Silence, Noble and Ignoble

A couple of days ago I published a post called “How Evil Happens,” cross-posted from The Mahablog.  The post commented on the violence in Gaza and the episodes of Israeli bombs hitting UN schools in which Palestinian civilians were taking shelter.

The bare facts of the situation indicate that while the schools probably were not being targeted, neither had Israel shown much concern about not bombing the schools. And Israel had been informed the schools were being used as refuges. Israel was unable to provide a verifiable reason for the bombing; Israeli forces seem to think that whatever they do is justified, period.

I quoted Rethinking Religion:

People are seduced into evil because they don’t recognize evil as evil. They mistake it for justice, or righteousness, or even God’s Will.

And I said the same admonishment no doubt applies to Palestinian terrorists as well.

Please understand that I’m not saying people or nations shouldn’t defend themselves from those who intend to do them harm. What gets us into trouble is thinking that we’re entitled to Holy Retribution or that we are somehow qualified to pass judgments and inflict brutality on entire populations, because we’re the good guys.

The United States has fallen into the same error, many times.

A comment was left on my other site, which said —

The Fourth Mindfulness Training: I will not spread news that I do not know to be certain and will not criticize or condemn things of which I am not sure. I am wondering whether you can quote these sources with the certainty that they are true?

We can’t always know for certain what goes on out of our sight. For that matter, we’re often confused about what’s going on within our sight. But in the case of the bombed UN schools, even Israel is not denying that the bombings occurred as news sources reported. What’s in dispute is whether other circumstances justified the bombings. Since I wrote the original post, no new information has come to light that makes Israel’s arguments any stronger.

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Buddhist “right speech” teachings are sometimes interpreted to mean that one cannot criticize anyone else, ever, for any reason, and I don’t see it that way. Certainly one does not spread lies or gossip, and one does not use speech in an ego-centered way, tearing others down to build ourselves up.

However, if we don’t at least offer what insight or wisdom we may have to the suffering world, what good are we?

Most of the mass atrocities of human history were carried out by people who believed their actions were completely justified. This has been true of followers of all the world’s great religions and no doubt any nation that’s been in existence for at least a few years. Things are done that the descendents of the perpetrators try to erase from history or eventually acknowledge in sorrow when enough time has passed. Yet generation after generation, we never seem to learn from this.

I don’t see any group of people, including nations, as intrinsically good or evil. This is just what humans do, and have always done.

Did the Buddha actually intend for us to keep silence in the face of atrocity? Or to wait to speak until the verdict of history has been issued, which usually takes a generation or two? I don’t think so. The Buddha himself could be unsparing in his words when somebody did something completely out of bounds.

In the Patimokkha, a section of the Vinaya-pitaka, or rules for monks and nuns, the Buddha discussed the correct way for one monk or nun to admonish another. If the criticism is timely, factual, not unnecessarily harsh, and offered with a kind heart, this is skillful admonishment. And while I don’t always live up to that, in this situation I believe I did.

One thought on “Silence, Noble and Ignoble

  1. Seth Zuiho Segall

    Barbara, I wholeheartedly concur. Silence in the face of what we perceive to be injustice is never warranted on the grounds of the Dharma. What is most important is the place within us from where the criticism comes — that it be offered with a generosity of spirit and without malice — that it be offered in the hopes of reducing suffering and preventing the generation of bad karma — that it be offered, not for or against anyone, but for the promotion of the well-being and happiness of all. And then of course — all the usual admonitions that it be skillfully rendered — the right word at the right time, etc. And that there be minimal ego involvement — we are not overly attached to our views — if it turns out we were wrong or unjustified, we are ready to admit our error and apologize. As an ethnic Jew who is personally supportive of Israel’s right to self-defense and is not opposed in principle to Israel’s recent incursion into Gaza for the purpose of destroying Hamas military assets, I too grieve the painful loss of life on both sides and worry that the IDF has become too callous and less careful than it could have been in minimizing civilian casualties. Whether in fact these fears are justified, whether Israel did its best or not, time may tell, but the time for soul-searching is always now. We can always do better.


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