Buddhism and Nonviolent Social Action

This is a talk given on May 14, 1988 at the Zen Temple, Ann Arbor, Michigan.

By Graeme MacQueen | 1988-12-01 12:00:00

I FIRST ENCOUNTERED BUDDHISM in a university course on world religions. Four emphases immediately drew me to Buddhism. First was the emphasis on suffering. We begin with the experience of our own suffering, and we work from there. I thought that was a good starting point.

Second was the emphasis on compassion. It isn't just my own suffering that I am supposed to be concerned with, it is the suffering of others -- all human beings, whatever race, culture, and society, and even nonhuman living beings. They too suffer, and to be fully alive is to be sensitive to this.

Third was the emphasis on awakening, or enlightenment, the idea that it is possible in this world to achieve a breakthrough into the nature of things, and that doing so will help us to overcome suffering. I discovered that there were Buddhists who undertook this quest for the truth seriously, even passionately.

Finally, what struck me was the down-to-earth, practical nature of Buddhism. I am in pain, you are in pain. Let's not waste time theorizing; let's do something about our suffering.

I became involved in Buddhism at two levels -- academic and personal. The academic part took up more and more of my time, and I became a graduate student in Buddhist Studies at Harvard from 1971 to '74. Most U.S. troops had been withdrawn from Vietnam at that point but there was still massive bombing by the Air Force. At Harvard there was an emphasis on dialogue with other religious traditions. I lived in the Center for the Study of World Religions, and we spent a lot of time dialoguing. There was a great deal of good in this, but in most of my dialogues, the war -- which was historically significant, and fraught with suffering for millions of people -- was hardly ever talked about, and never in a formal academic setting.

So here I am, studying Buddhist culture and Buddhist religion and Buddhist languages, and here are these millions of Buddhists being driven from their homes by bombs, being deafened by bombs, being burned alive by the very country in which I am staying, and we're not talking about it. I began to consider the dialogue phony. The real dialogue was not a dialogue of words, but of bullets, a dialogue of metal.

Not only was the dialogue bothering me, but also the quest for truth, which supposedly we, as a university community, were there for. Ironically, Harvard's motto is "veritas," the Latin word for truth. A noble motto for a university. But why this silence about the war? Was Harvard's truth too noble to be involved in tacky things like human beings being bombed by B-52s? Something was wrong with Harvard's truth.

Maybe Harvard's truth was actually being relayed on B52s to Southeast Asia. Maybe Harvard's truth was that white male American culture and economic structures were what everyone must have, like it or not.

It isn't as if Harvard had nothing to do with the war. Harvard gave the world Henry Kissinger. And there was Samuel Huntington, another great "scholar" from Harvard, who still has a high position there. Sam Huntington gave us the theory of forced-draft urbanization. This means that if you want to modernize and urbanize South Vietnam in a hurry, bomb the people out of their homes in the countryside. That would force them into overcrowded cities like Saigon, where they would become dependent on a foreign military power and foreign economic handouts. They would thus be unable to support the "Viet Cong," the resistance operating in the countryside. People like Huntington legitimized massive terrorist activities by the U.S. Air Force.

And there was also Louis Fieser, who in 1942 as a Harvard prof gave the world the gift of napalm, for which as we all know, Buddhists in Southeast Asia are so grateful. An alternative view was bravely put forward, I later learned, by the Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars, but I knew nothing of their existence while I was at Harvard.

As I reflected on these things, my discomfort increased with universities and with the North American study of Buddhism in general. When I came back to Canada in '74, my country, despite its public image of purity and lofty ideals, was collaborating, and money was being made on the war. Within the university itself, there was the same silence about war. I began to see that major disease in the academic world -- careerism, the notion that we're here in life to build our "careers," to achieve status, to progress through the ranks.

I came into the study of Buddhism with idealism, so the confrontation with careerism caused me pain. What happened to my questions about suffering, compassion, insight, and practical solutions to human problems -- the things that had attracted me to Buddhism? Was I not playing a very different game? It seemed to me that the university had sold out. It was saying to the political authorities: We want to be comfortable, so go ahead and bomb these people. But don't challenge tenure, don't cut our budget. That would upset us.

Around 1980, I saw that my life was going nowhere. I was not interested in dedicating the rest of my existence to my career. Several events turned me in a different direction. At the beginning of the 1980s, this massive anti-nuclear movement began to ferment, touched off by the Reagan administration's talk of theatre nuclear war in Europe. And Central America was on our minds. In 1980 came the Rio Sumpul massacre in El Salvador:

The first major massacre was at the Rio Sumpul on May 14th, when thousands of peasants fled to Honduras to escape an army operation. As they were crossing the river, they were attacked by helicopters, members of ORDEN, and troops. According to eyewitness testimony reported by Amnesty International and the Honduran clergy, women were tortured, nursing babies were thrown into the air for target practice, children were drowned by soldiers or decapitated or slashed to death with machetes, pieces of their bodies were thrown to dogs. Honduran soldiers drove survivors back into the hands of the Salvadoran forces. At least 600 unburied corpses were prey for dogs and buzzards while others were lost in the waters of the river, which was contaminated from the dead bodies; bodies of five children were found in a fish trap by a Honduran fisherman.

I read an account of that event that shattered my nonperception of suffering, my careerism, my silent collaboration. I knew that the U.S. was behind that action of the Salvardoran and Honduran armies. It was helping feed, clothe, train, and equip those soldiers. I didn't yet understand that the massacre was a direct application of American strategy (with which Canada has generally collaborated) aimed at the exploitation of the region. But I knew that by not resisting, I was involved in violence. People were being killed by me.

Picture those peasants, quietly entering our room now and sitting, perhaps over there in those back seats. There's an old man with a straw hat. A young woman with her child in this empty front seat. They are going to sit there quietly and listen to us. They are the ones who are questioning us about violence and nonviolence today. If our analyses and answers, our doctrines and sayings, our quotations from scripture, do not address their situation, we are not serious.

What do we do when we grasp the nature of structural violence and collaboration? After reading that account of Rio Sumpul, I tried to respond in a Buddhist way: to meditate, to sit down and do mindfulness practice, to try to be aware of the state of my own body and mind, to try to get some clarity.

Nice try. It didn't work. I had to get up from where I sat, throw open the door, and run. I ran and ran until I was exhausted and couldn't run anymore. It isn't just that I was a terrible meditator. At that point, meditating wasn't what I needed and it sure as hell wasn't what those people in El Salvador needed. So I began groping for an appropriate response. It took some time.

In 1983, I found myself being thrown into a van, in handcuffs and shackles, with a couple of dozen other people for having blocked the entrance to a company that was constructing counter-insurgency training camps in Honduras.

I won't romanticize civil disobedience. I won't pretend that it stopped what was happening in Central America. But I think it was a lot more appropriate than anything I had done up to that point. It had an impact on public perceptions and on what certain companies and interest groups could get away with. The activities of the peace and justice movements of the 1980s did accomplish important things. I wasn't just an individual, I was part of a social movement, which was enormous and which participated actively in history.

Furthermore, there was a kind of peace that I achieved that day, lying on the ground in my handcuffs in the November rain -- a kind of communion with the spirits of the people killed at Rio Sumpul. I don't think this was just self-indulgence or fantasy, though this is always a danger. I think I was starting to translate compassion into genuine solidarity with those who suffer. Compassion without active solidarity is barren. I was starting to get some integrity. Not that I was a saviour of the world, but I was beginning to put into practice my moral and spiritual values. That huge chasm between talk and action was beginning to be addressed in my life.

In Mahayana Buddhism, one of the great spiritual beings honored is Kuan Yin, the bodhisattva of compassion. I came to feel that there is Kuan Yin in each one of us. We have to get in touch with Kuan Yin and feel what she calls us to do in the world. The 1980s for me were a process of getting in touch with Kuan Yin within myself.

I speak to you today as people who are interested in Buddhist spirituality. The form of Buddhism known to most of you is Mahayana, from which Zen springs. As you know, the bodhisattva is the central focus of Mahayana. A bodhisattva is a being whose ultimate aims are full enlightenment -- that is, profound insight into the world, and the compassionate liberation of living beings. If those are your aims, then you are entering into the path of the bodhisattva. Buddhism, especially Mahayana Buddhism, is frankly idealistic. It appeals to deep yearnings within us.

So what does a bodhisattva in the United States or Canada do in 1988? Let me distinguish between the "smiling bodhisattva" and the "unsmiling bodhisattva." These are my own terms. By "smiling bodhisattva" I mean someone who wants to achieve calmness, clarity -- a practitioner of meditation and ritual. Someone who is not very interested in social action and who, when the issue arises, tends to emphasize cooperation. Someone who, when asked to give, gives; when asked to do, does. The smiling bodhisattva is emphasized in North American Buddhism. Such people are often judgmental toward those with agitated minds, who get angry, who rush about acting with their bodies, who protest, who don't hang out in zendos and who may not have a clear mind.

On the one hand, it makes sense in a frantic and distracted culture to try to achieve calmness. We need it. The meditation tradition may contribute greatly to achieving a better world-- not just through individual improvement but through social action. But that's the subject of another talk, not this one.

Here's a quotation from a Mahayana scripture. The passage is describing bodhisattvas: "Great compassion takes hold of them. With the heavenly eye they survey countless beings and what they see fills them with great agitation."

Agitation! They're not just sitting there calmly with all this suffering. It is in the nature of great compassion to sweep us along with other beings when they are being slaughtered. If we see the slaughter and never get agitated, I have serious questions about our compassion.

Agitated bodhisattvas are what I'm calling unsmiling bodhisattvas. They do not always have their act together, and are sometimes confused, even in despair. This is because their hearts have been torn open.

When it comes to social action, you'll find the unsmiling bodhisattva present -- and not always cooperative. The unsmiling bodhisattva tries not to cooperate with evil and, when asked by the forces of death to give, refuses. This unsmiling bodhisattva does not act with words only, but with the body, and puts his or her life on the line for living beings.

I'll read from another Mahayana text -- not so you'll feel constrained by the "authority" of the scripture. I don't believe in such authority, and there is plenty of skepticism about this use of scripture in the Buddhist tradition. But I want you to know that the resources for nonviolent praxis exist in this tradition. This text, from the fourth century of the Common Era, is called Bodhisattva Bhumi -- "Stages in the Development of a Bodhisattva." It's a practical manual for Buddhists.

First quotation: "Bodhisattvas do not give themselves in service to others or in servitude to others if this will result in others being harmed or being deceived." Have you given your selves in service to an imperialistic state? To a nuclear state? To a world economic order built on exploitation? To an order that deceives to cover the suffering it perpetrates?

Second quotation: "As to external objects, the bodhisattva does not offer harmful things such as poison, fire, weapons, and liquor to those who ask when their requests are for the purpose of harming themselves or others." There's a superficial way to understand this one. I can say, "I'm not supposed to offer weapons to people. Fine. I won't hand a revolver to anybody. That's easy."

Yes, it's easy. As a privileged, white North American I can get by without literally handing poison or weapons to people. But we know that this is a childish interpretation. Not giving weapons for harming others means having radical relations with the political authorities in our countries. What are we going to do when they ask for our taxes in order to go build more weapons? Are we going to pay up?

Finally, the third quotation: "And further, a bodhisattva does not offer others a thing belonging to someone else or whose ownership is uncertain."

"Well," you say, "that's obvious. You can't give something that doesn't belong to you. That's all the passage says."

But aren't we being asked to give away things that don't belong to us? Aren't we asked to give away the earth? Whole species? Whole ecosystems? The futures of our children and other people's children? Do they belong to us? Can I give my child's future to the leaders of my state to do with what they want? Can I give the earth to a multinational company? No, because these things don't belong to me. So what do I do when they ask me to hand these over or to collaborate silently in the handing over of these things? I have to say no. I have to be an unsmiling bodhisattva.

To try to embody nonviolence means to act from the compassion that gives birth to solidarity, and to act from a careful perception of the way the world works. To be nonviolent it is not enough that I refrain from overt violent behavior.

It is fairly easy for us privileged North Americans to avoid overt violence, but it won't do to feel pure and good because of this. It is the very nature of privilege to be able to avoid such acts if we wish, to be able to be "pure" in this sense. If I start to judge the poor and the oppressed, either in my own society (it is mainly the poor that fill up our prisons) or in Third World countries -- If I say, "These folks are violent, I'd better go and teach them Gandhian principles or Buddhist principles," I'm missing the point. It is precisely the poor who have overt violence shoved onto their backs, who suffer it and who are put in a position where they have to engage in it. By all means, let's offer them what we have in teachings on nonviolence, but let's not teach smug "niceness" and call it Buddhism. Our challenge is to remove the structural violence perpetrated by our societies and our "pure" strata.

Finally, I'd like to read a passage of Mahayana scripture that is concerned with what the bodhisattva is supposed to be.

"Bodhisattvas conceive the idea that all beings, whether men or women, are their parents and their children, and thus they go on the pilgrimage of the bodhisattva. They think this: As I myself want to be free from sufferings, so do all beings want to be free from sufferings. I must not abandon these beings." And the question for us is: What does it mean in North America in 1988, not to abandon these beings?

Graeme MacQueen teaches Religious Studies and Peace Studies at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario.


S. Huntington's article, "The Bases of Accommodation," Foreign Affairs, July 1968, 642-656. * The massacre description is from Noam Chomsky's Turning the Tide (Montreal: Black Rose, 1987), p. 105. * Passages of the Bodhisattva Bhumi are from the 9th chapter, as translated by James Mullens in his McMaster Ph.D. thesis (in progress).* All other Buddhist quotations are from translations of Edward Conze, Selected Sayings from the Perfection of Wisdom (London: The Buddhist Society, 1955) and The Perfection of Wisdom in Eight Thousand Lines and its Verse Summary (Bolinas: Four Seasons , 1973).

Peace Magazine Dec 1988-Jan 1989

Peace Magazine Dec 1988-Jan 1989, page 12. Some rights reserved.

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