At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love. It is impossible to think of a genuine revolutionary lacking this quality.
Ernesto Che Guevara
Another problem I have with Buddhism is that Buddhism, like other “great” religions of civilization (including science, and including capitalism), isn’t land-based. It’s been transposed over space, which means by definition it is disconnected from the land, and also means it values, by definition, abstraction over the particularity of place. A religion is, I think, supposed to teach us how to live (which, if we’re to live sustainably, must also mean that it teaches us how to live in a certain place). Also a religion is supposed to teach us how to connect to the divine. But people will live differently in different places, which means religions must be different in different places, and must emerge from specific places themselves, and not be abstracted from these places. Thus a religion that emerged from the Near East a couple thousand years ago may or may not have been helpful then and there, but quite probably will not apply so well to where I live right now. It is insane—literally, in terms of being disconnected from physical reality—to believe that a religion that tells someone how to live in, say, the desert of the American Southwest would be applicable (or even particularly helpful) to someone living in the redwood rainforests of the homeland of the Tolowa. It is similarly insane—and disrespectful of the divinity inherent in any particular place—to believe that a religion that helps experience the divine in the desert will particularly help me experience the divine at the ocean’s edge. The places are different. So will be the experience of the divine.
* * *
Even as I was writing the previous ten or so pages, I could hear in my mind the howl of outraged Buddhist pacifists (mainly white Buddhist pacifists: my Asian Buddhist friends aren’t nearly so defensive about Buddhism as are many of the American Buddhists I’ve encountered, and in fact they often share the same criticisms, both of Buddhism and of American Buddhists). It’s all very strange and interesting. I’ve found that there are many things I can bash with no one raising even an eyebrow, much less a fist. I can bash the unholy trinity of capitalism, Christianity, and corporations. I can bash schooling, wage jobs, civilization. I can bash environmentalists. I can even bash writers who bash civilization. Few seem to mind. But at the slightest hint of criticizing Buddhism (or science, which is another unholy cow that evokes the same response as Buddhism, as does, at least occasionally, pornography) I can see many of the faces in the audience harden and can feel their guts churn, their sphincters start to quiver.
* * *
During a talk a couple of days ago, I amplified my analysis of Buddhism. I was surprised and pleased that the audience interrupted me with applause when I discussed the possibility that equanimity in the face of the culture’s destructiveness can mask “cowardice, stupidity, and an appalling lack of creativity,” and can be an avoidance of responsibility for acting to halt the atrocities. But I received an email the next morning that typifies the magical thinking of so many pacifists. The letter read in part: “While I would agree with every word you spoke about our civilization, I wouldn’t agree that morality is always situational—there are certain acts that are soul-destroying, and advocating violence is one of them. Little word-games about Buddhist monks or innocent children being harmed are just cheap. I too used to hold the nine-inch nails philosophy—that was before I lived 50 years and had three children, and love. The destruction trope is just another example of our society’s harmful philosophy coming in by the back door. You’re being co-opted by the need to control things. I hate to see your soul co-opted by the forces of destruction.
“The Great Mother will heal Her body, if she has to do it with cockroaches and finches (look at Galapagos). It is only human survival we are talking about here. We are doomed if we don’t change, yes, but the earth will surely endure. So we must first put this argument in the proper Selfish context—i.e., saving our own asses. It is presumptuous and sacrilegious [sic] to speak of saving the earth.
“You must not suggest to these damaged and wounded humans, searching so desperately for meaning and peace, that they start breaking things. The ones that [sic] come to your talks are harmed and frightened. You have some power— there is a dark side and a light side—we all know this in our hearts. Please stay on the side of the light.”
I’m sure by now you can parse out the unfounded and unstated premises in this note. The first premise is that morality is abstracted from circumstance, meaning in this case that (direct) violence is always—under each and every circumstance—wrong, even when it might be necessary to stop even more violence, implying as well that one has no moral responsibility to halt monstrous acts that happen even on one’s own doorstep if stopping those acts would require muddying one’s spiritual hands. This is the way of the Good German.
It is the way of the Good American. It’s certainly the way of the good dogmatic pacifist.
Next, any attempts to even discuss these possibilities must be dismissed as “word games,” “cheap,” an example of the culture’s “harmful philosophy coming in by the back door,” and a need to control. This is all exactly what I meant early on in this book by the “Gandhi shield” pacifists often use to not only keep evil thoughts at bay but to make sure no one else thinks them either.
I don’t want to go to the same well too many times, but a discussion by R. D. Laing applies. He wrote: “If Jack succeeds in forgetting something [such as the fact that we have the responsibility—the obligation—to stop the horrors of civilization, and the ability to do so, if we choose to], this is of little use if Jill continues to remind him of it. He must induce her not to do so. The safest way would be not just to make her keep quiet about it, but to induce her to forget it also.
“Jack may act upon Jill in many ways. He may make her feel guilty for keeping on ‘bringing it up.’ He may invalidate her experience. This can be done more or less radically. He can indicate merely that it is unimportant or trivial, whereas it is important and significant to her. Going further, he can shift the modality of her experience from memory to imagination: ‘It’s all in your imagination.’ Further still, he can invalidate the content: ‘It never happened that way.’ Finally, he can invalidate not only the significance, modality, and content, but her very capacity to remember at all, and make her feel guilty for doing so in the bargain.
“This is not unusual. People are doing such things to each other all the time. In order for such transpersonal invalidation to work, however, it is advisable to overlay it with a thick patina of mystification. For instance, by denying that this is what one is doing, and further invalidating any perception that it is being done by ascriptions of ‘How can you think such a thing?’ ‘You must be paranoid.’ And so on.”
The next unstated premise—and I’m going into such great detail because this woman’s letter and the perspective it represents is not unusual, but instead is insanely common—is that a desire to stop atrocities such as the extirpation of species is a manifestation of a “need to control.”
I used to have this fear, too, that to affect another’s behavior—even when that other is hurting me directly—is to be “controlling.” But to believe this is to internalize the rhetoric and worldview of the abuser.
Years ago, if you recall, I was in a couple of emotionally abusive relationships, where the women would call me names, harangue me for days, and so on. When I’d ask them to stop they’d say I was trying to censor or control them.
Finally, a friend asked me, “What will it take for you to say ‘Fuck you’ to this woman and walk away?”
“I can’t do that.”
“That would be rude.”
“She’s not being rude to you?”
“I don’t want to put myself on the same level. I don’t want to cross some sort of middle line between us. I can talk about things on my half . . .”
“Ah, you’ve been to counseling! You can say, ‘When you call me names, it makes me feel bad,’ but you can’t say, ‘Cut this shit out!’ then hang up the phone …”
“Hanging up on someone is unacceptable.”
“So it’s okay for her to perpetrate unacceptable behavior on you, but you aren’t allowed to call her on it, nor even to absent yourself? That’s crazy.”
I opened my mouth to say something, then shut it, then opened it again, then clamped it shut.
That very night the woman called and began haranguing me. I said “Fuck you!” and hung up the phone. (Unfortunately, and this reveals how stupid denial makes us, it took me quite a while longer to figure out that after hanging up on her I didn’t have to answer when she called back! It didn’t take much longer than that, though, for me to realize that not only did I not need to answer the phone, I could simply not allow anyone to harangue me. If they do, I kick them out of my life. What a concept!)
There is an idea, no, a wish cherished by many, that love implies pacifism. If we love we cannot ever consider violence, even to protect those we love. I’m not sure that mother grizzly bears would agree, nor mother moose (I’ve heard it said that the most dangerous creature in the forest, apart, of course, from civilized humans, is a moose when you’re between her and her child), nor many other mothers I’ve known. I’ve been attacked by mother horses, cows, mice, chickens, geese, eagles, hawks, and hummingbirds who thought I was threatening their children. I have known many human mothers who would kill anyone who was going to harm their little ones. If a mother mouse is willing to put her life on the line by attacking someone eight thousand times her size, how pathetic it is that we construct religious and spiritual philosophies that tell us that to attack even those who are killing those we most dearly love—or those we pretend we love—is to not love at all. That leads to the fifteenth premise of this book: Love does not imply pacifism.
I have a friend, a former prisoner, who is very smart, and who says that dogmatic pacifists are the most selfish people he knows, because they place their moral purity—or to be more precise, their self-conception of moral purity— above stopping injustice.
Years ago I spoke with the wonderful philosopher and writer Kathleen Dean Moore about why calling the earth our mother is not always helpful. I first asked her what were some of the lies we tell ourselves about our relationship to the land.
She responded, “In order of outrageousness: That human beings are separate from—and superior to—the rest of natural creation. That Earth and all its creatures were created to serve human ends. That an act is right if it creates the greatest wealth for the greatest number of people. That a corporation’s highest responsibility is to its stockholders. That we can have it all—endlessly mining the land and the sea—and never pay a price. That technology will provide a way to solve every problem, even those created by technology. That it makes sense to barge salmon smolts past dams to the sea, so that grain can move downriver in barges. That a pine plantation is the same as a forest. That you can poison a river without poisoning your children. And the biggest and most dangerous lie of all: That the Earth is endlessly and infinitely resilient.”
I asked why that is so dangerous.
She said: “We are doing damage now—to the atmosphere, to the seas, to the climate—that may be beyond the power of healing. When the Earth is whole, it is resilient. But once it is damaged, the power of the Earth to heal itself seeps away. In a weakened world, if we turn against the land, pour chemical fertilizers onto worn-out fields, sanitize wastewater with poisons, dam more rivers, burn more oil, bear more children, and never acknowledge that there may be no chance of healing, never admit what we have done and what we have failed to do—then, who can forgive us?”
I asked, “Why is this so hard for us to understand? We see evidence all around us.”
Her answer: “Long-standing ways of thinking, even the way we talk, reinforce the fiction. Think of the metaphor of the Earth as a mother, and the slogan, ‘Love your mother.’ What does this mean? It might simply acknowledge that humans are created from matter that comes from the Earth. But so are Oldsmobiles, and that doesn’t make the Earth the mother of Oldsmobiles.
“I think the whole ‘love your mother’ metaphor is just wishful thinking. Mothers can usually be counted on to clean up after their children. They are warm-hearted and forgiving: mothers will follow crying children to their rooms and stroke their hair, even if the child’s sorrow is shame at his treatment of his mother. It’s nice to think the Earth is a mother who will come after us and clean up the mess and protect us from our mistakes, and then forgive us the monstrous betrayal. But even mothers can be worn out and used up. And then what happens to her children?
“There’s an ad from an oil company that shows the image of the Earth along with the caption, ‘Mother Earth is a tough old gal.’”
I said, “The implication being that the Earth is invulnerable.”
She responded, “A dangerous implication. I wrote a letter to the company saying, ‘If the Earth really were your mother, she would grab you with one rocky hand and hold you under water until you no longer bubbled.’ Cosmic justice.”
It should come as no surprise that the great traditions of pacifism emerge from great religions of civilization: Christian, Buddhist, Hindu.
I recently saw an interview with longtime pacifist activist Philip Berrigan— one of the last before he died—in which he stated more or less proudly that spiritual-based pacifism is not meant to change things in the physical world, but relies on a Christian God to fix things. The interviewer had asked, “What do you say to critics of the Plowshares movement who claim that your actions have not produced tangible results?”
Berrigan answered, and especially note his second and third sentences: “Americans want to see results because we’re pragmatists. God doesn’t require results. God requires faithfulness. You try to do an act of social justice, and do it lovingly. You don’t threaten anybody or hurt any military personnel during these actions. And you take the heat. You stand by and wait for the arrest.”
I can’t speak for Berrigan, but I want to see results because the planet is being killed.
In any case, I think Berrigan is wrong. If there is a Christian God, and if several thousand years of history is any indication, He is not, to use the woman’s term, on the side of the light. Given all evidence, I’m not sure I want to count on a Christian God to halt environmental destruction.
The Dalai Lama takes a more rounded, intelligent, and useful view on violence. He is, in addition, very aware of his premises, and tries to state them when he can. He has said, “Violence is like a very strong pill. For a certain illness, it may be very useful, but the side effects are enormous. On a practical level it’s very complicated, so it’s much safer to avoid acts of violence.” He then continued, “There is a pertinent point in the Vinaya literature, which explains the disciplinary codes that monks and nuns must observe to retain the purity of their vows. Take the example of a monk or a nun confronting a situation where there are only two alternatives: either to take the life of another person, or to take one’s own life. Under such circumstances, taking one’s life is justified to avoid taking the life of another human being, which would entail transgressing one of the four cardinal vows.” His next sentence reveals the whole point, and brings this discussion home: “Of course, this assumes one accepts the theory of rebirth; otherwise this is very silly.”
All of which leads to the sixteenth premise of the book: The material world is primary. This does not mean that the spirit does not exist, nor that the material world is all there is. It means that spirit mixes with flesh. It means also that real world actions have real world consequences. It means we cannot rely on Jesus, Santa Claus, the Great Mother, or even the Easter Bunny to get us out of this mess. It means this mess really is a mess, and not just the movement of God’s eyebrows. It means we have to face this mess ourselves (even if we do get some help from the Easter Bunny and others). It means that for the time we are here on Earth—whether or not we end up somewhere else after we die, and whether we are condemned or privileged to live here—the Earth is the point. It is primary. It is our home. It is everything. It is “very silly” to think or act or be as though this world is not real and primary. It is very silly and pathetic to not live our lives as though our lives are real.