IT IS TEMPTING, almost habitual, to view Gandhi through the prism of Western individualism, as a solitary leader who somehow lifted the entire Indian subcontinent on his shoulders and, David-like, took a stand against the Goliath of empires. But while there is no gainsaying Gandhi’s dedication and genius, if the approach to nonviolence he practiced had depended on heroism and charisma, his movement would have petered out into a cult of leadership instead of coming to define an approach to life that can speak to our concerns today.

Gandhi drew together, organized, and worked among dynamic communities. Great leaders arise from and are supported by such communities. They are not self-made, and to think so is to be in serious error. For the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi was essential, but King was firmly rooted in the black church of the American South, and his greatness was the product of the work, intelligence, sacrifice, and love of that entire community. The sacrifices demanded by satyagraha—literally, “truth force” (see special section)—were, and may again be, borne not by one man but by millions.

In his essay “The Psychology of Nonviolence,” Mark Kurlansky points out that the successful nonviolent resistance movements in Central Europe were influenced by Gandhi, and they adapted and extended his ideas. But unlike the movement for Indian home rule, in Central Europe nonviolence was applied without nearly the same degree of focus on a particular leader. Indeed, the movements occurred so much at the grassroots level that the Western press, accustomed as it is to linking any movement with one particular leader, attributed the changes solely to Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Pope John Paul I—anyone other than the people who were actually bringing them about. Kurlansky also calls our attention to some of the diverse sources of Gandhi’s own thought: Thoreau, Tolstoy, and Christianity as well as his own beloved Hindu traditions—and to this list we can add British jurisprudence.

One way to see all this is to borrow Thich Nhat Hanh’s way of speaking about dependent origination: Gandhi was the result of non-Gandhian elements. While telling history through the stories of heroic individuals makes for compelling drama, it does grave harm to our ability to appreciate the complex shaping of events that give birth to change. Gandhi may well have been, in the words of the Zen master Robert Aitken, a world teacher, yet without the dedicated sangha, even the greatest teacher would be a lone voice in the wilderness. I’m sure Gandhi himself knew this well. But how well do we know it?

It is easy to lionize our Buddhist teachers, forgetting that they, too, are the products of community. Journalistic convention makes it easier—almost pushes us as a publication—to highlight individual teachers and speak to individual concerns. But the Buddhism we share, teachers and students alike, is the result of the long work of common histories and culture. Thus we have been trying to offer in Tricycle a perspective that demonstrates the immediacy of our connection to the Buddhist tradition in which we are rooted, so that we can see ourselves, in all our differences, as sharing a common history, and thus a common present.

Liberate this article!

This article is available to subscribers only. Subscribe now for immediate access to the magazine plus video teachings, films, e-books, and more.

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? Log in.