Non-Violence And The Self-Cherishing Mind

by David Edwards, Atlantic Free Press, Feb 21, 2008

“Non-violence... is a conscious, deliberate restraint put upon one’s desire for vengeance.” - Mahatma Gandhi

Groningen, Netherlands -- To understand why non-violence in this sense is so powerful, I think we need to look more closely at the whole issue of altruism and self-restraint.

First, it’s important to recognise that it’s not at all obvious what brings about progressive change in society. We often take for granted that it’s the result of the dissemination of facts about injustice, of direct action such as campaigning, protests, and so on. But where do these come from? Why do they arise to the greater or lesser extent that they do?

By progressive change, I mean the move towards a society based on compassion rather than greed and hatred; a society in which the capacity for reason has been liberated from the distorting lenses of greed and hatred. This version of progress contains several assumptions. It assumes that, to the extent that an individual is dominated by self-cherishing - by a restricted concern for his or her own welfare (and for a small circle of loved ones) - that person’s rational capacity will tend to be biased, distorted. It also assumes that people experience psychological suffering proportionate to the intensity of their self-cherishing.

One way of getting a sense of why this should be the case is to imagine the mind as a kind of space, an arena, in which problems appear. We can imagine a mind dominated by unconditional compassion for all sentient beings as a vast space, like a huge landscape. In this kind of context our own individual problems would appear very small, very manageable. By comparison, a mind limited to concern for ourselves is a very restricted space, like a small box room. In this context our individual problems seem enormous; they fill our minds completely.

The point is that problems don’t exist as concrete phenomena of a given size and intensity; they are perceptions of the mind, appearances to mind. Our problems, quite literally (in relative psychological terms), shrink as our sense of concern for others expands. The Buddhist writer and teacher Alan Wallace comments:

“Like Einstein’s theory that physical space is warped by bodies of matter within it, it sometimes feels as if the space of awareness is warped by the contents of the mind. At times, when we become fixated on something, our minds seem to become very small. Trivial issues loom up in our awareness as if they were very large and important. In reality, they haven’t become large. Our minds have become small. The experienced magnitude of the contents of the mind is relative to the spaciousness of the mind.” (Wallace, The Attention Revolution, Wisdom Publications, 2006, pp.99-100)

The self-centred mind, then, is a small space crowded with personal problems, ambitions and concerns. It’s a painful, claustrophobic state of being - our problems seem of enormous severity and importance.

This self-cherishing mind also has no room for facts and concerns that conflict with, or are irrelevant to, our self-concern. It’s very noticeable, for example, that corporate executives primarily focused on their own welfare, and deeply dependent on their highly-paid jobs, are unwilling or unable to make space in their minds for radical analyses that challenge the whole basis of what they’re doing. We’ve often quoted Upton Sinclair‘s splendid observation:

"It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it."

Erich Fromm also commented on “man’s capacity of not observing what he does not want to observe; hence, that he may be sincere in denying a knowledge which he would have, if he wanted only to have it”. (Fromm, Beyond The Chains Of Illusion, Abacus, 1989, p.94)

To take another example, a key characteristic of romantic infatuation is that we tend to perceive only good qualities in the target of our infatuation - she seems beautiful, charming, interesting, perfect. Even her ostensibly ‘bad’ habits are attractive - she’s late because she’s lovably eccentric; she’s angry because she’s got a marvellous, passionate temperament.

According to Buddhism, in this case our desire has distorted our perception to a truly astonishing degree - it has persuaded us to perceive this person in three key ways: as pure, permanent and solely pleasurable. Although we would never consciously declare that we believe this, we in fact are operating under these assumptions. In other words, in the grip of infatuation, we really do see our beloved as pure, as unchanging - she will always be as pure as she is now - and solely as a source of pleasure in our lives. This is why it is such a disaster when we lose the target of our infatuation - it's not just that we've lost a flawed, changeable source of mixed pleasure and pain, a mixture of good and bad; we feel we've lost a source of perfect, unchanging happiness.

Given that desire has the capacity to distort our perception in this really fundamental way, it’s easy to imagine how the self-cherishing mind might easily dispense with mere political and moral challenges to our infatuations more generally. Perhaps we’ve set our hearts on career success, on the attainment of great wealth and prestige as the answer to our problems. We may have invested decades in building towards these goals. Someone might then come along and describe how this version of success is wrecking the climate; they might detail how the corporation employing us is responsible for terrible suffering in the Third World. But this is a bit like a friend advising us that our romantic idol is not to be trusted - we just don’t want to hear it. We find it fraudulent, objectionable or absurd.

It's all too easy to push the suffering of others aside - our suffering and our self-centred 'answers' to that suffering are so immediate, potent and real - political crises are at best mildly diverting by comparison. The misery of others finds no space in the self-cherishing mind - their suffering can easily seem unreal, almost fictional, as if it didn't really exist at all.

Similarly, it’s not that responses like, ‘Well, I can’t do anything - the individual has no power to change the world,’ are based on any kind of reality, on any deep insight. It’s that we passionately "want" to believe this is the case because it suits our self-cherishing priorities.

In fact, individuals have plenty of power to change the world. We know this because the world has changed enormously: we no longer live in caves; 100 years ago there were no such things as the civil rights, environmental and peace movements. Any progress has been the result of the thoughts and actions of mere individuals. There are no superheroes to pull humanity forward - it’s down to ordinary people like you and me. Howard Zinn wrote:

“There is no act too small, no act too bold. The history of social change is the history of millions of actions, small and large, coming together at points in history and creating a power that governments cannot suppress.”

It’s down to us and no-one else. That’s undeniable, but the infatuated, self-cherishing mind has us fantasising about the impossibility of changing anything, or about someone else out there who is able to change things - it’s their responsibility, not ours, so we can leave it to them. Again, this should be no surprise - desire has the power to make other human beings appear pure, permanent and solely pleasurable against all the available evidence; so of course it can deal with mere politics.

There’s a problem here, isn’t there, for anyone interested in promoting progressive change? If the self-cherishing mind is able to reject unwanted facts about truly fundamental aspects of reality, how can we hope to change the world?

Gandhi wrote:

“There are only two methods of doing this, violent and non-violent. Violent pressure is felt on the physical being, and it degrades him who uses it as it depresses the victim, but non-violent pressure exerted through self-suffering, as by fasting, works in an entirely different way. It touches not the physical body, but it touches and strengthens the moral fibre against whom it is directed.” (Gandhi, op. cit., p.101)

But how does it touch “the moral fibre”? The ultimate foundation of this argument is the belief that a life based on generosity, kindness and compassion is far happier than a life based on self-cherishing. The point is that this truth is best communicated, not through facts and argument - which are easily deflected by the selfish mind - but through an experience of generosity and compassion "exactly" when we would normally expect greedy, angry or violent responses.

So while the self-cherishing mind might be immune to rational argument, the experience of ahimsa, or non-violence, is able to communicate the liberatory potential of compassion and kindness, of a mind freed from claustrophobic self-concern.

I have to say that I find this overwhelmingly true from my own experience. I’ve encountered individuals who have inspired me deeply with their self-restraint and generosity. For example, maybe we do something harmful to a friend - it can be incredibly inspiring if they choose to respond, not with anger and revenge, but with generosity and patience. We can actually feel our hearts open up and lighten - the example of kindness has expanded our psychological horizons, transforming the tiny space of self-cherishing into a huge expanse. We immediately feel the happiness and freedom of that. So the example directly communicates an experience of the compassionate mind liberated from self-concern and we are changed by it.

Tarthang Tulku, a Tibetan Buddhist teacher, explains:

“The source of the Bodhisattva’s power to instruct living beings lies in his [or her] ability to uplift awareness and aspirations through generosity and self-sacrifice... The power of virtuous action untainted by personal concerns is clearly felt by all beings in his [or her] presence, who are often inspired to lead more virtuous lives.” (Tulku, foreword, Aryasura, The Marvelous Companion, Dharma Publishing, 1983, p.xvii)

A bodhisattva is an individual whose every thought and action is focused on the welfare of others, rather than on self-interest, with equal, unlimited compassion for all (an extraordinary orientation even to contemplate, but one which is said to be achievable).

To give one small example from the past that sticks in my mind, a manager had to decide if I could take a short holiday at a particularly busy time of year. I had asked, I think, for three days, or two days if that wasn’t possible. Neither seemed very likely; it was the worst time to be asking. This was a situation in which he had the kind of control over me that some people really like to exploit - they make a big meal of their decision-making power. This manager, though, came back a few days later and said that it was a very busy time of year but, in the circumstances, he thought it would be best if I took the whole week off. He did this with such evident pleasure that I’ve never forgotten it. Moreover, it was entirely typical of how he behaved with everyone all the time.

What was so clear to me was, not just his rejection of egotistical indulgence, not just the sincerity of his delight in helping someone out, but also my own feeling of being inspired by this kindness. You immediately know when you experience it that this generosity of spirit is a very real source of happiness, not just to the recipient of the kindness but also to the person being kind.

Well this is an astonishing reversal of the self-cherishing assumption - that happiness is best achieved by putting ourselves first, by getting what we want and shoving everyone else out of the way. Normally, we divide the world into a small group of people we like; people who get in the way of what we want (people we dislike); and everyone else, to whom we are mostly indifferent. What these examples of kindness, of ahimsa, communicate to us is that everyone can be a source of profound happiness to us - if we are willing to be "kind" to them. Every sentient being provides us with the opportunity to expand our minds from tight, stifling prisons of self-concern to enormous expanses created by generosity, compassion and affectionate love.

Gandhi’s reference to “self-suffering” makes the same point - responding with selflessness in the face of suffering and physical threat, presents a potent challenge to the deep-seated conceits and illusions of the self-cherishing mind. This is why compassionate protest is so powerful. One might imagine that marching as part of a crowd achieves nothing much - walking along a street does not magically transform state policy. But protesting in the cold and rain, perhaps under threat of state violence, can communicate to everyone witnessing it, with real power, the inspiration of selfless generosity and concern for others.

For example, to see protestors marching out of compassion for the victims of war being beaten by police, and to see those marchers refusing to respond with violence, has a huge impact on the self-cherishing mind. Every refusal to retaliate amplifies the authenticity of the protestors’ concern to everyone watching or even hearing of it. The reality of this compassionate concern is directly communicated to people who might otherwise assume that self-concern is all there is or could be.

Again, the mind of the normally cynical, self-cherishing person can be expanded by this example of selflessness to a much larger, compassionate expanse. This person's problems then, perhaps only for a brief moment, shrink in their own minds and this is experienced as a liberation (Buddhists call it "the liberation of the mind that is love") - this is what we mean by 'inspirational'. I don’t mean to suggest that this has the power to transform the minds of leaders. I mean that it has the power to generate tremendous, inspired support and sympathy in the wider population.

The key is the sincerity and depth of the protestors’ compassion. Because anger is the direct psychological opponent of compassion, this sincerity should really involve a complete renunciation of violence and even anger. Ironically, the protestors who shout angry slogans on marches are undermining the one extremely potent force available to them - their example of compassion. It is the clichéd anger associated with Western protest that is so uninspiring, so demotivating. If dissent is rooted in authentic compassion, then it has really enormous power. Incidentally, this appears to be understood on some level by state power which often plants agent provocateurs to provoke violence, for example against the police, and so discredit protest movements.

All of the above applies equally to media activists writing to journalists and posting their exchanges on websites. Even the most hardened hack, or reader, can be given serious pause for thought by challenges rooted in rationality and genuine concern for others, rather than anger.

As discussed, this kind of self-restraint also has profound liberatory potential at the level of individual relationships. It is very tempting to rage at other people’s failings - their selfishness, cruelty, indifference - in hope of helping them change, just as we are tempted to rage at government policy. But according to this argument, the most powerful response is to react to harmfulness, perceived failings and so on with generosity, compassion and self-restraint. Because it is the very "example" of kindness that is the best antidote to the self-cherishing mind, and it is this selfish mind that is the ultimate root of all harm, of all failings.

Geshe Lhundub Sopa explains in a discussion on how best to deal with angry people:

“They need our help, not our hostility. We can reduce their anger by being patient and showing them love and compassion. Then the food of their anger will be exhausted. They may then become stronger and their internal enemy [anger] may become weaker.” (Geshe Lhundub Sopa, Steps on the Path to Enlightenment, Volume 3, Wisdom Books, 2008, pp.366-7)

I think this is incredibly important because one of the great empowering factors behind anger is the belief that fierce challenge is to the benefit of, say, someone we love. In fact, anger may actually begin with our feeling angry at ourselves for holding our tongues - we feel we’re harming them by avoiding confrontation. We get annoyed at ourselves for being selfish in choosing the easy option by "not" fiercely challenging them.

Of course, harsh speech may sometimes be justified - shouting at someone to warn them of some imminent danger, for example. But as with the protestors, it is often the example of compassion that has the power to expand the cramped space of the self-cherishing mind.

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