Point of Departure
With respect to our contemplations on how we as Buddhists can help foster wisdom and compassion in the world, it is important to acknowledge that, lately, Buddhism has received a lot of bad press. I do not aim to launch into a debate here on why Buddhist monks in Myanmar and Sri Lanka advocate violence against Rohingyas and Tamils, or to put into the pillory Buddhist teachers I haven’t personally known. I’d rather like to take as point of departure something I personally witnessed, a public intervention of an Austrian Dharma teacher at a panel of a German Christian-Buddhist conference I helped organise.
The conference was convened in February 2018 with the goal to explore the possibility of developing joint projects between Christians and Buddhists that might help alleviate some of the social problems and suffering we face in German society. During the final panel discussion, said Dharma teacher suddenly called upon us to join forces against “Islam”. He then continued to extoll the Christian practice of centuries past to literally take up arms against “the Muslims”, which clinched it for me, as well as the plenary, that he was actually recommending militancy in the pursuit of safeguarding “our” European values.
As Buddhists, we know that a distinct sense of inclusion and exclusion is predicated upon false belief in the existence of a separate self and fixed identities. Entertaining such notions is likely to drive us ever further into conceptual judgment and self-righteousness, ultimately clouding our capability of directly relating to our humanity and that of others, and thereby our capacity to bring about peace. In the throes of the three poisons (delusion, greedy clinging and aversion), we will be trapped in suffering, both as actors and as victims. The use of the term “Islam” in Western media tends to eradicate the individual faces of migrants from Islamic countries in our minds. Rendering people faceless is indeed a first step in the process of dehumanising them. Rhetorical dehumanisation is bound to lead to physical violence, as Victor Klemperer’s astute analysis of the development of the language of the Third Reich has shown.1
Populist discourses against “Islam” in Europe generally seek to discredit pluralism and to strengthen “national morale”. Through the co-optation of Buddhism for nationalist purposes, such as in imperial Japan, postcolonial Myanmar, or present-day Thailand, Buddhists have committed very “un-Buddhist” atrocities.2 It is time to vocally own up to this, and to warn against similar attempts at amalgamating nationalist concerns with the dharma among Buddhists in Europe.3
‘Tolerance’ and Its Limits
At the aforementioned Christian-Buddhist conference, I proposed a different notion of protection. “Real” protection, I said, would start with seeking out those we find threatening, first opening ourselves to their perspectives, sensitivities and needs. We would then have to share our interests, viewpoints, and fears, while negotiating with them situated agreements on shared values, individual and collective rights and duties, in order for us all to develop community. At the time, I forgot to mention that we as members of Western societies have been playing our parts in provoking massive waves of migration – not the least through our unwholesome consumption patterns our governments seek to actively protect all around the globe. The veracity of such dependent arising necessitates a careful reflexion on how we as Buddhists can really further the growth of wisdom and compassion in our societies. It also calls into question the more conventional virtue of tolerance, the acclaimed ability to “live and let live”. Tolerance has incidentally become a controversial concept not only in populist discourses, but also among supporters of pluralism. Rainer Forst, Professor of Political Science and Philosophy at the Johan Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt am Main, for example, distinguishes between four notions of tolerance:4
– Tolerance as mere toleration of the presence of an alien group by a majority that enjoys a position of privilege, dominance and hegemony. If the minority group begins to threaten the privileges of the majority, toleration may quickly transform into verbal abuse and physical violence.
– Tolerance as pragmatic coexistence of two groups with similar power. This kind of tolerance is more akin to a truce, because it retains a violent undercurrent that can easily break out once the balance of power tips in favour of one of the parties involved.
– Tolerance that involves a certain respect for an alien group. Here, the fundamental humanity of the members of the respective group is in principle acknowledged, although the majority retains a distinct cultural and ethical distance.
– Tolerance as appreciation of the very otherness of strangers, which goes beyond mere respect, as it entails the readiness of all groups involved to learn from each other, even though some measure of cultural and ethical distance is kept between them.
Only the last two last two of Rainer Forst’s notions of tolerance arguably qualify as ethical stances, because here people are able to cross over from a “me-first” to a “we-first” attitude. From a Buddhist perspective it is remarkable, though, that neither notion of tolerance is predicated upon a distinct “you-first” attitude.
Martin Buber, Emmanuel Lévinas and Marshall Rosenberg
When, after “9/11”, parochial Christian values were increasingly translated into US law, critical legal scholars in the US began to discover the ethics of the French-Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas. They wanted to translate Lévinas’ radical “you-first” approach into legal instruments redressing the injustice asylum seekers, migrants, and Muslim detainees in the Guantanamo Bay detention camp and elsewhere had to suffer.
Lévinas’ ethics are strongly influenced by Martin Buber’s notion of the interdependence between “I and Thou”.5 Writing in the years after World War I, Buber saw human beings “as imprisoned in the shells of society, state, church, school, economy, public opinion, imprisoned in their own indirectness”.6 He called upon his readers to break out of their shells, to render service to other human beings, to establish community with them. Lévinas’ ethics also consists of a categorical obligation to respond to the suffering of others. The actual face of a suffering human would in point of fact provoke us into responsiveness, calling out to us: “Do not kill me!” – “Give me!” – “Help me!” – “Love me!”7
Interest in Lévinas has sadly subsided. People seem to have found his ethics impossible to apply. Lévinas, too, did not always live up to his own standards. In 1982, he was asked to comment on the recent massacres of Palestinian refugees at Sabra and Shatila, committed by the Phalangists (members of a Lebanese Christian political party). Israeli Defence Forces had not intervened to stop the killings, even though they obviously could have done so. Lévinas did not explicitly condemn the massacre, though, suggesting that when another turns out to be an enemy, the necessity to respond to his or her suffering would not apply.8
Martin Buber also very much influenced Marshall B. Rosenberg, the founder of Non-Violent Communication. Rosenberg offered countless trainings in many war-torn regions of the world in an unceasing effort to promote reconciliation and peace. He also served as mediator in conflict-ridden countries, such as Israel, Palestine, Ireland, Rwanda, Burundi, Serbia, Croatia, and others.9 Non-Violent Communication trainings have honed the ability of many people, including Buddhists, to enter and to stay with difficult communication and conflict, furthering a culture of “we-first” through rigorously applying a “you-first” perspective. As Buddhists, we are called upon to wholeheartedly contribute our skilful means to such an education for peace.
How Buddhists Can Effectively Contribute to Peace-making and an Education for Peace
On the basis of their respective traditions, Buddhists have over the years developed a plethora of skills and methods that are greatly contributing to health care, leadership training, social change programmes, formal education in schools, and peace-making, such as Karuna Training,10 5 Keys of Mindful Communication,11 Deep Listening,12 Mind with Heart,13 seminars offered by the European Institute of Applied Buddhism,14 Feeding Your Demons,15 and many others. It would indeed be worthwhile exploring how the different skills offered in the various trainings might enhance our capacities for peace-making, and might therefore lend themselves to contributing to an interreligious and intercultural education for peace. I do not have the space here to do so, though. Suffice it to say that in heightened situations marked by strong distrust, contempt and hostility, tolerance is obviously not enough. For good reasons, established Buddhist ethics requires us to reach out much further beyond our cultural, cognitive and emotional comfort zones to a hostile you, to exchange self for other. The interdependent contemplative disciplines of compassion and wisdom teach us that we need to develop a firm conviction of the intrinsic value of each person, empathy, deep listening, understanding, the ability to know what to accept and reject, while being able to melt the fear of others that cloud the profound goodness of their as well as our enlightened heart-mind.