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Buddhadharma : Fall 2006
buddhadharma| 11 |fall 2006 firSt thoughtS no ifS, andS, or butS Thanissaro Bhikkhu offers a Theravadan perspec- tive on the Buddha’s view of violence and war. The Buddha is famous for having refused to take a position on many of the controversial issues of his day, such as whether the cosmos is finite or infi- nite, eternal or not. In fact, many people – both in his time and in ours – have assumed that he didn’t take a firm position on any issue at all. Based on this assumption, some people have been exas- perated with the Buddha, accusing him of being wishy-washy and indecisive, while others have been pleased, praising him for being tolerant and refreshingly free from ideas of right and wrong. Both reactions, however, are misinformed. The early texts report that a group of wanderers, in a discussion with one of the Buddha’s lay disciples, once accused the Buddha of not taking a position on any issue, and the disciple replied that they were mistaken. There was one issue on which the Buddha’s position was very clear: what kind of behavior is skillful, and what kind of behavior is not. When the disciple later reported the conversa- tion to the Buddha, the Buddha approved of what he had said. The distinction between skillful and unskillful behavior lies at the basis of everything the Buddha taught. In making this distinction, the Buddha drew some very sharp lines: What is unskillful? Taking life is unskill- ful, taking what is not given ... sexual mis- conduct ... lying ... abusive speech ... divisive tale-bearing ... idle chatter is unskillful. Covetousness ... ill will ... wrong views are unskillful. These things are called unskillful ... And what is skillful? Abstaining from taking life is skillful, abstaining from taking what is not given ... from sexual misconduct ... from lying ... from abusive speech ... from divisive tale-bearing ... abstaining from idle chat- ter is skillful. Lack of covetousness ... lack of ill will ... right views are skillful. These things are called skillful. – Majjhima Nikaya 9 The Buddha’s position on the precepts was uncompromising and clear. If you want to fol- low his teachings, there’s absolutely no room for killing, stealing, or lying, period. However, in our current climate of terrorism and counterterror- ism – where governments have claimed that it’s their moral duty to lie, kill, and torture in order to prevent others from lying, killing, and torturing – a number of Buddhist teachers have joined in the effort, trying to find evidence that there were some occasions where the Buddha would condone kill- ing or offer a rationale for a just war. Exactly why they would want to do this is up to them to say, but there’s a need to examine their arguments in order to set the record straight. The Buddha never taught a theory of just war; no decision to wage war can legitimately be traced to his teachings; no war veteran has ever had to agonize over memories of the people he killed because the Buddha said that war was okay. These facts are among the glories of the Buddhist tradi- tion, and it’s important for the human race that they not be muddied in an effort to recast the Bud- dha in our own less-than-glorious image. from “geTTing The message,” insighT JoUrnal, sPring 2006. you haVe to Play the game Titus O’Brien recalls some unconventional words of wisdom from the late experimental composer, writer, and Zen Buddhist John Cage. From the rear of the small auditorium, John Cage didn’t initially make much of an impression. In his seventies then, shaggy-haired and impish, with that denim jacket you see in all the later photographs, he greeted the audience with a lispy, Capote-esque near-whisper. In a soft monotone, he read from one of his prepared texts, where, using “chance operations,” he had chopped and cobbled together various writings by him and his notable friends, colleagues, and influences. I became lulled into a state of calm receptivity. Others just got bored and left. His total obliviousness impressed me. He then spoke freely a little, and one thing in particular furrowed my pseudo-intellectual brow. It was that bit where he told me (with a voice more suited to a kindly society matron than cultural revolutionary or sage) that, quite simply, I didn’t exist – nobody did. My skepticism ignited. He began to field some questions. Fellow stu- dents, perhaps understandably mistaking this giant of American music, art, and letters as just illusTraTions By WarD schuMaKer