Join our Mailing List

"I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. It is the foundation for world peace."

The Dalai Lama on violence

June 22, 2010

The Dalai Lama's message for Armed Forces Day may
surprise those who assume him to be a pacifist
Guardian (UK)
June 21, 2010

The Dalai Lama has sent a message of support for
Armed Forces Day, which is next Saturday. In it,
he 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 his support will take some of his western
admirers by surprise, not least when it comes to his thoughts on non-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, modernised the Tibetan army.

What the present Dalai Lama argues, in his
message of support, is that violence and
non-violence are not always what they seem.
"Sweet words" can be violent, he explains, when
they intend harm. Conversely, "harsh and tough
action" can be non-violent when it aims at the
wellbeing of others. In short, violence -- "harsh
and tough action" -- can be attitudinally
non-violent. So what should we make of that?

"What would not be a traditional Buddhist way of
talking is to imply that violence is in fact
non-violence, given the right motivation",
explains Paul Williams, professor of Indian and
Tibetan philosophy, University of Bristol. "This
is certainly an interesting but perhaps extremely dangerous sentiment."

In other words, it seems as if the Dalai Lama is
rhetorically having his cake and eating it. And
further, this might be a dangerous strategy
because of how the comment could be read in
Tibet, where there is a substantial debate about
the use of violence in the fight for independence.

But before rushing to too fast a conclusion,
another factor must be borne in mind. The Dalai
Lama quite routinely says different things to
different audiences, an approach that is valued
in Buddhism and is known as "skilful 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.
Skilfully interpreting the Dalai Lama then becomes very hard.

For example, when speaking in the west, he has
drawn much from Gandhi's broadly Jain
understanding of non-violence, "ahimsa". "Man
lives freely by his readiness to die, if need be,
at the hands of his brother, never by killing
him", Gandhi wrote in All Men Are Brothers --
effectively precluding killing. But such an
approach would be odd amongst Tibetans, and the
Dalai Lama would hardly be likely to advocate it amongst his fellows.

In fact, it is possible to get some sense of this
greater sophistication by considering his life
story. This is man who has lived with the reality
of state violence from his youth, and who
receives reports of it almost daily, now that he
is old. He has previously argued that violence in
Tibet is wrong, not on principled but pragmatic
grounds, as it would have no chance of succeeding.

Alternatively, there's the fact that Tibetan
temples swarm with wrathful deities. These images
of violence are interpreted as representing
enlightenment's victory over delusion, though
it's striking that the spiritual journey itself
evokes images of violence. As another teacher,
Abraham Joshua Heschel, put it: life is a war, "a
war which cannot be won by the noble magic of
merely remembering a golden rule".

So perhaps what the Dalai Lama hopes to achieve
with his latest message is not only to express
appreciation of the British military but
something wider: to encourage his western
followers to engage with him, and his tradition, in more sophisticated ways.

After all, his teachings in the west are often
reduced to what Pico Iyer, the Dalai Lama's
biographer, calls "bromides" -- truisms trite
enough to appear on a T-shirt. Alternatively, in
their recent book, Buddhist Warfare, Michael
Jerryson and Mark Juergensmeyer conclude that the
image of Buddhism in the west is reductive,
selective and predominantly mystical. That's the
product of a string of 20th-century writers, from
DT Suzuki to the current Dalai Lama.

But maybe it is time to take on more of the
unsettling richness of the tradition this
extraordinary man represents -- not least when it
comes to the deployment of violence.
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665   ctcoffice@tibet.ca
Developed by plank