I recently had the opportunity to visit the astonishing Buddhist caves at Ajanta, in North India. I was on a pilgrimage to the painting of Avalokitesvara for which those caves, actually chambers hollowed by hand out of solid rock, are famous. The now-faded reproduction that hangs in my bedroom nourishes me spiritually, but I wanted to see, in its original setting, the rendition that the artist captured some 1,500 years ago, to appreciate those eyes of compassion. I was not disappointed. Truly, as His Holiness the Dalai Lama has said, “Compassion is the religion of this age.”
Compassion is also a focus of modern scientific research: compassion, cooperation, altruism and empathy are key words in the “new science” that has emerged from the materialism and “rationalism” that has dominated Western science for centuries. Compassion and nonviolence are as intrinsic to the emerging worldview of interconnectedness as alienation and violence have been to the dominant worldview of separateness. Where the “other” is felt as separate, it is very hard to feel our compassion for them. We even have neurological evidence of the link between interconnectedness and compassion: in our nervous system we “feel” the suffering we inflict on others. What does modern compassion look like? While I fully appreciate the power of meditation and prayer, I believe that in this age, compassion must find expression in action. Hindu and Buddhist teachers say this rhythm of contemplation and action is as necessary as breathing in and breathing out.
Thich Nhat Hanh explains that “Engaged Buddhism is simply Buddhism.” The same holds for compassion and compassionate action. While advanced sages like Sri Ramana Maharshi may influence the world by their awakened mental state, most of us must express the lovingkindness in our heart, and our commitment to nonviolence, by actually engaging with the many forms of violence in today’s world. How can we act in today’s turbulent world without dissipating the compassion we reach in our meditation? The answer is: through nonviolence. I am convinced that nonviolence is the bridge between spiritual practice and social change.
Another finding of new science is that violence, while it exists in nature (and in our nature), is not an inevitable product of that nature. So why is it so widespread in modern life? Why does it seem to be increasing in ferocity and extent?
Some years ago I took my grandson to Marine World Africa, an ecological theme park outside of Vallejo, California. Toward the end of a tour that emphasized the tragic loss of endangered species, we went to a show in a special theater. I had no idea what we were in for. The “show” was a sci-fi fantasy about a team of scientists exploring a newly erupted island where they had to fend off a threatening herd of dinosaurs—a desperate fight for survival against nature. It was a very high-tech experience: as the Land Rover on the screen bounced over rough terrain, our seats bounced along with it. The implication here was that nature is dangerous and we must use science, technology, and force or violence to survive it.
The message we got at Marine World was deeply contradictory: a) that we are a part of fragile, precious, natural world that must be preserved and b) we are separate from a threatening nature that must be destroyed for our own protection. Many of us are exposed to between 3,000 and 5,000 commercial messages a day, every one of which is telling our unconscious, “You are a mechanical being separate from others and you need things from the outside world for your fulfillment; life is a competition for scarce resources.” This is the gospel of violence. It is a short step from this message of insecurity and competition to the reality of war.
To counteract this message, to make a lasting difference, we need more than individual protests and struggles. We need a comprehensive strategy of inner work and outer work, where the former involves the training of one’s mind and the latter—as Joanna Macy has pointed out—addresses both institutional change and the underlying culture. Here we can learn much from Gandhi’s nonviolence. In our own era he was able to mount a sustained campaign combining spiritual vision and work, experimenting every step of the way. His campaign rescued India from the greatest colonial power of the day and started a cascade of freedom struggles that brought down the edifice of worldwide colonialism (at least, until more sophisticated forms like globalization took over). Yet his most important contribution may be the way he did this: by offering a vision of human connection that transcended our age’s prevailing ethos of separateness and domination.
At the Metta Center, which I cofounded some years ago, we have been trying for several years to work out a Gandhian strategy that could work for the entire progressive movement. At regular intervals we get together to meditate, share a meal, and then get into no-holds-barred conversations about crucial issues of our time. Out of these discussions has come a model of social change called Roadmap, based on three concentric fields of action.
The inner circle is about developing “person power” (a term we coined on the model of “people power” formed during the nonviolent Philippine insurrection of 1986). Once we are working on personal empowerment, the next field of action, the second circle, is what Gandhi called “Constructive Programme,” building the institutions and practices of a nonviolent society. And finally—for these institutions or reforms will inevitably meet with resistance from the established order—we move on, from a position of strength, to nonviolent resistance. This is the third circle: satyagraha.
For the first circle, personal empowerment, we have come up with five suggestions:
1. Limit exposure to commercial mass media, in any form: films, TV, etc. Aim for zero!
2. Fill the cultural vacuum in your mind by learning everything you can about nonviolence. Many practitioners jump into nonviolent actions without knowing how to use it. Sometimes the results are fatal. Think of Tiananmen Square in 1989, where students were murdered in cold blood and their democracy movement died with them, partly because they were not aware that they had other nonviolent tactical options.
3. Take up a spiritual discipline. Deep residues of separateness (vasanas) in the mind were there long before television and mass media. The first two steps will not address this separateness—but meditation will!
4. Act from the place created by these changes by, for example, giving the person you’re talking to your full attention—“deep listening.” Dehumanization is another name for violence, and it is widespread in our present culture. Rehumanization is something we can each do in our daily lives.
5. Find your place in the movement that Joanna Macy calls the Great Turning. Where do your capacities match society’s need?
Like any power, nonviolence can be wrongly used. Recently an Internet writer who shall remain nameless urged us to take on “the machine.” How? Sabotage things wherever you can, and don’t get caught. From the standpoint of nonviolence, both are exactly wrong. If we are reactive instead of proactive, if we sabotage things that are running, however badly, we let the creators of the system set our agenda; worse, we identify ourselves as the party of disorder. Property destruction has to be done, if at all, with great discrimination. Gandhi actually said, “I see no courage or sacrifice in destroying life or property for offense or defense.” If we are really heeding “the law of our species,” which is how Gandhi described nonviolence, we’d be doing the exact opposite: helping to establish order.
If we try to avoid getting caught, we’re violating a key principle of civil disobedience: stand up proudly for what we’ve done and force the administrators of the system to punish us. This is how we make the wrongness of the system—and our determination to fix it—visible.
When we are ready to take nonviolent action, our first thought should be, how can we work on the problem constructively? That is, how can I and my community address racism, economic inequality, crime, etc., with our own resources? In the course of his long career, Gandhi came to feel that Constructive Programme (CP), the second circle of our Roadmap, was the key to lasting change. It is the necessary precursor to acts of resistance. If one thought India could win its freedom and then address caste discrimination, poverty, alcohol abuse, he or she was dreaming. There are vast advantages to CP, many of which are addressed in the Roadmap documents and other writings and workshops available at Metta Center and other sources.
It is interesting to note that when the first wave of Occupy was thwarted by police repression, activists did not just go away; they took on programs like hurricane relief (Occupy Sandy) and, even more significant in the long run, debt relief. Occupy programs like Strike Debt and Rolling Jubilee have been able to buy up nearly $15 million in debts, mainly medical expenses, giving debtors and their families the welcome news that they’re “off the hook.” Occupy discovered the power of CP experientially, and that is how today’s activists can start to learn what real nonviolence looks like.
Ideally, CP could address all the things we need to fix without the need for confrontational, active resistance. More realistically, our constructive action provokes obstruction from powers that be, which puts us in a position of strength by surfacing their injustice. There are cases that call for confrontational resistance. As Joanna Macy says, we have to “stop the worst of the damage.” Either way, it’s important to be aware of nonviolent dynamics and the “best practices” that have been worked out by Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and many others. The way nonviolent actors are making their experiences available to others, often to people caught up in a major movement without knowing much about nonviolence, is one of the most hopeful developments of the last twenty or so years.
The history and theory of nonviolence is so rich that it would be difficult to summarize here but it’s possible to express it in a simple and direct fashion that would go something like this:
I’m going to act out of the awareness of unity that my spiritual practice has given me. I do not want to hurt another, in their person or their dignity, because I know that in so doing I will be hurting myself.
The deeper this principle is embedded in our consciousness, the more naturally nonviolence will come to us. Acting from this place, we discover a clear alternative to violent and military behavior, with the appalling damage it inflicts on all sides, especially the perpetrators’—witness the shocking rate of suicides in today’s military. A Kurdish activist recently told a member of Christian Peacemaker Teams in Iraq, “Nonviolence may take longer [it doesn’t, actually] but you don’t lose your humanity in the process.”
As mentioned earlier, we don’t lose but rather access our humanity by practicing nonviolence. The universe is an embodiment of mahakaruna (great compassion) and our small acts of compassion resonate with this great law. As we act out our own understanding of that law, let’s not be shy about telling this “new story” of humanity—why nonviolence works, why it’s the only way forward and how we ourselves grow in the process. That way we can steadily change the culture while we’re addressing one or another of the problems it caused, and that would be a powerful way to facilitate the Great Turning to a compassionate, nonviolent world.