'Freedom Through Non-Violence'
by Sulak Sivaraksa

Non-violence does not mean inaction or apathy. Sometimes, the consequence of one's inaction may be as terrible as that of one's action. Moreover, not infrequently, ‘Killing with the mind' is as a sine qua non for participating in direct violence. The victim must first be victimised, demonised and dehumanised. Consequently, violence is redeemed, if not glorified. Non-violence means engaging in an outgoing struggle or movement for justice, freedom and peace mindfully and compassionately. At present, non-violence is not merely ethically and morally pertinent and essential: it is the very prerequisite for human survival and environmental sustainability. Put another way, non-violence is closely related to the democratic participation of ordinary citizens in matters that affect their lives, the more an issue impacts a group of people, the more influence that group must have in influencing it. Non-violence entails a re-examination of the concept of citizenship. For example, the citizen must know when to obey and when to challenge the state.

There is a kernel of truth in the saying that with the end of the cold war, democracy is spreading worldwide. But one need not be political scientist to realise that there is (much) more to the story. In my view, the dominant form of democracy is one in which the risk has been taken out; the risk, that is, of undermining the vested interest of the rich and powerful. A ‘safe' and hollow form of democracy is spreading worldwide: a democracy that shockingly tolerates gross income inequalities, that narrowly circumscribes dissent in the mainstream, that marginalises democratic grassroots movements, that is top-down, that is geared towards advancing the interest of property and not of the people, that treats the poor dismally as if they are not worthy citizens, etc. As such, freedom has increasingly become a devil's gift: it refers to the freedom to starve, the freedom to lead unfulfilling, unrewarding, and humiliating lives, the freedom to work in hazardous conditions with terrible pay, the freedom to die for lack of rudimentary medical attention, the freedom not to have anything to save, and so on. Needless to say, this form of democracy is politically unstable. In so doing, the ruling circles may even employ reactionary means to tow the rabbles in line. Non-violence is a crucial way to help restore meaning and substance to what we call democracy today, to constructively answer the reverberating wails or cries of suffering in the world.

Before we engage in non-violent direct action we first need to understand that violence is often the culmination of greed, hatred and delusion. As Thich Nhat Hahn has consistently pointed out, mindful breathing is a means that can develop greed, hatred and delusion that arise within oneself. Once enveloped and irradiated with metta or loving kindness, these feelings will gradually crack, and it will be possible to see their root causes. Henceforth, the mind begins to blossom like a flower that is unable to resist blossoming when the sun shines into its heart. Applied broadly, mindfulness can be used to overcome negative forces that undermine the wholesomeness of life such as consumerism, sexism, militarism, and so on. Equipped with mindfulness, we would not fall into the trap of hating the oppressors and we would be able to use our newfound understanding to destroy oppressive systems and violent structures. Pursuing the noble eight-fold path will help one cultivate seeds of peace. Peace is something that will fantastically emerge like a jack-in-the-box. With seeds of peace within ourselves, the process of transformation into wholesome thoughts begins, contributing to renunciation, compassion and wisdom.

Equally important, simultaneously with the cultivation of seeds of peace within, we need to envisage and struggle for alternative futures, relying on non-violence. working from the grassroots- that is organising from the bottom up -- we must endeavor to challenge the centers of power, to show that the emperor has no clothes on. As Elise Boulding has observed, "We need images of peoples of the planet living gently but adventurously on the earth, walking the ways of peace in a future still filled with challenges. It is essential to spend time dreaming the possible shapes of that future as it is to learn the skills of peace-building to maintain it..."

His Holiness the Dalai Lama has long been "living gently but adventurously on the earth" and has admirably been "walking the ways of peace," that is, promoting peace and non-violence. He has cultivated seeds of peace within and has continuously stroven to redress the suffering in the world, not only that of his people. As a simple monk like the Buddha, His Holiness is ever humble, chaste and mindful and practices Boundless Love. As a simple monk, he leads a noble and celibate life. He wants so little for himself that all his time and energy are sacrificed for the happiness and welfare of other sentient beings. In a way his happiness depends on his thoughts, his speeches and his actions first and foremost for the well being of others. Furthermore, his life is so harmonious within himself, physically, mentally and spiritually. And this harmony leads to harmonious relationships with other monks and nuns, as well as to lay persons. His lifestyle would influence his lifestyle of the laity who try to imitate the simple way of living mindfully of the monks. His lifestyle would also influence natural phenomena, making them more harmonious and wholesome. Even beasts and bees would learn to be less harmful and more compassionate.

Some social ills are so damaging and horrendous such as the Chinese invasion of Tibet and all the dreadful events in that country. Yet to have a simple monk like His Holiness and his followers insisting that we all learn to love and empathise the Chinese people and to forgive the Chinese government which has committed acts of aggression out of ignorance or delusion, not to mention out of greed and hatred, is profoundly illuminating.

Even when a simple monk is tortured physically or mentally he practices his mindfulness of loving kindness and compassion. Although His Holiness has not been tortured physically he is mutilated mentally every time he learns the hard fact that his subjects, monks and nuns are being tortured mercilessly. Yet he bears this pain magnanimously. And he reminds us all that the only way to overcome suffering is to cultivate seeds of peace within and to work nonviolently and patiently.

Being a simple monk in exile for over four decades, His Holiness has shown to the world that truth, beauty and goodness are not merely rhetorical flourishes but highly practical ideas. His influence and appeal lie in being a simple monk who wants so little for himself and who is devoting most of his time and energy to help the peoples of the world struggle against greed, hatred and delusion. A simple monk with good humor and humility like His Holiness, despite bearing so much social ills of his people and his country, is showing to the world that truth, forgiveness, love and compassion really have powers beyond the present worldly values. With seeds of peace within, a simple monk like His Holiness is in an excellent position to guide others who are aspiring for world peace, social justice and environmental sustainability.

'Freedom Through Non-Violence' talk was delivered by Sulak Sivaraksa in Bombay at a function organised by Friends of Tibet (INDIA) on August 25, 2000.

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