Monday, April 15, 2013

Buddhist Thoughts on the Boston Marathon Bombing

By now, you've probably heard about the bombings at the Boston Marathon. Whomever did them, it seems pretty clear now that they were an act of terrorism. An act which no doubt will have ripple effects of suffering far beyond those immediately impacted. Half way across the world, but not unrelated, a series of car bombs killed dozens in Iraq, a place where these kinds of experiences are sadly commonplace. Our imperialist policies, as well as those of our allies, have created a living hell for the Iraqi people. And so, as we grieve for those hurt and killed in Boston, it's imperative to remember all the ways our nation's decisions bring about similar suffering in places across the globe.

Brad Warner quickly put up a post about the Boston marathon bombings. There is some understandable anger in it. I've felt plenty myself in recent months over gun violence, wars, the numerous economic violences of capitalism, and all the ways we've been destroying the planet. But what to do with that anger? How can we face it directly, and let it move through us in a way so that it can be transformed into something of benefit for ourselves and others?

I find elements of Brad's article disturbing. He's a selection.

As is typical when these kinds of things happen, the news guys didn’t really know much. They just kept repeating the three facts they did know over and over. Two bombs went off near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Two people were killed. An unknown number of others were injured. Nobody has claimed responsibility. And that was pretty much all anyone really knew the last time I checked in.

I remember after the gas attacks on the Tokyo subway system happened, Nishijima Roshi said that those who perpetrated the deed should be found and “removed from society.” He said this very forcefully. It was unmistakable in his tone that “removed from society” meant anything from being jailed to being executed. He made it clear that he thought that a society was in the right to take the life of someone who did such an act.

My reaction at the time was kind of typical of people who are relatively new to Zen. I was pretty shocked that a Buddhist master would condone killing people. Doesn’t the first precept say, in effect, “Thou shalt not kill”? How can a Buddhist master think it’s OK to kill even those who kill others? Isn’t it all about peace, love and understanding?

Well, yes. It is. But it’s also about facts.

One very significant fact is that Buddhism has only ever flourished in stable societies that had powerful militaries and police forces to defend their citizen’s ability to practice. Stephen Batchelor famously said something like this in response to 9/11. You cannot meditate in a war zone. Well, I suppose you can. But it’s not easy and you’ll probably be killed while you sit.

Our societies have to be stable before we can engage in our practice. This is an absolutely necessary prerequisite. That means we have to be able and willing to defend our societies against those who would disrupt them.

First off, ask Thich Nhat Hanh and other early members of the
Order of Interbeing
about meditating in a war zone. Long before the smiles and flowers Zen of the current Thich Nhat Hanh, there was the Vietnam War days, filled will practice and social action in the heart of a war zone. Hanh, Sister Chan Khong, and others regularly found themselves in trouble with one side or another, sometimes to the point of their lives being threatened. Although I wouldn't wish these conditions on anyone, some might say they were a powerful container for practice. A place of no escape beyond anything we might manufacture.

Secondly, it's a little too easy to go there. To make the leap from soft interpretations of the first precept to "we should kill people who commit terrorist acts." His desire for punishment is, again, understandable. A pretty human impulse certainly. And yet it's also so Old Testament God. Or a really raw and unprocessed sense of karmic justice that screams Buddhist fundamentalism.

In addition, this who thing about having powerful militaries and police forces so "we" (whomever we are) can practice seems like a nice excuse for fascism. For "just" wars in "terrorist" nations. And for continued oppression of anyone here, in the U.S., who is deemed to be "disruptive" or "potentially" disruptive. Our government, regardless of the political party in power, is quite fond of pre-emptive strikes, "precautionary" measures, and the like. Not that they give a shit about meditation practitioners really. That's really not what they're concerned with. And it wasn't what the governments in medieval Japan were concerned with, nor the various royal factions in India during Buddha's time. Whatever space they "provided" for "safe" meditation practice and Buddhist study was a byproduct of power and resource control. Of oppression of one group by another. Of bloodshed and ecological destruction.

Desiring the kind of "protection" we modern humans of the past several thousand years have grown accustomed to means desiring a certain level of murder, oppression, and environmental damage elsewhere. Maybe even right down the street from you. Watching the police smashing that young African American man's face into the ground around the corners gives you a sense of safety perhaps? It sure as hell doesn't for me. But I see that kind of thing all the time, and know damned well that for some folks, this is treated as a positive. A black and white case of a bad guy got caught and now we can go back to our regular lives kind of moment.

I totally understand the desire for safety. It's human. We all have it. And if I've learned anything from Buddha's teachings it's that safety is a delusion. It's a long winded story we have about staying alive for a long time because conditions appear to be in our favor. When the reality is we have no idea for sure. You can die quickly under the best of conditions, or live to 100 under seemingly the worse of conditions.

I'm sort of tired of revenge narratives as well. Yes, they're human too. Part of the fabric of our psyches. The stuff of ancient and modern tales. There's a certain satisfaction of getting back at those who have wronged you. Of taking them down the way they took you down. I get it. I've felt it. But getting even - the whole eye for an eye thing - again, it's so Old Testament. Actually, older than the Old Testament. Some might say this is just how humans are. We're petty and aggressive and selfish. But that's just a cop out. A nice justification for not putting any effort in to imagining something different, practicing that something different, and doing something to bring about that different way of being in the world. If anything, humans are too quick to give in to the current conditions, thinking they are permanent. Or the best it could possibly be.

The other thing about revenge narratives is that they tend to hold the wrong people responsible. Tend to fail to get at the roots of suffering, ours or anyone else. Some guy gets laid off from his corporate job and he goes back with an assault rifle and shoots up his boss and co-workers. He gets the immediately release he desperately needs, but it costs lives - his and others. And does absolutely nothing to address the predatory nature of our economic system. Which is much more the root cause than the owned boss who executed the order to end his job.

Although the death penalty is slowly getting overturned in some states, Americans on the whole still like a good execution. Just as we like a good war against terrorists. Or Communists. Or Indians. Or Southerners/Northerners. Or the Mexicans. Or the British. Or more Indians. Are you tired yet?

The way I see it, Buddhist practice - or spiritual practice of any kind - is garbage if it just leads us to the same old conclusions. The same old stories about how to deal with the challenges that face us in life.

I don't really have a good answer for what to do with the particular people who planted the bombs in Boston. Or in Iraq. Or anywhere else. The causes and conditions are so much greater than any one person or small group of people. How can we - as communities - both hold individuals responsible and also hold the structures of our communities responsible as well? And even further, move beyond just seeking responsibility to making an effort towards a more just, enlightened society where the desperation and hatred that leads to such awful acts isn't so common in the first place?

There's entirely too much outrage at symptoms and entirely too little outrage at root causes. Not that outrage will bring us too a better place per se. But it can bring us to a place of right attention. Shift us away from the dulled sense of security that occasionally gets punctuated by bomb blasts, school shootings, and the like. Move us more towards the awareness of the everyday violence right under our noses. The police brutality. The military/corporate rape of the planet. The prison industrial complex. The sweatshop labor behind our "cheap" goods. The compulsory levels of poverty and economic struggle that capitalism thrives off of. The commodification of everything, right down to the very water you drink, and the very breath you take.

Zen Master Ikkyu once wrote, "I'd love to give you something, but what would help?" That seems to me to be the predicament we all face. Not just when confronted with gross level violence like today's bombings. But everyday. Every moment.

Too many of our "solutions" are gifts that don't help at all. Perhaps it's time to learn how to do zazen in a warzone. Practice in a warzone. Because we're already there anyway. It's just a matter of degrees. A matter of the level of imminent threat each of are facing.


Jayarava said...

"One very significant fact is that Buddhism has only ever flourished in stable societies that had powerful militaries and police forces to defend their citizen’s ability to practice."

This seems completely wrong to me. In fact the military in most Buddhist states in history has been used to protect the powerful (royalty, aristocracy, and wealthy monasteries) rather than the citizens. Indeed until the 1950s most Buddhists in history were not citizens but serfs in feudal states.

Mumon K said... comment got long so I made it a blog post over at my place.

Anonymous said...

Nathan, thank you for your insight here. I am a one-year's practicioner with Thich Nhat Hanh and so I found your blog in my search to see if TNH has spoken on the Boston Marathon bombings. After reading your post I feel that yes, this understanding is what I think that TNH would express. I went to Brad Warner's post to read it in its entirety. His view is not the kind of life-changing, illusion-shattering practice that I have come to know - in fact, the eye-for-an-eye view is the opposite. I thank you for your post that helps me to know what TNH might have said about this recent event.

Nathan said...

I agree Jayarava. That statement felt completely false from the moment I read it.

Anonymous, I can imagine TNH had something to say about the bombings. Keep an eye out. People post videos of him all the time.

Vada said...

This is cool!