Saturday, February 7, 2015

Be Here Now, Then Be Somewhere Else Later

A friend posted this meme on Facebook, noting his own reservations about it as a meditation practitioner.  (We both agreed that we hadn't bothered to check its authenticity, being more concerned with the idea it expresses, a variation of which I've addressed before.) He wrote that he couldn't "say with that confidence that we can 'eliminate' violence. I'm positive though that it will have a huge positive impact on the world, including the minimization of violence."

I commented that though I agreed somewhat,
This meme reminds me of the Christian friend I have who posted a meme to the effect that the world would be better off if everyone spent more time on their knees. In a narrow sense, that's true: if someone's on their knees praying, they're not out on the streets making trouble. Same goes for meditation. But to eliminate violence -- or to lessen and minimize it, since I agree with you that we probably can't eliminate it altogether -- we need to address it directly, finding ways to get people to resolve conflicts without violence. So from that point of view, this meme is completely off the mark, recommending a simplistic and false remedy to a complex problem that can't be resolved simply.
By direct means of addressing violence, I had in mind various conflict-resolution procedures and strategies that have been developed by counselors and others, and in some form or other they are probably very old.  But also I thought of Miss Manners, who for all the disagreements I have with her is very good at devising responses that deflect aggression and micro-aggression from others.

I think we have to go even further, though, because conflict resolution tends to assume that the opponents are willing to forgo violence as a way of dealing with their conflict, and many opponents are not.  This is not because of a lack of mindfulness, but because human beings have long traditions of violence, which are probably rooted in our primate heritage but have been augmented with all the cultural baggage enhancements we could invent: pride, honor, vengeance, and so on.  If someone's culture demands that he (and it's usually a he) respond to a provocation with violence, then meditation is not likely to inhibit him much.

While trying (without success) to track down a reference to tie the quotation to the Dalai Lama, I found this blog post by an American Buddhist writer, Be Scofield, who went even further than I had.  She also points to what look like useful books related to the problem.
Author and Zen priest Brian Victoria has written extensively on the role that Buddhism played in supporting the Japanese Imperial Empire before and during World War II. In Zen at War and Zen War Stories, he chronicles the little known and disturbing history of renowned university professors, Zen masters, and lay monks of many different sects who gladly assisted their nation in waging multiple “wars of compassion.” The Japanese Emperor was compared to the Buddha, and Buddhist teachings became an excellent tool to eradicate individualism and dissolve the “small-self” into the larger nation-state. Hitler was jealous: “Why didn’t we have the religion of the Japanese, who regard sacrifice for the Fatherland as the highest good?” ...

Although Yasutani’s influence on American Buddhism is widely revered, Victoria refers to him as a “militarist, not to mention ethnic chauvinist, sexist, and anti-Semite.” On the question of Buddhism and killing, Yasutani was unequivocal:
Those who understand the spirit of the Mahayana precepts should be able to answer this question immediately. That is to say, of course one should kill, killing as many as possible. One should, fighting hard, kill everyone in the enemy army. The reason for this is that in order to carry [Buddhist] compassion and filial obedience through to perfection it is necessary to assist good and punish evil . . . This is the special characteristic of the Mahayana precepts.
At the time, Japan was engaged in a cruel war of imperial expansion. This received full support from Yasutani, who stated: “In making China cede the island of Taiwan, and, further, in annexing the Korean peninsula, our Great Japanese Imperial Empire engaged in the practice of a great bodhisattva, a practice that reveals itself through compassion and filial obedience.” Yasutani also warned of the demonic ways of the Jews, dismantled liberal reforms, and reiterated sexist statements. He insisted that “the universities we presently have must be smashed one and all,” and referred to trades unions and alternative political parties as “traitors to the nation.”

Sadly, Yasutani was not a marginal voice. Rather, he was emblematic of how institutional Buddhism wholeheartedly embraced the worst aspects of Japanese imperialism.
This wasn't limited to Japan or to the twentieth century:
While these examples are disturbing in their own right, this pairing of Buddhism and war isn’t confined to the Japanese Empire. The edited volume Buddhist Warfare (2010), clearly illustrates how Buddhism has been used to justify violence throughout its history. In a review of the book, Vladimir Tikhonov notes that: “From its inception, Buddhism was integrated into a complicated web of power relations; it always attempted to accommodate itself with the pre-existent power hierarchies while preserving a degree of internal autonomy; and it inevitably came to acknowledge, willingly or otherwise, that the powers-that-be use violence to achieve their objectives, which often overlap with those of the Buddhist monastic community.”
And, of course, Yasutani's teaching on the virtues of killing in war echo the Hindu Bhagavad Gita, in which the god Krishna instructs the reluctant warrior Arjuna to kill his opponents not for gain or from anger, but without attachment, simply because it is his duty.  Many apologists have tried to interpret this as a metaphorical teaching against war, but the history of India would indicate that actual Hindus did not take it that way.

And then there's this photo, which is worth a thousand words in itself.

Scofield comments:
The appropriation of yoga by the American military similarly challenges notions that internal spiritual practices will inspire practitioners to challenge the status quo. In 2006, Fit Yoga Magazine’s front cover featured a picture of two naval aviators practicing yoga – specifically, Virabadrasana II, or “Warrior” pose – on a battleship. At the time, even the editor of the magazine admitted that she found this juxtaposition of yoga and militarism a “little shocking.” On second glance, however, she realized that “on their faces, their serene smiles relayed a sense of inner calm.”
Like a Jedi knight, the adept will kill while smiling serenely.  This is no doubt why the New Atheist Sam Harris can embrace meditation as he cheers on the slaughter of children.  He's a scientist too -- no religion here!  Mindfulness will help us control that pesky empathy.

(I admit I'm not being entirely fair to Harris; I agree with him that "empathy is not an argument," but moral discourse cannot exclude empathy and other such factors altogether.  Besides, Harris begins by channeling the most depraved Israeli propaganda: "the government in Gaza is run by Hamas, an avowedly genocidal organization that uses its own civilians as human shields."  If he really wants to establish his impartial rationality, he should apply it to Israel, or to, say, the 9/11 attacks or the recent atrocities by ISIS that have outraged so many.  But Harris is an atheist jihadist, willing to put aside his disagreements with even right-wing Christians until Islam has been defeated once and for all.)

Some will claim that this is a misuse of yoga and meditation; Scofield replies:
Many believe that God, the supreme consciousness, or emptiness is supportive, benevolent, or on the side of justice. Of course, it’s understandable for someone to think that the universe supports his or her particular beliefs and values. The problem, however, is that many with quite different beliefs and values think exactly the same thing. As we’ve seen, countless people have been deeply entrenched in larger systems of violence and domination despite believing they were experiencing connection with the divine through meditation, yoga, or some other spiritual practice. Of course, others have used their spiritual practices and beliefs to resist these same power structures. Therefore, if we assume that there is in fact a divine foundation of reality, it’s extremely difficult to see how it wouldn’t be morally and politically neutral. If there were a distinct political or moral direction to the divine, and practices such as yoga or meditation were means of tapping into it, then all practitioners would eventually share the same political ideology. This, however, is obviously not the case.
Scofield criticizes Thich Nhat Hanh here in similar terms.  Her criticisms don't settle this question, of course, but they certainly should be taken into account to avoid an apologetic No True Scotsman approach.  And they apply no less to atheism, which like religion has no inherent moral content.