Sunday, February 11, 2007

Deeply Held Belief in Nonviolence

I was talking to a friend of mine yesterday about a mutual hobby, tabletop gaming. We are both huge fans of the Lord of the Rings universe and play Games Workshop's Lord of the Rings Strategy Game. Tactics play the major role in this game, as each player controls an army comprised of units from within the Lord of the Rings mythology--elves, men, dwarves, Gandalf, Saruman, etc.--and fights a battle with their forces against the other player. To give our games some depth and meaning, however, we created a strategic world within which we play the game. In other words, it's closer to "real life" in that the results of our battles ripple through our respective Middle Earth empires. When (and if) to attack, how much force to use in doing so, what additional units to produce to strengthen our armies, where to maneuver--all of these are now important factors for which we have to account. Said another way, instead of just playing the role of a Field Commander in a single battle, we now play the roles of President, General, Defense Minister, and Foreign Relations Advisor, as well as Field Commander.

While we discussed our game and what appears to be an impending invasion of my territory by my friend, I noticed how uncomfortable I felt regarding our war. I love fighting our individual battles for the strategic challenge they present, just as I enjoy chess, Go, and other such games. But the more my job becomes "leading an empire," the more I shy away from warlike tendencies.

I think back to my college days, when I frequently played the computer game Civilization. In that game, you are charged with leading your chosen civilization from a single settler in antiquity to launching a manned spacecraft to Alpha Centauri, our nearest star, in the 21st century CE. Across this vast span of time, you can lead your civilization in an infinite number of ways, including creating and breaking diplomatic ties, choosing your form of government, forging trade routes, building Wonders of the World, and waging war. I always, always, always tried to win via diplomatic relations, and could never bring myself to wage war on the other civilizations, except under self-defense.

In Buddhism, the number one moral teaching is, "Do not harm, but cherish all life." All other ethical actions can be reduced to this one teaching--we should not lie because of the harm it can have on others as well as ourselves (we count as "all life" too!), we should avoid stealing because of the pain it causes others, etc. In November of 2005, the Dalai Lama gave a talk on the heart of nonviolence, and here is an excerpt from Stanford University's coverage of the event:

"Violence is destruction; nonviolence is construction," he [Dalai Lama] said.

But the boundaries between violence and nonviolence cannot be determined simply by observing actions on their surface, he said. An individual can use nice words to cheat or exploit another, he said. Conversely, a harsh action could be done out of compassion and the intent to protect others, he added. Limited violence can be permissible, and countering a violent action with a strong countermeasure sometimes is not only permissible "but is the right thing to do," he said.

The organized violence of war, however, is never a lasting solution, he said. Acting out of negative emotions, however natural they may be, obscures reality, he said. In today's reality, "the whole world is like one family or one body. Destroying one part of the world is like destroying yourself," he said.

War is very hard to justify, he said. It's too early to say whether the war in Iraq is right or wrong, he added. "We'll see," he said.

As I am a Buddhist, I embrace the idea of nonviolence. But in conversing with my friend, for the first time I truly observed for myself how deeply ingrained this approach to life is in me. Even in my completely unreal fantasy game, as soon as the game gave me responsibility as the leader of a people (rather than just a General in a battle without context), I felt it was completely wrong and irresponsible of me to pursue war. Even knowing this now, and knowing that our game was designed completely around giving us a reason and a context to fight our individual battles, I still struggle inwardly with any decisions involving waging war because I deeply feel that peace is always an option, and to allow events to proceed to the point where violence is unavoidable is to have failed in my job as leader. I agree with the Dalai Lama that strong countermeasures are sometimes necessary to minimize violence and harm in the long-term (WWII and Hitler being an obvious example), but it is only under extreme circumstances that this type of action is necessary.

1-Minute Contemplation: When in your life have you had the experience of seeing a deeply held viewpoint naturally emerge? Did you expect that response? Did you know it was even there? For me, I knew I had felt violence was wrong, but it had mostly been an intellectual understanding that had provided guidance for me. Until my revealing conversation with my friend. It was only then that I truly saw for myself the depth of feeling I had of the importance of peace and harmony in the world.


Tom said...

... but, I think we must be very careful not to assume that immediate peace is, in the longterm, in our -- or anyone's -- best interest.

It is too easy to suppose that leaving Iraq rather quickly is in the best interest of America, for example. While that would save, perhaps, one thousand American soldiers' lives, it would unleash an all-out civil war with a death count of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, including children.

The Peace movement is too simplified, for me. It ignores the downside and longterm dangers. Aren't we glad we went into East Timor? And saved Kosovo from ethnic clensing? Don't we wish we had done more for Rwanda and Darfor?

Wars in the 21st Century will be ambiguous. Sometimes engaging with apparent evil might be an opportunity to relieve or prevent a mountain of suffering.

Mike said...

Agreed 100% on all accounts, Tom. Sometimes acts that are externally violent are the most wise course of action in the long term - but we have to make sure they are done with the proper intentions, not out of anger, greed, or attachment to power or ego. If the violent actions are done out of compassion, there is at least a chance that such action is wise.

Thanks for the comment!

Adam said...

You seem very attached to your belief that all violence is bad, and to violate that principle in any form would be hurting yourself. Perhaps violence in itself isn't bad - but the effect it has.

Hitting someone else, for example, might cause physical pain and suffering in someone else (and keep you identified in your anger). The war in Iraq does not seem to be effective at improving the quality of life.

But the game is different. Going to war with a country on the computer doesn't lead to an angry computer. Even with your friend - is it an negative result? However, being attached to non-violence, it sounds like you are causing yourself anguish by feeling conflicted over whether or not you should participate. Not engaging in violence in this form seems to be causing harm to yourself.

Mike said...

Hi Adam - thanks for the comment. I tried to make it clear that I do NOT believe all violence is bad, like where I noted that I agreed with the Dalai Lama that sometimes harsh countermeasures are necessary to stem even worse violence. However, what I DO think is always bad is violence backed by anger, greed, jealousy, ego, etc.

You raise an interesting point when you say, "Going to war with a country on the computer doesn't lead to an angry computer. ... it sounds like you are causing yourself anguish..." If I were approaching this issue from a standard perspective, I would agree with you that I could eliminate my own suffering in this regard by seeing the game as solely a game, and noting that the only harm being caused is to myself. However, in this case I'm experimenting by PRETENDING that I am in the role of a president, using my imagination to explore that scenario. And in that imaginary situation, I find that I would explore all possible avenues of peace before agreeing to a response of war. I would probably struggle with that decision if it came to that -- as I hope all our leaders do -- because the consequences of war are dire. Granted the consequences of not pursuing war might be dire as well, but I think such situations are much less common.

My point is that if I wanted to approach this situation in my life from a Buddhist perspective, I would do as you suggested and eliminate my own suffering in that way. However, I feel it can be very educational to role play in this fashion, to put yourself in a more "extreme" situation and see what reactions surface. And in my case, I'm just documenting with this blog entry that I think we need to be very careful when pursuing any act of violence--sometimes it IS the most wise course of action, when motivated by pure compassion, untainted by ego--but I think very often we tend to jump to the violent conclusion much too early and rationalize that behavior to ourselves.

Again, thanks for the thought-provoking comment!