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A few posts back I cited an AFP article in which the Dalai Lama, in advocating nonviolence, appeared to criticize the Sea Shepherds, a group of anti-whaling activists who have been much in the news lately. After the AFP article appeared, Sea Shepherd Conservation Society president Captain Paul Watson responded on the organization’s website, reiterating his group’s commitment to nonviolence while acknowledging the Dalai Lama’s past and present support::
“His Holiness the Dalai Lama said at a media conference in Japan that he continues to support the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. He did rebuke us and said to his Japanese hosts that our activities should be non-violent. He issued this criticism in response to accusations by some in Japan who have accused Sea Shepherd of violence during our interventions against the annual bloody slaughter of whales in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary.
“The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society agrees with His Holiness on the imperative of taking a non-violent approach, but also believes that the Japanese government has misinformed him of the activities of the Society.”
Watson added that “the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society respects the Dalai Lama and his guidance is of great value to the Society.”
At the Guardian, Mark Vernon, blogging about the Dalai Lama’s position on violence, may help to explain why so many are confused when the Dalai Lama makes statements that are inconsistent with the popular view of him in the West:
The Dalai Lama quite routinely says different things to different audiences, an approach that is valued in Buddhism and is known as “skillful means”. It is not a kind of duplicity. Rather, it aims to have the right word for the right time and context. The difficulty is that when his words ripple out across the internet, as they do, they are also ripped out of their original context. Skillfully interpreting the Dalai Lama then becomes very hard.
The occasion for Vernon’s post? The Dalai Lama sent a message of support for Armed Forces Day, which is next Saturday in Britain:
In it, [the Dalai Lama] writes of his admiration for the military. That is perhaps not so surprising. As he explains, there are many parallels between being a monk and being a soldier—the need for discipline, companionship, and inner strength.
But this may indeed surprise, although Vernon offers context for this statement and also argues a more general point about traditional Buddhist—and more specifically, Tibetan Buddhist—views on violence:
Attitudes towards violence in Buddhism are enormously complex. There are some traditions that argue aggression, and killing in particular, is always wrong. But there are others which argue that killing can be good, when executed by a spiritually skilled practitioner who can do so with the right motivation. Tibetan Buddhism falls squarely into the latter tradition, and previous incarnations of the Dalai Lama have been such practitioners. The 13th, for example, modernized the Tibetan army.
Determining that someone is “spiritually skilled” enough to commit violence brings with it its own dangers, and I can’t say I buy it. But Buddhists will probably never agree about whether violence of any kind is necessary—Tibetans themselves do not agree about whether violent rebellion against the Chinese is justifiable—and the range of views varies as much among Buddhists as it does, say, among Christians. (This was made abundantly clear in a roundtable we ran in Tricycle not long after 9/11.)
Yet while Vernon’s insights may in part explain confusion about the Dalai Lama’s words, one thing that troubles me is that when anyone offers sound criticism of one the Dalai Lama's positions, the response from some of his proponents is fast and furious—and usually pretty unpleasant. The Dalai Lama himself doesn’t seem to mind, but many devoted to him have difficulty imagining that occasionally he may be—and sometimes is—simply wrong. When I blogged about his position on same-sex relationships, for instance (he’s against them for Buddhists), some email responses were so hostile I had to wonder whether the people who wrote them were listening to the Dalai Lama's teachings at all.
It is important to remember that the Dalai Lama does not speak for all Buddhists or even most Buddhists. And if one is not his disciple, it just isn’t a big deal if one disagrees with him. Sometimes it’s necessary to, especially since his words mean so much to so many. When we disagree with him about female ordination or same-sex marriage, for instance, it’s incumbent upon us to express open and reasoned disagreement.
Over the weekend I went to see The Stonewall Uprising with a few friends. It’s a great documentary about the the violent resistance in 1969 to a routine NYPD raid on the Stonewall, a gay bar in New York City’s Greenwich Village. More than any other single event, it is understood to have triggered the gay liberation movement. I was struck when one of the participants—in what the police preferred to call “the Stonewall riots”—expressed certainty that without pushing back—and violently—change would never have been possible. I’m ambivalent, but I have to agree that in the face of routine and violent injustice, a violent response is not only understandable but also arguably reasonable.
For Gandhi, nonviolent resistance to injustice was the best and most difficult path, but violent resistance was better than no resistance at all. This can be a vexing issue for us Buddhists. It is something that we will no doubt continue to discuss in our communities, where, I think, wisdom is most likely to be found.
Photo is of the Stonewall Uprising, 1969