A recent New York Times article, asserting that “Nonviolence is no longer in fashion,” concluded that Buddhism has become another casualty of the “war on terror,” losing its once popular appeal. Some days later, in a response apparently aimed at convincing the general public that Buddhists are not necessarily wimps, one journalist provided the Wall Street Journal with an opinion piece appearing under the headline, “I’m a Buddhist, But Not a Pacifist.” In a peculiarly un-Buddhist characterization that echoed George W. Bush’s Manichaean logic, the writer referred to Osama bin Laden as “quintessentially evil,” making no distinction between perpetrator and deed. He concluded by letting us know that given the chance, he wouldn’t hesitate to shoot bin Laden “right between his eyes.” However “un-Buddhist” the sentiment, many of us, shaken by terror, have at some point felt the same way.
There are Buddhists who would allow for violence to alleviate suffering. Many cite the Mahayana sutra in which the Buddha, in a former lifetime, kills a pirate who intends to take the lives of five hundred merchants. It is the Buddha’s intention not only to save the lives of the merchants but also to spare the pirate lifetimes of negative karma. But even those who recall this story have no calming illusions about our government’s “war on terror,” and none claims to have the omniscience with which the Buddha made his decision to kill. What they do seem to be saying, paradoxically, is that there is a context in which violence is justifiable, but it requires a purity of intention and a level of compassion that none of us possesses. At the same time, radical pacifism—as exemplified by the Dalai Lama—is precisely the position that the Times has labeled unpopular. And while no Buddhist school I know of is sponsoring a popularity contest, radical pacifism has fallen out of favor among many Buddhists, too. Often in New York City, for instance, I hear practitioners ask with some sarcasm—and who’s to blame them?—“So we just sit and take the next hit?”
Shortly after September 11, Stephen Batchelor pretty well described the difficulty of hammering out an ethical response to violence within a Buddhist framework when he wrote in these pages, “I found myself facing urgent and overwhelming questions for which the broad truths of Buddhism did not seem to provide an adequate response.” But whether or not the teachings provide an adequate response, they certainly do accommodate the doubts Batchelor expresses so well for us. As Ani Tenzin Palmo points out (“Necessary Doubt”), doubt is a valuable and necessary tool on the path toward enlightenment; and it is the Buddha himself, she reminds us, who asks us to “come and see” for ourselves. But while blind acceptance of the teachings may not make sense, twisting them to suit our comfort doesn’t either. Rather than dismiss radical nonviolence—the challenge of the First Precept—we might try staying open to what feels counterintuitive, testing our own experience in the world against the teachings. What will we find?
For the past three months, I’ve been speaking regularly with an Israeli peace activist and student of Thich Nhat Hanh’s who lives with her Palestinian husband in Ramallah, in the occupied West Bank (“Peace Warrior in the West Bank”). I’ve been asking her how she practices the precept of nonkilling in a place so beset by violence; how does she adhere to the radical pacifism of her teacher? Acting as a “human shield”—placing herself in the line of fire to protect noncombatants as a member of the International Solidarity Movement—Neta Golan holds that we must be willing to risk our lives “waging peace,” just as soldiers are willing to die waging war. But how realistic, I asked, is the thought that Israelis and Palestinians can live in peace together; and how realistic is it that people will give up comfort and security in the cause for peace? Her response was swift: “How realistic is this war?” Regardless of one’s opinion of her politics, Neta Golan is remarkable for her faith in the possibility of peace in an increasingly skeptical age, and for her willingness to put her life on the line, forgoing the comforts so many of us are willing to protect with life and limb.
Popularity can be left to those who hope to win elections or have an interest in short-term gain. If radical views like nonviolence marginalize Buddhism, so be it. The late Cistercian monk Thomas Merton held that the marginal view was the obligation of the serious practitioner, and that perspectives refined by their distance from society were essential to the health of the community. After all, such views may come in handy when violence fails to achieve peace. All we can do is what the Buddha enjoined us to do: to “come and see” for ourselves—in this case, to ask whether strategies like “the war on terror” can ever bring peace.