes slightly more complicated where one does not intend harm, but where it seems clear that one’s actions create some risk of it. Nevertheless, Harvey recounts that in the vinaya, certain forms of careless behavior are seen merely as small offenses, rather than large ones.312 In the Kurudhamma Jataka, moreover, it is indicated that unintended harm should not be counted against the actor.313 The presence of remorse and the acknowledgment of fault can also help reduce the negative karmic impact of an improper action. This is a result of Buddhism’s emphasis upon the internal mental state of an actor: remorse and acknowledgment lessen the psychological impact of a bad act, reducing its (negative) karmic fruits. This, recounts Harvey, is true in the Sarvastivadin (Theravadan), Mahayana, and Tibetan
305 306

307 308 309 310

311 312 313

Robert A. F. Thurman, “Tibet and the Monastic Army of Peace,” in Inner Peace, World Peace, supra, at 77, 78. Harvey, supra, at 44. Abhidhamma philosophy says these motives cannot be precisely simultaneous, but still allows for a sort of “flickering” between good and bad motives in an action. Id. at 44 n.18. Harvey, supra, at 52 (quoting Buddhaghosa). Harvey, supra, at 53. Harvey, supra, at 52. Harvey, supra, at 56. Harvey distinguishes such ignorance of actual harm from ignorance of the need to avoid harm: “If one knows that sentient beings should not be harmed, but not that one’s action is actually harming one, this ‘ignorance’ of a matter of ordinary fact excuses one. The spiritual ignorance which leads one to deny that harming beings is wrong is no excuse, however, but compounds a wrong action.” Harvey, supra, at 53. Harvey, supra, at 54. Harvey, supra, at 54.

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understandings alike. In the Mahayana, it is apparently explicitly said that an acknowledgment of past evil, if sincere and devout, can remove past bad karma.314 For Tibetans, it is vital to acknowledge and take responsibility for harm done in the world; this duty of public confession is called so sor bshags pa.315 (By the same token, “glorying in [a wrongful] act” makes things worse.316) Fascinatingly, traditional Buddhist views have apparently also found the karmic impact of breaking the precepts to be highly contextual, depending upon the object of the act. Theft, for instance, was “seen as worse according to the value of what is stolen, but also according to the virtue of the person stolen from.”317 This is apparently no less true for killing: its karmic harm was seen as varying depending upon the victim: “the more complex and developed a being is, the worse it is to harm or kill it; so it is worse to kill a human than an animal.”318 In this regard, Peter Harvey quotes the 5th-Century Indian sage Buddhaghosa that the unwholesome act of “onslaught on breathing (i.e., living) beings” is more unwholesome to the degree that the victim has “many good qualities.”319 (In the Mahayana, the terminology of “heavy” and “light” is apparently also employed to describe different objects of harm, denoting the varying karmic impact of actions taken against them.320) It is worse to harm a parent than an animal, worse to harm a more virtuous person than a less virtuous person, and presumably more karmically damaging to kill a bodhisattva than to dispatch a vicious tyrant or a mass murderer. According to Harvey, “an act is made worse by a stronger or more perverse volition motivating and accompanying it. To kill a virtuous human or one deserving respect such as a parent is particularly perverse.”321 Arguably, conditionally violence-permissive interpretations also gain strength from Buddhism’s instrumental approach to ethics – that is, its focus upon the ethical rules of the sila not for the intrinsic value of compliance with them, or the fact that some authority requires such obedience, but rather merely for the contribution that the act of complying makes to achieving the end of enlightenment.322 As Cynthia Eller puts it, “Buddhist ethics are an instrumental good; their principal value is that they help one to achieve the ultimate good of nirvana.”323 The moralities are “never an end in

314 315 316 317 318 319 320 321 322

323

Harvey, supra, at 26-27: see also id. at 57-58. José Ignacio Cabezón, “The UNESCO Declaration: A Tibetan Buddhist Perspective,” in Buddhist Peacework, supra, at 183, 184. Harvey, supra, at 55. Harvey, supra, at 70. Harvey, supra, at 29. Harvey, supra, at 52 (quoting Buddhaghosa). Harvey, supra, at 53. Harvey, supra, at 52 (citations omitted). See, e.g., Martin Baumann, “Work as Dharma Practice: Right Livelihood Cooperatives of the FWBO,” in Engaged Buddhism in the West, supra, at 372, 374 (arguing that ethical principles serve practitioners by preparing them for achieving insight). Cynthia Eller, “The Impact of Christianity on Buddhist Nonviolence in the West,” supra, at 93.

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themselves,” agrees Hammalawa Saddhatissa, noting that they instead form merely one of the “components which form the Path to final release from suffering.”324 Especially as applied to the problems of socio-political engagement – not to mention the challenge of policing and defending a Buddhist society – this understanding of the enlightenment-instrumentality of ethics could be said to have a significant corollary: if strict observance of the sila under certain circumstances impedes the spiritual progress of sentient beings, such observance should, and indeed perhaps must, be set aside, even if only temporarily. Such an understanding could perhaps open the door to doctrines of justified warfare, self-defense, and the use of force for the rescue or protection of innocents. To summarize, therefore, traditional Buddhist accounts have taken the position that the karmic harm incurred by acts of violence – including the actual taking of life – can vary tremendously depending upon the circumstances. Karma theory does not, therefore, seem to offer a “bright-line rule” against violence. The actor’s intention is probably the single most important factor in determining the blameworthiness and karmic impact of an action. The less anger and delusive attachment there is behind an action, the less problematic it will be, and violent actions undertaken with real purity of motive may incur no karmic “penalty” at all. This is clearly no warrant for casual violence. As Peter Harvey describes things, quoting E.J. Harris, “[t]hat lay people should never initiate violence where there is harmony or use it against the innocent is very clear. That they should not attempt to protect those under their care if the only way of doing so is to use defensive violence is not so clear …. The person who feels violence is justified to protect the lives of others has indeed to take the karmic consequences into account. He has to remember that he is risking grave [karmic] consequences for himself in that his action will inevitably bear fruit …. Such a person needs to evaluate motives .… Yet that person might still judge that the risks are worth facing to prevent a greater evil.”325 In Harvey’s conclusion, if after such a careful and scrupulous examination one nonetheless decides that violence is needed, this “is something that Buddhism may understand” if not necessarily actually condone.326 As noted, it is not even clear that violent action undertaken with compassionate intention would even count as “violence” at all – or that physical injury inflicted on such basis would count as “harm” in the first place. It is said that in addition to arising from a

324 325 326

Saddhatissa, supra, at 48 & 81. Harvey, supra, at 252 (quoting Harris). Harvey, supra, at 252 (emphasis in original).

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virtuous motive, wholesome acts must be free of harm to self or other.327 Thich Nhat Hanh’s account of the virtuous actions of monks who burned themselves to death during the Vietnam War, however, makes clear that he does not consider their physical selfdestruction to be harmful because it was virtuously undertaken as an expression of their “strength and determination” to endure suffering “in order to protect their people.” (After all, he argues, “[t]he difference between burning oneself with incense [in a Buddhist ceremony common in the region] and burning oneself to death is only a matter of degree.”) The immolations were blameless, and even praiseworthy, because their aim was “to express courage, determination, and sincerity – not to destroy, but to create.”328 Clearly, Hanh is describing and endorsing an ideal of compassionate violence as applied to one’s own body. By this same logic, however, one might perhaps infer that acts of other-destruction may not invariably be karmically problematic either – particularly if one accepts the basic Buddhist assumption, frequently cited by Engaged Buddhist writers as a basis for their engagement with the circumstances of samsara, that there is no fundamental distinction between harm to others and harm to self in the first place. In any event, the karmic baggage incurred even by bad acts undertaken with impure motives can be attenuated by acknowledgment and genuine remorse, while violent acts against morally reprehensible victims are less problematic than actions against the praiseworthy. All acts of killing, it would seem, are not created equal. Traditional Buddhist understandings of karma, therefore, provide a highly complex and nuanced understanding of what is permitted within the ambit of ahimsa, and this complicated and subtle account looks remarkably unlike the modern stereotype of absolutist Buddhist pacifism. The following pages will explore how particular Buddhist thinkers – both ancient and modern – have grappled with these questions. (2) Compassionate Violence in Ancient Buddhist Thinking

Despite the popular stereotype of an absolutist Buddhist pacifism, a look at the Buddhist canon and the extensive commentary upon it that has developed over the centuries reveals a tremendous diversity of viewpoints on the question of force and violence. If anything, despite the apparent simplicity and intuitive obviousness of pacifism as an outgrowth of the core principle of “non-harming,” the weight of ancient commentary would appear to endorse the idea that violence – if undertaken for compassionate purposes – is legitimately available to Buddhists as another variety of skillful means (upaya kausalya, or simply upaya) as they seek to alleviate suffering and facilitate the enlightenment of sentient beings. • The Upaya-kausalya and Maha Upaya-kausalya Sutras

The Upaya-kausalya Sutra and the Maha Upaya-kausalya Sutra offer some of the most direct – and widely-discussed – stories relevant to the question of compassionate violence that exist in the Buddhist canon. Most famously, the former sutra holds that the taking of life is not blameworthy “when it develops from a virtuous thought.” To
327 328

Harvey, supra, at 46-48. Thich Nhat Hanh, “Love in Action,” in Engaged Buddhist Reader, supra, at 57, 61.

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illustrate this, it tells the story of the Buddha’s past life as a bodhisattva sea captain named Great Compassion who is transporting 500 merchants on a journey. In midvoyage, deities inform him in a dream that one of his passengers is a robber who intends to slaughter all the others and stealing their goods. For the Buddha – in this incarnation as Great Compassion – there seems to be no nonviolent way out of the situation: no way that would not entail someone suffering terribly, either from deliberate violence or from the karmic baggage of having committed deliberate violence. If he does nothing, the bandit will presumably carry out his murderous plan, killing the merchants and thus consigning himself to eons of karmic torment. If he tells the merchants about the robber, he knows that they will kill the man to protect themselves, which will lead to the merchants’ own karmic suffering. Under the circumstances, the best answer is for Great Compassion to kill the bandit himself to prevent others from suffering. This is described as showing “great compassion and skill in means.”329 Another compassionate killing story appears in the Maha-Upaya-kausalya Sutra, which recounts the tale of a bodhisattva who discovers that an old friend of his is in fact the scout for a small army of 500 bandits, and is in the process of helping these outlaws prepare a murderous attack on 500 merchants. In order to forestall the otherwise inevitable mass shedding of blood, this bodhisattva slays his friend.330 Ordinarily, of course, killing anyone – much less a friend – would entail grave karmic consequences. In this case, however, it is apparently at least justifiable and perhaps even wholly blameless. Peter Harvey has summarized the implications of the various compassionate killing stories in the Upaya-kausalya Sutra and Maha-Upaya-kausalya sutras as showing that “the act [of compassionate killing] ha[s] various bad karmic consequences, though not as bad as if it had not been done with such a compassionate motivation. If the [sea] captain[, for example,] had not acknowledged that the deed could lead to many rebirths in hell, and not been willing to suffer accordingly, compassion (and wisdom) would have been lacking, and he would have suffered long in hell. That is, hell is only avoided here by willingly risking it in helping others.” 331 As this account suggests, the sea captain’s tale – which, rather ironically, was apparently used by Chinese communists to encourage Chinese Buddhists to fight in the Korean War even as it was also used by Korean Buddhists to encourage resistance to the Chinese332 – is usually said to illustrate a bodhisattva’s willingness to take upon himself the karmic damage from killing, by substituting himself for others and willingly embracing the terrible torments of the hell realms in order to spare others this fate.
329 330 331 332

Harvey, supra, at 135. Harvey, supra, at 136. Harvey, supra, at 136. Jenkins, supra, at Part I.

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Steve Jenkins, however, makes an important point about the sea captain story: although Chandrakirti, Shantideva, and Asanga all tell their own versions of this Jataka tale, they agree that the bodhisattva makes vast merit in this situation.333 (At the very least, even in Harvey’s account, Great Compassion apparently does not actually go to hell.) According to Jenkins, an early mistranslation led Western scholars to the incorrect conclusion that such compassionate killing generates negative karma, but traditional Buddhist doctrine apparently does not agree. Instead, the original Indian text apparently makes clear that the Buddha’s compassionate action in slaying the would-be mass murderer was highly auspicious – not inauspicious – and thus there is thus no selfsacrifice.334 In another interesting wrinkle, the sea captain’s prophylactic targeted killing of the robber is not seen as actually harming the man who is killed: the bandit, it is recounted, is reborn in heaven.335 This may also have implications for our understanding of the problem of violence in Buddhist engagement, for it highlights the sometimes stark difference between Buddhist and conventional notions of suffering and harm. According to this Jataka tale, at any rate, one is not “harmed” in a Buddhist sense just by being killed, at least where the act has been undertaken for compassionate reasons. The harm entailed in killing, in other words, appears to accrue solely to the killer – and even he suffers nothing if his motives were pure. The approach endorsed in these sutras, in other words, fits very closely with Western ethical notions permitting the use of force in self-defense and in order to protect others. These Jataka tales provide an interesting counterpoint to more familiar, traditionally pacifist accounts of the Buddha’s self-sacrifice or willingness to allow invaders to massacre his Shakya clan rather than resist them with violent force. The Buddhist canon, it would appear, is a tremendously “big tent.” • Asanga

Asanga, a 4th-Century Indian sage and the founder of the Yogacara school of Buddhist philosophy, had much to say on the subject of compassionate killing. According to Harvey, Asanga held that almost all courses of action were available to a bodhisattva acting out of compassion – even things that would be prohibited to someone without such purity of motive: “Asanga says that a Bodhisattva will lie so as to protect others from death or mutilation, though he will not lie in order to save his own life. He will slander an unwholesome adviser of a person, and use harsh, severe words to move someone from unwholesome to wholesome action. He indulges

333 334 335

The Tibetan tradition apparently holds that the bodhisattva in this tale did go to hell, but that he did so only briefly, because his motivation for the act was compassionate. Harvey, supra, at 136. Jenkins, supra, at Part I. Harvey, supra, at 136.

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in dance, song, tales and idle chatter to bring others under his influence, and then leads them in a wholesome direction.”336 A bodhisattva is not permitted unwholesome acts of mind, but if his mind is pure he can apparently freely commit impure acts if they are done with compassionate intent.337 Asanga’s Bodhisattva-bhumi, for instance, makes clear that precept-breaking of various sorts is permissible in appropriate circumstances: “[T]he Bodhisattva-bhumi says that the Bodhisattva overthrows kings or officials who are oppressive, violent, and pitiless; he steals back the property of thieves who have stolen from shrines or the Sangha; he removes from power wasteful or corrupt custodians of Sangha or shrine property. All of this is faultless taking of what has not been freely given, i.e., going against the moral precept regarding stealing, for the benefit of those who would otherwise have continued to harm others, and those they would have harmed.”338 Asanga held that compassion might even require one to kill another person if this were the only way to save the lives of many others.339 As Robert Thurman has related, it was essential to Asanga’s conception that such killing cannot be undertaken aggressively: the bodhisattva “acts with regret and love toward the person he must kill. ” Nevertheless, kill he apparently can.340 This does not necessarily mean that the Bodhisattva-bhumi makes it mandatory to commit an act of compassionate killing if circumstances warrant it. More recent commentary on Asanga’s treatise, however, has tended in this direction, regarding it as a misdeed to omit such an act if it is needed. (In fact, this apparently became the predominant view in Tibet.) In the Chinese tradition, three translations of the Bodhisattva-bhumi omit the passage allowing such acts, but Hsüan Tsang’s translation does describe it as a misdeed not to undertake a compassionate killing if one is necessary.341 Asanga’s approach to such questions reflects what Jenkins says is a longstanding tradition in Mahayana thought that the intention of a bodhisattva to go to hell as a result of undertaking some otherwise blameworthy act in order to prevent or alleviate suffering makes his actually going to hell less likely – or even allows the bodhisattva to escape negative karmic consequences altogether. Jenkins claims, in fact, to have come across not a single version of the sea captain story in which the bodhisattva/killer actually
336 337 338 339 340 341

Harvey, supra, at 139. Harvey, supra, at 139-40. Harvey, supra, at 139. See Kraft, “Introduction,” supra, at 6. Thurman, “Tibet and the Monastic Army of Peace,” supra, at 6. Harvey, supra, at 140. The sage Tsongkhapa (1357-1419), however – who founded the Gelukpa school of Tibetan Buddhism – does not list compassionate killing as an obligation.

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suffers bad consequences. On the contrary, Great Compassion always seems to acquire merit from his act of compassionately prophylactic violence.342 According to Harvey, the key to ensuring that a compassionate killer escapes karmic repayment is for him heroically to “grasp the nettle of taking the lesser evil,” acknowledging “that an evil is being done and [that he is] prepared to take the karmic consequences.”343 The Bodhisattva-bhumi says that a would-be compassionate killer confronting a sea captain-style situation would think to himself: “‘If I take the life of this sentient being, I myself may be reborn as one of the creatures of hell. Better that I be reborn a creature of hell than that this living being, having committed a deed of immediate retribution, should go straight to hell.’ With such an attitude, the bodhisattva ascertains that the thought is virtuous or indeterminate and then, feeling constrained, with only a thought of mercy for the consequence, he takes the life of that living being. There is no fault, but a spread of much merit.”344 In some translations, it is also said that the act must be accompanied by horror. 345 This seemingly paradoxical if-you’re-prepared-to-accept-the-consequences-youdon’t-have-to-face-them logic is why Jenkins regards it as an error to read killing-by-theBuddha stories – of which there are apparently many – as being cases in which the Buddha takes karma on to himself by going to hell voluntarily so others don’t have to. In Asanga’s account, the result of killing with a truly compassionate intention – e.g., of being willing to substitute oneself for the other would-be killer in hell – is that the bodhisattva who does such an act becomes blameless and produces much merit. In sum, “one could say that the more willing bodhisattvas are to go to hell, the more certain it is that they will not.”346 • The Arya-satyaka-parivarta Sutra

The Arya-satyaka-parivarta Sutra is a Mahayana sutra that was translated into Chinese in the 5th Century, and which apparently became particularly influential in Tibet. It offers what is in effect a Buddhist version of the just war theory of Christian Europe – making clear, in Jenkins’ words, that Buddhist kings did have “conceptual resources at

342 343 344 345 346

Jenkins, supra, at Part I. Harvey, supra, at 136. Harvey, supra, at 136-37 (quoting Bodhisattva-bhumi). Harvey, supra, at 137. Jenkins, supra, at Part II. The corollary to this idea would seem to be that if a bodhisattva takes life in the belief that doing so really is justified and will produce merit for him, the action will thus not actually count as skillful means. (In that event, he would presumably suffer adverse karmic consequences.) Harvey, supra, at 136. Here, then is the paradox: if you think killing is permitted, you will suffer for it, while if you think it is prohibited but your compassion makes you nonetheless willing to accept its terrible consequences, you will not actually suffer after all (i.e., killing is permitted after all).

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their command that support warfare, torture, and harsh punishments.”347 The sutra justifies war by a Buddhist sovereign under certain conditions – notably, after both peaceful negotiations and efforts to “intimidate” the adversary have failed to resolve the situation short of violence. War, in such circumstances, is permitted in order to care for life, win victory over an adversary, and ideally to capture the enemy (leadership) alive.348 To use terms familiar in Western just war theory and international law, this sutra offers guidance not only on the jus ad bellum (i.e., rules of when to go to war) but also about jus in bello (i.e., rules of conduct in warfare), advocating efforts to protect the wellbeing of all innocents, even animals. Homes and cities may not be burned, for instance, while reservoirs and the harvest may not be destroyed. (In effect, Jenkins notes, this sutra provides for the protection of non-combatants and the “infrastructure in general.”)349 By seeking victory only with the aim of protecting his people, bearing in mind the need to protect all life, and having no concern for his own person or property, a Buddhist king “may avoid the usual bad karmic results of killing.”350 If anything, such a ruler’s merit actually increases.351 According to Jenkins, the Arya-satyaka-parivarta Sutra is of exceptional importance in understanding Mahayaya approaches to violence, in that this sutra is quite explicitly addressed, in large part, to the realpolitik needs of rulership – and not simply to a bodhisattva. This is not, in other words, merely a theoretical description of what bodhisattvas and only bodhisattvas can do without karmic demerit: a real-world king is supposed to try to live out this ethic.352 Given the degree to which, as we will see, Buddhist debates about compassionate killing revolve to a significant degree around whether or not a non-bodhisattva could ever legitimately take such a step, this sutra would thus seem to be of particular significance. • Tantra

In Steve Jenkins’ account, tantric sources echo the themes of compassionate violence which he believes to be clearly evident in the Mahayana tradition. Tantric sources view the enlightened “perfected master” (siddha) as being beyond conventional norms, even to the point, for instance, of being able to kill many Brahmins – which, of course, was an utterly shocking idea in ancient India. As with earlier Mahayana sources, the tantras hold that killing out of compassion does not send the killer to hell, but in fact made for him great merit.353

347 348 349 350 351 352 353

Jenkins, supra, at Part I. Interestingly, Jenkins also argues that judging from tales recorded in the canonical literature, Buddhist kings did apparently go to war to spread Buddhism. Jenkins, supra, at Parts I-II. Jenkins, supra, at Part II. Harvey, supra, at 253. Jenkins, supra, at Part I. Jenkins also notes that Asanga’s vision includes the possibility of the violent removal of vicious rulers from power. Jenkins, supra, at Part II. Jenkins, supra, at Part III.

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It has, of course, been much debated whether tantric texts actually refer to killing people, or whether they are meant as allegories, or perhaps more a sort of inwardlyfocused psychological training manual than any sort of prescription for concrete action. Many scholars, in fact, have long assumed that tantric passages about killing are not to be taken literally, and Jenkins concedes that many such comments do seem intended merely to be shocking – that is, to stimulate revulsion, a mental paroxysm which is then to be worked with and overcome by transmutation in classically tantric fashion. Some comments, moreover (e.g., about killing all sentient beings), seem inescapably metaphorical and hyperbolic. Nor are there any practical rituals provided for the most extreme exhortations, even if such things were not impossible in the first place – e.g., raping the Buddha’s (by then long-dead) mother. Moreover, some comments about siddhas doing great crimes also seem to be intended merely to make the rhetorical point that tantric practice is a hugely powerful spiritual technology that is capable of overcoming the worst karma.354 Nevertheless, Jenkins argues that in the violent-sounding exhortations of tantra there are many layers of meaning – some of which may indeed relate to actual killing. In some cases, for instance, the tantras do provide clear and specific rituals related to killing people, as well as discussions of the karmic impact of such actions. They incorporate concrete techniques for rituals to effect compassionate killing, offer definitions of appropriate targets, discuss the appropriate state of mind and intentions for committing such an act, describe the qualifications of the killer, and warn both of the danger that such black magic will backfire upon the user and of the potential karmic penalties that might result from such death-dealing if the killer is not of precisely the right mind and intention.355 (In high-level tantric practice in Tibet, moreover, it is also reportedly felt that “acts of violence or killing are sometimes permissible to destroy a person or evil spirit that is causing great harm” to others or to the dharma, “but only under very restricted conditions.”356) For Jenkins, this remarkable specificity seems to lift these accounts out of the realm of metaphor and allegory, indicating that these tantric passages, at least, are indeed meant to be taken literally.357 Other tantric passages on killing are apparently essentially identical to Mahayana sutra precedents on the taking life. This, too, seems to Jenkins to be a reason not to assume that their violence is merely symbolic: “there is no special reason to assume that they are any more symbolic or metaphorical in the tantric context” than they were in the Mahayana. As he describes things, in fact, the tantras differ from Mahayana texts only in that the former sometimes claim to provide specific rituals for actually doing compassionate violence, in concrete ways, through the use of occult spells and rituals.358

354 355 356 357 358

Jenkins, supra, at Part III, available at http://podcast.shin-ibs.edu/content/episode_26.mp4. Jenkins, supra, at Part III. Harvey, supra, at 211. Jenkins, supra, at Part III. Jenkins, supra, at Part III.

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Other Sutras and Commentary

A number of other sutras, and long traditions of commentary thereupon, also address the question of compassionate killing in ways broadly consistent with what we have seen above from Asanga and in the Arya-satyaka-parivarta, Upaya-kausalya, and Maha-Upaya-kausalya sutras. Sutras such as the Arya-bodhisattva-gocaropaya-visayavikurvana-nirdesa Sutra, for instance, follow the Arya-satyaka-parivarta Sutra in offering advice to kings on such things as when war is necessary and how to prosecute it legitimately, stressing that the king’s motive must be love and compassion in seeking to protect his subjects.359 To be sure, it is urged in the Brahmajala Sutra – a Mahayana code for lay and monastic followers that was influential in China – that those who take bodhisattva vows should take no part in war.360 Such restraint was apparently ideal, but at the same time practitioners seem to have been permitted leeway when it comes to compliance with the precepts, particularly if they manifest exemplary wisdom and compassion. Perhaps most dramatically, in the Vimilakirti-nirdesa Sutra, the layman Vimilakirti is recounted as being able freely to go to prostitutes, gamble, drink alcohol, and violate other precepts without becoming “attached” to this activity (in the sense in which this term is used in Buddhist psychology). As a result, Vimilakirti is apparently held blameless.361 Arguably, therefore, a wise and compassionate ruler not subject to the rules of the monastic vinaya may also have some ability to engage in otherwise impermissibly violent conduct when acting out of his compassion. The Tibetan saint Tsongkhapa, founder of the Gelukpa school of Tibetan Buddhism, held that a monk could violate some precepts on compassionate grounds, where such violations benefited others. (Interestingly, he believed that this permissiveness did not extend to having sex: that, apparently, did not benefit others enough to justify compassionate precept-breaking.) While one old translation of Shantideva’s Siksasamuccaya says that only bodhisattvas could kill out of compassion, the newer Tibetan version favored by Tsongkhapa allowed this for those in certain advanced stages of the Path. For his part, the Mahayana commentator Jinaputra argued that bodhisattvas could kill if need be, but only lay bodhisattvas. (He denied such permission to monastic ones.)362 According to Steve Jenkins, there are numerous statements in the ancient Buddhist commentaries – from one of Nagarjuna’s successors in the Madhyamaka lineage, for example, as well as in the writings of Asanga, Aryadeva, Shantideva, and Chandrakirti, and in various sutras and shastras – making clear that bodhisattvas’ pure intentions allow them to undertake both good and bad actions. In essence, these

359 360 361 362

Harvey, supra, at 137. Harvey, supra, at 254. Harvey, supra, at 148. Harvey, supra, at 140.

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statements indicate, any act is possible for such an enlightened being, including killing, if it springs from their desire to help other beings.363 Keen to debunk what he says is a long-established stereotype of “exaggerated pacifism” in Buddhism,364 Jenkins emphasizes that these sources indicate not only that there is no fault in a bodhisattva’s taking of life, but in fact that there can be much merit in it. Chandrakirti, he recounts, explains this idea by comparing compassionate killing to a physician amputating a finger that has been bitten by a poisonous snake: the act prevents greater suffering, and is therefore auspicious even though it involves violence. The poisoned-finger metaphor was also offered by Nagarjuna, while other examples in the literature include the story of a caravan leader who slays a lion in order to protect his company, as well as Chandrakirti’s alternative parable of a hunter who kills one of his brawling sons with an arrow in order to prevent them both from tumbling off a cliff. All in all, Jenkins contends, that these ancient sources make clear that “non-harm may actually require physical violence, and that restraint from that violence may be harmful.”365 One odd and somewhat problematic treatment of the issue of compassionate violence, however, may be found in the Maha-parinirvana Sutra, a text from 4th Century India or Central Asia. In this sutra, the Buddha is recounted as having described a previous life in which he was a king who found brahmins slandering Mahayana teachings. To save them from the bad karma of this offense and in order to protect Buddhism, the story goes, the Buddha had the miscreants executed. Despite this act of killing, however, he did not fall into hell.366 Early versions of the Maha-parinirvana Sutra explain this on the grounds that the offenders were icchantikas – that is, beings lacking a Buddha-nature and incapable of salvation. For this reason, it is said, there was no evil in killing them. This notion of an icchantika, however, has not fared well in subsequent accounts, and has been described as becoming “rather disreputable” on account of its clear inconsistency with Mahayana ideas, expressed elsewhere, that all beings have Buddha-nature and are theoretically capable of enlightenment. Later versions of the sutra apparently omit the discussion of icchantikas, even while retaining the basic message that under certain conditions it is still permissible to kill.367 Leaving aside the admittedly somewhat extraordinary situation of bodhisattvas – who have by definition achieved wisdom and insight far beyond that available to the more ordinary folk who generally run governments and command troops in battle – some old sutras speak to issues of the conduct legitimately available in wartime to presumably non-bodhisattva leaders. As Peter Harvey has recounted, for example, the old story of King Pasenadi, for example – a worthy Buddhist who spared the life of a defeated enemy,

363 364 365 366 367

Jenkins, supra, at Part I. Jenkins, supra, at Part III. Jenkins, supra, at Part I. Harvey, supra, at 138. Harvey, supra, at 138.

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his evil nephew King Ajatasattu – seems generally to endorse the idea that it is legitimate to defend one’s land against invaders.368 There is also a story in the Samyutta Nikaya about the Buddha having wondered whether it is even possible for a just ruler to exercise power “without killing or causing to kill, without conquering or causing to conquer, without grieving or causing to grieve.” As he ponders this question, Mara the tempter appears before him and encourages the Buddha to find out the answer for himself by becoming a king. Deciding to do so, Buddha sees that rulers are “inevitably enmeshed in sense-desires, which causes suffering, so that a liberated person could not incline in that direction.” As Harvey interprets this tale, it implies that while secular power – with its attendant temptations – is perhaps not an appropriate vocation for an enlightened person, others might still be able to rule without intolerable derogations from the principle non-violence.369 Buddhism also has a concept of the cakkavatti (Pali; Skt chakravartin), a “wheelturning” dharma king exercising secular power. (In a previous life, in fact, the Buddha was said to have been one of these kings.) Such perfect rulers are said to be non-violent – they are apparently so just that they have little need to use force – but they are nonetheless apparently permitted to maintain an army. In the old Pali text of the Cakkavatti Sihanada Sutta, for instance, a dharmic ruler marches in the four directions with his army – subduing everyone without having to use violence, by showing that he is a worthy ruler and powerful enough to protect the population.370 Coupled with the legend, recounted by the late Maha Ghosandna, of a dragon-king who virtuously gave up killing but who was subsequently advised by a bodhisattva that it was permissible to show his fire in order to scare off attackers,371 it might not be too much to find here the suggestion of a Buddhist analogue to modern concepts of strategic deterrence. One should perhaps also be careful not to over-interpret assertions that a cakkavatti is utterly “non-violent” in the conventional sense. In fact, it seems to be envisioned that a just ruler can indeed exercise a good deal of coercive force that falls short of actual killing. In the Aggañña Sutta, for example, it is said that the first king to rule in human society was chosen by the people precisely in order to protect them from wrong-doers – if not necessarily by bloodletting, then at least by displays of his wrath, and the use of censure and banishment.372 As we have seen, Nagarjuna believed that a good king should employ a degree of prophylactic force in order to keep order in his kingdom: murderers, for instance, should be seized, “examined,” judged, and banished.373 These recommendations to the ruler – and not just to a cakkavvati – do not counsel the use of lethal force, but because even at least one commentary on the
368

369 370 371 372 373

Harvey, supra, at 250-51. By the same token, the story of Pasenadi also offers cautionary advice for the victor: his victory was perhaps too complete, for he left Ajatasattu defenseless without an army, laying the seeds for future trouble by the embittered loser. Harvey, supra, at 251 (quoting Samyutta Nikaya I.116-17). Harvey, supra, at 252. Harvey, supra, at 282 (citing Ghosananda). Harvey, supra, at 252 (citing Digha Nikaya, III.92). Thurman, “Nagarjuna’s Guidelines for Buddhist Social Action,” supra, at 87.

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Dhammapada suggests a degree of Buddhist tolerance for the concept of self defense,374 it may not be too much of a stretch also to see here some scope for using violence against aggressors, in defense of the realm. After all, as Jenkins recounts, Buddhism’s enormous repertoire of Jataka tales is “full of stories of Buddhist warriors – often the Buddha himself in a past life” – and which “occasionally romanticize their heroic death in battle.” They often exhort winning without bloodshed, though winning through intimidation is apparently perfectly acceptable, but also frequently valorize violence with the intention of capturing the enemy alive.375 According to Gene Sharp, in fact, there is also an old tale Indian Buddhist priest who, when asked by a Chinese ruler what to do when foreign armies are about to invade, quite explicitly replied that a king may – and indeed must – repel the invaders by force.376 This sort of permissibility of violence in a good cause would also explain why there apparently exists a sutra that tradition holds should be read by a king before a battle – and the recitation of which was supposed to help ensure the defeat of foreign enemies.377 On the basis of his analysis of such precedents, Najime Nakamura of Tokyo University has concluded that throughout Buddhist history, “wars were tolerated insofar as they were regarded as beneficial for the state and the people.”378 Sharp concurs that canonical sources support the conclusion that “under certain conditions, and with certain restrictions, government leaders must make use of military means. War is accepted as necessary to resist a greater evil and to achieve a higher good. However delicate the language that may be used, that position means killing human beings.”379
374

375 376 377

378 379

In one such commentary there is the tale of a woman who, when attacked by her husband – who wishes to kill her – pushes her attacker off a cliff. A god, observing her deed, comments approvingly that this shows that women can be as wise as men. Peter Harvey suggests that this story is at least somewhat ambiguous in its import, for it is a mere god – rather than a Buddha, bodhisattva, or monk – who indicates his approval. Harvey, supra, at 252. Nonetheless, this is certainly not a condemnation of the idea of self-defense, and may yet suggest canonical approval. Jenkins, supra, at Part II. Gene Sharp, “Nonviolent Struggle: An Effective Alternative,” in Inner Peace, World Peace, supra, at 111, 113. Jenkins, supra, at Part III. One should also not forget what the ancient Indian ruler Ashoka – who ruled the Mauryan Empire in the 3rd Century BCE and, as we have seen, is frequently cited today by writers such as Robert Thurman as an exemplary Buddhist monarch – did in order to acquire the power he is remembered for wielding so virtuously. Ashoka rose to power by traditionally ruthless and sanguinary means, taking the last step in the consolidation of his rule through a famous bloodbath during his conquest of the Kalinga region. To be sure, Ashoka was not a Buddhist at the time; in fact he is said to have converted to Buddhism upon contemplating the horror he had wrought at Kalinga. Nevertheless, it seems fair to remember the means and nature of his ascent to power even, or perhaps especially, as we laud his conduct therein. Cf. Harvey, supra, at 253. Gene Sharp, “Nonviolent Struggle: An Effective Alternative,” in Inner Peace, World Peace, supra, at 111, 113. Sharp, “Nonviolent Struggle: An Effective Alternative,” supra, at 114. Thurman seems to think that this is not particularly surprising, given that Shakyamuni Buddha himself was no stranger to statecraft and realpolitik, having been until the age of 30 trained in and groomed for the exercise of political power in an environment in which the rival kingdoms and city states of India battled ceaselessly in their jockeying for power and influence. This young prince who later became the

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Jenkins reaches a similar conclusion on the basis of his examination of the Arya-satyakaparivarta Sutra and other Mahayana texts. Though he concedes that such a conclusion will likely be “distressing” for those who have internalized the “normative conception of exaggerated Buddhist pacifism,” Jenkins minces few words in noting that this pacifist stereotype is false: “General conceptions of a basic Buddhist ethic broadly conceived as unqualified pacifism are problematic. Compassionate violence is at the very heart of the sensibility of this sutra [the Arya-satyaka-parivarta Sutra]. Buddhist kings had sophisticated and practical conceptual resources to support the use of force, the show of concern for defense, political stability, and social order through a combination of harshness and benevolence. These resources offered techniques for removing and preventing the sources of hostility; they fully empowered the use of warfare when it was deemed appropriate and necessary; military readiness and intimidation are important elements of a king’s responsibilities; violence is an important tool for criminal rehabilitation, social stability, and military defense; torture is approved as means, but not mutilation or execution; and in a battle the king should seek to capture the enemy alive. A king may avert fear of karmic retribution by establishing proper intentions, making efforts to avoid conflict, and limiting modes of waging war.”380 In short, he says, Buddhist “[v]alues of compassion were not necessarily in conflict with the political necessities of Indian statecraft.” Instead, there existed “a recognized symmetry between dharmic rule, compassion, and the acquisition and retention of power.”381 • The Limits of Compassionate Violence

It seems to have been clear to the ancient commentators that compassionate killing – as with any ethical doctrine that allows for the possible use of deadly force – was a doctrine that might be subject to abuse by hypocrites seeking to cloak their deeds in the vestments of dharmic legitimacy, but who did not act out the requisite compassion. Chandrakirti, for one, appears to have recognized the potential for exploitation in the idea of compassionate killing, railing against a king whom he said had invoked this ideal in order merely as an expedient way to maintain law and order.382 For his part, Tsongkhapa declared that compassionate killing should be kept the “exclusive province of the capable,” and should be recognized as being “fraught with very imminent peril.”383
Buddha, says Thurman, was surely “a professional in these matters.” Thurman, “Tibet and the Monastic Army of Peace,” supra, at 84. Jenkins, supra, at Part II. Jenkins, supra, at Part II. Jenkins, supra, at Part I. Harvey, supra, at 140 (quoting Tsongkhapa).

380 381 382 383

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Other commentators made clear that such actions were permitted only out of genuine compassion, and “should not be attempted by the uncultured, the dull, the partisan, and the literal.”384 According to the Upaya-kausalya Sutra, in fact, the whole Mahayana doctrine of skillful means – including its perilous ideal of compassionate killing – should be kept strictly secret, and never revealed to non-Mahayanists.385 Jenkins’ account of the idea of compassionate killing in the Buddhist tradition has struggled with the question of whether it is ever envisioned that non-bodhisattvas could legitimately take life. Is this talk of compassionate killing in the Mahayana tradition, he asks, merely an idealized, supererogatory notion of the “no one should try this at home” variety – that is, a point of pure theory that is understood to have essentially no practical application? Or, alternatively, does it indicate the persistence of a sort of “imitatio bodhisattva” concept that may actually have relevance in guiding Buddhists in the world? Jenkins concedes that “the water is very muddy here,”386 but given what we have seen of sutras such as the Arya-satyaka-parivarta Sutra that support the idea of violent selfdefense, it would seem that at least some of the many discussions of compassionate violence should probably be taken to be broadly violence-permissive. For Jenkins, Chandrakirti’s metaphor of the poisoned finger suggests that compassionate violence need not necessarily be an activity restricted exclusively to enlightened beings, for it shows that there is “something commonsensical about compassionate violence. If a bodhisattva is like a physician cutting off a poisoned finger, then a physician is also like a bodhisattva. Surely … a doctor cutting off a finger need not be a great bodhisattva in order to avoid terrible karmic harm.”387 The fact that the quintessentially non-exceptional activity of disciplining children also arises as a common example in canonical texts similarly encourages Jenkins’ suspicion that the Mahayana sources envision that the doctrine of compassionate violence is not one that should be regarded as being wholly removed from the life and choices of ordinary persons.388 But what of the requirement that legitimate violence must arise from genuine compassion, without taint of anger, fear, bitterness, or any other delusive attachment? As we have seen, while His Holiness the XIVth Dalai Lama accepts the theory of compassionate killing, he has suggested that it is only available to someone with bodhisattva-level insight.389 Most of us, of course, do not fit that description. Yet there would still seem some reason not to view traditional Buddhist ethics as presenting an utterly rigid prohibition of the use of force, even deadly force. Particularly given what
384 385 386 387 388 389

Jenkins, supra, at Part I. Harvey, supra, at 140. Jenkins, supra, at Part I. Jenkins, supra, at Part I. Jenkins, supra, at Part I. Kraft, “Introduction,” supra, at 6.

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we have seen about commentators’ understanding that some degree of “violence” is inevitable in any engagement with the day-to-day world – coupled with Buddhism’s commitment to precepts as “signposts” rather than legalistic commandments – it may be that absolute certainty and complete purity of motive are not necessary. Such untainted virtue is the ideal, to be sure, and the higher the stakes happen to be, the more (relative) certainty we should presumably try to have before acting. Nevertheless, it seems to be understood that practitioners will invariably fall to some degree short of their spiritual and ethical goals until they have become enlightened. Short of that point, to make utter certainty and purity a precondition for action is to ask paralysis – which Buddhism, and much less Engaged Buddhism, does not do. As no less an authority than His Holiness has noted, our motives cannot be entirely pure even as we necessarily act in the world: try as we might, “our internal progress falls short.”390 Significantly, however, this should not preclude all action; we can and must trust our own judgment and instincts even as we work as hard as we can to prevent delusion from clouding or obscuring them. “Without any precognition, we can use our normal common sense to determine if something is right or wrong. We can decide that if we do such and such, it will lead to such and such an effect. However, once our mind is occupied by anger, we lose this power of judgment.”391 In interpreting and living out the principle of ahimsa, as with any other precept, therefore, it would seem that we must simply do the best we can, returning to the path – with acknowledgment and remorse – if we stray. This does not immunize us against the repercussions, karmic or otherwise, of errors or bad judgment, of course; it just recognizes our humanity even within the ambit of our responsibility as moral agents. (3) Compassionate Violence in Modern Engaged Buddhism

As discussed earlier, there is clearly much support for a more or less absolutist pacifism in Engaged Buddhism – one holding not merely that “[n]onviolent action, born of the awareness of suffering and nurtured by love, is the most effective way to confront adversity”392 but in fact that such action is the most effective way to confront an adversary. By the same token, however, there are also those who take a less rigid view, and who feel that the “courageous action that constitutes Buddhist peacework”393 is a concept elastic enough to encompass limited acts of violence in the face of great actual or potential suffering. Gary Snyder, for example, has argued that Engaged Buddhism’s support for “any cultural and economic revolution that moves clearly toward a truly free world” should include

390 391 392 393

Gyatso, “Hope for the Future,” supra, at 4. Gyatso, “Hope for the Future,” supra, at 6. Hanh, “Love in Action,” supra, at 57 (emphasis added). Chappell, “Introduction,” supra, at 20.

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“using such means as civil disobedience, outspoken criticism, protest, pacifism, voluntary poverty, and even gentle violence if it comes to a matter of restraining some impetuous crazy.”394 Snyder’s phrase about using “gentle violence” to restrain “some impetuous crazy” seems to resonate with Engaged Buddhist writers, who have frequently quoted it as illustrative of a violence-permissive interpretation of compassionately engaged ahimsa.395 Some such reasoning presumably also lay behind the decision of some Buddhist peace activists years ago to break into and vandalize an industrial facility in Florida, and to sabotage components being manufactured for the Pershing II ballistic missile then being built there.396 It also seems that the Sri Lankan monk Walpola Rahula supported a Buddhist notion of violent resistance to aggression, at least when the stakes were sufficiently high. As Ken Jones recounts, Rahula defended the idea that “to fight against a foreign invader for national independence became and established Buddhist tradition since freedom was essential to the spiritual as well as the material progress of the community.”397 Such reasoning brings Buddhist “nonviolence” much closer to Christian just war theory, as well as to late-20th-Century decolonization politics. Clearly, Engaged Buddhism in the modern world has no monolithic position on the issue of violence. To further set forth this diversity of views,398 the following paragraphs briefly survey positions taken by certain notable figures in contemporary Buddhism. • His Holiness the Dalai Lama

As we have already seen, the Dalai Lama strongly resists the idea that violence is legitimately available to good Buddhists who are not already bodhisattvas. He certainly seems to understand the complexity of the challenges of violence that humans face in the samsaric world, and that not acting with violence can perhaps sometimes be more violent or harmful than using force.399 At the same time, however, he feels it “impossible” to

394 395 396 397 398

399

Snyder, “Buddhism and the Possibilities of a Planetary Culture,” supra, at 125. See, e.g., Kraft, “Engaged Buddhism,” supra, at 69 (quoting Snyder); Eller, “The Impact of Christianity on Buddhist Nonviolence in the West,” supra, at 102 (same). See, e.g., Kraft, “Prospects for a Socially Engaged Buddhism,” supra, at 17. Jones, “Buddhism and Social Action: An Exploration,” supra, at 74 (quoting Walpola Rahula, Zen and the Taming of the Bull (London: Gordon Fraser, 1978), at 117). One somewhat odd position on the subject of nonviolence – and a view that will not be further addressed herein – is taken by Kenneth Kraft, who has suggested that support for peace may simply be instrumentally valuable for Buddhists as a conveniently popular “wagon” to which Buddhism can “hitch” itself in order to propagate more widely in the West. Nonviolence, this might suggest, is not intrinsic to the dharma, but is instead merely a upaya (“skillful means”) that is convenient for Buddhism to employ at this particular time of its development. See Kraft, “Wellsprings of Engaged Buddhism,” supra, at 161. See Kraft, “Introduction,” in Inner Peace, World Peace, supra, at 6 (recounting Dala Lama’s parable of the drowning drunkard)

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achieve peace through weapons and military preparedness,400 because “[a]nger cannot be overcome by anger.”401 In place of such worrisome steps, the Dalai Lama urges “internal disarmament” – that is, the use of techniques of self-cultivation to reduce negative emotions.402 Through such mental trainings, he suggests we can “generate a genuine sense of patience and tolerance toward our enemies.”403 He does not explain precisely how this is supposed to keep them from attacking us, but it is at least clear enough that His Holiness strongly disapproves of military means of redress. As for the potentially violence-justifying argument that “once one has insight into the ultimate truth of emptiness, then one is no longer bound by the norms of morality,” Stephen Batchelor recounts His Holiness as having challenged this view quite sharply. In the Dalai Lama’s view, one’s understanding of emptiness underscores the importance of the rules of Buddhist ethics by grounding morality in experience.404 And, to reiterate, while he apparently accepts that the use of deadly force is indeed theoretically available to a good Buddhist acting out of compassion, His Holiness argues that such a step may only safely be abrogated by someone with bodhisattva-level insight, a category from which he modestly excludes even himself.405 • Sulak Sivaraksa

As for the Thai activist and writer Sulak Sivaraksa, his Engaged Buddhism stresses the “philosophy of nonharm,” and of having “a clear sense of revulsion for violence.” At the same time, however, he sees “peace” as being not a state of affairs to be achieved but rather a “proactive, comprehensive process.”406 It would appear, in fact, that this “process” can occasionally include violent steps undertaken in the name of compassion. In the context of international politics, for instance, Sivaraksa urges that “in the interests of compassion” – e.g., in circumstances of “an obvious abuse such as apartheid” – it may be necessary to “violate” an “‘outlaw’ nation’s sovereignty” in order to protect the victims of such policies.407 • Alan Senauke

As we have seen, Alan Senauke clearly understands the difficulty of maintaining a position of nonviolence in the face of aggression or the oppression of innocents, publicly agonizing about the apparent inability of Buddhist pacifism to offer any

400 401 402 403 404 405 406 407

The Dalai Lama, “Hope for the Future,” supra, at 251-52; see also Gyatso, “Hope for the Future,” supra, at 7. Gyatso, “Hope for the Future,” supra, at 5. Tenzin Gyatso (Dalai Lama), “Dialogue on Religion and Peace,” in Buddhist Peacework, supra, at 189, 190. The Dalai Lama, “Genuine Compassion,” in Engaged Buddhist Reader, supra, at 127, 131. Batchelor, “The Future Is in Our Hands,” supra, at 247. Kraft, “Introduction,” supra, at 6. Sivaraksa, “Buddhism and a Culture of Peace,” supra, at 43-44; cf. Joan Halifax, “Foreword,” in Buddhist Peacework, supra, at 11, 13 (also describing peace as a process rather than a goal). Sivaraksa, “Buddhism and Contemporary International Trends,” supra, at 135.

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“practical alternative” to military intervention against ethnic cleaning and genocide.408 As a general matter, however, Senauke’s position is one of thoroughgoing, even militant nonviolence. Envisioning the possibility of a “peace army” that would deliberately imperil the lives of its members by “sit[ting] down on the battlefield, right in the line of fire, in order to save others,” he urges Engaged Buddhists to vow “never again to raise a weapon in anger or in complicity with the state or any so-called authority.” Instead, he says they should “intervene actively and nonviolently for peace, even where this may put our own bodies and lives at risk.”409 It bothers Senauke not at all that some might dismiss this approach as hopelessly naïve: “[S]houldn’t we,” he asks “dare to be naïve?” As an example of such naïveté, he describes a friend’s suggestion during the 1999 Kosovo conflict that the United States should solve the crisis of Serbian oppression of and atrocities against the Albanian population of that territory by offering scholarships to American universities for “every Serbian and Albanian youth of military age.”410 David Loy

David Loy sees the entire project of Buddhist engagement as being rooted in the idea of “not killing,” which he extrapolates into a general warrant for a project of social activism in “challenging social injustice.”411 With regard specifically to the issue of violence, however – where the idea of “not killing” is presumably implicated most directly – Loy offers an unedifying account. Unable to resist making fashionably anti-American asides, Loy offers less a Buddhist analysis of the meaning of ahimsa as applied to contemporary geopolitics than a series of ad hominem attacks upon the United States. He complains about the United States supposedly being an “especially” militarized society, suggests a moral equivalency between the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush and the terrorists of alQaeda, insinuates that the United States deserved the terrorist butchery of September 11, 2001, and opposes the U.S.-led campaign to root out the Taliban/al-Qaeda regime in Afghanistan.412 Even putting aside Loy’s politicized bile, what little he actually says about the problem of violence from a specifically Buddhist perspective begs more questions than it answers. Though he takes modern U.S. counter-terrorism campaigning as the focus of the brief discussion of warfare he offers in his book The Great Awakening, Loy has remarkably little to say about how Buddhists should approach the problem of coping with violent aggression by others. He clearly has nothing but contempt for the U.S. “war on
408 409 410 411 412

Kraft, “New Voices in Engaged Buddhist Studies,” supra, at 491-92 (quoting Senauke). Alan Senauke, “Vowing Peace in an Age of War,” in Not Turning Away, supra, at 220, 221 & 226. Senauke, “Vowing Peace in an Age of War,” supra, at 224. Loy, supra, at 38. See Loy, supra, at 37, 44, 104, & 107.

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terrorism” after September 2001. At the same time, however, Loy concedes that we have a “duty to stop all other deluded and hate-filled terrorists.”413 If there is a clear explanation for how one fulfills this “duty to stop” violent aggression without actually being willing, in extremis, to fight its perpetrators, Loy does not offer it. As a result, Loy seems to have nothing useful to say about how a good society should deal with violent outsiders in a world in which not all societies have reached a high level of nonviolent spiritual maturity. He argues that it is “intrinsic” to the nature of modern nation-states that their insecurity “manifests as their propensity toward external aggression … against real or imagined foes.”414 This makes it sound very likely, however, that an enlightened Buddhist society would face grave external threats from those who have not yet achieved such progress. Yet Loy tells us nothing about how to handle such challenges. • Pema Chödrön

Pema Chödrön, writing about how to “practice[e] peace in times of war,” has a distinctive approach to the problem of violence. She does not limit her conception of “war” to the physical clash of armies. Indeed, as she describes it, “war” isn’t really about any physical clashing at all: it is, for her, a psychological phenomenon – something that can also occur “at the level of our domestic situation, in our relationships with those close to us.”415 “War could be that you smash that little teensy weensy mosquito. But I’m also talking about war within the family, war at the office, war on the streets, and also war between nations, war in the world.”416 War, it would appear, is a characteristic of samsara, a deluded search for satisfaction through hardening, distancing, and closing – rather than softening, embracing, and opening. War begins, she informs us, “when we harden our hearts.”417 This has at least two potential implications for the problem of violence. First, while Chödrön’s conception of “war” may grab our attention and focus us more effectively upon inner practice – as is presumably her aim – it would also seem to dilute the notion of precept-breaking in this arena. If we engage in “warfare” every time we allow our heart to harden and close rather than soften and open, then all not-yetenlightened beings are in chronic noncompliance with the principle of ahimsa. Whether we engage in “war” by smashing a mosquito or by invading a foreign country would seem to be of particular importance for her. Indeed, this may be quite literally true: because Chödrön believes that the primary harm in wrongdoing is to the wrongdoer

413 414 415 416 417

Loy, supra, at 108. Loy, supra, at 196. Chödrön, Practicing Peace, supra, at 15-16. Chödrön, Practicing Peace, supra, at 18. Chödrön, Practicing Peace, supra, at 16.

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rather than to the victim of his misdeeds,418 it seems to follow that there really is no necessary difference between aggression against a gnat and aggression against a country; the nature and number of the victims is not intrinsically relevant. At any rate, Chödrön offers no distinctive answer to the problem of physical warfare, arguing that the solution to the problem of all types of “war” lies merely in “cultivating the seeds of peace” by “doing the work of the peacemaker” in resisting our own tendencies to harden and close up.419 This peacemaking apparently does not occur at the level of Engaged Buddhist structural engagement at all: instead, it “has to happen at the level of individuals working with their own minds.”420 She wishes to create a new culture of peace,421 but this seems to be principally inner work; Chödrön seems to have nothing to say about the sort of policy and programmatic issues that concern many Engaged Buddhists. She wishes us to redress and avoid all warring, but as she defines warfare, this is apparently not really possible until we have all achieved enlightenment. In the interim, she offers no specific guidance about the problem of war as conventionally understood (i.e., the physical clash of armed forces), and no reason to be more concerned about it than any other instance in which we allow our hearts to harden. Second, by tying the idea of “war” solely to our inner, psychological state and divorcing it from any necessary connection to physical combat, Chödrön’s reasoning seems to imply her agreement with those traditions of Buddhist thinking that would admit the possibility of blameless compassionate violence. If one could manage to exert physical force without hardening one’s heart – i.e., using violence in order to halt or prevent aggression – Chödrön would seem to have no grounds on which to object: for her, the problem is the actor’s psychological state, not what he is actually doing. Fighting in an armed conflict with an open, “soft” heart would not, in her schema, be “war” at all. • Robert Thurman

Robert Thurman takes a position on the question of violence that rather belies the stereotype of absolutist Buddhist pacifism. He minces no words about this, noting that “[n]onviolence sometimes translates into surgical violence.” In explaining this, Thurman offers the well-known Jataka tale of Great Compassion, the sea captain who preemptively slew a would-be mass murderer who intends the butcher all of the passengers. According to Thurman, the Buddha used his “extraordinary powers of insight to be able to see that this action was the best in the long run.”422 For Thurman, absolute pacifism is a laudatory ideal, and the expected end state after all members of society achieve liberation. It is not, however, something that can be insisted upon before that point. He notes, by way of example, that
418 419 420 421 422

Chödrön, Practicing Peace, supra, at 26. Chödrön, Practicing Peace, supra, at 29; see also id. at 71. Chödrön, Practicing Peace, supra, at 87. See, e.g., Chödrön, Practicing Peace, supra, at 99. Thurman, Inner Revolution, supra, at 122.

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“[s]ocieties that have become truly civilized in the sense of behaving nonviolently … have been conquered or destroyed by violent neighbors, and millions of individual lives have been lost. Unilateral disarmament causes you to become totally vulnerable to your former and potential enemies.”423 Such vulnerability is sustainable only through the “transcendental understanding of reality,”424 but this is not an understanding with which an enlightened society can be expected to start. (It is, instead, the goal) Thurman recounts how even the wise Buddhist monarch Ashoka – whose “operative principles” Thurman quotes approvingly as being guides for encouraging a culture of enlightenment425 – was “unable to practice unilateral nonviolence and disarmament,” and indeed “maintained his military, threatened border tribes with retaliation if they attacked him, and punished transgressors under his rule with great severity.”426 Thurman also pointedly observes that Nagarjuna was realist enough – in the Jewel Garland of Royal Counsels he wrote in order to offer advice on government to King Udayi of the Satavahana dynasty in south central India – to urge that the king develop a domestic intelligence agency. “In order to maintain control,” advised the sage, “oversee your country through the eyes of agents.”427 Such practices and institutions are not, presumably, the marks of a society of complete peace, but Thurman seems to think that one must evolve through a phase of compassionate willingness to use violence in order to protect an enlightenment society until it has managed to universalize its values. Suggesting that violence is not absolutely ruled out even if it must be strongly discouraged and made a tool of only last resort, Thurman offers an analogy to the lesser violence of eating meat. “Buddhism never made vegetarianism a rigid principle, as did Jainism,” he observes, “but Buddhism’s principle of nonviolence promoted [vegetarianism] by discouraging the slaughter of animals for food.”428 A Buddhist politics, he seems to feel, must endorse at least some conception of legitimate violence, for “politics itself is a middle way between the two extreme states of ordinary societies, the states of battle and ritual.”429 In keeping with what we have seen in our discussion of karma theory and the problem of violence, Thurman apparently feels that the motivations that underlie
423 424 425

426 427 428 429

Thurman, Inner Revolution, supra, at 125. Thurman, Inner Revolution, supra, at 125. See, e.g., Thurman, Inner Revolution, supra, at 117; Thurman, “The Edicts of Asoka,” supra, at 111. Elsewhere, Thurman also approvingly cites Nagarjuna’s advice to King Udayi in the Jewel Garland of Royal Counsel in the mid-2nd Century, which he says was “in line with Ashoka’s first principle of enlightened politics, the transcendent value of the individual.” Thurman, Inner Revolution, supra, at 166-67. Thurman, Inner Revolution, supra, at 124. Thurman, “Nagarjuna’s Guidelines for Buddhist Social Action,” supra, at 88 (quoting Nagarjuna). Thurman, Inner Revolution, supra, at 124. Thurman, Inner Revolution, supra, at 295.

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legitimate Buddhist violence are critical. They must lie in a compassionate defense of the enlightenment society and its principles, and cannot derive from the sort of “militarism” – the “mirror opposite” of monasticism430 – that Thurman sees as growing out of the poison of hatred.431 Nevertheless, compassionate violence still seems to require the ability to be violent. Firmly, if not perhaps with enormous sophistication, Thurman calls for “combin[ing] our intelligence traditions with Ninja-master individual prowess and technique in order to develop a new kind of high-quality special force capable of preventing Kuwait- or Sarajevo-type scenarios.”432 These comic book-style “ninja” types would apparently be in charge of the application of surgical, compassionate Buddhist violence to thwart the ambitions of brutal tyrant aggressors and genocidal thugs. In case things get too rough even for these super-agent warriors, Thurman also advocates the maintenance of “a credible military” capability (“Operation Rearguard”) that would protect “against any realistic threat.”433 VI. Conclusion: Engagement and the Koan of Policy Choice

Engaged Buddhism has set a grand task for itself, but this is a task that requires it to manage some tensions inherent in the nature of such engagement. This management, in turn, would seem, as we have seen, to require the development of a distinctly Buddhist grounding theory of action. Because Buddhism understands suffering in a very distinctive way – and one that does not necessarily coincide with the types of suffering addressed by conventional (non-Buddhist) social activism – engagement needs to be able to offer a specifically Buddhist reason for the public policy choices it advocates. It is too early to indict Engaged Buddhism for not having done so very clearly, and it must be admitted that explicit socio-political “engagement” is still a relatively young movement and remains something of a work in progress. Nevertheless, Kenneth Kraft is right that “Buddhist social and political theory” has “heretofore [been] neglected,” and “is … [an] area in which further work needs to be done.”434 The need for a theory of engagement seems inescapable. There is a challenge for Engaged Buddhism in such theorizing, however, for the socio-political teleology entailed by a broad public policy agenda that aspires to sweeping transformation of the entire structure of society does not always easily exist alongside other values that Engaged Buddhist writers seem to prize (e.g., democracy and individualism). As suggested by the tension apparent between Robert Thurman’s
430 431 432 433 434

Thurman, Inner Revolution, supra, at 105. Thurman, Inner Revolution, supra, at 174-75. Thurman, Inner Revolution, supra, at 314. Thurman, Inner Revolution, supra, at 314. Kraft, “Wellsprings of Engaged Buddhism,” supra, at 159.

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commitment to individualism and the quasi-totalitarian overtones of his all-embracing, disagreement-erasing government “education” agenda, the overtly political aspects of Engaged Buddhism sometimes struggle with reconciling the spiritual imperative of nondogmatism (not knowing) with the political imperative of moving the society as a whole in a particular, pre-established direction. Secular democracies face at least some such tension as well, but to some extent they handle their own tension between individual and community values more easily: they simply leave both the general and the specific direction of public policy entirely up for grabs – for determination, and subsequent re-determination on an ongoing basis, by the body politic. Societies orienting themselves around an express overarching purpose, or telos (Greek), however, have more difficulty with these issues if they wish to remain committed to tolerance and individualism. As Stephen Batchelor has observed, “[h]ow to create an authentic community, which provides a sound basis for the emergence of a culture while optimizing individual freedom, may be the single most important question facing those practicing the dharma today.”435 Yet this tension is not the only deep theoretical problem confronted by a Buddhist politics. Equally vexing – or perhaps more so, insofar as it is likely to be an everyday problem for any serious Buddhist policymaker – is the challenge of reconciling not knowing with the day-to-day requirements of advocating, implementing, and defending particular policy choices against alternative courses of action. It is inherent to the nature of public policymaking that some course must be adopted in favor of all others. To do this responsibly requires great knowledge and discernment, but this is terribly difficult. Perfect information is never available, and decisions must be made upon shaky analytical foundations even in the best of circumstance. For leaders struggling with essentially any public policy issue, much critical information will be unavailable, such data that exists will be in some measure ambiguous, and some may even be false. Furthermore, the exercise of judgment relies upon all-important assumptions about causality and the probability of various event-outcomes, which are often fiercely contested and about which it is simply impossible to be sure. Responsible policymaking also requires that even having taken a decision, one be willing to be proven wrong, and to change course accordingly. As we have seen in our examination of politics, economics, education, criminal justice, and the availability of violence, moreover, the range of canonically-justifiable “Buddhist” policy choices is vastly greater than might be supposed on the basis merely of a casual acquaintance with the dharma. The Buddhist tradition provides surprisingly little clear and specific guidance for acting in the world. Nor is it quite clear that we should necessarily take heed even if the canon does clearly say something. As Ken Jones and others have argued, the “conditions which might favor the[] cultivation of the Middle Way” in our times presumably “must be secured by correspondingly different – and more
435

Batchelor, Buddhism Without Beliefs, supra, at 114.

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complex – social, economic, and political strategies” than made sense in ancient India.436 For all these reasons, therefore, not knowing might seem relatively easy: the hard part is acting in a coherent and responsible way. But there is more to it than that, for one must still make choices. At least where the lives and fortunes of others hang in the balance – as is generally the case in the public policy arena – it is irresponsible to make endless changes of course on the drop of a hat. Consistency is as necessary as adaptability, and the admixture of these two elements is a profound and mysterious recipe that no one seems yet fully to have mastered. Amidst all the uncertainty, unpredictability, and contestedness, one must still somehow actually make decisions – and stick to them steadfastly enough that wise choices will have time to work, yet without holding course too long. One must therefore, in a sense, both know and not know at the same time. This is an enduring problem for all policymaking, but Engaged Buddhists would seem to face it with particular acuteness. Secular political leaders, after all, seldom admit having any problems with certainty, but a good Buddhist should know that public policy answers are no less impermanent than anything else, and that all dharmas are ultimately empty – including one’s own. Engaged Buddhists, therefore, appear to face special challenges precisely because of their commitment to engagement, which necessarily means that they will have to pick, advocate, implement, and defend particular policy choices even though they are Buddhists. Some Engaged Buddhist writers seem to have tried to skirt this issue. Nelson Foster, for example, has suggested that there might actually not be much of a need for elaborate Buddhist theory-building and public policy programmatics. In this regard, he cites Dogo’s response to Ungen – the 89th Case in the Blue Cliff Record – on how he bodhisattva Kanzeon (Avalokiteshvara), the archetype of compassion, uses her hands and eyes: “It is like someone asleep adjusting the pillow in the middle of the night.” Foster explains that “we can understand Dogo’s answer to mean that we respond to the world’s needs as a kind of reflex, a natural function of the silent mind, rather than as the end product of a complicated series of moral or logical decisions.”437 Perhaps for this reason, he concedes that despite his support for Buddhist engagement, he can offer “no blueprint for what that involvement should be.”438

436

437 438

Jones, “Buddhism and Social Action: An Exploration,” supra, at 66; see also Kraft, “Introduction,” supra, at 6 (noting that it is a considerable leap to extrapolate guidelines for “dealing with [the] complex social and political dilemmas” of our era from precepts that were originally intended simply to be the “personal moral code for monks in ancient India”). Foster, “To Enter the Marketplace,” supra, at 57. Foster, “To Enter the Marketplace,” supra, at 55-56.

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Even Robert Thurman – who, as we have seen, is otherwise in no way reticent about offering detailed policy advice – suggests that self-perfection by rulers is more important than any specific “ends of society, achieved by getting the king to follow [enlightened] policies.” As he sees it, “a liberated and compassionate king will himself choose the right path of action” without depending on “Nagarjuna’s or someone else’s ideas.”439 From this perspective, there would seem to be little point in spelling out in advance rules, theories, and strategies for pursuing enlightenment-facilitating alterations to samsaric circumstances – that is to say, no need for a Buddhist politics. The enlightened practitioner, spontaneously acting out of compassion and awakened presence, will simply know what to do from moment to moment. (The other side of this coin is the implication that we, who are not enlightened and do not face the circumstances confronting a hypothetical practitioner at his own moment in time, cannot possibly know the “right” answer in advance anyway.) Yet it is not hard to see this as too facile a response to the problem of action, especially in light of the fact that the vast mass of humanity – whose situation Engaged Buddhism aims to improve, and whose involvement in political and social life it aims to shape – is not in a position to enjoy or employ such dharmically infallible enlightened spontaneity. To the degree that Engaged Buddhism as a response to “structural” dukkha seems to require purposive and sustained intervention in political, social, and economic institutions, it will thus require more than just the approach to worldly action that is suggested by the Zen idea of the spontaneously compassionate “wooden puppet” of a being, who reacts merely as circumstances warrant.440 Even Foster, after all, finds open-hearted spontaneity within the framework of the precepts to be an insufficient answer, conceding that there remain things we must discover by induction, and that “the burning energy of compassion must be governed by a lucid understanding of social problems and social change.”441 One must also carefully assess how best to address the daunting complexities of samsara – among them “the question of where to bring one’s efforts to bear, which apocalyptic force to challenge and at what level” – in a world the problems of which are terribly entangled each with the next, and resistant to being addressed in isolation.442 Because resources, time, and energy are finite, public policymaking often requires not just decisive choice in an environment of unknowability, but issue triage – that is, deliberately leaving some matters unaddressed, at least for now. All this requires analysis, and some form of grounding theory to guide one’s choices and make them coherent and defensible in the policy community and to the public. If it is really to “engage” with samsara in order to reshape

439 440 441

442

Thurman, “Nagarjuna’s Guidelines for Buddhist Social Activism,” supra, at 57. See Halifax, Being With Dying, supra, at 26. As a model, he cites the example of Mohandas Gandhi being “superbly educated and intimately acquainted with India’s troubles” in addition to having profound vision and wisdom. Foster, “To Enter the Marketplace,” supra, at 55-56 & 60. Foster, “To Enter the Marketplace,” supra, at 59 & 62.

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social, political, and economic circumstances, therefore, Engaged Buddhism cannot escape the responsibility of explicit policy choice. Stephen Batchelor has written perceptively about such dilemmas, and though his account addresses the ambiguities and uncertainties of everyday personal decisionmaking, his analysis would seem equally applicable to public policy challenges. As he describes it, “Every ethical dilemma presents me with a uniquely complex situation that has never existed before and will never exist again. No number of precepts will ever be able to legislate for the infinite number of possible ethical dilemmas I may face. While precepts can take care of many simple choices, it is the dilemmas in life that cause me to agonize over them that demand the practice of ethics. For they call on me to look deeply at the situation and then choose, with wisdom, what to do. Such wisdom requires that I look beyond the wording of the precept to the values they enshrine. … Action (karma), declared the Buddha, is intention. To intend to do something is to choose to act in a certain way. Every such choice, however, is a risk; for I can never know the outcome of an action. All I can aspire to is the wisdom of knowing what might be best – a wisdom that requires the humility to acknowledge that I might get it wrong.”443 David Loy’s discussion of bioethics offers one illustration of how a Buddhist might choose to grapple with the dilemmas of policy choice. In his effort to determine which types of technology should be allowed or prohibited, he seems to suggest making an evaluation of the intentions behind a particular technological innovation as part of a general assessment of whether it will reduce dukkha. We must, Loy argues, examine “the motivations behind our preoccupation” with developing new technologies, for if something is driven by “greed, ill will, or delusion,” it is likely instead to “increase our dukkha,” and should be avoided.444 Such dukkha-consequentialism, one might call it, is certainly consistent with the idea explored earlier of making the touchstone of Buddhist public policy whether or not specific measures contribute to enlightenment. This is still, however, a very difficult standard to administer as a matter of public policy. How is one to know, ahead of time, whether a specific technology will in fact contribute to lessening suffering as it is understood in the specifically Buddhist sense? The simplest answer may simply be that one really cannot know whether any measure will in fact reduce dukkha, for the world is a complex and unpredictable place. But in itself, such a conclusion is of little use in providing a foundation for coherent public policymaking pursuant to a Buddhist social theory. Loy seems to try to address this problem by treating the intentions behind technological innovation as a proxy for its likelihood of increasing or decreasing suffering: as he describes it, a technology developed with good intentions is more “likely” to have good (dukkha-reducing) results

443 444

Batchelor, Buddhism Without Beliefs, supra, at 245-46. Loy, supra, at 162 & 167.

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than one pursued for the wrong reasons.445 This is not logically inevitable, however, for it might be that something developed out of malevolence ends up lessening suffering, while something driven by noble motives ends up making things worse. (After inventing dynamite as a way of quarrying rock, we may remember, Alfred Nobel is said to have felt guilty enough at the application of such explosives as weapons of war that he endowed his famously eponymous prizes for helping humanity.) Nevertheless, in a world in which actual outcomes cannot reliably be predicted, some standard is needed if we are to make public policy choices without simply flipping coins or throwing dice. For Buddhists with a tradition of virtue ethics and karma-based concern for the compassionate foundations of action, to some extent irrespective of outcome, criteria of intentionality are not an unreasonable answer to the problem of unpredictability and information-inadequacy. All the same, it is hard to defend them as a complete answer. After all, Engaged Buddhists must be concerned with actual outcomes in the sense that they really do wish to help liberate sentient beings, and they believe that samsaric circumstances can facilitate or impede spiritual progress. Unless one assumes that good intentions invariably produce good substantive outcomes, it is hard to see how good or ill intentions, alone, can provide us an adequate standard. In this field, as elsewhere, Engaged Buddhism thus needs a more sophisticated and consequentialist answer to the problem of action than simply to laud anything that happens to be done out of compassion and condemn anything done out of delusive attachment or aversion. As we have seen, it would seem to be in the nature of a Buddhist approach to public policy that we must simultaneously “know” certain answers and remember that we do not really know them. We must be able to become participants in socio-political struggles – with the degree of partisanship that this necessarily entails – yet without falling prey to delusive attachments and intoxicating certainties. This is not an impossible task, for it merely reproduces on a grander stage the myriad challenges we face in everyday life, but it is hardly easy. In contemplating how a Buddhist could manage this tension, Kenneth Kraft urges that we consider Buddhism’s “twofold truth” of conventional and ultimate, suggesting that “[t]aking sides on the conventional level does not necessarily mean that the ultimate has been violated or abandoned. Rather, Buddhist activists strive to take sides with lightness, flexibility, and a natural empathy for other points of view.”446 This is a strange and delicate dance – an ethic of commitment to a struggle coupled with uncertainty about whether one is doing the right thing and sympathy for one’s opponents – but this tension seems essential to ensuring that engagement remains Buddhist rather than simply becoming yet another form of delusive attachment. This is perhaps the koan at the heart of Engaged Buddhism. Roshi Robert Aitkin has suggested that we contemplate the joy found by the 9th Century Chinese master Ta445 446

Loy, supra, at 162. Kraft, “Wellsprings of Engaged Buddhism,” supra, at 158.

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Sui in realizing that everyone will perish, along with the rest of the universe, in the kalpa fire.447 It is perhaps precisely the irrelevance of our worldly struggles, when viewed through the prism of the Absolute, that opens for us the possibility of a truly skillful “engagement” in them: the requisite deftly compassionate touch would be impossible without a fundamentally nonattached perspective of equanimity. As Stephen Batchelor has noted, engagement with the world is both deeply problematic and entirely unavoidable. “Empathy alone will not prevent us from making mistakes,” and while we may have the noblest of intentions, this “does not ensure that what we will do will [actually] be for the best” and we “cannot know in advance the consequences of the choices we make.”448 In a sense, we cannot even really have confidence that our best laid and most compassionate plans will not actually end up increasing the anguish of sentient beings in this world. This does not mean, however, that we should cease trying. Batchelor suggests a principle of “integrity” that recognizes these challenges, combining empathy compassion with “courage and intelligence as well.” We must have “the intelligence to understand the present situation as the fruition of former choices, and the courage to engage with it as the arena for the creation of what is to come.” We must seek the compassionate course, but while this question can be approached with integrity, it cannot be approached with certainty. “In accepting that every action is a risk, integrity embraces the fallibility that certainty disdainfully eschews.”449 “We are obliged,” Batchelor says, “to assume responsibility for choices whose potentially considerable consequences for others we cannot possibly foresee.”450 Reinforcing this point, Batchelor offers the example of the Buddha himself, recounting the Tathagata’s struggle, after enlightenment, with “the ‘vexation’ of engagement” with the world. Vexatious as engagement may have been, however, the Buddha nevertheless recognized that he had a “responsibility to act.” This realization led him to “relinquish[] the mystical option of transcendent absorption and move[] to engage with the world” in spreading the dharma.451 Jack Kornfeld also seems to have grasped this truth, quoting in this regard the old Sufi saying “Praise Allah, and tie your camel to the post.” This, he explains, “expresses both sides” of what is required in spiritual engagement: “pray, yes, but also make sure you do what is necessary in the world.”452 It may be true that Buddhism offers us little clear and specific guidance for acting in the world, even on stereotypically “easy” Buddhist issues such as warfare and violence; much more is doctrinally “available” to us in our struggles with public policy than one might at first suppose. On one level, this realization may seem daunting, and it certainly does not make engagement any easier. Nevertheless, we should not fear it, for
447 448 449 450 451 452

Robert Aitkin, “About Money,” in Not Turning Away, supra, at 174, 174. Batchelor, Buddhism Without Beliefs, supra, at 46-47. Batchelor, Buddhism Without Beliefs, supra, at 46-48. Batchelor, Buddhism Without Beliefs, supra, at 113. Batchelor, Buddhism Without Beliefs, supra, at 106-07. Jack Kornfeld, “The Path of Compassion,” in The Path of Compassion, supra, at 24, 25.

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this indeterminacy is just another way of saying that the dharma also empowers and challenges us in ways we should be proud to accept. It offers us endless opportunity, within the span of our precious human lives, for the exercise of moral judgment and responsible choice in an environment in which there are no clear and easy answers – that is, it permits us discernment and virtue. In socio-political “engagement” no less than anywhere else, it is our challenge to embrace the inescapable moral agency that this entails. * * *

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