Four Buddhists grapple with the precept of non-killing. A roundtable discussion with Lama Surya Das, Jan Chozen Bays, José Cabezón, and Thanissaro Bhikkhu
Tricycle: How do you view the U.S. government’s military response to the events of September 11?
Jan Chozen Bays: I would have preferred a more restrained response. In an ideal world you’d send special forces into Afghanistan in the dead of night, anesthetize the core group of terrorists, put them in padded restraints, provide them with lawyers, and deposit them on the steps of the international court in the Hague. This is an imperfect world, but still I had hopes for a more “surgical” intervention. As a physician I think of terrorism as analogous to cancer. A physician’s job is to go in and surgically remove the cancer to alleviate the immediate cause of suffering.
José Cabezón: When I’m in a more realistic mood I tend to think like Jan. But I keep going back to a purely pacifist position. Ultimately, violence is never appropriate—for ordinary people like us, anyway. And yet, what is the alternative? Do I want myself and others to be vulnerable to this type of violence? And yet the counterviolence we’re engaged in now may be too high a price to pay for our own security.
Surya Das: As a Buddhist, it’s hard to consider violent action. We all know that usually violence only begets more violence. At the same time, a radically nonviolent position is very hard to maintain. When I hear a great master like Thich Nhat Hanh calling for total nonviolence and for listening, I have to ask myself: how is it possible to listen to an aggressor who intends to kill you? In the Mahayana sutras a bodhisattva kills a pirate to save the five hundred merchants on his ship. So there’s some notion of greater and lesser evil—in this case, killing one man to save five hundred. Still I’m very conflicted about this, and I don’t entirely trust the information we’re getting from the media.
Thanissaro Bhikkhu: That’s where I think the dharma is really helpful. In a period like this, when information is so hard to come by and things are happening so fast, you need some clear-cut rules to live by, basic do’s and don’ts. For example, if you go out into the wilderness and meet up with a bear, you’re likely to panic. But if you keep in mind what you’ve learned—that when you see a bear, not to run—just that much helps you to respond in an appropriate way. In the same way, the Buddhist teachings on not killing are apt. They keep you from getting caught up in the whirl of events, and you can start thinking outside the box. A lot of energy has gone into thinking of violent ways to respond, but how much thinking has really gone into thinking of nonviolent ways?
Tricycle: Would you agree with Thich Nhat Hanh that it’s never justifiable to kill?
Thanissaro Bhikkhu: Killing is never skillfull. In the Vinaya—the monastic code—monks are allowed to defend themselves: if someone hits them, they’re allowed to hit back. But you’re never allowed to kill, even in self-defense. You have to be willing to make sacrifices. If in the course of a fight you realize you must choose between your virtue and your life, you’d better choose your virtue. It’s a much more valuable possession. But I don’t think Thich Nhat Hanh’s solution of just sitting and listening deeply to bin Laden is going to make much of a difference, although I do appreciate that he’s trying to think outside the box. We should do more of that.
José Cabezón: In the sutra Surya mentioned, the story doesn’t end with the pirate’s death. The bodhisattva, who is the Buddha in an earlier life, had to be reborn in hell for an instant on account of his act. Even in this cut-and-dried case, where the motivation is presumably pure, we have the negative karmic consequence of killing.
Jan Chozen Bays: We all agree there will never be good karmic results from violence. The energy of violence manifests through people. It doesn’t act through other agents, because volition is necessary. Ultimately, it’s the individual’s responsibility not to pass that energy along.
Thanissaro Bhikkhu: Yes, where is it going to stop if it doesn’t stop with us?
Jan Chozen Bays: It’s the only place it can stop. When people ask me what they can do to change the situation, I’m very practical. I ask, “Well, say you exerted all of your effort, all of your life, to try to change the person you are closest to. Do you think you could change them in a fundamental way?” And they always answer, “No. Hey, I’d be happy if I could get them to put the toilet seat down.”
Thanissaro Bhikkhu: Or take the hairs out of the shower drain.
Jan Chozen Bays: We all know how difficult it is to change a fundamental aspect of ourselves, so I come back to what is actually practical for us to do. Yes, we can write letters; yes, we can send relief money to Afghanistan and help try to promote health care there and get schools going and so on, or go to demonstrations. But if we really want to stop the repercussive effects of hatred and violence, well, that can only be done individually. And that’s why our ultimate responsibility is to practice. But in my daily life—working in child abuse—I’m very glad that there are people who restrain those who would commit violence. Here’s where we see that there’s a difference between the absolute truth and the conventional truth. The absolute truth is yes, violence always begets violence, but in our daily, relative life, we move to restrain those who would commit it. How we might respond in a hypothetical situation is pure speculation.
Tricycle: Well, it was all speculation until suddenly our country went to war, purportedly to protect itself against those who have articulated an intention to destroy us. Don’t we all have to make moral choices? You suggest restraining, say, a husband who would beat his wife or child. That kind of force to protect innocents is analogous, some would say, to what is being done now to stop more planes from smashing into our buildings.
Thanissaro Bhikkhu: We’re doing that by carpet-bombing other people’s buildings? Come on!
Jan Chozen Bays: People need to be trained in nonviolent restraint. Nowadays, when I see armed soldiers in the airports, I want to ask them, how much of your training has been in violent means and how much in nonviolent? The idea is to minimize violence, not to deny its reality. We can only try to keep our minds as clear as possible and our hearts as open as possible to face each situation as it arises.
Tricycle: The ultimate theoretical question here would be to ask, if you could have assassinated Hitler, would that have been justifiable?
José Cabezón: I would say no. I think that would be the Buddhist position, regardless of how one personally might wish to act in this case.
Tricycle: It would not have been justifiable?
José Cabezón: No. It is an act of killing. But this is where the Mahayana tradition begins to hedge a bit. In some Mahayana texts, there are rare justifications for violence to protect the lives of others, but the person acting must be motivated by pure compassion and be very advanced on the path, so that in a sense we are no longer dealing with an ordinary act of violence. But we don’t live in a society where soldiers are first trained in compassion and wisdom, and trained as well to minimize the harm that they do to others.
Jan Chozen Bays: We would also have to have the wisdom to predict the consequences of our actions, and who can do that? We don’t have armies of bodhisattvas who can end the violence once a goal is reached. It’s an ideal, and we don’t see it happening. So we get confused when we talk about the ideal situation and then face the actual situation. Do we all agree that we could not justify killing someone? No matter who it was? I certainly couldn’t, personally.
Tricycle: Surya Das?
Surya Das: I don’t know, I’m thinking about that. Thanks for putting me on the spot.
Thanissaro Bhikkhu: I can’t justify it, but it’s a rare person who could guarantee that he wouldn’t do it.
Surya Das: That’s what I’m thinking.
Thanissaro Bhikkhu: But this is the important point. We can’t try to justify it; if we drag in Buddhism to justify our weaknesses, then we’re doing the religion a disservice. Is there a Buddhist justification for violence? Better, where is this question coming from? We think it’s arrogant and sinister when other people use their religions to justify killing us. So is it any different for us to use our religion to justify killing them?
In the West we think of religion as a part as a part of our identity. But in Thailand, when they want to know your religion, they ask, “What religion do you respect?” Here it’s, “What religion are you?” We mix religion up with identity. We use religion to justify our opinions, our preferences, things we want to do. So we keep recreating religion to suit us. But if you take the Thai approach you clear up a lot of questions. Thai people, for example, like to wear Buddha amulets partly as protection, partly as a reminder of the Buddha’s teachings.
But I have a number of Thai friends who, when they do something they know is against the teachings, take their amulets off. They’re honest enough and have the humility to admit it when they can’t manage a Buddhist response. Instead of trying to use the teachings to justify their decisions, they acknowledge their own shortcomings, and give up the expectation of any kind of protection from following the dharma. Also, the act of taking off the amulet makes them think twice about what they plan to do.
José Cabezón: That’s a very good point. In the monastic confession ritual in the Tibetan tradition, there’s a part in which the person who’s in charge asks, “Do you see the fault as a fault?” And the right answer is yes. It’s best to acknowledge what we’re doing is wrong.
Jan Chozen Bays: I keep thinking of our meal chant: “The first bite is to stop all evil. The second bite is to do good. The third bite is to good for others.” I really work on those three phrases. I think it does mean that we have to stop evil first before we can truly do good, and truly do good for others. Stopping evil begins with owning up to it.
Surya Das: But a lot of these issues are not so black-and-white. We think dualistically: us and them, right and wrong, good and evil. José, I appreciate your point that there was still a small negative karmic consequence for the bodhisattva who killed the pirate. It reminded me that there isn’t any pure good or pure evil; that’s not really the Buddhist way of thinking. Even in the case of Hitler, or any other personification of great evil, there’s still Buddha-nature or the potential for enlightenment, the spark of bodhicitta. So then, what’s our response, individually or as a society, to a serial killer or a perpetrator of genocide?
All of our being is conditioned, and there is nothing perfect in this ordinary reality. Even working for peace is partially flawed—no action I observe is flawless in motivation. But that doesn’t mean we have to wait until we’re enlightened to act. It just means we shouldn’t have unrealistic expectations about what we can get out of activism. It will not bring us to nirvanic peace.
And yet that is our outrageous bodhisattva aspiration—to liberate all sentient beings from suffering. It really goes beyond what we can understand. So I have a lot more patience for the confusion we face. But if we can raise it to the level of koan, we do find a third way, where we are one with the conflict, where we’re more at peace with it; we can find harmony even in the chaos. I just don’t expect this chaos to be sorted out too soon.
José Cabezón: I think this notion of being one with the conflict is a very good one. I think it is easy for Buddhists and pacifists to say, well, this is not our conflict. It’s something that someone else is doing. But as Stephen Batchelor has pointed out, we live in the society sponsoring this violence and we’re paying taxes to support it.
Surya Das: Right. We’re complicit. Perhaps, as Stephen Batchelor points out, the discussion among Buddhists has focused too much on dealing with individual anger and aggression and not looking at the violence endemic in certain social systems, like racism, imperialism, colonialism.
José Cabezón: That was part of Batchelor’s point. Even democracy—capitalism certainly—may require a certain measure of violence, or the threat of it.
Surya Das: And militarism!
José Cabezón: It underlies the fact that we enjoy certain freedoms, like the freedom to have periods of leisure time to meditate, to practice religion freely. Perhaps these have to be paid for at the price of violence. But I think if that’s the price, then the price is too high.
Thanissaro Bhikkhu: Well, I think we have to set limits on what our responsibilities as individuals are. The government didn’t ask me if they should invade Afghanistan. I don’t feel responsible for that choice.
Tricycle: No, but you do benefit from the freedom of being an American, living in a free society where you can set up a forest monastery.
Thanissaro Bhikkhu: I think there are lots of ways of doing that without making the choices that some of these people have made.
Tricycle: But if you were trying to set up a forest monastery in Cambodia, when Pol Pot came with the Khmer Rouge, you would have been taken out and shot. What Batchelor was saying was that we need at least the threat of violence to protect ourselves.
Thanissaro Bhikkhu: I lived in a small country that was able to defend its freedoms without going to war for many centuries. When the British and the French came to take over Thailand, Thailand was very clever at diplomatic maneuvering and was able to maintain its freedom. There are other ways of maintaining our freedoms aside from violence. Again, it’s necessary to think outside the box.
Tricycle: And the suffering in Afghanistan, is there some sort of justification for liberating people from that?
Jan Chozen Bays: What we see in the media—men shaving their beards, women taking off their burkas, or families happily digging up the TV sets—can only be part of the picture. They’re not showing us so much of the “collateral” damage. But sure, there are going to be millions of grateful people in Afghanistan when there’s food and education and freedom of information. Is that a justification for violence? I can’t say because I don’t have the wisdom and the long-term view to see the long-term outcome. I just wish it could have been accomplished by other means.
Surya Das: Well, there’s more to come. Beyond Afghanistan there’s a great deal of unrest in the world. I think we’re far from winning this so-called war on terrorism. How are we going to deal with it? How can we understand and teach Buddhism so that it addresses not only issues of inner peace and harmony but also the outer issues of social and political violence? I wonder how relevant Buddhism is and can be as we go forward; how will Buddhist thought, ethics, and practice inform our society, our leaders, our citizens, as we deal with these issues?
Thanissaro Bhikkhu: There’s a passage in the Pali canon where the Buddha talks about himself as a doctor. And I see that as a good role for Buddhists. If there’s going to be a war, we can see ourselves as spiritual medics caring for the spiritually wounded. I think that’s probably our best role.
Jan Chozen Bays: I think you’re right, Than Geoff. I was just going to say to Surya Das, “Who asked us for our opinion?” So far only my students and fellow Buddhists. No government yet has come to me for advice.
Surya Das: I agree. I also don’t feel very powerful or influential, Jan, but we’re asked every time we’re asked to vote, or how we live our lives, or what we invest in.
Thanissaro Bhikkhu: Voting? What about the last time around?
Surya Das: I assume my vote was counted in Massachusetts.
Jan Chozen Bays: We’re actually asked what to do in every moment.
Surya Das: Actually, that’s where I’m coming from, and I think that as we go forward, we understand how difficult it is to see through time. The question came up again, and it’s not the first time I’ve heard it: Would you have assassinated Hitler? Easy for many to answer in hindsight. But at the time, Neville Chamberlain didn’t feel that way, and he wasn’t the dumbest person in the world. As a native New Yorker, I’m trying to respond not just viscerally to these things, but by holding some kind of space that gives a little more time for things to reveal themselves, to avoid hasty judgment. Activists have had most success when they’ve functioned as society’s rudder. With skillful, sometimes imperceptible adjustments they’ve helped to steer a steady, even course.
Thanissaro Bhikkhu: Buddhism is tremendously helpful in resisting the temptation to make snap judgements. Even though the government and the media may be stirring up emotion, I think it’s our duty not to not let ourselves get swept up in the mood of the moment.
José Cabezón: Yes. And in spite of the rhetoric, the mood of the moment is revenge. Maybe this is where a kind of Buddhist intervention would be useful, because our goal is not revenge; it’s to try to change things for the better. We have to be aware of what the repercussions of our actions will be—on ourselves and the people we retaliate against. That’s the kind of discourse that’s been absent.
Surya Das: I think it’s not too far-fetched to ask, “What would a Buddhist sitting president do?” Not that I expect that we’re going to vote one in too soon, but perhaps we can study history a little bit. There have been examples we can look to. Take Aung San Suu Kyi, the elected leader of Burma, presently under house arrest in Burma. Or U Thant, former president of Burma two generations ago, who went on to a great career as the head of the UN. He was a wonderful bodhisattva-like leader. We can ask, what would Buddha do? As a living question or a touchstone, What would Buddha do if attacked in the street?
Jan Chozen Bays: But we know that he did try to stop fighting both in his own sangha and in his own nation, and that he was unsuccessful. We also know that when he was attacked by a mad elephant he was able to use the incredible power of lovingkindness.
Surya Das: That’s an awesome example, isn’t it, the power of lovingkindness?
Jan Chozen Bays: I wish. But what it comes down to is that a lot of this is just speculation. My students ask, “What should I do now? What should I do today?” To me, it comes down to practice, clearing your mind and opening your heart so that whatever arises, moment to moment, you handle it as best you can. We can’t do much more.
José Cabezón: Let me play devil’s advocate here. If we put too much emphasis on self-cultivation, it could prevent us from taking the systemic steps necessary at the macro/social level to come up with better policies. For example, is there such a thing as good, Buddhist-inspired social policy or economics?
Jan Chozen Bays: Do we have a Buddhist voting bloc, is that what you mean?
José Cabezón: No, I mean to think through the structures of society from a Buddhist point of view. Take nuclear disarmament. If it is going to come about, it has to come about at a macro level, even if ultimately it is based on individual self-cultivation. You have to be thinking at the societal level at the same time.
Jan Chozen Bays: That’s a good point. John McCray, a Buddhist scholar who’s doing a survey of Soto Zen centers, came away with the striking impression that Soto Zen Buddhists in the U.S. are “articulate and reticent.” And maybe that’s a valid characterization of Buddhists in America. In general, we’re very articulate and ponder issues a lot, working on our own seeds of terrorism and violence. But maybe we’re a little too reticent in terms of joining together and articulating our feelings as a bloc.
Surya Das: I think it’s probably better to err on the side of reticence, but I agree that we could find a middle way and be a little more, what would the word be, active?
Thanissaro Bhikkhu: Systemic change takes time. Look back at the Buddha. He had lots of interesting political ideas, but when kings came to see him he never talked to the kings about them. He was always talking to people in general, to plant the seed in their minds. And then two hundred years later, you’ve got King Ashoka.
Tricycle: So does Buddhism work only at the individual level? Is there no place for us to deal with our karma of complicity in the exercise of American power around the world?
Thanissaro Bhikkhu: I would challenge the notion of the collective karma of complicity. When the government acts, some are more supportive of their actions than others—directly and indirectly—and those who are will partake more in the results of those actions.
Tricycle: But the political world is the world of the group, of the society together, and that’s where the reaction to September 11 is coming from. It’s we as a group who have been attacked, and we as a group who need to defend ourselves. If the only Buddhist logic is to say that violence begets only violence, and to conclude therefore that we cannot participate in any kind of violent or coercive response, then don’t you think Buddhists lose credibility in the political arena?
Thanissaro Bhikkhu: Well, you know, if they start going pro-war now, what credibility will they have after the war?
Tricycle: Well, I’m not saying pro-war. One of the most important responsibilities of the president is to protect the country. Could we ever have a president who said, “Well, what we really need to think about is how to break the spiral of violence rather than stop this immediate source of violence in our society?”
Thanissaro Bhikkhu: We need to make a distinction between violence in general and killing as a particular kind of violence. There’s an absolute precept against killing, but not against the use of force in self-defense. Take President Eisenhower. He kept us out of plenty of wars despite saber-rattling hysteria across the country. There are skillful means for doing so. If you rule out killing, your focus and energy will turn in that direction. We depend on our leaders to think outside the box.
José Cabezón: One of the things I’ve appreciated most is that there are a few people out there who do take the role of public Buddhist intellectuals, people who make systemic suggestions. Although individual reflection is important and probably at the heart of it all, people like Stephen Batchelor and David Loy [see page 16] have written about the issues publicly using Buddhist principles. I think that can have a really positive effect.
Thanissaro Bhikkhu: People are willing to admit now that times are tougher, and tough times call for tough teachings, not the watered-down teachings made palatable to an affluent reading public. One thing that disturbed me was Stephen Batchelor’s statement that 9/11 “burst his complacent Buddhist bubble.” “Complacent Buddhist” is an oxymoron, but it’s common in the West to consider Buddhism a complacent religion.
Tricycle: So what would “tough teachings” mean?
Thanissaro Bhikkhu: To remind people that the precepts are not there for when times are easy, and that sacrifices have to be made.
Surya Das: Well, times are always tough to those who are sick or dying or disenfranchised or in chronic pain. I think we really need to find a middle way and to practice and live a Buddhism people can learn something from, one that helps them through thick and thin, not just when times are good. And not just when times are tough. Buddhism has withstood the test of time. September 11 woke us from our slumber, but how new is this problem we face today?
Jan Chozen Bays: I think that for the first time many Americans understood the First Noble Truth of suffering. People told me they were living on two levels; they were going about their ordinary life on one, but on another, they felt a pervasive sadness, which was the result of seeing impermanence directly. It’s a shock when you have believed you are entitled to a life free of suffering.
José Cabezón: Even if it’s true that the American people as a whole had a sense of the First Noble Truth, the question then becomes whether they had a sense of any of the other truths. We seem to be saying, well, let’s deal with this suffering through more violence.
Thanissaro Bhikkhu: All the more reason to get out of samsara, if you ask me.
Tricycle: So, Than Geoff, are you saying that the response again goes back to a personal quest to end samsara, or is there a place for political action to change the karmic causes that created the terrorism in the first place?
Thanissaro Bhikkhu: Well, it’s not an either/or. I don’t think there’s a dichotomy between helping the world and going for nirvana. Part of the path is virtue and generosity, and generosity can include political action. But you have to see what your priorities of intention are. I think it’s wise to place highest priority on our ultimate personal goal—awakening.
Surya Das: Yes, sometimes we get lost in social activism and it can be a little bit of a mixed bag. I appreciate the engaged Buddhist movement, but sometimes I’m concerned about the “enraged” Buddhists running around fighting for peace. Sometimes fighting for peace becomes a contradiction in terms.
Jan Chozen Bays: A few Buddhist leaders I know used to be on the front lines of political action. Finding themselves face to face with the opposition at a demonstration, they discovered that they were looking at themselves: “They are me; I am only creating more anger. There must be a better way!”
Tricycle: What I’m hearing is that Buddhism is ultimately a path of self-transformation, a path to liberation, and not really intended to be the basis for a political system. There is a fundamental split between our identities as Buddhists and our identities as citizens of a democratic capitalist state. Perhaps we have to integrate them as best we can, but ultimately there’s a different philosophical underpinning for each.
Jan Chozen Bays: Ashoka did make it the basis for a political system. But he did it because of personal transformation, because he saw the karma he had created. One of the reasons we’re reticent as teachers is that we wait for people to have that realization first.
Surya Das: To follow the Buddha’s dictum to speak only when invited is what we’ve been taught. But as public citizens it’s incumbent upon us to speak out and to offer our thoughts publicly. For many people that may be working in education or bringing spirituality and ethics into business life. It’s not that hard to do.
Tricycle: The practice of personal transformation and the cultivation of compassion and patience in the face of aggression is meaningful. But it doesn’t solve basic political problems about the way our society has to be in the world. How do we protect the freedom to pursue that practice? It was lost in Tibet, and in Cambodia for some time. How do we address that? What I’m hearing from all of you is that we need to stick very faithfully to the principle of nonviolence because the only way to stop the cycle of violence is to stop it in ourselves. And yet I don’t see how that will ever be an adequate answer in the political realm.
Thanissaro Bhikkhu: Well, those ideas won’t get you elected in any event.
José Cabezón: It seems to me that social and individual transformation can work independently of one another. You can have a group of Buddhist activists or intellectuals whose job it is to address these issues in the public realm, independently of practice. That’s necessary. Which is not of course to say that practice is not important, or that the model of the scholar/activist who is also a practitioner is not the best model.
Thanissaro Bhikkhu: I think the best thoughts come from the people who are practicing. You can view your role as a Buddhist intellectual as a part of your practice of generosity. But I think it’s best if it’s grounded in a more rounded practice of meditation and personal transformation.
Surya Das: Yes, transforming oneself transforms the world. We don’t fully appreciate that paradox. It’s what’s worth reflecting on, and it’s worth standing up for. That’s been the message since the Buddha’s enlightenment. I don’t see two poles as you do, with personal liberation on one hand and social transformation on the other. We really can’t have one without its having vast implications for the other. I really believe that, and I’m going to repeat it because I think it’s important: transforming oneself transforms the world—the bodhisattva is the ultimate activist dedicated to the benefit of all beings.
Tricycle: Well, that sounds like the beginning of an interesting discussion! ▼
Thanissaro Bhikkhu, born Geoffrey DeGraf on Long Island in New York, was ordained as a Theravada monk in Thailand in 1976. Since 1993 he has served as abbot of Metta Forest Monastery, near San Diego, and translated numerous Thai meditation guides. His most recent book is Noble Strategy.
Jan Chozen Bays began Zen practice in 1973 under Taizan Maezumi Roshi and has served since 1986 as teacher for the Zen Community of Oregon in Portland and for the residential program at Larch Mountain Zen Center. She is also a pediatrician specializing in child abuse.
José Cabezón was a monk in the Tibetan tradition for ten years and is currently Professor of Buddhism and Comparative Thought at the Illif School of Theology in Denver. He is the editor of Buddhism, Sexuality and Gender.
Lama Surya Das is the American founder of the Dzogchen Foundation, a lay practice center in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Born Jeffrey Miller in Brooklyn, New York, he spent nearly thirty years studying with many of the great spiritual masters of Tibet. In addition to leading dzogchen retreats, he is the author of Awakening the Buddha Within and Awakening to the Sacred.