Academic journal article Journal of Buddhist Ethics

Buddhism, Nonviolence, and Power

Academic journal article Journal of Buddhist Ethics

Buddhism, Nonviolence, and Power

Article excerpt

Contemporary Buddhists have in recent decades given the world outstanding examples of nonviolent activism. Although these movements have demonstrated awe-inspiring courage and have generated massive popular support, sadly, none of them has, as yet, prevailed. In this paper I will explore how nonviolent power was exercised in these cases.1

I will focus upon three Buddhist nonviolent struggles: the Vietnamese Buddhist "Struggle Movement" between the years 1963 andl966 that attempted to end the war in that country; the Tibetan Liberation Movement led by His Holiness the Dalai Lama; and the Burmese Democracy Movement of 1988-1990 and 2007. These cases, of course, are quite different. The Vietnamese struggle was not in opposition to a particular oppressive group per se, but was an effort to induce a series of governments to stop prosecuting the war and to strive instead for a negotiated, political settlement. The Tibetan struggle is with an invading, occupying and controlling power that has displaced the native government, repressed Buddhism, and reduced the native people of Tibet to a minority in their own country by relocating large numbers of Han Chinese into Tibetan territory. The Burmese struggle is an effort to remove from power the dictatorship of the Burmese military and to restore democracy and human rights.

Presumably, those who care about suffering and about nonviolence long for success in the Tibetan and Burmese struggles, for while the Vietnamese struggle is long over, these two struggles are not. A great deal of suffering would come to an end if either or both of these struggles would succeed. In addition, in this age of globalization, success or failure in these struggles has an impact on others. Successful struggles breed imitation, whereas failed struggles tend, naturally enough, to make people want to turn away from what they may see as failed tactics. Success matters, both for the sake of oppressed and suffering people and for the sake of the future of nonviolence.

So far, however, there have been no successes, no victories in the Buddhist nonviolent struggles. It is not as if nonviolence cannot win struggles, even against great and violent powers. Nonviolence was the tool used in many successful struggles: the svaraj (self-rule) movement in India against the British Raj; the Solidarity movement in Poland against Communist rule; the civil rights movement in the United States; the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa; the "people power" deposing of Marcos in the Philippines; and the deposing of General Martinez in El Salvador, among others.2 Indeed, the general sentiment that the Buddhist struggle in Vietnam failed needs to be qualified. When viewed separately, the six month nonviolent struggle from May 8, 1963 to November 1, 1963 succeeded in the overthrow of Diem. If the movement had ended then, it would have been considered a significant nonviolent victory. However, it continued on and that victory became obscured in the failure of the larger movement.

I was once asked in a radio interview by a particularly audacious interviewer: Do you think that the Engaged Buddhists have failed to win any of their struggles because there is no God in Buddhism? Although my answer to that question was and is an unqualified, "no," I was at that time unable to answer to my own satisfaction why it is that Engaged Buddhist nonviolent struggles have not yet succeeded. Certainly it is necessary to regard each case as unique and to evaluate each one separately.

In this paper, I propose to draw upon the thinking of Gene Sharp to clarify our understanding of nonviolent power. I will use those ideas to analyze the dynamics of power in the nonviolent struggles of Vietnam during the war years, and Tibet and Burma today. Gene Sharp is arguably the foremost theoretician of nonviolent power in the world today. He is also an established friend of both the Burmese and Tibetan Engaged Buddhists, having worked directly with both. …

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