LOVE DOES NOT IMPLY PACIFISM
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 situa-tional—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 philoso-phy—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 cir-cumstance—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
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
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
I asked, “Why is this so hard for us to understand? We see evidence all
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
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
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.
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