Nonviolence, Compassion, and the Bodhisattva Path

The Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara from the Chinese Song Dynasty (960-1279), Photo by Mountain

Nonviolence, Compassion, and the Bodhisattva Path

Discussion date: Thu, Apr 13, 2023 at our weekly Thursday evening practice

Dear Still Water Friends,

“Are there times when it is necessary to use violence in order to protect yourself, or protect your family, or your country?” Thich Nhat Hanh (Thay) was asked this deeply spiritual question during a 2003 National Public Radio interview. He replied:

If you see someone who is trying to shoot, to destroy, you have to do your best in order to prevent him or her from doing so. You must. But you must do it out of your compassion, your willingness to protect, and not out of anger. That is the key point. If you need to use force, you have to use it, but you have to make sure that you act out of compassion and a willingness to protect, not out of anger.

How do we reconcile Thay’s words with the First of the Five Mindfulness Trainings, Reverence For Life? The training is for me both powerful and subtle. It consist of only three sentences:

Aware of the suffering caused by the destruction of life, I am committed to cultivating the insight of interbeing and compassion and learning ways to protect the lives of people, animals, plants, and minerals.

I am determined not to kill, not to let others kill, and not to support any act of killing in the world, in my thinking, or in my way of life.

Seeing that harmful actions arise from anger, fear, greed, and intolerance, which in turn come from dualistic and discriminative thinking, I will cultivate openness, non-discrimination, and non-attachment to views in order to transform violence, fanaticism, and dogmatism in myself and in the world.

The first sentence commits us to seeing the destruction of life and to respond with the eyes of interbeing. We talked about the practice of touching the ultimate dimension last Thursday evening. Here, Thay encourages us to bring our personal experience of our inextricably interconnected world, a truth beyond words, into our daily lives. When we are able to do that, a deep compassion naturally arises. For it is not some other living thing that is suffering, it is us.

The third sentence is the flip side of the first. If we are not able to glimpse and be awed by the mysteries of life, our views harden. Once hardened, we over-simplify complicated realities and rely on dualistic opposites such as right and wrong, good and bad, us and them, me and you, sacred and profane.

Sandwiched between the first and third sentences is a commandment-like determination “not to kill, not to let others kill, and not to support any act of killing in the world.” Although, it is an impossible resolve, it sets a directional intention. Its function is similar to the Four Great Bodhisattva Vows of Mahayana Buddhism in that it helps us concentrate on the action rather than the outcome:

Beings are numberless. I vow to save them.
Delusions are inexhaustible. I vow to end them.
Dharma gates are boundless. I vow to enter them.
Buddha’s way is unsurpassable. I vow to become it.

In “Man is Not the Enemy,” an essay Thay wrote in 2000, he reflected on his experience practicing nonviolence during the War in Vietnam and since. This paragraph is especially relevant to the First Mindfulness Training:

Having learnt and practiced the teachings of Interbeing I no longer see anyone as my enemy and in my heart is a feeling of lightness and immense space. I do not even feel hatred towards people who have made me or my people suffer because I know how to look at them with the eyes of understanding and love. You may ask: “Then are you going to give that band of mad, cruel, fanatical thieves and murderers freedom to continue to destroy and make misery without doing anything to stop them?” No! We have to do everything we can to stop them, we cannot allow them to continue to kill, plunder, oppress and destroy, but our actions will never be motivated by hatred. We have to stop them, not allowing them to cause misery. If necessary we can bind them, put them in prison, but this action has to be directed by our bodhisattva’s heart and while we act like this we continue to maintain our loving-kindness, wanting them to be able to have a chance to wake up, and change. Acting from a basis of Loving-Kindness, Compassion, Joy and Equanimity we automatically choose the path of nonviolence whereon we make an effort to protect the life of all species as much as we possibly can. Obviously we cannot be absolutely nonviolent, just as my plate of steamed greens cannot be 100% vegetarian, because when we boil vegetables so many bacteria die. However, going in the direction of nonviolence we can spare bloodshed and protect the life of all species to the greatest possible extent.

This Thursday evening, after our meditation and a recitation of the Five Mindfulness Trainings, we will share our reflections on the First Mindfulness Training and on what we have learned in our lives about nonviolence, non-anger, and the compassionate use of force.

You are invited to join us.

An additional paragraph from “Man is Not the Enemy” is below, after the announcements.

Warm wishes and many blessings,

Mitchell Ratner

From “Man is Not the Enemy” by Thich Nhat Hanh

In a struggle against a foreign invasion, all activities in the fields of information, culture and education aimed at purposefully creating trust, unification of the whole people, carrying out a policy of noncooperation with the invaders can be directed wholly in the spirit of openness, tolerance and nonviolence. If we succeed in these fields the military only need play a very small role. Even if we are forced to use military strength, we can still act in the spirit of nonviolence, sparing bloodshed as much as is possible; the bloodshed of our people and of the invaders. So, the military can also practice loving-kindness and compassion as can moral leaders, statesmen and humanists. …To be able to look well in order to see that the other person is also our brother or sister and not to try and find ways to remove that person from our daily life is the learning and practice we all have to undertake, whether we are Buddhist or not. Some people are amiable, some are difficult and some are very difficult. However if we are a descendant of the Buddha we have to try to love everyone according to the principle “Man is not our enemy.” Our enemy is not our enemy or, in other words, the person who hates us is not the person we hate. We do not have enemies. If we can see that and act according to that, when at last we lie down and close our eyes we shall be able to smile.


in: Dharma Topics
Discussion Date: Thu, Apr 13, 2023


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