This quote by the Dalai Lama is going viral on the internet, “If every 8 year old in the world is taught meditation, we will eliminate violence from the world within one generation.” Marianne Williamson shared this quote via her Facebook account and it received a tremendous reception. Google the quote and you will find tens of thousands of web sites, Facebook pages and twitter feeds where it has appeared. Needless to say, the enthusiasm over the Dalai Lama’s statement is profound. It has struck a cord for sure.
His words reflect the more widespread belief that spiritual practices can provide grounding for more ethical and wise action. One could substitute meditation in the quote with yoga, prayer, chanting or sacred dancing and people would generally agree that these types of things will inspire compassion, kindness and generosity. Through meditation one can hopefully gain a better realization of the interconnectedness of all things. Many believe, or at least hope, like the Dalai Lama, that this renewed sense of awareness will inspire us to take action against injustice in the world.
While for much of my life I’ve also shared this popular sentiment I’ve now come to see it much differently. Based on years of research and writing as well as personal practice of yoga, meditation and Chi Kung I’ve discovered some very strong flaws in the Dalai Lama’s argument. Furthermore, I actually see these types of statements are very irresponsible as they mislead the public about the causes and solutions to violence. The real conversations about these very challenging issues that need to take place could potentially be minimized by these types of statements.
The first and most obvious problem with his statement is the ambiguity of what violence actually constitutes. Takes these few examples: spray painting over a sexist billboard, using violence to defend against rape, eating meat, the prison industrial complex, throwing tear gas canisters back towards the police who fired them, the capitalist system, racial microagressions, stealing food to support oneself…etc. Many would argue that abortion is violent. Would this be eliminated with meditation? There are so many forms of violence and ways that we all participate in systems that are violent that it would be nearly impossible to reach a consensus on who’s criteria of violence gets to be used. How can one eliminate something if we can’t agree on what it is that is being eliminated?
Buddhism and War
The second flaw with the Dalai Lama’s statement is that history has revealed numerous examples of societies based on spiritual, ethical and meditation practices which have colluded with and supported some of the worst violence of the day. I describe this in my chapter in 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics & Practice (Kleio Press, 2012.) [Below, marked by asteriks, is an excerpt from this chapter.]
Author and Zen priest Brian Victoria has written extensively on the role that Buddhism played in supporting the Japanese Imperial Empire before and during World War II. In Zen at War and Zen War Stories, he chronicles the little known and disturbing history of renowned university professors, Zen masters, and lay monks of many different sects who gladly assisted their nation in waging multiple “wars of compassion.” The Japanese Emperor was compared to the Buddha, and Buddhist teachings became an excellent tool to eradicate individualism and dissolve the “small-self” into the larger nation-state. Hitler was jealous: “Why didn’t we have the religion of the Japanese, who regard sacrifice for the Fatherland as the highest good?”
One of the many people Victoria profiles is Zen master Yasutani Haku’un. Yasutani was the teacher of prominent American Buddhist Phillip Kapleau, author of the now classic Three Pillars of Zen. While he received high praise from the likes of Huston Smith and delivered talks in the U.S., there is another side of him that went untold until relatively recently.
Although Yasutani’s influence on American Buddhism is widely revered, Victoria refers to him as a “militarist, not to mention ethnic chauvinist, sexist, and anti-Semite.” On the question of Buddhism and killing, Yasutani was unequivocal:
Those who understand the spirit of the Mahayana precepts should be able to answer this question immediately. That is to say, of course one should kill, killing as many as possible. One should, fighting hard, kill everyone in the enemy army. The reason for this is that in order to carry [Buddhist] compassion and filial obedience through to perfection it is necessary to assist good and punish evil . . . This is the special characteristic of the Mahayana precepts.
At the time, Japan was engaged in a cruel war of imperial expansion. This received full support from Yasutani, who stated: “In making China cede the island of Taiwan, and, further, in annexing the Korean peninsula, our Great Japanese Imperial Empire engaged in the practice of a great bodhisattva, a practice that reveals itself through compassion and filial obedience.” Yasutani also warned of the demonic ways of the Jews, dismantled liberal reforms, and reiterated sexist statements. He insisted that “the universities we presently have must be smashed one and all,” and referred to trades unions and alternative political parties as “traitors to the nation.”
Sadly, Yasutani was not a marginal voice. Rather, he was emblematic of how institutional Buddhist wholeheartedly embraced the worst aspects of Japanese imperialism.
Sawaki Kodo, “one of Japan’s best known modern Soto Zen masters and scholars,” was a similarly staunch supporter of the unity of Zen and war. “My comrades and I gorged ourselves on killing people,” he testified. “Especially at the battle of Baolisi temple, I chased our enemies into a hole where I was able to pick them off very efficiently. Because of this, my company commander requested that I be given a letter of commendation.” Another Zen Master, Yamada Reirin, explained how Buddhism shaped his love for the state:
Wherever the imperial military advances there is only charity and love. They could never act in the barbarous and cruel way in which the Chinese soldiers act. This can truly be considered to be a great accomplishment of the long period which Buddhism took in nurturing [the Japanese military]. In other words, brutality itself no longer exists in the officers and men of the imperial military who have been schooled in the spirit of Buddhism.
Buddhist monks and leaders taught Zazen (sitting meditation) to “discover, through a thorough-going examination of the self, the origin of the power which enabled them, in their various work capacities, to serve the emperor.” This, they believed, would allow them to “realize infinite power.” When the tide turned against the Japanese, Zen priests abandoned this “thought war” and took positions in factories producing military goods.
Books were also written to defend the Japanese empire. In The Buddhist View of War (1937), Komazawa University Professor Hayashiya Tomojiro argued that the Japanese aggression should be seen as “wars of compassion.” Stating his strong support for the war effort, Tomojiro insisted that Japanese Buddhists would “as part of our self-sacrificial public duty . . . work for the spiritual general mobilization of the people.” The aim of the war, he claimed, was to “save sentient beings and guide them properly.”
While these examples are disturbing in their own right, this pairing of Buddhism and war isn’t confined to the Japanese Empire. The edited volume Buddhist Warfare (2010), clearly illustrates how Buddhism has been used to justify violence throughout its history. In a review of the book, Vladimir Tikhonov notes that: “From its inception, Buddhism was integrated into a complicated web of power relations; it always attempted to accommodate itself with the pre-existent power hierarchies while preserving a degree of internal autonomy; and it inevitably came to acknowledge, willingly or otherwise, that the powers-that-be use violence to achieve their objectives, which often overlap with those of the Buddhist monastic community.”
Yoga in the U.S. Military
The appropriation of yoga by the American military similarly challenges notions that internal spiritual practices will inspire practitioners to challenge the status quo. In 2006, Fit Yoga Magazine’s front cover featured a picture of two naval aviators practicing yoga – specifically, Virabadrasana II, or “Warrior” pose – on a battleship. At the time, even the editor of magazine admitted that she found this juxtaposition of yoga and militarism a “little shocking.” On second glance, however, she realized that “on their faces, their serene smiles relayed a sense of inner calm.”
According to Retired Admiral Tom Steffens, the Navy Seals use yoga too. “The ability to stay focused on something, whether on breathing or on the yoga practice, and not be drawn off course, that has a lot of connection to the military,” he explains. “In our SEAL basic training, there are many things that are yoga-like in nature.” In 2011, the Army added yoga and “resting” to the required physical training regiment in an effort to “better prepare soldiers for the rigors of combat.”
Confusing Presence with Justice
Why, one wonders is dissatisfaction with social injustice and a willingness to resist exploitation not seen as a sign of ‘spiritual intelligence’? – Richard King
As we’ve seen, cultivating presence through meditation or yoga is not by itself an adequate way to address the complex global challenges we face. The “raising of consciousness,” as it’s popularly phrased in today’s yoga and meditation communities, doesn’t raise political consciousness. It doesn’t make people more aware of what is violent and what is not, nor does it make them resist violence. An increase in presence in the world does not increase justice. Nonetheless, these two elements are all-too-often conflated with each other. But inner transformation doesn’t necessarily lead to social transformation, despite the popular conceptions to the contrary. In many cases the cultivation of presence and awareness is actually used to support violence.
In fact, as Marshal Rosenberg warns, a mere focus on spiritual practice can actually be problematic:
“Unless we as social change agents come from a certain spirituality, we’re likely to create more harm than good…The spirituality that we need to develop for social change is one that mobilizes us for social change. It doesn’t just enable us to sit there and enjoy the world no matter what. It creates a quality of action that mobilizes us into action. Unless our spiritual development has this kind of quality, I don’t think we can create the kind of social change I would like to see.”
The activist, writer, and spiritual teacher Starhawk similarly recognizes the limitations of a privatized spirituality. She states, “Transforming the inner landscape is only a first step. Unless we change the structures of the culture, we will mirror them again and again: we will be caught in a constant battle to avoid being molded again and again into an image of domination.”
We’re all part of larger systems, many of which are incredibly damaging to people and the planet. Along with air force bomber pilots, racists, pro-life extremists, corporate crooks, Japanese soldiers in WWII and (you fill in the blank), we can all experience what we sincerely believe to be spiritual transformation or awakening, yet remain oblivious to the dangers of our surrounding culture. In fact, “spirituality” is rather easily incorporated into any social system, including market capitalism, government, and militarism, as a regime of thought control.
Why Meditation & Awakening are Ethically Neutral
Spiritual seekers, including yoga practitioners and convert Buddhists, understand the divine, or true essence of reality in a variety of ways. Many believe that God, the supreme consciousness, or emptiness is supportive, benevolent, or on the side of justice. Of course, it’s understandable for someone to think that the universe supports his or her particular beliefs and values. The problem, however, is that many with quite different beliefs and values think exactly the same thing. As we’ve seen, countless people have been deeply entrenched in larger systems of violence and domination despite believing they were experiencing connection with the divine through meditation, yoga, or some other spiritual practice. Of course, others have used their spiritual practices and beliefs to resist these same power structures. Therefore, if we assume that there is in fact a divine foundation of reality, it’s extremely difficult to see how it wouldn’t be morally and politically neutral. If there were a distinct political or moral direction to the divine, and practices such as yoga or meditation were means of tapping into it, then all practitioners would eventually share the same political ideology. This, however, is obviously not the case.
How would meditation or the experience of awakening change the politics of these various groups? The Black Panther Party, radical feminists, the tea party, the KKK, Goldman Sachs bankers or anti-abortion activists. Would it somehow make them all the same? Would meditation lead to some shared understanding of what violence is between these groups and would it be followed by the elimination of it? Or simply imagine the eight year old children of these groups meditating. Will they all end up with the same politics? Will they all eliminate violence from their lives? The answer is a resounding no. Think about all of the white, middle and upper class people who have been practicing yoga, meditating, doing visualizations and chanting in the West for decades now. Has it made them more aware of injustice? More concerned about white privilege or informed about racism? Better educated about poverty? More aware of animal cruelty in the food system? Have the millions of spiritual practitioners subverted anything political? No.
In the book I describe how these experiences should be understood:
Perhaps it’s best to view the potential political subversion of spiritual practices like yoga and meditation as akin to those of psychotherapy. Much healing and transformation can be gained with therapy, just as emotional blockages and wounds can be uncovered and processed on the yoga mat. Experiencing more inner freedom and a vibrant emotional life while being less distracted by habitual patterns or old wounds are outcomes of both. However, it’s important to remember that merely growing developmentally, or awakening to deeper states of being won’t change one’s social or political ideology as the Dalai seems to suggest. Yoga and meditation, like psychotherapy, may be effective healing and personal growth practices, but they’re politically and ethically neutral.
In conclusion this quote by Gaylon Ferguson who is writing about racism and Buddhism demonstrates very well the problem with relying upon meditation to cure societal ills: “It seems quite clear that, whatever the brilliance of the teachings of the Buddhadharma, individual practitioners can continue for years, perhaps lifetimes, with these prejudices left largely untouched by meditation practice. One may even learn to use dharmic concepts like ‘karma’ to reinforce separatism and indifference to the suffering around us.”
This is a partial excerpt from a chapter by Be Scofield in the new book “21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics and Practice.”
Be is a contributing writer for the Huffington Post, Alternet and Tikkun. Be Scofield is a certified yoga instructor, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. scholar and founder of www.beyondwhiteness.com and www.greenwisetv.com. You can follow Be on twitter: http://www.twitter.com/bescofield