Last week, Buddhists all over the Interwebs were wetting themselves over what was being called the “Buddhist Leadership Conference” in which a bunch of people who think of themselves as Buddhist leaders got to go to the White House and pose on the lawn with a big banner that said “US Militarism Breeds Violence, Not Safety: I vow to work for peace & freedom.”
I didn’t get into Buddhism to follow leaders. Nor do I think the Buddha’s advice to “be a lamp unto yourself” implies that we should be the followers of leaders. But I’ll leave that at that.
What bothered me most was the message these self-appointed leaders chose to deliver on behalf of me and the rest of us who describe ourselves as “Buddhists.”
These Buddhist leaders denounced US militarism as ineffective in promoting safety. Yet Buddhism has only been able to survive in countries where the right to be a Buddhist has been protected by a strong military. We Buddhists only get to be nice, soft, peace-loving wimps (let’s please be honest about that) because other people are willing to put themselves in harm’s way to protect us. We are unable, and frankly mostly unwilling, to do that for ourselves. I have great respect for the brave women and men who protect my ability to be a peace-loving wuss.
Stephen Batchelor said all of what I want to say in this article much more eloquently than I will ever be able to in an article he wrote for Tricycle magazine’s Winter 2001 issue called Spaces in the Sky. I’d suggest you stop reading this piece now, and just go read that instead. Here are a couple or paragraphs from that article:
Long before the Taliban came to power, the Bamiyan statue (of Buddha) had already been defaced by Muslim armies. As justification for his widespread destruction of Buddhist shrines and monasteries in India in the eleventh century, Sultan Mahmud declared: “That in proportion as the tenets of the Prophet are diffused, and his followers exert themselves in the subversion of idolatry, so shall be their reward in heaven.” Whether such a belief is a legitimate interpretation of Islamic teachings, it may have given the terrorists who steered Boeing jets into the twin towers the strength of will to commit their acts of murder.
The Buddhist response, both in eleventh-century India and in twenty-first-century America, has been a consistent refusal to resort to violence. “Hatred will not cease by hatred,” said Buddha in the Dhammapada, “but by love alone. This is the ancient law.” One can imagine this verse being intoned by Indian Buddhist monks while their monasteries burned, just as now devout e-mail messages are dispatched to the White House urging restraint and compassion. And just as its sentiments were ineffective in turning back the tide of Muslim aggression in India, so they may be equally ineffective in halting the course of violent retaliation against latter-day Islamic terrorism.
The sad fact of life in this world is that the banner those Buddhists leaders unfurled in front of the White House is not true. US militarism sometimes does make us safer. It is not a good solution. And it always breeds some level of violence in response. But to say that it doesn’t make us safer in the short term, and thereby allow us to work on better solutions, is naive and unworthy of people who would define themselves as “Buddhist leaders.”
When the riots were going on in Baltimore a couple weeks ago, it became very trendy to point out that it’s incorrect and somewhat racist to say to minorities in America that “violence is never justified.” Here’s a pretty good article that argues along those lines. Violence, far from never solving anything, actually does solve a whole lot of things.
And that is not good.
That is something we need to change.
But we can only change things that need to be changed after we admit that they are true.
I know the argument that the Taliban and ISIS exist because the American military has been doing bad things in the Middle East for a very long time. There is some truth to that. But, as someone said when I expressed some of what I’m saying in this blog on a Facebook post, “does militarism breed violence or does violence breed militarism?” It appears to me that it’s both. If you try to follow the trail of what violent act begat what militaristic response begat what violent act and so on and on, it’s like falling down the bottomless rabbit hole from Alice in Wonderland.
It’s sad and depressing to me that a group who feel empowered to represent me as my leadership can be so naive and hypocritical.
As Stephen Batchelor pointed out in his article, “The challenge for Buddhists is not to let a commitment to the principle of nonviolence blunt one’s critical acumen or deflect one’s gaze from looking steadily into the nature and origins of violence. It is far too simplistic to think of violence as originating solely in the psychology of hatred and anger. Violence is intrinsic to the function of the nation-state. Our freedoms and privileges in a liberal democracy are ultimately guaranteed by the willingness of the state to use violence to protect them.”
I want to see an end to US militarism as much as anyone else. War is bad. Violence is bad. Hate is bad.
But we won’t solve those problems by pretending that merely smiling beatifically and putting daisies in soldiers’ gun barrels is a permanent solution.
What I see when I look at that photo is not a group of people who represent a real movement to challenge militarism. It looks to me more like a lot of nostalgia for the failed and unrealistic idealism of the Sixties.
We need better leadership than that.
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