On a whim, recently, I purchased a copy of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship publication, Turning Wheel. The theme for the issue was “disarmament,” which I could not resist exploring. Since the founding of The Martialist it has been my assertion that pacifism is an unworkable, self-destructive, ill-conceived philosophy of false moral equivalence in which no distinction is made between the murderer and the murdered, the rapist and the raped, the aggressor and the defender. Pacifism is, therefore, a philosophy of overwhelming evil – a doctrine of inaction couched as moral superiority that expresses itself as contempt for the gift of our lives. Self-defense – and the willingness to take action towards success in self-defense – is necessary for any human being who appreciates the gift of her life. It is the responsibility of any law-abiding citizen who seeks to protect his family from harm. It is an individual right that is also an obligation for anyone who sees his or her fellow human beings’ freedom of action as a benefit rather than a threat.
Editor Colette DeDonato sums up quite eloquently the Buddhist Peace Fellowship’s philosophy of evil. “When we look closely,” she writes in her opening column, “we realize that arming ourselves is about self-preservation. …We arm ourselves, both physically and emotionally, because at our core we feel vulnerable and fragile. Put simply, we are suffering and we do not want to continue suffering. Bombs are built to defend this notion of self-preservation…”
Reading the disarmament-themed Turning Wheel was quite an experience for this martialist.
DeDonato quotes Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, whom she says opined that there is “no reason to kill our ordinary enemies” because “death will come to them naturally anyway.” Gyatso asserts, and DeDonato agrees, that we should strive instead to destroy “the delusions that are the cause of all suffering.” Buddhism holds at its core, you see, the notion that attachment – to the world, to our possessions, to notions about our physical health, to other people – leads to suffering and that all life is, in fact, suffering. To achieve Buddhist enlightenment is to free yourself from such attachments and thus to free yourself from suffering.
The end result, one presumes – particularly in the context of this issue of Turning Wheel, which consists largely of self-congratulatory and self-righteous screeds on disarmament – is that our attachment to delusions about self-preservation is what causes our suffering. By letting go of this – by disarming, by refusing to preserve ourselves, by adopting pacifism – we achieve peace and the cessation of suffering. This is absolutely correct – for when we refuse to preserve our lives, we are maimed, violated, and killed, the last stop along that particularly unpleasant route being the peace and cessation of suffering that is death. What manner of philosophy would teach that alleviation from anxiety over self-defense is simply to give up self-defense? What manner of evil is this that preaches acceptance in the face of brutality, of rape, of murder?
“As nations, we are indeed armed to the teeth,” DeDonato laments. “But as individuals, we have the power to undo this. …[A]s socially engaged Buddhists, we are moved – I hope – to work for an end to these instruments of destruction that threaten to do away with all humans, animals, and plant life.”
I am no Buddhist, but the concepts of being “socially engaged” and pursuing freedom from “attachment” seem mutually exclusive to me. I recall a Buddhist anecdote in which a monk explains that he has no worries for his physical health – for he could die tomorrow, or he could wake up with a rooster for a left hand, and after all, what would it matter? Contrast this with the pictures of “socially engaged” Buddhist pacifists marching on Washington holding banners – pictures like those contained in this issue of Turning Wheel. Am I the only on who sees a contradiction here?
The rest of the issue contains several articles on the theme of disarmament that are disturbing to varying degrees. While the tone of most of the articles is, as I’ve said, smugly self-congratulatory, very few of the authors seem to understand the philosophical problems they are raising for themselves. They move blissfully through their narratives, telling us how proud they are of their pacifism and the ways in which they have chosen to apply it to their lives, while ignorant – willfully or otherwise – of the contradictions they ought to be confronting.
In a reprehensible piece called “Raising a Son in the Dharma,” contributor Mushim Ikeda-Nash decries the “rough and tough” mannerisms that are the cultural norms for men in American society, complaining that one such rude man told her it was time to wean her son Josh from breastfeeding because he was too old for it. One wonders just how old the boy was that a stranger felt compelled to comment on it. When Ikeda-Nash proudly explains that her sixteen-year-old “Asian American” son is just over five feet tall, has hair down to his waist, and has refused to cut his hair or take notice of those at school “and elsewhere” who repeatedly mistake him for a girl, I begin to get a picture of the emasculated, sexually confused young “man” I have to believe she is ushering into the world – a world where other boys are “not dependent on female nurturance,” according to her.
What is most revolting about the article is the pride apparent in the author’s glowing description of what, to any rational reader, is a damning account of how badly she has screwed up this boy – something of which she seems genuinely unaware. “I have thrown the term ‘mama’s boy’ out the window,” she declares. “Originally I was a single mother, so if my baby wasn’t a mama’s boy, he would have been an orphan.” Such brilliant logic has not been seen since Burnham Wood came to Dunsinane and a man named Macduff – a man “not of woman born” – rearranged a certain Scottish ruler’s priorities.
(Interestingly, Turning Wheel also includes an advertisement for Christopher Ikeda-Nash’s CPA business. One presumes this is Mushim’s husband; how many Ikeda-Nashes could there be?. You can drop him a line at email@example.com.)
Stephanie Kaza, in a piece called “Experiments in Disarmament,” claims that environmental action and Buddhist practice “both aim to disarm.” Disarming, she explains, “means willingly giving up mechanisms of self-protection to foster conditions for conflict resolution that will eventually lead to peace.” Read through the doublespeak and what you have is someone calmly and proudly proclaiming that the way to peace is to give up the means to protect one’s own life. This philosophy of appeasement, of inaction, of wishful thinking, certainly does reduce violence and conflict – for it makes it much easier for one party to a conflict to kill or enslave the other and thus resolve the issue with a minimum of fuss. If defending yourself – if protecting your life and stopping some thug from raping your wife or murdering your child – is “participating in the dominant cultural forces that produce violence and conflict on many levels,” then sign me up for some dominant cultural forces.
Kaza’s article affirms the commonly held conservative belief that certain radical segments of the green movement worldwide are simply the new home of socialism and communism in all its collectivist forms. Kaza equates product brands as “a new form of arms” in “today’s marketing world,” as conditioned consumers choose from among the marketed products by selecting the most aggressively shopped goods and services. Kaza’s far-reaching and life-changing “experiment in disarmament,” in this case, is to remove all the labels from the foods in her kitchen, banishing brand-name products (which she still buys, but whose corporations she apparently still fears) to the pantry, where they are out of sight and thus out of fragile mind.
In an article called “BPF Goes to Washington,” Maia Duerr describes a September, 2005 march in D.C. that culminated in the usual candlelight vigil. I don’t know what a candlelight vigil is ever supposed to accomplish, but Duerr proudly claims that 370 people (12 from her “affinity group”) were arrested as they attempted to deliver the usual letters to the president demanding he end the war, bring the troops home, grow flowers on the front lawn of the White House, be kind to puppies and kittens, and generally do whatever it is that socially involved Buddhists want elected leaders to do. Among the “Direct Action Bodhisattvas” (a rather repugnant perversion of a Buddhist concept that owes its perversity to the left-wing political activists within the Peace Fellowship’s Berkeley, California-based ranks), who waited more than five hours to accomplish their goal of being arrested, were Doctor Cornel West (whose “theatrics,” according to John McWhorter, “reinforce racist stereotypes”) and Cindy Sheehan, the “Gold Star Mother” who has worked so hard to shrilly disrespect the memory of her dead son, Casey Sheehan (a soldier killed in Iraq). The wide-eyed letter to President Bush is reproduced in its entirety and includes the obligatory references to Halliburton, racism destroying New Orleans levees, and quotes from the late Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
There follows a fragmented article entitled “Palestinians and Israelis Building Peace Together: How to Get Involved,” by Lyn Fine and Annette Herskovits. I am at a loss to comment on this one; I can only return to the usual question I ask whenever the topics of Israel and the Palestinians are raised. Ask yourself: If the Israelis laid down their arms, parked their tanks, and stayed home, is there anyone who thinks the Palestinians would stop sending young men wearing bombs into Israeli pizza parlors and shopping malls? Now, turn it around: if the suicide bombings and other acts of terror stopped, does any rational human being think the Israelis would be bulldozing houses in Gaza or firing rockets into the neighbors just for the fun of it?
The next article is called “Whose Side Are You On? A Jewish Woman’s Thoughts on Israel/Palestine.” In it, Sandy Butler admits that she has “been armed to the teeth most of [her] political life.” How does she then condemn her own Jewish family, she asks – for that is what her article does. Ms. Butler asks for our permission or our affirmation as a self-hating Jew breaking the taboo against criticizing fellow Jews. “I always thought I knew what side I was on and who was on it with me,” she sniffs. “I thought those on the other side were misguided or ignorant.” Now, it would seem, it is Jews who are misguided and ignorant – and Ms. Butler, the enlightened pacifist, who is on the side of right.
Having just returned from several weeks in what she calls “Israel/Palestine,” attending the 13th Annual Women in Black Conference on Resisting War and Occupation, Ms. Butler is obviously flush with the moral superiority of the more than 700 people (that’s right – seven hundred people) struggling nonviolently “against all forms of militarism and nationalism.” Butler condemns the “series of concrete barriers” separating Israelis from those who have repeatedly demonstrated an eagerness to murder them. She recounts the usual whitewashed and propagandized visions of Israeli discrimination against Palestinians (forgetting, yet again, that this “discrimination” is generally aimed at stopping the poor, mistreated Palestinians from murdering Israeli women and children as they go about their lives shopping, eating, or going to school). Butler paints overwrought pictures in her prose, describing how she joined “international activists” at the entrance to an Israeli settlement. Surrounded by Israeli soldiers and armored vehicles (there to protect the protestors from the settlers, she asserts – the idea that the settlers might find protestors at their gates at all threatening does not occur to her), she and her fellow “international activists” are said to have “stood in the fierce noontime sun… as the cars streamed past us, drivers and passengers cursing, waving their fists, children peering out through the back window, looking bewildered.” I share those children’s bewilderment; I share the anger of the Israeli settlers when confronted by a fellow Jew who sides with those who are only too open in their desire to see the Jewish people swept into the sea.
From this heady material we are treated to a real gem from Gary Lark, called “Breaking the Chain: Getting Guns Out of My Life.” Gary tells us a story decades old in explaining what an enlightened, peaceful Buddhist he is. It seems Gary, back in 1979, spent a spring morning destroying a 12-gauge double-barrel, a Remington .22 semi-auto, a Stevens .410 shotgun, a lever-action .308 hunting rifle, a European Mauser, and a 12-gauge pump-action shotgun. To anyone who knows anything about firearms, these are not exactly weapons of warfare and destruction. They are, instead, the rather mundane accoutrements of any man in the Midwest who enjoys hunting and some target shooting. They hardly constitute an arsenal – but, to Gary, who seems still to be shaking off the effects of the marijuana he admits to smoking during his National Guard days, these are the embodiment of all violent horror. One of the guns was used by his father-in-law to commit suicide, apparently; another was carried by Gary himself as he stalked someone as an angry 21-year-old looking for payback after a brawl.
At no time does it seem to occur to Gary that he is describing tragedies in human behavior, rather than some evil inherent to guns; no, Gary has “gotten guns out of his life,” and he is very proud of that fact. Gary is, from all indications, a little emotionally unbalanced, so I applaud his decision. “One morning,” he says, “as I was driving to the monthly Guard meeting, I felt an itch on my nose, scratched it, looked into the mirror, and hallucinated that my nose had come off… That night, after the meeting, I put on the Rolling Stones, smoked half a joint, poured a glass full of wine, and sank into a hot bath. But that still wasn’t enough… I wondered why no one talked about what really goes on in military training.” Gary was apparently reeling from the thought of using .50-caliber machineguns, to which he was exposed during that traumatic training.
“That day in 1979,” Gary proudly tells us, “in the process of finding myself, I destroyed all my guns. I quit alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, and caffeine…” In the years that followed, Gary glimpsed “the open door of compassion,” and who among us would not be grateful that a dope-smoking, boozing, caffeinated ex-hippie who spent the Vietnam war in the National Guard and admits to plotting something close to (but not quite) premeditated murder took the time to disassemble a handful of hunting guns and target plinkers? Thank heavens for Buddhist enlightenment; pass the weed, man.
If that was disturbing, the next article is even more so. Billy Tyler, writing from High Desert State Prison in Calipatria, California, describes how he has given up knives (improvised shivs and shanks) in prison thanks to his Buddhist devotion to pacifism. Oh, he’ll still use his fists to defend himself, but he won’t use a knife, so that means he’s following the path of Enlightenment… right?
Billy describes using “a diluted form of violence” to save a friend from being stabbed. It seems Billy (who even now hopes to write to his friend, transferred to another prison, to explain that their relationship is still intact despite Billy’s actions) attacked a fellow inmate in order to prompt the transfer process. The inmate, a friend, was targeted for a good ol’ prison shanking when Billy got wind of it and took decisive (and sort of Buddhist, kind of) action. Oh, and the reason the friend was targeted for stabbing was because it came out that he was a child molester who had raped a fourteen year old girl. Billy wonders if he would have made friends with the fellow if he’d known from the start, but that’s all water under the bridge now… right? The moral distinction between using your fists for violence and using an improvised knife for violence is somehow lost on me but, to be honest, I am not a prison inmate or a child molester, so I probably lack the compassion necessary to understand.
Melody Ermachild Chavis writes longingly of Stanley “Tookie” Williams, the convicted murderer whose pleas for clemency were refused and who is now, one presumes, occupying some ring of Hell reserved for those who found notorious street gangs that even today plague the streets of Los Angeles. The willingness of leftists and peace activists to support the most violent and unrepentant of murderers never ceases to amaze me; news surrounding “Tookie’s” attempts to forestall his execution was full of revelations regarding the horrible nature of his crimes – and his refusal to take responsibility for them or to disavow fully the Crips gang that is his most lasting legacy.
There’s more, much more, in this issue of Turning Wheel, from the usually absurd “No Nukes” pleas for unilateral disarmament to pontifications on the “Middle Way to Peace.” A contributor named Michele Benzamin-Miki pontificates on the natural of “martial” arts in describing her training in Aikido as some sort of spiritually liberating experience. “I have come to realize that by disarming my fear, hatred, and negativity in the moment it arises, I am free to act from a place of love,” she writes. One presumes this is the excuse she uses to reconcile training in a martial art – and with katana – while also claiming to be a pacifist.
If I was tempted to forget that the true theme of this issue of Turning Wheel is self-congratulation, Lin Jensen’s “Peace on the Pavement: My One-Man Vigil” was enough to remind me. “Someone has to do it,” Lin says humbly. “I just happened to be the one.” “It,” in this case, turns out to be a one-man peace vigil on the corner of Third and main streets in Chico, California. Jensen, a self-described Zen Buddhist, has apparently spent a day here and a day there on various street corners in his area, sitting cross-legged with a sign propped nearby proclaiming his peace vigil and imploring whomever might be reading it to support notions of nonviolence, justice, and mercy. “Like other peace activists,” Jensen says, “I protest the violence of war in any way I can… I’ve also written every ‘Letter to the Editor’ protesting this tragic war that I could get the conservative Chico Enterprise-Record to print, feeding them a letter a month until the paper’s editor began imposing censorship, claiming that my viewpoint on peace was repetitious and no longer timely.”
War, Lin tells us, is the “failure of compassion, a failure to realize one’s inherent sympathies.” I have to admit that he’s right; there are many people with whom I fail to sympathize. Among these are people who strap bombs to their bodies to murder women and children, thugs who stalk the weak in order to steal from them, men who rape women, and totalitarian dictators who “institutionalize” such violence as torture and the imprisonment of political prisoners. I don’t doubt that actually taking action to fight any or all of these evil forces is a “failure of compassion,” to Mr. Jensen. If that is so, you may consider me greatly lacking in compassion.
Stumbling to its conclusion, Turning Wheel treats us to Tova Green’s description of visiting Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In my own home town, the local peace activists marched to protest the anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings – completely dismissing, one supposes, the bombing of Pearl Harbor (there were no marches of protests on the anniversary of that minor incident) and failing to hold in any regard the lives of the thousands of soldiers who were spared further, tortuous ground warfare during what became the end of World War II. No, it is far easier to weep over the innocents who suffered because their government initiated war against an opponent it could not defeat. Some book reviews, advertisements, and still more material on Hiroshima and Nagasaki rounds out the issue.
When I was done with Turning Wheel, I felt as if I’d dipped my head in a particularly fragrant can of garbage – a pile of refuse smelling of lilacs that was, for all its pleasant aroma, still just trash. Turning Wheel is wishful thinking masquerading as moral superiority. It is a self-destructive and unworkable philosophy at the individual, community, and national level disguised as enlightened compassion.
I have said before that life is a struggle, or at least often so. It need not, however, be a bleak struggle. For us to stand any chance of surviving and prospering, we must nonetheless recognize life’s challenges for what they are and deal with them on the basis of what is – not on the basis of what we wish could be. While the pacifists of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship are well-meaning and probably perfectly nice people, their philosophy would have devastating consequences were it to be adopted by a majority of people within a given society. Such a society would collapse in short order – for no society endures and no individual survives if that society and that individual are not prepared to use force in self-defense.
Self-preservation is not an illusion. It is a necessary fact of life – for there can be no life without it. Human beings are born with a survival instinct for this very reason. No amount of high-minded ideals and flowery poetry will change that. The Buddhist Peace Fellowship, in engaging in political activism for what it sees as right and good, is instead acting for everything that is wrong and evil in the world.
Pray that they remain the minority. Pray that notions of self-preservation remain “culturally dominant.” When this is no longer the case, we will all suffer.
No amount of detachment from that suffering will alter it.