A heated exchange between a Western Theravada Buddhist nun and lay devotees returning from violence in Myanmar touches on the difficult issue of nonviolence and justifiable self-defense. It addresses the Jesus message to love your neighbor and to turn the other cheek, and the seeming more realistic Catholic doctrine of justifiable force in a “Just War”. Nonviolence has been used in the civil rights movement by Martin Luther King in America and by Mahatma Gandhi in India’s movement for independence from the British.
At a Buddhist temple in Sacramento, California, a young American nun was answering questions for a mostly Burmese congregation. Buddhism teaches nonviolence. A man who had recently returned from a violence torn area in Myanmar (Burma) asked the nun what to do when his village comes under attack from Muslims. The nun responded that violence was not ever to be used, not even in defense of home or village.
Many in the audience became angry upon hearing the nun’s seeming insensitive words. Another man stood up and complained that if they didn’t defend themselves their families and friends would be wiped out and their treasured Buddhism would cease to exist.
The Theravada Buddhist nun held fast, repeating earlier words that as Buddhists they should not, under any circumstance, raise a finger against anyone.
The nun was doctrinairely right, Buddha instructed to never at all harm, by intent, sentient beings. But this American nun -- who was not Burmese and who perhaps had not been exposed to such aggression, – was she giving the appropriate advice? Might there be a less doctrinaire and more practical middle-ground for villagers who are lay Buddhists and not monastics?
Can a Buddhist people justify defensive violence and not abandon their principles?
As practitioners of whatever our faith and principles, we are at differing levels of experiential understanding. In the Buddhist practice, a monk, purifying his mind, grows in spiritual power and personal strength, his strengthening aura affecting those in his proximity and beyond. There are stories of such men, such as when a Mahayana Buddhist Master was at the back of a bus where the passengers were individually being robbed by thieves. But when they came to him, the thieves immediately knew he was a holy man, and instead of robbing him, they knelt down at his feet and asked forgiveness. The story is not told as a fable, it is true, according to the monk’s disciples. This man, if in a village overrun by Muslim aggressors, would stand in the path of the aggressors, yet would hold respect for them, knowing in his mind they are his misguided brothers. If his spiritual power is great, they will turn away. Otherwise they may kill him, or beat him, or bypass him and continue their attack. Regardless, the monk is or was true to his principles and will enjoy a holy spiritual plane upon death.
The other case is the ordinary man, practicing Buddhism, with duty to family and community. He has a responsibility to his village, and so must fight, if necessary. But as a Buddhist he must it without attachment, upholding the values of the high-level monk in his imagination, but not affording it in his physical actions. He must fight without anger, without malice, praying for the souls of his dying adversaries.
In so doing the cycle of violence should begin to crumble. As with the high-level monk the thoughts of the more ordinary of men will impact those in their proximity, and given time, peace between the warring factions may more likely come. And the Buddhist who dies in this way will enter a higher spiritual plane than he otherwise would, not dragged down by a hatred for others. Karmic attachment will not happen.
But should violence really be justified? The nun could be right after all. Perhaps total nonviolence will prove to be ultimately the secure way to peace. We have seen political and social movements dedicated to nonviolence having outcome of the adversary being shamed by the passive resistance of those he is harming. We can point to Martin Luther King of the American civil rights movement, and Mahatma Gandhi of the Indian revolt against occupying Britain. But it would be a cruel and difficult lesson watching family and friends harmed, doing nothing to intervene, particularly when there is wherewithal for halting the attack.
The differing beliefs of the world religions may be indicative that this issue is yet not settled. Hindus justify fighting, as a path of activity, done as a duty with detachment. Jewish history justifies wars of self-defense. Christianity’s “love your neighbor as yourself” and “turn the other cheek” demands strict adherence to nonviolence. However, when the Pope formerly held worldly power, the Catholic Church created Just War doctrine for justifiable use of force.
The defining difference for individuals is the view and importance the individual attaches to nonviolent teachings in these religions. As to the degree that nonviolence should extend is ultimately a deeply personal matter dependent on our private understandings of our own purpose for living and our place in the world, and to the truths behind the principles that we adhere to.
Arthur Telling has written numerous stories and articles on religion, philosophy, and metaphysics. His article, “A Different Jesus Message” appeared in the Nov. 2011 AMORC Rosicrucian Digest. Telling is also the author of “Johann’s Awakening” (a parody of Jonathan Livingston Seagull), and three novels including “Kaitlin’s Message,” exploring the secret sayings of the Gospel of Thomas. His web site is: www.arthurtelling.com