A History of Non-Violence

I’ve written a few times on my thoughts on political change, from which I’ve synthesised a general personal outlook which sees a need for change, but has no faith that traditional representative ideological politics (specifically voting for Party X) can help. The solution, for me, must come via us ordinary folk changing how we live our lives in such a way that we could completely change the system from the Bottom Up. This could happen, through a “Mindful Revolution” – an awakening of the populace to our state of affairs and just how we could change them without any help from The Powers That Be.

On reflection, whilst this still holds true for me, it is admittedly pretty naive. It’s essentially a dream of a solution rather than any thing practically workable, but I think it’s on the right track. I recently (re)discovered Gary Snyder’s “Buddhist Anarchism” (I had read it a few years ago but only now really appreciated it), and it made me rethink about this stuff. Snyder’s piece is a really great vision, but it’s (most likely by design) broad enough so that it can be interpreted in different ways. It’s a compass more than a map, but it’s a strong compass.

In reading about it, I came across the work of activist Ken Knabb. In particular, his writings on ‘engaged Buddhism’. ‘Engaged Buddhism’ is a catch-all term for social engaged Buddhist movements, such as Vietnamise monk Thich Nhat Hanh’s community and activities.

Knabb has delivered two sharp and thought-provoking articles which are giving me a lot of food for thought. In “Strong Lessons for Engaged Buddhists” he argues that engaged Buddhists’ social awareness has “remained extremely limited.” The problem being an aversion to any kind of direct action, confrontation or violence which Knabb says will prevent any kind of social change.

If the engaged Buddhists have failed to explicitly oppose the socioeconomic system and have limited themselves to trying to alleviate a few of its more appalling effects, this is for two reasons. First, they are not even clear about what it is. Since they are allergic to any analysis that seems “divisive,” they can hardly hope to understand a system based on class divisions and bitter conflicts of interest. Like almost everyone else they have simply swallowed the official version of reality, in which the collapse of the Stalinist state-capitalist regimes in Russia and East Europe supposedly demonstrates the inevitability of the Western form of capitalism.

In “Evading the Transformation of Reality”, Knabb more precisely makes this point – arguing that what many perceive to be ‘social change’ is actually ‘social service’ (for instance, working with the homeless or drug addicts is serving society – but is not attempting to tackle the underlying root cause of these problems). Knabb implies that many do not have the stomach for true ‘social change’. And whilst in the second piece, Knabb has some explicit criticisms for engaged Buddhists, I think many of his ideas can also be generally levelled at any liberal protestor, such as the aversion to confrontation and a lack of commitment to really study alternative view points.

I am also reminded of Slavoj Zizek’s criticism of “Western Buddhism”, which he claims

enables you to fully participate in the frantic pace of the capitalist game while sustaining the perception that you are not really in it; that you are well aware of how worthless this spectacle is; and that what really matters to you is the peace of the inner Self to which you know you can always with-draw.

Knabb’s thoughts on ‘violence’ are probably the most challenging:

It is true that many forms of violent struggle, such as terrorism or minority coups, are inconsistent with the sort of open, participatory organization required to create a genuinely liberated global society. An antihierarchical revolution can only be carried out by the people as a whole, not by some group supposedly acting on their behalf; and such an overwhelming majority would have no need for violence except to neutralize any pockets of the ruling minority that may violently try to hold on to their power. But any significant social change inevitably involves some violence. It would seem more sensible to admit this fact, and simply strive to minimize violence as far as possible.

Zizek posits that “Western Buddhists” can absolve themselves of any responsibility for changing their environment – and Knabb charges that “engaged Buddhists” will avoid even the mildest confrontation. Whilst I still believe in what I’ve written here and here about the possibility for social change, I am now forced to consider that any course of action would necessitate some violence. Indeed, even if we were to have our Mindful Revolution, would the current powers-that-be allow this? And if not, would that then make violent confrontation inevitable?

One to ponder.

Also, if you have the stomach for it, here is an hour long lecture by Žižek on the topic of ‘Western Buddhism’, in which he makes some thought-provoking statements about Buddhism. (I should stress they are thought provoking, not necessarily true or accurate – American Buddhist does a good job here of refuting many of his wild claims) He also suggests that the Lion King’s “The Circle of Life” could be used to justify the Holocaust, and makes an entertaining claim about the nature of traditional Tibetan Buddhist music. It’s good fun.