The Radical Sangha banner (also pictured in Monday’s post) has raised a few questions. This might be a good space to engage with some of them.
1. What’s a sangha?
I’ve heard a couple different translations for sangha, which is a Pali word. Loosely, it means something like “community.” In a Buddhist context, it’s one part of the Triple Gem in which practitioners take refuge. Triple Gem includes “buddha” (the historical Siddhatha Gotama from around 500 BC, as well as other buddhas or enlightened folks); “dhamma” (the teachings of the buddha; truth; or practices that lead to understanding truth through direct experience); and “sangha” (sometimes explained as an advanced practitioner to whom we might look for inspiration; other times explained more as a supportive community or assembly of practitioners). So sangha is a group of two or more people practicing dhamma, and helping one another to discover deeper and deeper truths about reality.
2. What’s your understanding of the phrase, ‘by any means necessary?’
Good question. I associate the phrase with Malcolm X and Black liberation movements that bucked norms by insisting that they had a right to use violence, among other tactics, to win their social freedom.
Put in a dhammic context for the banner, I love the apparent tension between the imperative to “Liberate,” and the famous militant phrase. The way I think about it, the Buddha himself did not rule out violence as a means to liberation. He didn’t rule out any means, and indeed gave a good honest try to many of the highest spiritual trainings available to him in his youth. He explored for himself (and encouraged all of his students to explore) the ways that mental negativity (almost always concomitant with doing acts of violence) undermines the quest for liberation from suffering.
What I would love to see among politically active dhamma practitioners in the Bay is a greater spirit of bold experimentation, in the tradition of the Buddha and other awakened folks. Too often we get stuck with a closed-case of nonviolence, or even pacifism. Too often this justifies and hides our fear of confrontation. Fear of conflict. Fear of pain.
And even among the dhammic people who exhibit extraordinary courage and commitment in the face of violent oppression — submitting to arrest and imprisonment for months or years at a stretch, over and over again — I still think we could use a little more of the “any means necessary” mentality. After all, the “necessary” part means what is necessary to win. Not just what feels good to us. Not just what mimics established forms. What works! Right?
3. I recognize the fist, but what’s with the other hand?
Excusing, if you will, my mediocre drawing skills, the right hand of the figure is supposed to be an abhaya mudra: a gesture of friendly greeting, peace, benevolence, and the dispelling of fear.
For us to liberate (ourselves and each other) requires fortitude and oppositional stances; but it also calls for the special kind of fearlessness that comes from compassion. With compassion, free from delusion, we recognize the good in the opponent. We also see and tend lovingly to the hatred, fear, and greed within ourselves. This compassion inspires and guides our action just as much as strategy; just as much as the urgent wish to “smash” harmful systems.
So there’s a little explanation of where I was coming from. Thoughts? More questions?
“What I would love to see among politically active dhamma practitioners in the Bay is a greater spirit of bold experimentation, in the tradition of the Buddha and other awakened folks. Too often we get stuck with a closed-case of nonviolence, or even pacifism. Too often this justifies and hides our fear of confrontation. Fear of conflict. Fear of pain.”
I think it’s important to separate “pacifism,” which to me is about being mostly passive, and “non-violent action,” which to me is really a dynamic synergy of intentions not to harm together with action in the world – sometimes very bold action. I think you are very right that fears of conflict and pain often hold people back from being dynamic and bold, when such acts are called for. It’s definitely true for me. And I think it would be really helpful for all of us involved in grassroots activism and whatnot to really sit with, discuss, and examine these fears and what they do to us.
You mention “winning.” This is a troubling view for me precisely because it maintains that old “winner-looser,” “enemy” and “friend” duality in place. I can see where this reference is probably pointing at victory over oppressive systems, which I support, but how does a practitioner come with a desire to end oppressive systems, and not in the process let that slide into enemy-making about others involved/controlling said systems? It’s really tricky, and I think one of the reasons why I have always said I stand committed to non-violent action is that such a commitment helps me check those impulses to think “Oh, fuck so and so, they’re just tools…”
I actually think that a commitment to non-violence can mean that one (or a group of people) hold this as the central intention behind all they do, and by any means necessary will check their actions by this intention. In my opinion, this doesn’t completely rule out violence, but it raises the bar on violence to a high level, so that the impatient, angry, frustrated mind doesn’t take over.
What concerns me when non-violence is either moved from the center, or is downplayed in any way, is that it’s so, so easy to start justifying acts you’d never otherwise justify in the name of a greater cause. And I can’t tell you the number of times I have such acts being called “compassionate” – hell, the Iraq War was called compassionate by many people. I’m not saying you would do this, this working with compassion is challenging, especially on the systemic level, where so many powerful variables are in play.
Perhaps the distinctions I’m making look like semantics. However, I don’t think that’s the case. Going back to your comments about fear, working deeply with fear might be exactly what’s called for in order to burn through false compassion.
I definitely hear you on the “enemyism,” nathan, and I’ve certainly been against enemyism among my political friends. But I don’t think we need to give up the idea of winning in order to avoid us-vs-them mentalities. Winning is different than defeating or conquering. Even if it requires confrontation, there’s a way to work for a ‘win’ that will ultimately benefit everybody.
I talk about this at the end of the Oscar Grant post on Feministe, with “the question of loving our enemies”:
Successes, or wins, are pretty freakin important, if you ask me. I think we need more of them!
But you’re absolutely right, I think, that we need to remain conscious of, and work with, our impulses toward enemyism, and fuck-you-tools-ism. It’s hard work, but that’s what we’re here for, right? I’m just wondering whether the absolutism around nonviolence might at times be a crutch that prevents us from looking deeper into our own fears and latent enemyisms. I certainly can’t speak for anyone else, but it’s a question worth raising, I believe.
Like you say, working with those fears helps burn through false compassion, but maybe in order to even access those fears we need to reopen questions of what means are necessary in order to transform empire into just and classless societies.
Perhaps the wording is part of what I was reacting to. “Successes,” for example, doesn’t hit me the way “Winning” does, even though they are talking about the same or similar outcomes. I totally agree that without those small successes, those markers along the way, people give up and die (to their lives and the world).
Two things I see about non-violence – 1) many people conflate it with passivity, even amongst activists. People who might have the most beneficial ideas around hold back because they assume non-violence is about being kind, gentle, and non-confrontational. So, this is one area that needs to be opened up, so that there is much more awareness of the myriad of ways in which non-violent action and thought has been employed historically.
Second, you’re right about a certain fundamentalism present, if I may call it that. Specifically, that no amount of violence or force is considered ok amongst some folks. And this, in my view, is living in a dream. Some level of confrontation and conflict often is needed to break through systemically oppressive patterns precisely because those patterns have muddled relations so much that people aren’t, collectively, going to be able to act in completely liberated ways. The problem in my view is when people start justifying killing others, torturing others, or terrorizing others in the name of whatever cause they support. The way I see it, it’s vitally important to come from a non-violent centering, but also to acknowledge that conflicts might arise which lead actions into some violence. People might get hurt and some damage might be done. This is recognizing the actual causes and conditions on the ground – for example, crossing a police line and then being involved in a physical scuffle with police officers is possible because of the tense historical relationship between law enforcement and various activist groups. You don’t go seeking it out, but it might happen. And if groups are taming down their actions, which I think some might be, because of fears like getting into physical altercations, that needs to be examined. In fact, getting those fears out in the open might lead to discussions about how best to handle law enforcement officers, for example, so that such potentials are minimized.
If the FBI raids on activists in my state last week are any indication, things are ramping up, rather than cooling down nationally. Which means all of this discussion is very important.
Mmm, yes, I’m feelin you on all those points.
I had a really interesting discussion about nonviolence with my parents the other day. Both are products of the Civil Rights Movement era, but they each have different views on what nonviolence really means.
I was bringing up an example of occupying a building. My dad sees that as violent; my mom does not. My dad sees it as violent because, How do you get people out of the building, and keep them out, in order to occupy, if not through the threat or use of violence?
My mom, on the other hand, draws a more distinct line between seizing property, versus something like kidnapping or assault. As long as the latter two are out of the picture, the former two are fine.
So I brought up the idea of a strike with a hard picket line. Again, my dad thinks it’s violent. Mom, no way! From her perspective, you’re specifically acting in a nonviolent way, and then it’s the police and scabs who bring the violence to you in order to break up your picket line.
But I pushed her a little further. At that point, what do you do? Do you defend the picket line, or let the police trample it?
These are not outlandish questions. We never would have had a movement for unionized labor in this country without some physical self-defense and maintenance of hard strikes. Period. Even my favorite childhood movie, NEWSIES, teaches that!
As long as you don’t instigate violence, and as long as you’re highly strategic and loving about your actions, I think that defending a picket line is justifiable. Others disagree.
You’re right — we do need to be having these discussions! And more than that, we need to model the kind of nonviolent, militant, compassionate action that we’re talking about. Thanks for your thoughtful and insightful engagement, as always. :)
Thanks for this discussion (and Katie for your blog in general, which is FABULOUS!). Your banner is so beautiful!
Over the years in support of social and environmental justice I’ve supported and undertaken a very wide range of tactics, some of which some people no doubt would consider violent, some of which in hindsight I consider violent.
One of the things I’ve been noticing a lot lately is how much violence is involved in day to day life and that I’m fooling myself if I think I’m committed to “non-violence”. Whether it’s living as a settler on stolen Lekwungen land, using a computer that has toxic elements in it (including the back-breaking labour performed by the people who soldered the chips together that form the guts of this computer), or ending myriad sentient beings’ lives when I drink a glass of water, the fabric of day to day life involves both a lot of natural violence (eating, drinking, etc.) and also unnatural violence (racism, colonialism, etc.). Given this I’m not sure what it means to have a commitment to non-violence.
On the other hand harm reduction has resonated a lot more strongly, not just around addiction but also around life in general. “Do no harm” always sounded like a crock, but “do less harm”, that is something I can relate to — being responsible for the parts of life where there are choices to be made and I can choose to minimize the harm.
“Doing less harm” doesn’t mean never doing or saying anything that will lead to people feeling uncomfortable. When the teenage guys on the bus were writing “so and so is a fag” on the steamy bus window and I walkd over and wrote “I am gay and you guys are jerks” beside it, you can bet they felt pretty uncomfortable, much as I’ve felt totally uncomfortably squeezed when people have called me on my ignorance. Arguably the “you are jerks” line was just mean and petty and far from loving and compassionate, although they did shamefacedly mumble “sorry” to me so perhaps it helped humanize the whole situation more than a warmer and fuzzier approach might have.
The bottom line is that interfering with someone who is doing something that is harmful, whether the tactic for that interference is writing on a bus window, picketing, damaging property, or whatever, brings up strong feelings for the person who is being interfered with. That doesn’t mean it’s not right to do.
Of course there are all sorts of quandaries with a “harm reduction” approach — it’s so easy to justify something as reducing harm, and can we ever truly know whether something is leading to more or less suffering? Over the years I’ve wrassled with a particular psychiatrist who counsels parents not to let their gender-diverse children express themselves because he feels being transgender is just too difficult and that it’s better to train kids to be “normal”. I really think he feels he’s helping to reduce harm. But still, as a way of looking honestly at the choices I make in my own life about what tactics to use to interrupt both interpersonal and systemic oppression, and looking with compassion at my own life around the times I’m so self-involved that I’ll choose the path of more harm — that’s a lifelong practice that resonates for me.
First of all I want to congratulate you on your blog. I’ve been hungry for thought-provoking posts lately, especially those with which I only partly agree.
I think we need to be extremely wary of the phrase “by any means necessary” and what it entails. I’m the first one to agree that ‘pacifism’ is more than often an excuse not to mobilise, because people are afraid or embarrassed of making others uncomfortable. Civil resistence and activism are very much needed, and I don’t approve of people who claim to have political (or religious, or philosophical) ideas and are willing to discuss them, but then rely on political correctness and are offended if you call them immoral for holding certain views. If someone is willing to engage in a debate, he has to be able to hold his ground or admit his mistakes, and not resort to taking a victim’s position.
That said, while I praise passion, initiative and action, I think we need to draw a line between what’s violent and what isn’t before even thinking of mobilising.
First, because violence is very, very dangerous. If you set a violent precedent for the sake of a good cause, it’s more than likely it will snowball and get out of hand. Because we as humans don’t have complete control of our self-restraint, no matter how much we like to think we do.
I don’t know how familiar you are with Spanish recent history, but it’s the easiest example I can give because of my personal circumstances. So, for instance: ETA (a terrorist organisation that fights for Basque independence) killed, in the seventies (during the Franco dictatorship in Spain), one of the biggest figures in the government. He was called Carrero Blanco. He was a fascist, had a lot of blood on his hands, and, more importantly, his death was a severe blow to the government and the totalitarian state it managed. Franco died two years later, and with Carrero Blanco’s absence, the exiled king had to be named Head of State. To the country’s surprise, the king turned out to pave the way for democracy (constitutional monarchy).
So, overall, even though the death of a human being is always regrettable, it can be easily argued the death of Carrero Blanco was overall positive because it was one of the many factors that allowed Spain to become democratic (of course, to the extent a neoliberal capitalist system is democratic, but that calls for separate discussion).
However, partly because ETA thought they had the moral higher ground (fighting and rooting out the fascists, and fighting for the self-determination of their people, a right recognised by the UN Declaration), and partly because a large majority of the mobilised left approved of them in those times (for reasons like the one I’ve just explained), they kept killing. And, of course, it got out of hand. It wasn’t high-positioned fascist officers and sympathisers anymore, but what is commonly called “collateral damage”. Many civilians, even children, had died in the hands of the ETA. Then the government got involved and there were cases of torture and illegal, violent prosecution of the terrorists from the part of the state, which made ETA’s reaction worse.
It has backfired on them as well. Today, Cataluña is much closer to obtaining independence than the Basque Country is, because they have done it through non-violent means (discussion, representation in Parliament, a couple referendums and a lot of political negotiation). Maybe if they had dropped the arms and continued their activism through peaceful means, the story would’ve ended differently for the Basque nationalists. This brings me to my second point.
My main reason for repudiating any sorts of violence is that if we are fighting for something we believe in, it’s because we think we have the higher moral ground for it. A law that promotes racial discrimination is immoral and unjust, so I have a reason to fight it. But as soon as I resort to violence, even if it’s just one blow, not only am I setting a precedent, but I’ve also lost my ground for fighting injustice. I’m no better than the policemen that, yes, probably started hitting me first.
It can, and often will, develop into a vicious circle. When I hit back, I’ve also lost a chance to convince my opponent, so I’m more likely to resort to violence in the future because it will be harder to convince him, and more likely for him to use violence again against me and my cause.
I think an interesting point is whether ‘immoral’ should only be applied to positions and issues, or to the means as well. Of course, if we don’t consider the means as immoral, then it isn’t relevant whether they are violent, as long as we fulfill our higher, more just purpose.
The problem is that in reality, it doesn’t work like that. Violence will always, always breed more violence and less willingness to listen.
A picket line or an occupation are not strictly violence, because you aren’t putting anyone’s physical well-being at risk or even bullying anyone. But that’s where the line has to be drawn. If the police charge against the picket line, the workers should disperse to save their skin or take the beating as a gesture of moral higher ground (dramatised Gandhi-style).
Their fight is just, the police’s isn’t and that’s why they attack. I think violence often betrays more fear of confrontation than non-violent, active civil resistence.
Hi Eko and Laura, thank you so much for stopping by, and for your insights. This is becoming a super fruitful thread!
Eko, you sound like you would be a perfect fit for the Faithful Fools, where I live and work. :) Our practice here has everything to do with harm reduction, as well as consistent reflection and internal work that allows us to remain open and sensitive to the ambient violence — natural and unnatural — in everyday life in the Tenderloin neighborhood and beyond. It’s so easy to become desensitized to this violence, trauma, and suffering, partly because our education systems (both public and private) naturalize the unnatural kinds to such a great extent. Anyway, I really appreciate your reflections, and I love your “I am gay and you guys are jerks” window-scrawl story: an example of skillful means if I ever heard one!
Laura, thank you for your rich and humbling reflection. Though I live in one of the most violent and destructive nations in the world, I myself have never been exposed to armed conflict. My own experience of the residue of state violence comes through my family, both sides of which have been victim to horrific state-sponsored atrocities. So I want to acknowledge that I don’t speak from a place of experience of direct assault from or against the state, and my views are limited in this way.
Again, though, where the phrase “by any means necessary” holds richness for me is in its dialectical relationship with the imperative to “Liberate” in a dhammic context. This is not just about changing external circumstances, but also about freeing ourselves from reactivity, and from the mental habit-patterns of attachment that lead to hatred, greed, and delusion.
When we hold these two sides together, we may find that we are incapable of committing direct violence without breeding mental negativity, which undermines our efforts toward liberation. Or, we may find otherwise. For me it is a very useful koan, worthy of continued investigation and incorporation into my life as it is now.
For me, at this moment, the best bet seems to be militant compassion, nonviolent opposition, and strategic disruption of business-as-usual, along with loving implementation of positive visions for a new reality. More details to come, with the No-on-Prop-L Sidewalk Sit, a possible ongoing campaign to disarm BART police (and generally promote safer, healthier, just and community-controlled public transit), and actions developed out of the Marxist Feminist study group, potentially including trainings on how to provide safe early-stage abortions.
Really interesting stuff, great thread! I have been thinking very very heavily about questions like this since just finishing a ten-day course in the meditation technique taught by the Buddha. Personally I love the banner, because of the subtleties in saying something like “full liberation for all by any means necessary” with the understanding of liberation taught by the historical Buddha. IMHO, this specifically does NOT mean “the means don’t matter, only the outcome matters,” but instead means “we must fearlessly discover which means will lead to liberation, and practice them.”
I think it’s initially confusing because the By Any Means Necessary (BAMN) slogan, made popular by Malcolm X and the Panthers in the Black Power movement of the 60-70s in the USA, was (I think) actually meant to convey that the era of nonviolent suffering is over, we’re going to need to use violence among other things now to get revolutionary liberation from white supremacist, imperialist capitalism (Panthers were anticapitalist, X I’m not sure.), and sometimes to say something Katie’s definitely not saying: “the means don’t matter as long as we win.”
To be clear: I think this initial confusion/tension makes it a good slogan, I’ll explain why below.
This is controversial among people I know, but I think that the Panthers’ highly militarized structure and sometimes “guerrilla war” paradigm were counterproductive to liberation from white supremacist, imperialist capitalism! Oppression was replicated inside the party and movement, while oppression outside was also not defeated. I don’t think the problem was that they decided to use “any means necessary”, but rather that they were wrong about the means that were necessary, and didn’t see patriarchy for instance as an important form of oppression they were trying to overcome.
When people like Kloncke, or other Buddhist/Dhammic activists use the word “liberation”, I now (I think rightly) understand them to be talking about liberation from suffering, not material liberation from the structural oppression of conservative politics, capitalism, corporations, racism etc.
The central question: What means are necessary for all beings to be liberated from suffering?
Means that reinforce oppression while attempting to fight it are not going to liberate us, and therefore are definitely not necessary for liberation! Just like Kloncke says,
BUT the flipside is that by forbidding ourselves e.g. hard picket lines and armed self-defense, are we condemning ourselves to always lose when the fight gets serious? Is it really true that self-defensive violence is ALWAYS counterproductive? Are we ready to condemn the violent self-defense by rural Black people against the Klan (during the civil rights movement!) as “counterproductive”? Even MLK supported that!
I think that there are three kinds of nonviolence:
1. A tactic used to dramatize oppression and use moral authority and appeals to compassion to force an end to some oppression. This is the Gandhi and MLK kind.
2. A commitment to never initiate violence for political ends: a commitment against terrorism, assassination, beatings, kidnapping.
3. A commitment to never use any violence, including self-defense. Pacifism. (I would disagree with Nathan that pacifism is about passivity….pacifists that I have met (few), are always making a moral argument against any violence, and specifically including self-defense, and often engage in direct action. But I’m sure there are varying understandings, like any political word!)
I really like the second point of Nathan’s second comment above, which I think clearly points out the line between my 2 and 3, what he’s calling “fundamentalist” nonviolence vs. a nonviolent centering.
I think these points made by Laura is exactly what we should be examining:
“Violence will always, always breed more violence and less willingness to listen.”
What if willingness to listen isn’t what we’re fighting for? Are we always trying to directly “convince” the police or the people who tell them what to do, the paramilitaries and the corporate boards who control them? Why?
“A picket line or an occupation are not strictly violence, because you aren’t putting anyone’s physical well-being at risk or even bullying anyone. But that’s where the line has to be drawn. If the police charge against the picket line, the workers should disperse to save their skin or take the beating as a gesture of moral higher ground (dramatised Gandhi-style).”
Does this mean that we always withdraw or suffer a beating whenever force is used? Self-defense is completely out of the question? I see such a ban on self-defense by a picketing Chinse factory worker, by an abused woman, by a Black farmer, by a Palestinian person whose house is getting bulldozed as encouraging the use of force by the State, capitalists, patriarchs against us! I feel Laura that we should consider our means as carefully as our ends…….but “morality”, as a shorthand list of things that usually have oppressive outcomes, is I think too blunt an instrument for the careful and very serious task of theorizing and experimenting our way to liberation.
Anyway thanks to Kloncke for starting this off (and talking through this stuff with me on the regular) and to the commenters for the engagement. See you in the sangha and the streets!
One of the main reasons why I pointed out the difference between the two non-violences The Fish references from my earlier post is that holding people to standards of perfection is a form of violence in my opinion. The Buddhist pure precept of “doing no harm” for example, is meant to provoke the complexity of life as it is for each of us. On the literal level, it seems to say never harm. But what does that mean in a world as dynamic and flowing as this one is? On the compassionate level, it suggests that we need to examine how best to support all beings through our actions. And at the ultimate level, there is no “harm” as we know it.
Now, if you stay too grounded in the literal level, you hold people to an impossible standard. One must never utter a mean and misguided word and never physically react in a way that hurts someone, and indeed, never act in a way that inspires violence in others. Holding people to this standard doesn’t recognize the complexity of life as it is. I can even think of times in my life, for example, when I refrained from physical acting out, and calculated my words in such a way that I refrained from insults and personal attacks, but which still inspired violence simply because the other person or people disagreed so strongly with my ideas that they felt compelled to spew hatred and threaten to harm me.
If you stay too grounded in the compassionate level, framing everything in terms of aiding and supporting others, you can get caught up in trying to hard to “help the world.” This is a misunderstanding of compassion of course, but I know from my own experience of having a strong orientation towards the compassionate level, it’s easy to get lost in weighing out possible harms to others.
And if you stay grounded in the absolute, or ultimate level, you either check out entirely from the on the ground dynamics, or you just dismiss such concerns as irrelevant to enlightened living because there isn’t such a thing as harm in the absolute sense.
So, somehow, our challenge in upholding the pure precept of “do no harm” is to embody it completely, at all levels, as best as we can. Which is why I emphasize maintaining a “non-violent centering.”
Thanks for this continued discussion, it’s very rich! The Fish’s distinction between three kinds of non-violence was particularly interesting. Not much I can say about how I might respond to a hypothetical situation in the future — I can say how I have responded in the past but who knows if I’d respond that way again next time around.
Regarding interpersonal situations, from using violence in self-defense I can say that using violence in that context was very painful and there are still nightmares and regrets about it — including nightmares about the satisfying feeling of my fist connecting with someone else’s face — facing that sadistic side of myself. That’s not to say it was morally right or wrong for me to defend myself, or that it would be right or wrong for someone else to have done the same, but there was a profound impact for me in committing violence. There were also times when my defense in interpersonal attacks was to not resist and there have also been consequences of that with the attendant nightmares and regrets. My experience is that when people do use violence one of the ways we seem to try to deal with our suffering around having used violence is that we try to rationalize its morality, instead of facing how it felt to hurt another human being — both the repulsion of committing that harm and also, perhaps not just for me, some of the satisfaction of doing so. Because there are obvious consequences to talking openly about having hurt each other in this way we can’t safely talk about it, but in doing so we miss the opportunity to really look at it and what it means.
Nathan, what you said about the impossibility of an absolutist approach to morality of certain types of actions really rang true for me. We are all just fumbling along trying to make reasonably guided decisions in the moment. Having made a lot of hasty political decisions in the past (with poor outcomes) my tendency now is to be slow and cautious about acting but we can’t not act until we are perfectly awakened, inaction is a type of action too. So, bumbling along, it seems all we can do is create places where we can be really honest about our experiences with this difficult issue. Thanks everyone here for doing just that!
Katie I enjoyed the slogan and the contemplations it generated.
Yet wondering whatever happened to the middle way of wise and wholesome view, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, concentration… leading to right knowledge and liberation.
They fell by the wayside..once upon a time due to ignorance, skeptical doubt, and wrong views. Peace and metta~