Friday, May 6, 2011

Creating Potentials for Liberation: More Notes on Osama Bin Laden's Killing

Over at Barbara's Buddhist blog is a post continuing the discussion about Osama Bin Laden and Buddhist practice. One of her main points was that those who are out there judging other Buddhists' emotional reactions are missing the boat on practice. And I totally agree. Whether someone felt horribly sad,, or elated upon hearing of bin Laden's death, all of those are passing human emotions, nothing more or less. If you were like me, you probably watched a whole stream of these emotions running through you around this particular event. I still am, days later.

Here are the further comments I made, partly in response to Barbara's post, but mostly in response to the combined offerings I have read around the Buddhist blogosphere this week.

What I have noticed, though, amongst folks who clearly believe the killing is justified – including some Buddhists – there is an interesting set of patterns that underlie their responses.

1. As long as Bin Laden was alive, he was an imminent threat to the U.S.

2. The killing was a manifestation of self-defense, and thus justifiable.

3. Bin Laden was like Hitler, Pol Pot, and other historical dictators responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands or even millions.

4. Bin Laden’s death was “needed for closure to come,” and that the celebrations in U.S. cities were more about closure and hope than about rejoicing in bin Laden’s death.

And finally, 5, that there are “evil people” in the world, and so we have to be “prepared” to deal with them.

Now, I personally greatly question all 5 of these conclusions. But mostly, I’d like to say something about “being prepared” for “evil.”

I don’t believe in evil people, but I’d say we could easily label many of bin Laden’s actions as evil. However, what I see missing in a lot of the Buddhist posts and discussions where people are either justifying killing bin Laden, or saying it was wrong, is this:

Even if the ultimate outcome is that someone is harmed or killed, a central theme of Buddhist practice is aiming your life towards non-killing and non-violence. When someone chooses to train themselves, “prepare” themselves through deliberately seeing the seeds of violence and destruction within, and deliberately working to grow the seeds of non-violence within and without, then how they act – even in a highly volatile, violent situation – is markedly different from someone who doesn’t.

So, my main point here is that once any of us accepts the narrative that killing is justified, it’s quite easy to use that as an excuse to ignore the seeds of violence within ourselves.

I honestly figured that bin Laden wouldn’t make it out alive if he ever got caught. But I see that killing as the result of numerous people, including bin Laden himself, having internally justified killings in some form or another before the actual killing occurred.

Another thing I have noticed is that there is - in my view - a false dichotomy that comes up amongst Buddhist writers that appears nearly every time some majorly violent act happens in the world to cause us all to reflect on out practice.

On the one hand, you have a subsection of practitioners who offer a sort of soft pacifist stance, saying things like people just need to do more lovingkindness meditations and the like. The lack of nuance to these positions leads me to suspect that they are coming from quite privileged places, where threats of frequent, imminent violence and/or oppression aren't experienced.

On the other hand, there is another subsection of practitioners who think that any talk of non-violence is basically the stuff of 60's counterculture hippies and idealists. That there is such a thing as "just warfare," and also that some people are "evil," and must be treated as such. There's a lack of nuance to this kind of position as well. It creates a split between good and evil which isn't part of Buddha's teachings. It justifies a kind of pre-emptive murder based on one's previous actions and the possibility that they will do the same again (as opposed to killing someone in direct, real time self-defense.)And furthermore, it creates images of people that are fixed, instead of the fluid reality in which we live in. Bin Laden was evil, a bad man, end of story. Oh really, that's news to me!

Take the flip side. People going wild over the Dalai Lama's recent comments, which suggest that he wasn't against the murder of bin Laden. Whether or not the Dalai Lama supported killing bin Laden, I'd argue that a lot of the negative reactions towards his statements were coming from a fixed view of the guy as "a good man, always." This is one of the major problems that appears in the "soft, pacifist" narrative I mentioned above.

Both of these narratives strike me as exercises in confirming the views one has always had, or long held - as opposed to working practice. When I was younger, I fell more into the soft, pacifist camp side of things, but the longer I worked with my own heart and mind, studied the teachings, and probably most important in my case - spent large chunks of my life actively engaged with people from oppressed and marginalized groups - I began to realize that the most important thing is working deliberately, unflinchingly with the seeds of violence and non-violence within yourselves, and then figuring out ways to spread that kind of work to others.

Which is all about liberation of suffering if you ask me. It's realizing that yes, causes and conditions might be coming together in a violent way and that each of us might end up adding something to the total pile of violence, but that we ARE NOT condemned to doing so. In fact, because of the months and years of watching our minds and hearts, checking out actions, questioning our motives and understandings - we might actually have a chance to shift the entire course of history through our actions. That a single person, or small group of people, or even large group of people who have built up the inner reserves and discipline to not react, but respond by waiting out the most intense conflict without resorting to maiming and murdering.

This is all about doing whatever you can to create the POSSIBILITY during a dangerous situation, as opposed to either coming in with an untrained, naive mind, or with an attitude that everything is already fucked, so we best bust some heads.

Bin Laden's dead. Instead of justifying his murder, or outright rejecting everything associated with that murder, including emotional joy and relief, how about taking some time to consider how you might liberate all of this going forward.

How might you train yourself to be able to enter a conflict - be it a simple disagreement or a life threatening situation - in a way that might open the doors of liberation, instead of close them?

I'll leave everyone with that, and offer that pat answers won't cut. I've been living with a variation of this question for most of my life. And I doubt it will be resolved anytime soon, if ever really.


Algernon said...

How much of the chatter is really necessary or helpful? A good point about your blog is that you don't pretend to have answers and your writing has the quality of someone holding with a question. Elsewhere, however, there are lots of "answers" and pronouncements -- this is a very different practice. It is the practice of clinging to and defending opinions, which is really clinging to and defending "I."

If there is anything worth saying about this, I think you are on to it about what happens when people internally justify taking life. I take life to sustain my own all the time -- even as a vegetarian. (I eat things that can't run away.) Is it "justified?" I can't see where it is. Is this where the notion of cherishing life and restoring some of this cost begins?

Nathan said...

"I take life to sustain my own all the time -- even as a vegetarian. (I eat things that can't run away.) Is it "justified?" I can't see where it is."

This is, in my view, a major practice edge to pay attention to for anyone that takes up the offer. Because I also, even as vegetarian, am taking life regularly. There isn't any way around it.

And yet, I also know that when I'm not paying attention, I tend to be more destructive, even if on a small scale. Working in the garden Saturday, I was keenly aware of the worms, grubs, and other little lives being upturned or even snuffed out by my shovel and hoe. I felt a connection with them as I moved the soil - what exactly, I don't know - but even something as simple as gardening brings life and death right to your face.