July article 2012

Reflections – July 2012

Friends: Those who’ve followed these postings know that my legal battle with the federal government over a $16,000 fine (for traveling to Iraq to bring medicine without a U.S. license) has ended. The judge dismissed the government’s efforts to collect saying the government waited too long to sue. See Bert’s Case for a history of the legal issues.

For a year and a half I’ve reported monthly on facts I’ve learned, largely dealing with the Iraq sanctions issue and two law suits that have grown out of this work. Now I’d like to reflect more about how this work has affected me personally – how it’s changed me.

In March of this year, I took a cross-country Amtrak train trip to attend a weekend retreat with Narayan Desai, perhaps the last living person who knew Gandhi intimately, growing up in his ashram as the son of Gandhi’s long-time secretary Mahadev Desai.

A beautiful account of the retreat in Birmingham, Alabama, comes from Terry Messman, editor of the Bay Area newspaper Street Spirit. Terry captures much of the experience of being there in person with Narayan – and in spirit with Gandhi and with Dr. King.

I went to the retreat with Narayan Desai because I thought it would be helpful. My afflictive feelings over what I’ve been documenting here these past 18 months have gone from outrage and anger to despair and resignation. But I knew that I couldn’t give up.

The retreat was helpful. I anticipated a sympathetic gathering … and the 70 nonviolence activists from around the country were certainly that. I felt deeply heartened and supported just to be with them. And especially with Narayan Desai!

He wrote an earlier statement on “The Roots of Nonviolence” that was available from a printed newsletter at the retreat. His understanding of what nonviolence requires of those who seriously want to practice it is a profound challenge. As I believe it needs to be.

He wrote this:

Nonviolence means acceptance of love as an instrument to overcome evil. This applies to one’s own self as well as to society. Very often we make the mistake of taking it for granted that we are all nonviolent because we profess it. And we want the world to be nonviolent. But we have realized that it has to be a constant process of making ourselves nonviolent, and making that process reflect on the world. So it’s a double process of changing the satyagrahi [the nonviolent activist] and the society. This process involves four different steps.

And later in the article he describes the fourth step this way:

And the last, but not the least, is the process of struggle. And anybody who goes away with the idea that nonviolence is a process of flight from the earthly world probably does not understand the meaning of nonviolence. At any rate we can say Gandhi gave this new meaning – that there cannot be any nonviolence where there is flight or where there is escape. Struggles cannot be avoided. We will try to make our struggles richer and richer in the sense that the person who is involved in the struggle is enriched. But it has to be a struggle. It is a struggle within and a struggle without. It is a constant endeavor to change oneself as you try to change society.

These seem to me to be very wise words from eminent practitioners of nonviolence. Fortunately I recently had a good opportunity to practice putting these ideas into action.

A good friend sent me a copy of the book Active Hope by Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone. The subtitle of the book is How to Face the Mess We’re in without Going Crazy. I think you can understand why that full title appeals to me … as I imagine it does to some of you.

At the end of the book is an exercise called “The Bodhisattva Perspective.” The authors introduce the exercise this way:

The bodhisattva archetype is present in all religions and even all social movements. Whenever you act for the sake of life on Earth, you express the courageous compassion within you that we can think of as your bodhisattva self. This is part of who you are. You don’t have to be a Buddhist or believe in reincarnation to benefit from the exercise described below. We invite you to try it and see where it takes you.

I’ve scanned and copied online the three pages of the exercise. Here is how it helped me.

A little over a month ago I received an invitation from the group Stand With Us Northwest to a send-off for an Israeli who’d been visiting the area to speak at schools and public events in support of the Israeli government’s policies.

For those who’ve read my earlier posts (in the April 2011 Archives), you will know that I criticize the Israeli blockade of Gaza for all the same reasons I criticize the American blockade (the US/UN economic sanctions) of Iraq. I went to this “pro-Israeli” event with the intention only to listen, not seeking any confrontation at all. (I put pro-Israeli in quotes since I hold that current Israeli government policies are a real danger to Israel.)

Once at the gathering of perhaps a hundred or so supporters of Stand With Us, I found there was very little to listen to. But I did find one Israeli woman (I believe a co-founder of the local group) who did agree to talk with me. I asked her a simple and neutral question about the blockade of Gaza. And I was astonished that she was unaware of the statements made by significant Israeli leaders which I’d cited in my April 2011 posting.

I decided it would be a good exercise in nonviolence to contact her – which I did – and to offer to email her the information I’d cited. To her credit, she agreed.

Here is where I got a chance to practice nonviolence – as described by Narayan Desai and in the Bodhisattva Perspective. As I sat at my computer keyboard, I could feel the struggle – what Narayan called “a constant process of making ourselves nonviolent and making that process reflect on the world … a struggle inside and a struggle outside.”

I could almost feel my hands clenching into a fist as I was preparing myself to devastate this woman with the power of my arguments. And then I remembered what I’d felt doing the Bodhisattva exercise. I began to see that this was a woman who believed she was defending the interests of the country where her family lives. Meanwhile, I believed she was endangering Israel because of what she didn’t know. The Bodhisattva inside of me recognized it was my job to help her with information, given with kindness.

We went back and forth with emails about four times. Finally, I sent her a plot from the IDF (Israel Defense Force) of how Israel restricted food to Gaza even during the ceasefire (see June 2011 Archive) – and this time she did not answer me. After a week, I felt moved to write her one more time. I wanted her to know that I never doubted for a moment that she believed she was speaking for the best interests of Israel. I hoped that she would accept, even with our difference of opinions, that I also believed that I was.

To my great pleasure, she replied that she never doubted that was the case! And she wished me well. This was, as Narayan wrote, “an endeavor to change oneself (by resisting my own ‘clenched fisted’ attitude) as you try to change the society.”

I can report what a satisfying feeling it was to get this woman’s kind reply to my effort (wishing me a good weekend and a sunny summer). That’s especially true as I remember times when I failed to act from an inner place of kindness and insight.

Another statement of this principle of nonviolence is from Step by Step: Meditations on Wisdom and Compassion, a book by the Cambodian Buddhist monk and meditation master Maha Ghosananda. In 1981, at a U.N. Conference, he spoke with a Khmer Rouge leader. Some criticized him saying that “he is talking to the enemy. He is helping the enemy. How can he do that?” He replied:

I reminded them that love embraces all beings, whether they are noble-minded or low-minded, good or evil.

Both the noble and the good are embraced because loving kindness flows to them spontaneously. The unwholesome-minded must be included because they are the ones who need loving kindness the most. In many of them, the seed of goodness may have died. It perished from coldness in a world without compassion.

I’ve added emphasis to these last three sentences because they are so radically different from what we are generally taught in our culture – and so central, I believe, to the real, hard practice of nonviolence!

In this chapter “Who is the Enemy?” Maha Ghosananda continues:

I do not question that loving one’s oppressors – Cambodians loving the Khmer Rouge – may be the most difficult attitude to achieve. But it is a law of the universe that retaliation, hatred, and revenge only continue the cycle and never stop it. Reconciliation does not mean that we surrender rights and conditions, but rather that we use love in all our negotiations. It means that we see ourselves in the opponent – for what is the opponent but a being in ignorance, and we ourselves are also ignorant of many things. Therefore, only loving kindness and right mindfulness can free us.

In the book Active Hope, Joanna Macy recounts a twelve-century-old prophecy she was taught from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. It is a prophecy of the Shambhala warrior. She begins this way:

There comes a time when all life on Earth is in danger. … Now the time is coming when great courage is required of the Shambhala warriors – moral and physical courage. That is because they are going right into the heart of the barbarian powers to dismantle their weapons. … The Shambhala warriors know these weapons can be dismantled because they are manomaya, which means “mind-made.”

I was stopped right there. The weapons which threaten the destruction of all life on Earth are not called “man-made” but “mind-made.” The prophecy goes on, “[these weapons] are made by the human mind and thus can be unmade by the human mind.” And how can the Shambhala warriors train to dismantle these destructive weapons? They train in two ways: “One is compassion, the other is insight.”

I find this prophecy – and the other writings from Narayan Desai and Maya Ghosananda – inspiring and helpful.  I hope you will too.

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