November 18, 2016
Joshua Stephens: On Nonviolence in a Burning World
by Joshua Stephens
As demonstrations swell across the country against the election of Donald Trump and his clown car of fascist comic-book villains, we will inevitably hear a certain refrain from liberals:
Nonviolence. Peaceful protest.
It’s important to remember that this is coming from the same camp that circulated calls to crowd-fund the rebuilding of Durham’s firebombed RNC offices, but remained relatively mum about black churches torched by Trump supporters. Such cognitive dissonance doesn’t just fall from the sky. It’s an art. Honed by generations of entitled improvisation in moments of grave consequence. Cut to Obama deploying a Mandela comparison while eulogizing a man who tried to sell nukes to apartheid South Africa. It’s not as though the ebb and flow of this conversation has ever even yielded worthwhile discursive innovation (unless you count James Baldwin’s searing indictments thereof). Liberal outrage is simply the Kenny G to moral cowardice’s classical composition.
Rather routinely, the policing of protest invokes “Eastern” philosophical tropes, or movement history in some way influenced by them. Think MLK, Gandhi, etc. These have, thankfully, been treated to a good deal of critical interrogation and scholarship. The downside is that those critiques function mostly as a limit, offering little in the way of a more fleshed-out vision of how social transformation goes down, and the obligations we carry into it.
I’d like to offer something else.
In the teachings attributed to the historical Buddha, ahimsa—nonviolence, non-harm—comes with a deeply instructive, subtle caveat. Ahimsa figures as one of five precepts taken by lay practitioners; what’s called sila, or ethical practice in the dhamma — the teachings, the practice, the path. Sila is not grounded in some globalized morality; it’s a strategic consideration, within a specific context. Serious about liberation? Keep drama to a minimum, keep your path clear.
The caveat placed on this—the proverbial fly in liberalism’s universal-subject-of-history ointment, if you will—is that the Buddha also spoke of as many as thirty-one planes of existence. A handful of what the he called apaya, or states of deprivation, a few that he called worldly or material, and a fuck-ton of states associated with bliss and even non-existence (including the comatose). This mostly gets misread as a cosmology, thanks to the ways kings partial to Hinduism re-imposed concepts from the Upanishads on monastics dependent on royal patronage. That, unfortunately, included reincarnation narratives.
The Buddha’s teachings are pretty ontologically lean. Anicca — that all things are impermanent; anatta — that all things are without any abiding essence; and dukkha — that all things are (thus) bound to disappoint here and there. The impermanence and anti-essentialist claims kinda nuke any possibility of reincarnation. If nothing stays the same, or has any stable essence, there’s nothing to reincarnate. Where the Buddha spoke of rebirth, it was on the order of artistic license, a description of the “new” lives we take on (good and bad) based on the decisions we make. And if nothing stays the same, and has no stable essence, there’s nothing to reincarnate.
So, why did he bother with this teaching, at all? And anyway, WTF does a bungled cosmology have to do with the here and now of solidarity and kicking oppression in the teeth, you ask?
Hold that thought.
(Drum roll, please)
There is only one realm in which the teachings can be practiced; only one in which sila and ahimsa have any meaning or application whatsoever: The human realm. The realm in which we’re mostly stable, have our basic needs met, can exercise agency in our lives, are still subject to fucking up from time to time, and can feasibly experiment with getting our shit together.
People living under occupation, conditions of war, addiction, abject poverty, exploitation, or hetero-patriarchal/racial trauma can and should be understood to be living in states of deprivation, hellish realms of existence. This isn’t conjecture or creative interpretation. It’s the only sensible explanation for why the Buddha deployed the metaphor to begin with.
Further, it’s the thesis of Native Son. It’s why you sobbed watching Precious. It’s why people put their children on leaky boats bound west across the Mediterranean. And it’s why you’ve dragged through your days since the election, in a horror-show hangover. Because the human realm is shrinking, getting strangled, and you can suddenly taste the blood in your mouth as you juggle your own teeth on your tongue.
Our liberation is not a matter of people who are living radically distinct versions of the world behaving as though they are all confronting the same one. It is certainly not a matter of convincing people we live in the same one. Rather, the most radical act may be struggling to make the human realm and human conditions accessible to everyone, and trusting that under such conditions, people will make meaningful decisions about their lives. Until such conditions are accessible to people, they will play the hand they’re dealt. Likely at odds with liberal sensibilities.
Ahimsa doesn’t mean telling people how to understand their own oppression, or how best to challenge it. It means working to make sure the bail fund has every penny it needs and those being released get a hug, a thank you, and access to therapy.
Joshua Stephens is the author of The Dog Walker. His writing has also appeared in Gawker, AlterNet, TruthOut, The Outpost, Jadaliyya, and Perspectives on Anarchist Theory.