Violence and (Non-)Resistance: Buddhist Ahimsa and Its Existential Aporias

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In his book Instinct for Freedom the contemporary dharma activist Alan Clements, a former Buddhist monk in the Burmese tradition of Mahasi Sayadaw, presents a dramatic incident from 1990 when he was with prodemocracy resistance fighters in the Burmese jungle following the military's re-assumption of power. (1) This real event has three protagonists: Clements himself, a (non-violent Buddhist) non-combatant observer in solidarity with the fugitive resistance-fighters living rough in the jungle; a Burmese former monk turned combatant resistance fighter called Maung Win (an "old friend" of Clements's from his years in the monastery); and a Burmese military soldier captured in a firefight, whom Clements calls the "enemy soldier" (and will be so designated here), and whom Clements (and the reader) discover to be a former Buddhist monk as well. (2)

The captured soldier is also thought to be the one who has fired the bullet that has just killed Maung Win in an ambush moments before. Just moments before that Maung Win and Clements have had a verbal altercation, in which the resistance fighter has challenged Clements's unwillingness to engage in battle. He shouts in Clements's face: "I'm sick of your judgment. We live under dictatorship. Do you know what that means? Haven't you seen enough?" (Clements 23). He has, as he reports, indeed seen "Villages ... smouldering, mortared into charred ruins. And among the ruins, massacres--My Lai-style. Severed heads, still blindfolded. Even the dogs had been killed, blackened to a crisp . wailing mothers running, exhausted and starving, clutching their children. Some of the children were dead, mangled unrecognizably by land mines disguised as toys. I heard tales of brutal gang rapes by soldiers that went on for days and months" (21).

Has Clements seen enough? Unquestionably, Maung Win has, even where Aung San Suu Kyi, the national leader for democracy and freedom in Burma, is "advocating non-violence as the best means of political change" (22). Maung Win accuses Clements of "idealism"; he points out that Clements has complete freedom inasmuch as with his U.S. passport "stuffed in his pocket" he can "leave anytime, and go sit in retreat--as if you know what freedom means" (23). Clements is left speechless, aware that despite his Buddhist pre-suppositions he has not thought out the full implications of the situation. Maung Win believes he does not have any other choice: "I couldn't justify sitting in meditation while my brothers and sisters were being killed. Our teachers taught us to love even those who hate us. But try to love with a gun pointed at your head. After they tortured my brother, I disrobed and joined the resistance. My heart is with my people, not with my enlightenment" (23).

Clements attempts a riposte ("with a small shred of defiance") by suggesting that "weapons and war" are not the only means to a possible resolution. Indeed, from his perspective as a Buddhist, they are not means at all. But Maung Win responds with what seems a definitive argument from the heart. He aggressively pushes Clements with his AK-47, shouting, "What if it was your girlfriend who was raped? What would you do? Sit back and be mindful? Become a dead Buddhist?" (23).

Clements, it appears, has no ready answer to this appeal. Both his aporetic uncertainty, as well as Maung Win's unequivocal commitment to human freedom at any cost, even the death of another by his hand, present difficult and unsettling challenges to Buddhist ethics, and require some elucidation. Clearly Clements and Maung Win stand in opposition despite the powerful justification each finds for their position. That is, despite the 'rightness' of each position, in one sense, they arrive at absolute disagreement, and this is more than a contradiction, it is an existential aporia. This aporia has its perplexing human side, too: they are also good friends, and still more, fellow Buddhists. How does such an ethical paradox occur, particularly in the Buddhist context? …