Saturday, July 05, 2003

Violence, Vegetarianism, and Emptiness

How about a treatise on Buddhist metaphysics? I'm copying and pasting this from something I wrote a while back on, a site I've been known to haunt now and then. My post is a long response to "Xingyi," who asked a three-part question:

(a) How would one reconcile the use of violence when forced to with Buddhist practice? If it came down to a life and death struggle and you were forced to kill someone to save yourself, would it be acceptable?
(b) How crucial is the role of vegetarianism in [Buddhist] practice?
(c) ...the idea of emptiness. Many of the books I've read present it as almost a nihilistic view of the world. How does it compare to nihilism?

My long-winded answer follows. Enjoy. Or run away now.


I'm not a Buddhist, but am doing work in preparation for doctoral study in Korean Son (Zen). I'll try and provide some tentative (and very superficial) responses, but I trust that actual practicing Buddhists will give more comprehensive answers from their own experience.


there are some things that I'm not sure about. For example, I practice martial arts. How would one reconcile the use of violence when forced to with Buddhist practice? If it came down to a life and death struggle and you were forced to kill someone to save yourself, would it be acceptable? (That's a pretty extreme example, I know. But for discussions sake bear with me.)

This is related to the question, "Is Buddhism pacifistic?" There've been a couple threads devoted to this topic; you might want to check those out.

My own feeling is that many Buddhists would say yes, it's pacifistic, especially in light of the Buddha's own stance. But: "Buddhism" is a label for a tradition that spans the globe and includes a wide variety of beliefs and practices, so maybe the best and most truthful answer to your question is, "Answers may vary."

Consider the role of violence in Zen literature. There is, for example, the story of Nansen, an abbot who kills a cat. The cat had been hanging around a monastery, causing a dispute among the monks. Nansen grabbed the cat & demanded that the monks say the right thing to save it; no one knew what to say, so Nansen split the cat in two. Later on, the monk Joshu arrived, heard the cat story, and reacted by putting his shoes on his head and walking away. "If you'd been here earlier," Nansen called after him, "I could've saved the cat!"

Another story involving a monk named Gutei recounts how Gutei, who used to raise a finger during his dharma talks, was secretly imitated by a young boy at the monastery. Gutei got wind of this and chopped off the boy's finger. As the boy ran off, Gutei shouted, making the boy turn around. Gutei then raised his finger, and the boy was enlightened.

It's important to note that, in real life, Zen monasticism isn't this slap-happy, which is something the literature alone might lead you to believe (beware Barnes and Noble Zen!!). The violent stories make it into the literature because they're illustrative of something, and obviate the need for further violence. The violence is newsworthy because it's rare, so if you hear that Zen is full of slapping and hitting and finger-slicing, you're being fed a caricature.

Violence can, however, enter practice. Some macho Korean monks demonstrate nonattachment to their own bodies by ritualistically burning off their own fingers (sometimes just one; sometimes several). I'll let you be the judge of whether this practice is stupid. Some would say yes, it is; some would say no. Some would say, Not-good, not-bad.

Since old traditions like philosophical Taoism and Buddhism have been interwoven in martial arts practice for so long, I don't see that this should be a problem for a martial artist (I assume from your login name that you practice hsing-i; do you also do pa-gua?).

Buddhists like Thich Nhat Hanh are relentlessly pacifistic when it comes to violence on a personal, corporate, or global scale. Keep in mind that answers to the violence question will vary even within a tradition. Example: The Dalai Lama's a pacifist, I think, but there was some Tibetan monk (was he a Gelugpa?) quoted on Beliefnet after 9/11 who claimed that killing terrorists might in some cases constitute an act of compassion.


How crucial is the role of vegetarianism in practice.

Again, answers vary. The Dalai Lama eats meat because of a queer medical condition he has. Korean monks are supposed to be vegetarian, and ARE while at the monastery, but many have been known to sneak off the grounds for some tasty bulgogi (grilled marinated sirloin) or kalbi (juicy, marinated Korean short-ribs...mmmm).

The "official" monastic answer is probably that vegetarianism is integral with ethical practice, since it's linked to ahimsa (nonviolence or no-killing) toward animals/sentient beings. Some of this stems from Hindu notions of not eating anything with eyes (ahimsa is itself a Hindu concept). Some of this evolved further when Buddhism hit China, restricting even the manner in which one can be vegetarian. In Korean temples, for example, you won't see any garlic (though in its place will be a ton of red chili pepper powder or paste). Many East Asian Buddhists also practice a kind of grain avoidance that has its roots in some forms of Taoism.


My third question involves the idea of emptiness. Many of the books I've read present it as almost a nihilistic view of the world. How does it compare to nihilism?

I'm not sure how you define nihilism, but for purposes of discussion I'll say it's a pessimistic (if not thoroughly hopeless) attitude in which "it all comes to nothing (nihil, nihilo)."

Your encounter with ANY sincere Buddhist will immediately dispel the idea that Buddhist practice cultivates hopelessness or any other deep negativity. Zen monks the world over tend to be, especially in their dharma talks with Westerners, rather jolly. Buddhists are, in general, very positive in outlook. So... what does "emptiness" mean, and how is it different from nihilism?

I'm going to try and answer this, despite being a non-Buddhist, and I invite Buddhists to flesh out or correct my answer.

I take "emptiness" (Sanskrit sunyata) to mean two principal, interrelated things.

First (and less importantly, perhaps), it's what we Christians might call an "apophatic" concept. That is to say, it's a negative term that's actually code language for something positive. The sheer plenitude of reality cannot be properly encompassed by any word, image, or concept, so "emptiness" is actually a reference to the fullness, dynamism, and richness of all reality. But while there is this apophatic sense to the term, the technical sense is much more important.

To understand this second sense of the term, I need to back up a bit and talk about expectations. [full disclosure: I've stolen the following image from Dr. Charles B. Jones at Catholic University in DC.]

When I hold up a coffee cup and declare, "This cup is empty," your expectations (rightly) lead you to think that I'm saying, "This cup is empty of coffee." Likewise, if I hold up an empty cereal bowl and say, "This cereal bowl is empty," my expected meaning is empty of cereal.

But when the Buddhist says, "Reality is empty"... empty of what?

We have to go back to early debates between Buddhists and Hindus on the question of the nature of self and reality. For the Hindus in this debate, the self was a permanent thing, a solid atman, travelling from body to body, from life to life, unchanging and immutable except, perhaps, upon attainment of moksha, release from the wheel of existence (samsara). This atman, this kernel of the self, was, according to the Hindus, unaffected by karma. Along with this was the related Hindu notion of svabhava, or aseity (self-existence). Things can exist "in and of themselves," according to this view.

You can see a kind of "solidity" or "firmness" in the Hindu view. The Buddhists, with their radically different insight into reality, thoroughly denied that there exists an atman and that the nature of reality includes svabhava. In place of these, the Buddhists argue that the reality is anatman (anatta in Pali), or "no-self," and anitya (anicca in Pali) or no-permanence. For the Buddhists, it was a logical contradiction to assert that the atman is both unaffected by karma and able to be housed in successive bodies. It was also an absurdity to posit svabhava when the empirical evidence shows a world that's always changing.

So all reality is empty, therefore, of permanence, fixity, self-being, and fundamental self. There are no essences or foundations anywhere. All phenomena exist in a state of interdependent intercausality or "dependent co-arising" (pratitya-samutpada).

If everything is dependently co-arisen, then it's hard to say something like, "X is inherently good." Things exist in relationship and aren't really "things" so much as processes, manifesting not solidity (which is illusion) but continuity.

Is pizza, for example, inherently good? Well, it's good for the first couple slices. But how about when you hit Slice Number 20, and you're ready for an Elvis-like, colon-clogged demise? The "goodness" of the pizza arises from the relationship between the pizza and the eater. This relationship, as slice after slice is eaten, is in a state of flux, so the goodness is in flux, too. It arises; it can disappear.

Or take a candle flame. I can point to it as a distinct phenomenon and say, "That's a candle flame." But every instant, the flame is in process. It is not a solid object. As the flame continues to consume a different part of the wick, its internal constitution is constantly changing, always moving through time and space. In what sense, then, is it "the same" flame? Only in the sense that there's continuity in the process. When we point to the candle flame, then point to the candle flame again two minutes later, we're pointing to a process, which our minds incorrectly render as a solid "thing-in-itself."

Our minds are built to create and recognize patterns, and it's therefore a great, great temptation for us to take these patterns more seriously than we should. We solidify concepts in our minds, forget their emptiness, i.e., their impermanence and interdependence, and draw boundaries all over the place. We crave forever-ness, solidity, stability. "Oh, if only this moment could last forever." Or: "Oh, it's terrible to get old. I wish I could stay 20 forever." This is only human, but the craving for permanence is a source of suffering, because it's a refusal to recognize and harmonize with the reality around and within us-- an impermanent, intercausal, "empty" reality.

Does this sound depressing? If so, then maybe I've mistakenly drawn you a picture of nihilism. So let me try and rescue my already-cumbersome explanation by talking about roses, impermanence, and happiness.

You give your honey a rose. She loves the gesture; it has meaning. You did it because it was her birthday or because it was some other special moment. But you did it only ONCE.

What if you gave your honey a truckload of roses, every day, for the rest of her life? Would she appreciate this? Let's face it: you'd probably no longer have a honey after a week.

The rose's impermanence, and the gesture's uniqueness, are what give both the rose and the gesture its precious meaning. Viewed this way, realizing the world's impermanence can be liberating: every moment is a final moment. Every moment is unique.

Moving to a martial arts illustration: Master Pan Qing Fu was quoted in Mark Salzman's "Iron and Silk" (the film version, anyway) as saying, "Live every moment as if it were your last." This is no different from the rose illustration: by recognizing that things pass away (i.e., are empty), we know to affirm who and what we are, to live life fully, moment by moment, IN the moment.

So this is why Buddhists are usually pretty happy people. By seeing the impermanence of things, the emptiness of reality, they know to value each moment as precious and perfect. This is the opposite of nihilism, whose root is the craving for permanence and the disappointment of not finding it.

I have no idea whether this explanation helps, but there ya' go.

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