The Supreme Art of War

Sun Tzu, author of the ancient text Sunzi Bingfa  or “Sun Tzu’s Military Rules”, said:

The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”

Sun Tzu was a military general, a warrior who understood that there is almost always an alternative to war.

Wednesday, at the commemoration of the 1963 March on Washington, former President Carter said “I believe we all know how Dr. King would have reacted” to such things as new I.D. requirements to exclude certain voters, high unemployment, and so on. Shortly afterward, President Obama added his words, lauding King’s dream and accomplishments. I wonder how Dr. King would have reacted to the military action against Syria Obama is evidently trying to sell to a skeptical Congress and an American public weary of war.

Perhaps, Dr. King would say something like this, remarks made a mere four months after the historic march:

And the leaders of the world today talk eloquently about peace . . . They are talking about peace as a distant goal, as an end we seek, but one day we must come to see that peace is not merely a distant goal we seek, but that it is a means by which we arrive at that goal. We must pursue peaceful ends through peaceful means.”

When I see the President, the Vice-President, and the Secretary of State going around talking about a country in the Middle East and “weapons” and the need make sure the country in question is “held accountable” through military action, I can’t help but feel that I’ve sat through this movie at least once before, and I didn’t much care for it.

There are arguments both for and against a strike on Syria. There are various takes on the possible consequences. They are all out there, on television, on the Internet, so I won’t rehash them here.

As a Buddhist, I wonder how the Buddha would react to the current situation. From what we know about the Buddha, from the early texts, it appears that he believed in the power of dialogue and diplomacy. The Mahaparinibbanna-sutta tells the story of how Ajatashatru, the king of Magadha, was about to launch an attack on the neighboring Vajjian Republic. Ajatashatru sent a messenger to the Buddha to seek his advice. The Buddha did not give a direct response, rather he said that “As long as the Vajjians do all things enjoined upon and expected them, they will not be defeated or ruined.”

Hearing this, the messenger replied, “So, Gautama, the Vajjians cannot be overcome in battle; they will be overcome only by diplomacy or internal dissention.”

The messenger took this message back to the king of Magadha and war was adverted.

The reason Ajatashatru wanted to strike against the Vajjians is unclear, but also unimportant for this discussion. The takeaway here is that the Buddha suggested an alternative to war. He understood the deeply corrupting effects of violence, and that depending on war to solve the problems facing humankind, or as a tool to protect civilians and preserve security, is an unwise strategy.

Such a strategy is actually reckless. It accomplishes only a little in the short run, and often unleashes further suffering and more violence in the long run. Diplomacy, on the other hand, is “smart power,” as our previous Secretary of State described it. Someone else, I don’t remember who, said diplomacy is useful when you want to talk to people you really don’t like.

As long as there is a possibility for dialogue and diplomacy, there is an alternative to war.

Now that the British have voted against military strikes in Syria, President Obama has signaled that he may willing to go it alone. But UN chief Ban Ki-moon has pleaded for more time to allow the United Nations inspectors in Syria to establish the facts and to give diplomacy another chance to end the Syrian conflict. Instead of touting our military might, the U.S. would be better served by exerting the full force of our diplomatic influence and resources to press the Syrian regime to allow unfettered access to the UN team investigating the alleged chemical weapons attacks.

Once again, all we are saying is give peace a chance.


Asian American Heritage Month

May is Asian American Heritage Month – actually, Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month as proclaimed by President Barack Obama in 2009. During May all Americans, not just Asian-Americans, celebrate “The vast diversity of languages, religions, and cultural traditions of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.” May was chosen so to mark the immigration of the first Japanese to the United States on May 7, 1843 as well as the anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental railroad on May 10, 1869, the tracks of which were laid in large part by Chinese immigrants.

In reflecting on this celebration, I find it extremely sad that there seems to be a real division between Asian-Americans and non-Asian Americans in the Buddhist community, as evidenced by a recent online discussion. I have heard many times that Asian Americans are in search of a sense of identity. I don’t know if that is at play here or not, but I feel that through my study of the history of Asians in the United States, I have a fairly decent understanding of the challenges Asian Americans have had in that regard.

What I don’t understand, specifically in relation to Buddhism in America, are accusations of colonialism and white supremacy because frankly I haven’t seen any evidence of it. And I’ve been around Buddhism quite a while. What does seem to be a factor is a certain amount of revisionist history. An example is the case of Henry Steel Olcott, who, up to now, was widely respected for his efforts to foster a revival of Buddhism in Ceylon (Sri Lanka). I recently became aware of several books which attempt to paint Olcott as a sort of white supremacist. In one, Race and Religion in American Buddhism: White Supremacy and Immigrant Adaptation, Joseph Cheah, a Catholic priest, writes, “Olcotts representation of Buddhism illustrates the assumption that Euro-American values and frameworks were vastly superior to those of Asian Buddhists.” This statement contradicts everything previously known about Olcott, whom a Sri Lankan prime minister once proclaimed as “one of the heroes in the struggle for our independence and a pioneer of the present religious, national, and cultural revival.”

I’ve read Cheah’s book and it’s full of inaccuracies. Furthermore, it seems that the bulk of the book is simply rehashing the somewhat dubious theories of other scholars and researchers. For Olcott, Cheah’s primary source is The White Buddhist: The Asian Odyssey of Henry Steel Olcott by Steven Prothero, who is not a Buddhist but calls himself a “confused Christian” and who has written at least one other “terribly flawed book.”

White supremacy is the belief that white people are superior to people of other racial backgrounds.I just don’t believe that very many white Americans who are attracted to Asian philosophy have that in their hearts, and I don’t believe they would even be interested in Asian spirituality if they did. My experience has been the opposite. I have been interested in Buddhism for over forty years and during that time I have often reached out to Asian Buddhists and on many occasions I have felt that they have been standoffish, almost unfriendly, and have long suspected that it is they who feel superior and that they really don’t consider non-Asians as real Buddhists, or that we can ever truly fathom Buddha-dharma.

Well, there you have it. As Dave Mason once wrote in a song, “There’s only you and me and we just disagree.” There is a divide and the question is how to bridge it. While I don’t buy the claims of colonialism and white supremacy, I cannot negate the feelings of those who sincerely, without twisting facts, hold that view. Yet, I feel it only makes matters worse to engage in a war of words by taking exception to certain terms and labels when their use is well-intentioned. I think it’s a case of everyone talking and nobody listening.

Perhaps we should take our cue from an Asian Buddhist who is not an American, Thich Nhat Hanh, who advocates “deep listening.” This is the practice of listening with compassionate intention, using compassion and understanding as an antidote to conflict. Thich Nhat Hanh says,

Deep listening is the foundation of Right Speech. If we cannot listen mindfully, we cannot practice Right Speech. No matter what we say, it will not be mindful, because we’ll be speaking only our own ideas and not in response to the other person.

Deep listening is the kind of listening that can help relieve the suffering of another person. You can call it compassionate listening. You listen with only one purpose: to help him or her to empty his heart. Even if he says things that are full of wrong perceptions, full of bitterness, you are still capable of continuing to listen with compassion.”

Maybe that was what has been missing from my own experiences.

I hope that during the month of May, Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, we can stop talking at and begin talking with one another, practicing deep listening as we do, and hopefully by the time June rolls around, we will be a few steps closer to the bridging this gulf between Asian and non-Asian American Buddhists. I feel that Buddhists should try to set an example for the entire world, that we should be leaders in making substantive contributions to the collapse of racial barriers, and if we, the Buddha’s children, aren’t capable of doing that in our dialogues with each other, then maybe none of us understands Buddha-dharma.

For more on APAH visit the home page at the Library of Congress.


The Sufferings of Human Relationships

I once had a disagreement with the monk who runs a local Buddhist monastery. I was concerned some of the people he had around were using him, taking advantage of his good nature. What bothered me the most was that he realized what was going on but was being complacent about it. During our conversation, out of my frustration I got a bit excited – but I thought for good reason – then I said, “I’m sorry. I’m passionate about things sometimes.” He replied, “That’s what we’re trying to cure.”

I wanted to say, “Yes, but passion can be good. What about a passion for peace? For justice?” But, I didn’t. He was uncomfortable having the conversation, so I dropped it. Later on, I understood that from his view of the cycle of birth and death, where he had lived countless lives in the past and would live countless lives in the future, some problems in this present life did not seem very important. Perhaps he also thought that being a doormat was a sacrifice he was making for the dharma. Maybe he felt that as long as it served his end, what did it matter? In that way, he was probably using them as much as they were using him.

While I understood his point of view, I was still disappointed he didn’t do anything. He comes from a culture where people naturally seek to avoid what they think might lead to confrontation. But, the feeling is not exclusive to that culture. Many people avoid talking about things directly for the same reason. Though, I suspect that it’s often just an way to avoid dealing with problems or difficult situations.

I like directness and I appreciate that quality in others. I like things to be clear, out in the open. I like to know where I stand and what others are thinking, even if it is unpleasant for me to hear. It’s preferable to being in the dark and not knowing.

So when I have to deal with a difficult person who evades discussion, I’m frustrated. I feel I am being stonewalled. Because I am also a somewhat emotional person, I dislike holding in my emotions. The challenge is not to vent my frustration in anger. A challenge I sometimes fail to meet.

This is not to say that anger is always a negative thing. Compassionate or righteous anger can be positive if directed in a reasonable way. However, I have learned from cold, hard experience that, just as we should master our mind, we need to also master our emotions. It’s basically the same thing. When we express our frustration, we need to be able to do so skillfully. The term we often use in Buddhism is upaya or “skillfulness.” Here it means coming from a place of wisdom and compassion and with cool-headedness.

Another teacher of mine once told me that if you want to reach a person’s heart, first you must know what’s already there. I hadn’t bothered to try to see the situation from the monk’s point of view. I was just looking at what was right and wrong.

We may not be able change others, but we can always change ourselves. The first step is to rethink what is in our heart. For that, we have to dispel our conceptions and judgments, often our biggest obstacles in communicating with others.

Even after we rethink and still feel we were right, so what? The important thing is how we use that right. We may think we have truth on our side; however, truth is neither negative nor positive, it’s merely a fact. The use of truth is where skillfulness comes into play.

There’s the analogy of the butterfly collector, who sees a beautiful butterfly and pins it to the board. There’s no escape for the poor creature. We can do that with people. We can so right, so justified in our point of view, that our attitude pins them to the board where there is no flexibility. When people feel this is happening to them, it is only natural that they shutdown and stonewall us.

It’s very easy to pin others, to perceive their faults. To some people the whole idea of finding out who is to blame has its own purpose. It’s part of trying to avoid the unsavory act of taking responsibility. But it’s a waste of time. You just end up with some sense of righteous indignation, which does not create any value or lead to any real solutions. To recognize “self” and realize how our ego is trying to protect itself at all costs, admitting that we were wrong or that we did something stupid, helps to defeat that nature, that egoism within. To do that is actually a great accomplishment.

Most of all, it is empowering. Realizing that we are the cause of our problems means that we are also the solution. We have both within.

The empowering aspect of responsibility is what gives us the means to prevent whatever we are going through from becoming a long, painful austerity. The difficulties we experience from our interaction with others can be overcome. Frustration may persist, but it becomes the joy of concern and not the suffering of human relationships.


Dialogue is Our Kechimyaku

Last night as I watched the countdown to shutdown on CNN, at one point I thought, you know I bet these guys are just sitting around talking at each other, instead of with each other. It’s too bad there aren’t more Buddhists in Congress, those people could learn something from the Buddhist spirit of dialogue.

It came to me a minute or so later that actually, most Buddhists aren’t any better at dialogue than anyone else. But we should be, because it’s supposed to be a hallmark of our tradition.

In 2006, Amartya Sen, a Nobel laureate in economics, published The argumentative Indian: writings on Indian history, culture, and identity. In this collection of essays on Indian society, Sen maintains that India has made an unique contribution to the convention of public discussion, pointing to its long history of open dialogue based on mutual respect and a willingness to listen to other points of view.

Buddhism had an immense impact on fostering this spirit of open dialogue: “In the history of public reasoning in India, considerable credit must be given to early Indian Buddhists, who had a great commitment to discussion as a means of social progress.” Sen cites the Buddhist Councils as one example, noting that they were some of the earliest open general meetings in the world. I have always thought that the question and answer format of the Buddha’s teachings was also symbolic of the importance he and his followers placed on openness and dialogue.

In one section, Sen talks about King Ashoka, the Indian king from ca. 269 BC to 232 BCE. He describes how Ashoka promoted public discussion, calling for a general agreement on the need to carry out discussions with ‘restraint in regard to speech.’ Ashoka especially objected to disparaging the sects of other people.

Sen writes,

Ashoka was critical for the spread of Buddhism and its social values in the world beyond India. It is interesting to note that attaching special importance to discussions and dialogue moved with other Buddhist principles, wherever Buddhism went. For example, in early seventh century Japan, the influential Buddhist Prince Shotoku, who was a regent to his mother, Empress Suiku, introduced a relatively liberal constitution or kempo (known as ‘the constitution of seventeen articles’) in 604 CE, which included the insistence (in the spirit of the Magna Carta to be signed six centuries later, in 1215): ‘Decisions on important matters should not be made by one person alone. They should be discussed with many. Shotoku also argued: “Nor let us be resentful when others differ from us. For all men have hearts, and each heart has its own leanings. Their right is our wrong, and our right is their wrong.”

I believe that Buddhists, and for that matter, upholders of all spiritual philosophies and religions, should strive to be examples to the world in how to live together. This is especially important for Buddhists because as I said, this spirit of open and respectful dialogue is part of our heritage, our kechimyaku – our bloodline.

The Buddha is often quoted as saying, “Be a lamp unto yourself.” But Mahayana Buddhism added something to that: “Be a lamp to others as well.” As we seek to cause our “inner light” to shine, we should also open our hearts so that the light can shine out and be a guiding light to all people. To my way of thinking, Buddhists should set the standard for dialogue. But how can that be possible if as Buddhists we aren’t able to talk to each other in a respectful manner and with a willingness to listen to someone else’s point of view?

Yes, Buddhist should be the world’s guiding light.  And if you feel that that sounds like something from a soap opera, or foolishly idealistic, or New Agey or whatever, all I can say to you is what someone else once said: I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one . . . I hope some day you’ll join us . . .