Self-reliance is the key

Time Magazine’s article for their choice as the 2011 Person of the Year begins:

A year after a Tunisian fruit vendor set himself ablaze, dissent has spread across the Middle East, reaching Europe and the U.S., reshaping global politics and redefining people power.”

This year Time’s Person of the Year is The Protester, which is an interesting choice. The Protester beat out Adm. William McRaven (Commander of the bin Laden raid), Ai Weiwei (an Chinese artist who as a political activist might be covered under Protester), Kate Middleton (she got married, which to the people at Time must be a really awesome achievement), and Congressman Paul Ryan (whom Time calls “The Prophet”; I have some names for Ryan myself, but some other time). Frankly, these last two runner-ups are a bit bizarre.

But as far as The Protester goes, I say more people power to them all. Time’s choice reflects a wave of global revolution. But curiously, the cover story by Kurt Anderson does not once mention either Tibet, where this year ten Buddhist monks set themselves ablaze, or Burma, where Aung San Suu Kyi was finally released after spending nearly half her adult life in silent protest while under house arrest. So much for the global part of the revolution . . .

Gene Sharp

Now someone I think would have been far more fitting for inclusion into the runner-up field is Gene Sharp, the subject of a documentary showing on Current TV right now entitled, How To Start A Revolution. Sharp, whose nonviolent tactics for toppling despots have been employed by protesters in Egypt and Eastern Europe, is Professor Emeritus of political science at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. His Wikipedia entry goes into some detail about his “influence on struggles worldwide.” Sharp is also the author of a number of works, including From Dictatorship to Democracy A Conceptual Framework for Liberation, which is available as a pdf from The Albert Einstein Institution.

Sharp’s argument for nonviolent resistance is both rational and convincing. He writes,

Understandably, reacting to the brutalities, torture, disappearances, and killings, people often have concluded that only violence can end a dictatorship. Angry victims have sometimes organized to fight the brutal dictators with whatever violent and military capacity they could muster, despite the odds being against them. These people have often fought bravely, at great cost in suffering and lives. Their accomplishments have sometimes been remarkable, but they rarely have won freedom. Violent rebellions can trigger brutal repression that frequently leaves the populace more helpless than before.

Whatever the merits of the violent option, however, one point is clear. By placing confidence in violent means, one has chosen the very type of struggle with which the oppressors nearly always have superiority. The dictators are equipped to apply violence overwhelmingly. However long or briefly these democrats can continue, eventually the harsh military realities usually become inescapable. The dictators almost always have superiority in military hardware, ammunition, transportation, and the size of military forces. Despite bravery, the democrats are (almost always) no match.”

What’s the alternative? Sharp says,

The conclusion is a hard one. When one wants to bring down a dictatorship most effectively and with the least cost then one has four immediate tasks:

• One must strengthen the oppressed population themselves in their determination, self-confidence, and resistance skills;

• One must strengthen the independent social groups and institutions of the oppressed people;

• One must create a powerful internal resistance force; and

• One must develop a wise grand strategic plan for liberation and implement it skillfully.

A liberation struggle is a time for self-reliance and internal strengthening of the struggle group.”

Although it might be a stretch, this reminds me of a story told in the Maha Parinibbana Sutta. King Ajatshatru of Magadha sends a messager to the Buddha seeking his advice on a plan to attack the Vajjians, whose territory was north of Magadha. The message from Ajatshatru states, “I will destroy these Vajjians, I will bring them to utter ruin!” I’m not quite sure what Ajatshatru’s beef was with the Vajjians, but the Buddha’s reply is that “so long as the Vajjians continue to observe their traditions properely, and meet regularly in their republican assembly, seeking agreement in all matters, and so on, their prosperity is assured.”

After this, the Buddha turns to his followers and repeats this advice word for word. Basically, he is telling the Sangha the same thing Sharp says above, that as long as the Sangha remains self-reliant and internally strong, it will continue to prosper.

I think this applies to individuals as well. If a corporation can be a person, then I suppose a person can be a group, since after all, we are a heap of aggregates, a collection of groups of cells.

Self-reliance is one of the key messages of Buddhism. It is what really separates Buddha-dharma from any other spiritual philosophy. Buddhism is a philosophy about jiriki, “self-power.” When it crosses the line into tariki or “other-power”, then it really no longer Buddhism, but something else based on Buddha-dharma. There are those who would disagree with this and suggest that it’s a dualistic view, but I think they are just rationalizing their own tendency to want to seek something outside of their lives for “the answer” or “salvation.”

Sharp notes that,

Liberation from dictatorships ultimately depends on the people’s ability to liberate themselves. The cases of successful political defiance — or nonviolent struggle for political ends — cited above indicate that the means do exist for populations to free themselves, but that option has remained undeveloped.”

In the same way, in the universal struggle against the dictatorship of suffering, the individual’s power to liberate his or her self remains undeveloped, and this is what Buddhism seeks to rectify.

Furthermore, Sharp writes,

Many people now suffering under a brutal dictatorship, or who have gone into exile to escape its immediate grasp, do not believe that the oppressed can liberate themselves. They expect that their people can only be saved by the actions of others. These people place their confidence in external forces. They believe that only international help can be strong enough to bring down the dictators.”

Of course, when we talk about self-reliance the “self” we speak of is not the same “self” that we are also trying to overthrow, the self of “no-self.” However, people get confused about this, and in general, confidence in one’s self-power can be a hard thing to cultivate. At the same time, we also talk about bodhisattvas saving people, and this too can be confusing, because in the end we are the only ones who can save ourselves.

This point may be, quoting the Lotus Sutra, “the most difficult to believe and the most difficult to understand.” A Japanese priest commenting on the sutra, once wrote, “We common mortals can see neither our own eyebrows, which are so close, nor heaven in the distance. Likewise, we do not see that the Buddha exists in our own hearts.”

The Buddha in our own hearts is a metaphor for the positive potential that exists within each human being – the potential for happiness, wisdom, liberation. We also call it Buddha-nature. It is the inner-power that is difficult to believe in and difficult to harness, especially when we are so busy looking for something outside of ourselves to come and save us.

You yourself must make the effort. Buddhas only point the way.”

– The Dhammapada




Waiting for someone or something else to save you is a childish, selfish way to live. We are not here to suffer, we are here to enjoy. If you do suffer, you have to face yourself, look within and examine what it is in you that’s suffering. External conditions have their roles to play, but only in setting the stage. In most cases, there is no one or nothing that can make you suffer. Suffering can only happen inside you, and that is the only place where liberation for suffering can be found.


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