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Can violence ever constitute an appropriate Buddhist response to the events of September 11? Your panel discussion (“War or Peace?”) was perhaps swayed by the visceral nature of U.S. popular feeling. Its searching examination of the issue mirrored the uncertainly we all feel. But it is worth considering that violence, like all composite phenomena, is empty of essential nature. To maintain that it is never justified risks a fall into the error of essentialism. Reference was made to the story of how the Buddha, in a previous life, killed a bandit who intended to murder five hundred merchants. Omitted was the detail that the Buddha’s preemptive violence was in part motivated by a desire to save the bandit from the karmic consequences of what he intended to do. Reference might also have been made to King Songsten Gampo, who gave Tibet its first penal code. His residence was surrounded by racks from which dangled the severed limbs of criminals, but he is nevertheless considered an emanation of the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara because he acted out of compassion rather than malice.
It seems inadequate and inflexible to maintain that the first precept of Buddhism (nonviolence) is absolute and therefore not subject to conditionality or dependent arising. Such a stance limits the scope of compassionate action. If uncompromising pacifism seems likely to generate more suffering than violence, is such pacifism then compassionate?
But to be ethically acceptable, violence must never be motivated by such afflictive sentiments as anger, envy, or a desire for revenge. Further, the intended recipient of the violence must be regarded with compassion and must not be dehumanized by the application of such absolutist labels as “evil.” It is perhaps in light of this somewhat demanding test that President Bush’s initiative against “the axis of evil” should be measured.
The Luxury of Nonviolence
As often happens, September 11 had some good effects, too. Witness the turmoil of rethinking demonstrated in letters and articles appearing in Tricycle, especially those relating to the religious principle of nonviolence.
Many who previously professed nonviolence are now searching desperately for areas where a violent response to others may be justified. And many are finding such justifications in areas of mass considerations. Mass values not only justify violence, they require it. Only individual minds may fully embrace religious principles of this sort, just as the serious pursuit of religion is reserved to individuals.
Most people enjoy only a symbiotic relationship with their religion, based on the exchange of quite practical services. Others may pursue religion as the extremely radical, mind- and value-altering experience it is. These people will take note of the simple way the great religious masters lived and of their teachings. They then become the only ones who can afford the luxury of nonviolence at all times.
Bainbridge Island, Washington
Kudos for Kunsang
Thank you for publishing the interview with Erik Pema Kunsang (“The Secret of Perfect Recall” Spring 2002). So much of the content of that interview resonated deeply with me. I am about to embark on a full-time course to train as a translator/interpreter, and the interview made me really think about how I can use the training as a basis for my spiritual practice. It has raised my awareness of the wonderful opportunities for spiritual development that this course will provide me with, such as developing acceptance and respect for others, even when I don’t necessarily share their views, as well as listening mindfully. Indeed, as Erik points out in the interview, the development of these skills is absolutely critical for a good translator/interpreter.
I feel sure that, during my course, I will keep coming back to Erik’s words to remind me of the need to bring mindfulness and tolerance to my studies.
Parenting: Love and Lies
Neil Gordon’s article on children and dharma brings to light the essential dilemma faced by all parents regarding how much, if at all, one should protect one’s children from the world. I must say that I am surprised that as a Buddhist he says that we lie to our children and we leave the truth for later on. The author’s well-meaning attitude is the same as that of Siddhartha Gautama’s father, who built a wall around his palace in an effort to protect his son from the realities of life. Yet the desire to know the truth from which he had been shielded inspired Siddhartha, as it eventually will all youths, to escape the palace and come face to face with suffering, old age, sickness, and death, as well as the possibility of liberation. It was contact with this very suffering that inspired his quest for enlightenment and his formulation of the dharma. Suffering is the very manure in which the dharma flourishes, and to pretend that the manure is sweet is to deprive a child of the basic experience necessary for learning and awakening. Truth needs to be taught from birth, not deferred, as the author has attempted with his own children.
Of course we would all like the world to be a safer and more loving place, but children have basic Buddha-nature, too, and are frequently better able to deal with the realities of life than their parents are. Not only as a Buddhist parent, but as a human being, telling the truth must be the foundation on which all other communication instruction is based.
—Peter Mt. Shasta
Mount Shasta, California
Honor and praise
In your recent “Ancestors” piece on Soen Roshi (“Tea on the Dead Sea”), excerpted from One Bird, One Stone, Sean Murphy mentions that due to a head injury Soen Roshi sustained, he grew more and more eccentric as he came to the end of his life, going into private seclusion and growing his hair and beard.
As a former student of Soen Roshi who was present during this brief period of his life, I wish to correct this widely held misunderstanding. Soen Roshi was brilliant, lucid, gifted, spontaneous, and utterly available to all who came to study with him. He went into silent retreat in order to purify the difficult karma which had manifested around him and his students.
It is very painful to hear a great teacher slandered, when in fact, he deserves true honor and praise.
—Eshin Brenda Shoshanna
Englewood, New Jersey
I am deeply offended by the serious consideration given to the book Shoes Outside the Doorby Michael Downing (Winter 2001). This stated history of the San Francisco Zen Center is, in fact, another hatchet job on Richard Baker Roshi. The author and the reviewer both seem to excuse such a diatribe—more gossip than helpful reminder—by indulging further in the tone of moral outrage.
Although Richard Baker is a personal friend, he hardly needs any defense. That he is charismatic is undoubtedly true, but is this a crime? He is also an incredibly brilliant expositor of the dharma, a function that is badly, even desperately needed in these days of a disgraceful dumbing down of Buddhism (a trend poorly excused by the hollow and unconvincing argument of the need to Westernize or Americanize Buddhism). The need to capitulate to the lowest common denominator, to politicize and socialize a sacred tradition, to rail against the insult to ego that any true spirituality must necessarily be—as if everyone approaching the practice, no matter how neurotic they are, needs to be made comfortable with the transformational demand—is idiotic.
Lenny Bruce, R. D. Laing, and Alice Miller are all examples of those who refused to compromise truth in order to be accepted and successful. Where is the example, except in a small handful of exemplary cases, among contemporary Western Buddhist teachers? Yes, every tradition adjusts itself to new cultures, new climates, new times, but let us not throw out the baby with the bath water. And let’s stop beating dead horses and trumpeting tunes already way past their time, except as minor historical footnotes. The vitality and depth of Buddhism as a teaching tradition is so necessary in these days of suffering, confusion, and hunger that it truly hurts me to see this tradition dragged through the mud by ignorance and vindictiveness, no matter how unconscious or well-intentioned. Please let us come to our senses.
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