The Sword that Heals
This is an article I wrote in 2013 for a special issue of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship's journal on the subject on nonviolence. My goal was to bring the nuanced analysis of 'violence' found in Anarchist thought to a Buddhist activist audience.
"If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will."
- Frederick Douglass, in an 1857 address on West India Emancipation
The Five Precepts are a seemingly straightforward component of Buddhism; they are, as Walpola Rahula explains in What The Buddha Taught, the “minimum moral obligations of a lay buddhist.” The first, and some may say most important of these precepts is not to destroy life. This is typically seen as a fairly simple command, the issue of taking lives being considerably more black and white than, say, the misuse of intoxicants. According to Rahula, the Buddha proclaimed “nonviolence and peace as [his] universal message” and that he did “not approve of any kind of violence or destruction of life.” Furthermore, the Buddha was not passive in this conviction, going so far as to intervene on the battlefield between between the Sakyas and Koliyas.
This absolutist orientation towards nonviolence also emerges in in the domain of activism under the banner of ‘nonviolent civil disobedience.’ Broadly, this is understood as a commitment to nonviolent resistance, even when acting in a way that violates laws of commands of an institutional power. Generally all of the major Engaged Buddhist projects as well as most leftist social justice organizations subscribe to this framework.
But where exactly do we draw the lines of nonviolence? At what point does the civil disobedience itself become violent?