Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The grand scheme of things


About 2 years back, I went for a lecture by a Buddhist monk by the name of Ajahn Brahm. He was an English chap who gave up his indulgent city life to take on a monastic one. He talked a lot about Buddhism, most of which was difficult to catch. But there was one thing that really struck a chord.

Brahm was talking about what it means to be a Bodhisattva. Now for those who are not well-versed in Buddhist terminology, a Bodhisattva is a person who sacrifices his own path to enlightenment to help others reach a higher state of life. In secular terms, a Bodhisattva is one who wilfully sacrifices his own benefits for the benefits of others. In Buddhism, attaining a life state of a Bodhisattva is highly regarded.

Now Brahm was trying to tell the audience that failure in life is alright as long as we bounce back from it. He was using an example of a school kid failing a test. Then, he added on something about the school kid’s failure which was very interesting.

This is something along the lines of what he said.

Failure is relative. If you (the kid) have failed, then someone else has to have passed. Even if everyone fails, some (you) will fail worse than others. Despite being on the losing end, there is beauty in being a failure. By you taking up the role of a failure, someone else has not. By you suffering, someone else has not. So by becoming a failure, you have given others success. You have in your own way become a Bodhisattva. Of course, your actions do not resemble a Bodhisattva per se. It's not as if you failed willingly just to give others success. You failed despite trying to succeed. But as a consequence of your failure others succeeded. 

This really fascinated me. Even if you screw up on a micro-level, on a macro-level you actually don't screw up. You simply become an agent of the macrocosm- of the system of things to happen.

Interjecting my thoughts here... Think about crime. We all condemn crime. I mean civil society hates thieves and robbers right? After all, they plague our streets. But if you think about it, these criminals give meaning to lives of policemen. They give policemen work to do. They get them incomes too. These criminals even give cities the honour of being crime-free - for if there were no criminals to begin with, then how can you ever be crime-free?

With this in light, isn’t a robber a Bodhisattva in his own way? Yes, his actions are wrong. But he sacrifices his own life and freedom to allow policemen to catch him and send him to jail (not willingly though!). By sending him to jail, the policemen get their own benefits such as income and recognition.

All of this is really fascinating.

But with this there are implications for our conception of sin. Our commonsensical conception of sin is that it is wrong in its entirety. But with these new observations in light, sin can now be right! Sin can now be useful in the grand scheme of things. But does that mean we encourage it? I don’t know and I can’t know.

To give my take on this: I would say we should live our lives to the best of our abilities and free ourselves of sin. But if sin adamantly finds us, then perhaps it's meant to be... and that's the grand scheme of things.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Saintly warfare

The past few (very few) posts of mine have been about my thoughts on the military. I just can't seem to think about anything else really. The military is what my life's about now.

Just before I conscripted, I had quite a problem accepting my place in the military. My Buddhist beliefs told me to respect all life, but yet I was going to train to be a soldier... a killer. My nonviolent beliefs told me there was no meaning to violence, but yet I was going to train to shoot... to kill. I saw the military as a violent, immoral organization. To me, there was no moral value in being a soldier.


Over the past months, I've been trying to find some moral meaning in being part of the military. Much to my surprise, I actually came up with something rather convincing... something that even a staunch supporter of nonviolence would believe.

Say one day a stranger barges into my house and decides to hurt my mother and my sister. What would I do? Does being a Buddhist and a believer in nonviolence entail that I do nothing and watch my family get hurt? No! There's something wrong with the nonviolent approach in this scenario. Obviously you can't just sit there! I think a natural and moral approach to this scenario would be to stop the guy with all the strength you have. If I had a rudimentary weapon like a stick or a broom, I'd use that to stop him. To me, this analogy justifies the use of aggression, but only for the sake of defending the people you love. 

Now instead of one stranger invading my home, what if 200 of them were to invade the 50 homes in the estate where I live? That would mean an average of 4 attackers per household. Would each man in each household be able to defend his family with a broom or a stick? Would fighting on an individual level be effective? Not really. But if all the men from all the households were to come together, pooling their knowledge, resources and manpower, then it would be much more likely that they’d win against the attackers. Also, if one man dies in the fight, at least he would die knowing that the others left would protect his family. This is because the men will be fighting for the entire estate and not just for their respective families. To me, this idea justifies the formation of a large organisation that specializes in defense, because undoubtedly there is strength in numbers. This, to me, provides a moral justification for the formation of the military.

But all said and done, there are some considerations that I believe every (defensive) military must undertake to ensure its doctrines have good moral groundings. One important consideration is implicit in this question- how much aggression should be used by a military that warrants a good moral grounding of its actions? The answer to this is minimum aggression. A military that is well grounded in moral principles uses minimum aggression- just enough to meet its defensive objectives. Aggression should not be used for cruel acts, like in the torture of POWs, the killing of enemy civilians and the killing of enemies who chose to surrender. Peace, for both the defender and the aggressor, should be the ultimate concern of a moral army. After all, moral people care not only for themselves but for their enemies too. This consideration is reflected in the Geneva Conventions, which are a set of international laws that establish the humane conduct of war. It's a link worth checking out.


With all of this, I see the military in a different light. I see it as a moral organization that defends its land when the necessity arises. Instead of loathing the military, I now feel pride to be a part of it. Of course, all of this is because the military that I'm part of is a defensive one.