Sunday, May 15, 2011

Nonviolence and Killing

by Miki Kashtan

In the wake of Osama Bin-Laden’s killing a very active discussion emerged on the email forum used by the community of trainers certified with the Center for Nonviolent Communication. One thread of this conversation has been about responses to the particular event, and especially how to relate to the people celebrating Bin-Laden’s death. This exploration was the primary inspiration for my previous entry (to which I still intend to come back). Another thread has focused on a more general question: can killing in any way be compatible with nonviolence?

This is by far not a new dilemma in human affairs. The Dalai Lama, one of the living icons of nonviolence, also engaged with this same question, citing a Buddhist scripture that suggests killing may sometimes be necessary, so long as it’s done with utmost compassion and in extreme and rare circumstances. Whether or not the stringent criteria implicit in the story were met in this circumstance, the Dalai Lama’s essential claim is that Buddhism, in principle, is not categorically opposed to killing.

Others, including Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist leader who is also deeply associated with peace and nonviolence, and others who embrace a consciousness of nonviolence, are suggesting that killing is never to be done. For some, true nonviolence entails the willingness to die rather than to kill.

Earlier today an NVC trainer from Germany who is also a Sikh posted on the email forum, and included this sentence: “Killing seems to be part of nature – the question to me really is, what is the consciousness behind it.”

With some significant changes and additions, I am posting here my response to this post. This is an invitation to engage with this question, with all questions, with complexity and with love. In our times, with what we are facing, I don’t believe that simple one-dimensional answers will do. I sense that paradox and complexity are essential for our survival.

I was reminded of a very complex process I went through when I had cancer in 1997. At that time I was part of the Thich Nhat Hanh community, and, specifically, had taken the five precepts, the first of which is no killing and no condoning of killing. This was the background against which I was presented with the prevalent image of "war" against the cancer. I was deeply troubled, because I had complete clarity that these cells, no matter what else was true of them, were part of me, and were alive. I had a lot of difficulty embracing the idea of killing them.

What helped me were two insights, both of which seem relevant to this essential question.

The first was coming to understand that life depends on killing, at all levels. For example, if our immune system stops killing invading germs we will all die in short order. That realization was shocking, disturbing, and also expansive in terms of my understanding of life.

The second was that cancer is an unsustainable life form. It has no way to survive because of the indefinite growth that consumes more and more resources and will, eventually, kill the person whose cancer it is. My choice, as someone with cancer, was to do all I could so that the cancer would die faster and therefore I would stay alive.

In this moment it appears to me that most of the killing that happens in life is interwoven with the ongoing processes of living, eating, shelter, and other such basics. And then there are times when the option of killing happens as an active, conscious decision. I see the example of my cancer as a metaphor for one of the criteria about when killing is harmonious with life.

In a movie I saw many years ago I remember some people who were asking forgiveness of animals before killing them for food. In that act I saw recognition of the inevitability, as well as understanding of the grief and anguish of the necessity, of killing.

When it comes to killing humans I imagine that process being extraordinarily difficult. I have serious doubt that most of the killing that happens amongst humans receives that quality of immense care and attention.

Subsequent to my cancer experience, I lost my capacity to see “no killing” as a vow I could accept. I haven't yet found an elegant way to come up with a simple and tight set of criteria to use in deciding about killing. Nothing that is useful enough to share with others. It has been evident to me that the hermetic and single-focused “no killing” is in most instances easier to observe than the agonizing process of becoming conscious each time and deciding in the absence of clarity. I dropped out of the community, because I didn’t see that I could find companionship in the excruciating work of disentangling the complexity. So I wrestled by myself. Do I kill the ants that one day swarmed into my house in the many hundreds? I did kill them. Was it necessary? I doubt it. They were not threatening my survival in any way, only my comfort. Was the killing done with compassion? Hardly. I was frantic and shaking all over in primal disgust, and didn’t have any sense of presence of mind while spraying them.

Ants are not human, and I still also believe that I myself would not be able to kill another person even in very difficult circumstances. I hope very much that I don’t find myself in such circumstances, because whatever happens will no doubt be deeply traumatic for me.

Whatever else is true, I am confident that the more we can all learn and integrate into our body, mind, and soul the options of dialogue and nonviolent resistance the less likely it is that we would find killing the only option in any given circumstance. In addition to courage and love, I know I want to cultivate creativity so as to be able to find the nonviolent options: the magic of dialogue, the energy of nonviolent resistance, and the vision of love that grounds them both. I want all of us to walk beyond the constraining visions we have inherited, so we can truly see the possibility of transcending either/or thinking and develop trust that we can create outcomes that ultimately benefit everyone.


  1. I must say it again, thank you! This is exactly what I needed to hear (read?). I literally felt myself getting lighter while reading this, as though this pain I have carried since Bin Laden was killed has lifted a bit. More and more I see our struggles, and I see people attempting to view the world in black and white. We simply cannot do that. I have always deeply known this (I think everyone does), but never has it been explained in a way that made sense to the frontal cortex. Many, many thanks for the additional clarity.

  2. I have always been horrified at the fact that life entails killing, and have finally come to look upon it as a spiritual challenge. It requires accepting the horrifying and awful parts of reality as well as the beautiful and grace-filled ones. But what has been so difficult for me to live with around Bin Laden's particular killing was the widespread tone of gloating and satisfaction about it. This goes beyond just killing, it creates a deeper wound that leads to increased separation, fear, and further violence.

  3. I have to admit, I feel somewhat disturbed with what you wrote about killing the ants. It just seems to stand out to me quite glaringly as being out-of-sync with the kind of consciousness of nonviolence that you are advocating.

    I also have taken a Buddhist vow of non-killing, and for me the intention behind it is related to the metta chant that I have learned of "May all being be happy, may beings be peaceful, may all beings be liberated". In practice, this looks like finding ways to remove and relocate insects when they are in places where you don't want them. I personally try to keep that metta chant in mind whenever I relocate an insect that I want to be somewhere else.

  4. I’m so happy to see this posting. Your previous post giving empathy to all sides was inspiring but (for me) left open your reaction to the killing. This post fills in the blanks. I am inspired to see the way you grapple with complexity instead of simply accepting a vow of “no killing”. I don’t consider myself a Buddhist but I am a long time meditator. I’ve been ambivalent about the first precept because observing the natural world shows me how much killing (for food especially) is an essential and natural part of life. In addition I’m aware that researchers are learning a lot more about the huge community of bacteria that live in our guts (and our mouths). I’m sure we kill some of these organisms every minute of the day. For me this is not a callous act but a very natural process and part of being alive.

    Your statement about the "agonizing process of becoming conscious each time and deciding in the absence of clarity" resonates with me. For me it’s the difference between Native Americans killing bison and using every part of the animal and Whites killing bison as part of a slaughter. I believe that Native Americans also had rituals that expressed respect for the animals they killed.

    I’d also like to say that while the killing of Osama may seem inevitable on one level (I’m still not sure of my position if I had been the President in charge of making the decision) the killing was only the end of a very long process of US interaction with him. He represents ideas or thwarted needs of a large group of people. He couldn’t have done what he did on his own. Intervention anywhere along the process could have provided many other options.

  5. dear ian,

    i want to say two brief points.

    one is that it is most essential for me to be honest about who i am, even when it doesn't fit, even when it is "glaringly ... out-of-sync with the kind of consciousness of nonviolence that [I am] advocating." precisely then, in fact.

    it's a key antidote to re-introducing structures of power that frighten me. it keeps me honest and human, and more available to others.

    second is that i am still, in retrospect, lacking imagination about what can be done with a swarm of hundreds of ants. i have no difficulty removing and releasing individual insects. i don't know what to do with swarms that come all at once. i am so humbled by that truth.

    i can only hope for full acceptance of me as of everyone else.