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Challenging Questions for Engaged Buddhism

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Okay, we’re going to mix it up a bit today. Lest you think that I am a birkenstock/patchouli-wearing socially engaged Buddhist, it’s important to know that one of my original intentions for the Jizo Chronicles was to give voice to many kinds of engaged dharma, and to demonstrate that it doesn’t all fall into the liberal/progressive camp. And that’s a good thing.

One of the hats I wear is directing the Upaya Zen Center‘s two-year Buddhist Chaplaincy Training Program. I’ve been doing this with Roshi Joan Halifax since the inception of the program in 2008, and it’s one of the most deeply satisfying experiences in my life. One of the students from our first cohort (which graduated this past March) was Dr. Christopher Ford. Chris is a dedicated Buddhist practitioner as well as a brilliant man. A graduate of Harvard, Oxford, and Yale, he served as the U.S. Special Representative for Nuclear Nonproliferation during the Bush Administration and he’s currently a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. Chris is the author of The Mind of Empire: China’s History and Modern Foreign Relations, and he has a website, New Paradigms Forum.

Chris and I have a lot of affection and respect for each other, even while our perspectives on a number of political issues are often quite different. But I have to say, one paper that Chris wrote while in our program — called “Nukes and the Vow: Security Strategy as Peacework” — really caused me to question a number of my own assumptions, both about nuclear disarmament as well as engaged Buddhism.

Because I know Chris well, because we have practiced alongside of one another, and because I have tremendous regard for both his meditation practice as well as his extensive experience working in the world of government policy and diplomacy, I really sat with challenging questions he posed in this paper. One of Chris’ points is that even as peaceworkers, we should be very wary of being absolutists and “theologizing” the idea of total nuclear disarmament.  He goes on to explore why abolition of nuclear weapons may not be the “skillful means” that advocates of nonviolence think it is.

I’m posting two short excerpts from the piece below. It’s a long article, so I’m including a link to the full version as a Word document here: Nukes and the Vow. I hope you take time to read all of it because one piece builds upon another, and it’s important to have the whole context of what Chris is saying.  I’m curious to hear what you think about all this, and I send a big bow to Chris for his great heart/mind.

It is relatively easy to vow to save all sentient beings; it is much harder to figure out how best to do it. Engaged Buddhism – that rich field of action in the world that devotes itself to the alleviation of suffering by trying to address unhealthy patterns and structures in human social life – aims beyond merely the transformation of individual hearts. It aspires also to systemic transformation. This inescapably entangles it, however, with quite conventional issues of public policy….

In Buddhist peacework, our lodestar should be fundamental human security, rather than the talismanic presence or absence of nuclear devices per se. If we cannot be reasonably confident of real security in a nuclear-weapon free world, it might be better to have a world with nuclear weapons but in which we can have more such confidence. Depending upon our assessment of the anticipated conditions, in other words, it might be possible to make a Buddhist argument for the retention of nuclear weapons as one constituent element of the global security system. Make no mistake: I do not make such an argument here. Nevertheless, it may be incumbent upon all Engaged Buddhists to be at least alive to this possibility. As the saying goes, the devil is in the details; we should not let either pro- or anti-nuclear knowing get in the way of our employment of skillful means for the alleviation of suffering in this complicated and messy world of international political samsara.

About Maia

I've been practicing and studying the Buddha way since 1994, and exploring the question "What is engaged Buddhism?" since the late 90s. As former executive director of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship and editor of its journal, Turning Wheel, I had the honor of meeting and working with many practitioners of engaged dharma, including Roshi Joan Halifax, Joanna Macy, Alan Senauke, and Robert Aitken Roshi. I write about socially engaged Buddhism on my blog, "The Jizo Chronicles," as well as on the theme of personal and collective freedom on my website, "The Liberated Life Project." Through my Five Directions Consulting, I offer support to individuals and organizations who aspire to integrate awareness into their work.

9 responses »

  1. I’m shuddering at the thought of anyone assuming you would be a “birkenstock/patchouli-wearing” anything. As I’ve said to you in private – and willing repeat it publically – your dedication is a challenge to all of us who hover in the shadows of our ego. Intimidating is probably a better word. 🙂

    That being said, I have to own up to my reluctance in being a socially engaged buddhist (note the lower case) in anything other than form. That’s not to say also that I an NOT socially engaged. I do see the venues in which I ply my trade, right livelihood or not, as a powerful ground of my practice. It is not, as many have wrongly assumed, that my religious beliefs dictate my behaviours. It is very much that my faith in the eternal possibilities of transformation demand that I do no less in challenging wrong thinking in the power-broking halls of the military and law enforcement. The principles of the Order of Interbeing (much as I detest the name and have even less respect of many of the members) are a call to action that I willingly take on. Just not in the lemming-like way I tend to feel like when in the company of a horde of brown jackets.

    For all those reasons and a few more, I love what Chris has written. It rises above the elite clubs and the “caps on” SEB. It is a challenge that we give up what is most precious to us: our entrenched belief that there is one way – the Middle Way, and by that we mean a Way that is something opposite to what we see: If there are weapons, get rid of them. If there is violence, end it all. If there is suffering, transform it all.

    None of that is the Middle Way. It is, in actuality, a willingness to seek the path that provides what benefit it can for the circumstances we are in. It is a Path of Not Knowing and therefore a path of constant adaptation to new circumstances. It is a predictive equation requiring infinite iterations.

    Thank you for challenging us in your usual kind and thoughtful manner. I hope you don’t me being a brat in contrast – because sometimes that is a Middle Way too. 😉

  2. THIS is great. Thank you for this. It is this kind of dialogue that we need – or, perhaps, just that I need. It illuminates a central principle while asking us to consider whether there might be different ways to pursue it or honor it. It doesn’t so much challenge our assumptions as ask us to look at things from an unaccustomed angle. It does what I think Buddhism as a whole does: it asks us to widen our gaze, to hold onto our habits of thinking a little more loosely so new, potentially better or more useful, information or ideas might slip in. Posting this as you have also helps to erode what needs eroding: the assumption that one way of seeing and engaging with the world is the only one – an assumption that kills the seed of creative engagement before it can grow, that forestalls other solutions, and excludes those who may provide them. It is bad for a mind to ossify, good for it to be flexible, to grow, to wax and wane. 

  3. wow. thanks for sharing this. talk about calling preconceived notions into question by shifting perspective on a core belief. i expect i’ll be thinking about this one for a long time.

  4. Thanks for posting this. It’s challenging, but does help show that social issue views and Buddhists aren’t a one trick pony.

    One of the challenges here is that there is little serious engagement by world leaders with grassroots groups from the broad, anti-nuclear weapons community. There is some lip service given to “a nuclear free world,” but this is always couched in allowing for the U.S., Russia, India, Israel, and handful of other nations to keep some of their weapons. That “principled disdain” many activists are displaying is, in my view, partly coming from not being heard and having little opportunity to truly impact power bases.

    Now, I can accept and work with remaining open to dialogue, and also understanding that in my lifetime, there might not be a lot of concrete shifting on this particular issue. I sincerely think that open discussion, sharing of ideas, debating, and contemplating together across differences are mainstays of our practice and also of peacework in general. However, what do we do when the playing field is so stacked in favor of one side? It would be terribly foolish to suggest that peaceworkers and anti-nuclear weapons groups are on anywhere near an equal footing as world leaders who deem these weapons, and state-sanctioned warfare, and the rest necessary.

    Now, one thing I have been speaking about recently with a few others is the need for those of us living and embracing non-violence and non-harming as vows to remain open to the possibility that some level of violence might enter into the equation. That upaya might call for us to do something destructive and harmful, but which ultimately leads us back to the non-violent center. This is not, in my view, standing behind state sanctioned warfare as a solution to a problem because it’s never really the case that state-sanctioned warfare is the least harmful solution available. But it might be, for example, destroying material property or even physically hurting or killing someone who is wildly destructive.

    I fully support Dr. Ford’s call for educating ourselves in the various views out there, and learning to speak in a way that others might better and more easily understand. I think this is one of the weaknesses of many grassroots movements – they fail to truly understand the thoughts and motivations of the people who’s ideas they are working against. And in fact, they end up creating “enemies” out of these people, instead of applying their sense of injustice on the issues at hand.

    Finally, I have to say that the use of language in Dr. Ford’s paper sometimes sounds less than open to those of us who stand in favor of abolishing nuclear weapons. The use of such terms as
    “simple disarmament proselytization ” suggests to me that he has already, somewhere in his mind, dismissed the fierceness of these arguments in a way he never displays when it comes to pro-nuke arguments. I find myself having to work to override reactions to this (which is good practice), but at the same time wonder if he is really promoting open dialogue and coming from a place of not knowing, or if he wants the abolishionists to pipe down and listen to what pro-nuke folks have to say. And the problem with this, in my view, is that is exactly what’s mostly been going on. The pro-nuke case gets most of the press and all the power.

    So, now what? How do we actually sit down and listen to each other, and truly share ideas?

  5. In other words, where is the power sharing on this issue? Dr. Ford brings up power. Let’s talk about power.

  6. Thanks for posting this, Maia. As we always say, compassion without wisdom isn’t compassion, wisdom without compassion isn’t wisdom. While we wish for all beings to be happy and aspire to relieve suffering it isn’t always clear how we can best accomplish that. Sometimes the best intentions lead to disaster, whereas clear-eyed realpolitik accomplishes more. Politics is, as Lyndon Johnson reminded us, the art of the possible. Rather than pursuing utopian dreams we can do more through staying focused on practicality. Of course the opposite is also true: if we just focus on what is practical and never set our sights higher, the world never improves.

    The late Swiss playwright Freidrich Durrenmatt wrote a play years ago called “The Physicists.” In discussing nuclear weapons, one of the characters in the play (Einstein?) said “What has once been thought cannot be unthought.” The idea of nuclear weapons already exists, and the toothpaste cannot be put back in the tube. The world will always have to deal with the possibility of nuclear holocaust, just as we will always have to deal with spam, computer viruses, and frankenfoods. Things just can’t be uninvented.

    The real question is what is the wisest way to try to reduce the possibility of their use. When only major powers possessed The Bomb, the policy of mutually assured destruction, as cold-hearted and uncompassionate as it sounded, preserved the nuclear peace for fifty years. It worked in retrospect. We have so far been very lucky. I am not sure that banning the bomb would have worked as well. After all, in all of history what “banned” weapon has never been used? We should remember that the Kellog-Briand Pact of 1928 renouncing the use of war (and signed by many countries including Germany, Italy, and Japan) did nothing to prevent WWII.

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