Buddhist wisdom on violence and reconciliation

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An interfaith exchange at Gonzaga University, Spokane, Washington, April 30, 2008.

Sravasti Abbey is located just an hour north of Spokane, home of Jesuit-sponsored Gonzaga University. According to religious studies professor Dr. John Sheveland, the Catholic Jesuit tradition has advocated interreligious education throughout history. In his belief that such dialogue is crucial to an understanding of the world, Dr. Sheveland invited Venerable Thubten Chodron to speak to a mixed audience of students and townspeople on violence and reconciliation. He followed her teaching with remarks from the Catholic perspective.

Venerable Thubten Chodron on violence and reconciliation

After leading the audience in meditation and setting a motivation, Venerable Chodron began. The following is a précis of her hour-long talk.

We’re going to talk about violence and reconciliation. I’m sure we’re all thinking of all those other people who are violent and unforgiving. Of course none of us are violent. You came here to learn how to tell those other people how to change, right?

This is already part of our problem. We think suffering in the world comes from outside, from other people. We are always benevolent and kind, aren’t we? Okay, we get angry once in a while, but our anger is justified. Our anger corrects social ills.

We think our happiness and suffering come from others, so we’re constantly trying to navigate and manipulate how others should be. But we can’t control other people, no matter how hard we try. The only one we can change is ourselves.

We seldom look within to ask, “How am I violent?” We all have our own way of terrorizing others, don’t we? We can ask, “Where do my own violence and cruelty come from? Or my own anger?”

Sculpture of a handgun with barrel tied in a knot.

We only have an enemy when we see someone as an enemy, when we label the person that way. (Photo by Werner Wittersheim)

In fact, the anger is in me. As long as I have anger, I’m going to find an enemy. We usually think that enemies are outside of us, but we only have an enemy when we see someone as an enemy, when we label the person that way.

When we feel we’ve been harmed, our strategy is often to be mean and cruel to the other person until they decide that we’re loving and kind, and that we’re right. This is also our national policy, isn’t it? We’ll bomb you until you realize that we are good and kind and you see things our way. Does that strategy ever work, personally or nationally? As soon as someone experiences suffering at our hands, they’re not going to see us as kind. In the same way, if someone harms us, we don’t see them as kind. We can intimidate people or overpower them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll like us.

That’s why His Holiness the Dalai Lama says if you’re going to be selfish, be wisely selfish and take care of others. If we harm others, we have to live with people who are miserable and unhappy, and living with miserable people is not fun. But if we care for others, they’re happy, and that makes us happy.

When we see that we’re interdependent with other people, we see that our happiness is interdependent too.

We live in an interdependent world. In fact, we’re more dependent on other human beings now than ever before in human history. In olden times, people grew their own food, made their own clothes, but that’s not so today. Everything we have and do comes from the effort of other people. Why do we think we don’t need other people? That’s so unrealistic. We have a hard time recognizing our dependence on others, and in our self-centeredness, rarely ever think to say thank you.

We live in an interdependent world; therefore kindness and compassion are the antidotes to violence and the keys to reconciliation.

Sometimes people think if you’re kind and compassionate, other people will take advantage of you. We think we need to protect and defend ourselves, that it’s not safe to be kind.

We need to look at what compassion is. Being compassionate doesn’t mean that you roll over and let people take advantage of you. Compassion is the wish for others to be free of suffering and the causes of suffering. Love is the wish for people to have happiness and the causes of happiness. So we’re wishing others well. What’s unsafe about wishing others well?

Compassion and kindness also don’t mean that we do everything everybody wants. We have to think about what happiness is, what suffering is, and what are the causes of both. Sometimes when you really care for someone, you have to do things they don’t like. Parents know this very well. Being kind and compassionate is not about winning a popularity contest—actually, it can be quite difficult. Compassion takes a lot of inner strengths and you have to think long term. Compassion is not for wimps.

I think violence is wimpy. His Holiness the Dalai Lama says violence is old-fashioned. Yes, violence makes a lot of money and it’s good for the economy, but violence is what babies do when they don’t get their way. Violence is what animals do when they’re fighting over a piece of meat. We have human minds, and we shouldn’t use our human minds to make better weapons.

Violence really is wimpy. You get angry, something arises in your mind, you make no effort at controlling it, and you take it out on others. That’s a total lack of inner strength and courage—the courage to hang in there and try to really listen to someone who is different from you.

I’d like to read what the Buddha said about this from the Dhammapada.

When we hold fast to such thoughts as “They harmed me, they mistreated me, they molested me, they robbed me,”
We keep hatred alive.

If we thoroughly release ourselves from such thoughts as “They harmed me, they mistreated me, they molested me, they robbed me,” hatred is vanquished.

Never by hatred is hatred conquered, but by readiness to love.
This is eternal law.

Don’t we all have an example in our minds? “They harmed me. They mistreated me. They molested me.” We can go on and on about the horrible things other people have done to us. We hold tightly and even create an identity around these, and our hearts are filled with hatred. We can hold onto the hatred for decades. We think we’re punishing people by hating them, but you know what? They’re oblivious. They’re out having a great time. When we hold on to grudges, who suffers? We do. We can hold on to the suffering for years and years. And we teach out children to hate, because when parents hold grudges, the children learn to do it too.

Forgiveness is letting go of anger and hatred. It doesn’t mean that you’re saying what the other person did is okay. It may not be okay, but you forgive because you want to be happy, and you realize that holding onto anger and grudges makes you and the people around you miserable. You can even look at atrocities like the Holocaust and forgive. It doesn’t mean you forget, but you can forgive.

When we forgive others, there’s peace in our hearts. Reconciliation and forgiveness have to begin with us becoming aware of our own internal process and realizing, as the Buddha said, that hatred is not conquered by hatred. It’s conquered by love and wishing others well.

The people who have harmed us did what they did because they were trying to be happy and were confused about what the causes of happiness are. So it actually makes more sense for us to look at the people who harmed us and wish them happiness. If they were happy they would behave differently and we would be the beneficiaries.

Real compassion thinks, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if that person had internal peace, if they found a way to use their own special creativity to benefit society, if they could make their life meaningful. Wouldn’t it be wonderful?” Wishing them well in that way makes a lot of sense.

So these are things to thing about, and it involves some deep introspection, really looking at our lives, and asking ourselves some serious questions. It takes a lot of courage and internal strength, but it really pays off.

Response to: Venerable Thubten Chodron, “Buddhist Wisdom: Violence and Reconciliation”

April 30: 7:00-9:00 p.m., Gonzaga Law School
John N. Sheveland, Ph.D., Gonzaga University Religious Studies Department

Gratitude. First let me express my gratitude to you Venerable and to the other nuns and students of Sravasti Abbey who’ve made the trip to Gonzaga from Newport. We’re very glad for your visit. Interfaith dialogues usually find their first and greatest impetus in friendship rather than in the world of ideas and concepts. We hope to see you here many more times, as a teacher but also as a friend.

I’d like to offer three remarks, and to do so as quickly as possible, so that we have plenty of time for what promises to be a stimulating question-and-answer period. First, the Roman Catholic and Jesuit rationale for interfaith dialogue; second, the wisdom Christians might gain from the Buddhist understanding of impermanence; and finally the call for solidarity in the face of violence.

  1. Nostra Aetate & General Congregations 34 & 35

    It is safe to say that 50 years ago one could scarcely imagine that a celebrated author and teacher of Buddhist wisdom could be invited to speak at a Roman Catholic university. Here we are today, in the year 2008, still digesting the recent papal visit to the U.S., and still discerning the shape and contours of “Catholicity” at the many Catholic colleges and universities around the country. That we are here today, at this university and in this room with this speaker, is due in large measure to the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. Vatican II represented a major paradigm shift within the Catholic community, a shift by which it began to understand itself as a “world church” with a dialogic structure; with a message it speaks prophetically to the world, but also a message which itself stands to learn critically from the world. Far from being a god-forsaken sphere, the Church regards the world as a partner in the mutual goal of humanization and unity. This was, in fact, an updated expression of confidence in the complementarity of faith and reason. This had to be the case, for as the first paragraph of Gaudium et spes or The Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World famously declares, “The joys and hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts (GS, #1). The Church’s humanizing impact in the world then gave rise to an astonishing declaration of respect for other religions. Another key document from the Council, Nostra Aetate or The Declaration on the Relation of the Church to non-Christian Religions, holds that the human family in all of its religious diversification is united in its common wrestling with questions of ultimate concern, like “who am I,” “what is the good moral life,” “what meaning do suffering and death have”? Then, to whet our appetite, Nostra Aetate offers these exceedingly brief but provocative comments on Buddhism:

    Buddhism, in its various forms, realizes the radical insufficiency of this changeable world; it teaches a way by which men, in a devout and confident spirit, may be able either to acquire the state of perfect liberation, or attain, by their own efforts or through higher help, supreme illumination. Likewise, other religions found everywhere try to counter the restlessness of the human heart, each in its own manner, by proposing “ways,” comprising teachings, rules of life, and sacred rites. The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men. Indeed, she proclaims, and ever must proclaim Christ “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6), in whom men may find the fullness of religious life, in whom God has reconciled all things to Himself (#2).

    Fast forward to the year 1995. The Society of Jesus gathers in Rome for its 34th General Congregation to discern its new Superior General and to produce its own set of documents by which it meant to “read the signs of the times.” Among these signs was Interreligious Dialogue. Decree Five entitled “Our Mission and Interreligious Dialogue” represents the strongest RC statement on this matter of which I am aware. The Jesuits responded to Pope John Paul II’s repeated request to the Society to make interreligious dialogue a priority, soberly acknowledging that in a global community wherein Christians comprise less than 20 percent of the population, it is necessary to collaborate with the other to achieve common goals. The Jesuits, moreover, turn their gaze to the “Other” not in competition but in collaboration. They wrote:

    In the context of the divisive, exploitative, and conflictual roles that religions, including Christianity, have played in history, dialogue seeks to develop the unifying and liberating potential of all religions, thus showing the relevance of religion for human well being, justice, and world peace. Above all we need to relate positively to believers of other religions because they are our neighbors; the common elements of heritages and our human concerns force us to establish ever closer ties based on universally accepted ethical values . . . . To be religious today is to be interreligious, in the sense that a positive relationship with believers of other faiths is a requirement in a world of religious pluralism” (#130).

    To be religious today is to be interreligious—let us ponder that for a moment.

    Earlier this “Spring” [a technical term none of us recognize!!!], the Jesuits met again in Rome to discern a new Superior General and to produce another round of documents. Pope Benedict XVI instructed them to continue this interreligious vocation established in 1995, and to do so by planting one foot in the center of Christian faith and the other foot in the borderlands, engaged with the religious other. The vote is in, and it’s unanimous: one Vatican Council, two General Congregations, and two Popes all declare: interreligious dialogue on the signs of our times is constitutive of Catholic identity.

    The many forms of violence we read about, see on the television, and maybe experience ourselves, are an unavoidable sign of this time. What might Christians learn from their Buddhist brothers and sisters on this vexing issue? How, concretely, might Christians think through their discipleship interreligiously.

  2. Concrete dialogues of religious experience:
    1. Impermanence and ideologies.

      It may be an obvious point, but the Buddha’s call for mindfulness, while basic to the Buddhist path, in reality is a talent few of us possess. If I accept the Buddha’s invitation to interrogate or analyze my mind—its operation, its spontaneous reactions, its habitual inclinations, its dualistic tendencies—I may begin to realize that the cause of my suffering is not “out there” but rather “in here,” in the way I choose to react and habituate reaction. More specifically, the concept of impermanence can contribute meaningful assessments and criticisms of common human experience, and can propel us to look more deeply into our hearts and minds. Impermanence means that within samsara or cyclic existence all things are transient, all things change moment by moment, each having its own causes and relationships of dependency, and because of this our habit of grasping at and clinging to fleeting things is more than a little absurd.

    2. Some concrete examples of impermanent realities include sensual desires and their attainment, the pursuit of fame, power, or recognition and their attainment, our views and opinions no matter how well-reasoned or expressed, and in our context this evening we might think especially of the impermanence of inequitable relationships and hierarchies of power, including group identities and the way these condition our images of self and other, and very often produce ideologies on a massive scale which function as the soil out of which sprouts untold violence and suffering. The Buddha insisted that the magnitude or volume of my attainment of impermanent realities does nothing to satisfy the desire driving my clinging attachment to them. The ache remains. The dissatisfaction persists. Ignorant of my ignorance, I drink more and more from the well of thirst and disappointment. The Dhammapada, or Sayings of the Buddha, states this well:

      Not even with a rain of golden coins
      Is contentment found among sensual pleasures.
      “Sensual desires are of little delight, are a misery.”
      Knowing so, the wise one
      Takes no delight
      Even for heavenly sensual pleasures.
      One who delights in the ending of craving
      Is a disciple of the fully enlightened one. (XIV: 186-87)

      Those two verses isolate sensual pleasures as examples of impermanence. We can point to other examples. The doctrine of impermanence gives us some purchase on our actual lived experience by explaining the causes and conditions of our grief, our disappointment and frustration. What would our most cherished views look like—what would our ideologies look like—when passed through the purifying fires of impermanence? Might we cling to them just a little less; might we loosen the death grip on who is in the in-group and who doesn’t count in the out-group? Our task as individuals each with an ego and, indeed, as groups with collective group-wide egos (“wegos”) is to revisit the basic assumptions of our group, our perceived needs, the fittingness of what we simply take for granted about ourselves, our group (whatever it may be), and the “other.” Are these assumptions empty, bereft of significance, fabricated? What we may take for granted as stable may, in fact, be profoundly unstable, changing, and the cause of suffering when grasped, both our own suffering and that of those around us.

  3. Solidarity:

    Finally, just a few words on solidarity. If Buddhist principles like impermanence can help non-Buddhists to reassess their group identities and attachments, what, if anything, might Buddhism offer in their place? Christians know that Jesus famously summarized the Hebrew Law and prophets in the twin love commands: the love of God and love of neighbor. It is abundantly clear from the teachings of Jesus that the concept of “neighbor” in neighbor love, is without limit, without qualification, knows no boundaries of gender, race, ethnicity, or religion, but instead, as the Apostle Paul wrote, envisions all persons as members of the same body, all of whom suffer degradation when one member is degraded. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians:

    There are many parts, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the parts of the body which seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those parts of the body which we think less honorable we invest with greater honor. . . . God has so adjusted the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior part, that there may be no discord in the body, but that all members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together (1 Cor 12:20-26).

Yet as we know too well, and as the Jesuits observe in their Decree on Interreligious Dialogue, Christians themselves have been and continue to be active agents of division, exploitation, and violent conflict. We need not look long or far for evidence of the degree to which we have less than fully appreciated the command to love our neighbors, to pray for those who persecute us, and to regard all persons with their God-given dignity and nobility as creatures whom God creates, covenants with, and redeems as members of the body of Christ. Might the very substantial Christian warrant for non-violence be animated, reinvigorated, seeded by and find focus in dialogue with Buddhist brothers and sisters?

Let me close with a few more verses, this time from Santideva’s Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life, a classic 8th century author and text from the Mahayana tradition, which gives instruction on how to stabilize the mind from afflictions and wrong views, to perceive the fundamental equality of self and others, and to respond appropriately with compassion.

90. One should meditate intently on the equality of oneself and others as follows: “All equally experience suffering and happiness. I should look after them as I do myself.”

91. Just as the body, with its many parts from division into hands and other limbs, should be protected as a single entity, so too should this entire world which is divided, but undivided in its nature to suffer and be happy.

92. Even though suffering in me does not cause distress in the bodies of others, I should nevertheless find their suffering intolerable because of the affection I have for myself,

93. In the same way that, though I cannot experience another’s suffering in myself, his suffering is hard for him to bear because of his affection for himself.

94. I should dispel the suffering of others because it is suffering like my own suffering. I should help others too because of their nature as beings, which is like my own being.

95. When happiness is liked by me and others equally, what is so special about me that I strive after happiness only for myself?

Let Christians take to heart Buddhist wisdom wherever and in whomever they encounter it, for it is true that “the joys and hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of humanity, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, are exactly the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ.”

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