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Dharma World Buddhist magazine

Self-Defense and Defense Against the Self

by Jack Miles


Opening remarks at the Symposium on Religion and Peace, held under the theme
"Global Militarization - Religions' Response," at the Student Center of
the University of California, Irvine (UCI), on May 13, 2010.


It is a pleasure to join all of you on a springtime evening sacred to Buddhists all around the world for a symposium on religion and peace, a pairing of subjects of ever more intense interest not just to Buddhists, surely, but to everyone on our beleaguered planet. I am honored by the invitation extended to me by Rev. Shoko Mizutani, director of Rissho Kosei-kai International of North America, to offer opening remarks this evening, and I am grateful to the members of Rissho Kosei-kai International of North America, the UCI Buddhist Association, and the several other Christian, Jewish, Unitarian Universalist, and secular humanist sponsors for the support you have lent to this evening's conversation.

When it comes to religion, the United States has been characterized through various metaphors, most of which seem to have something to do with food or drink. We are a cafeteria of religions, some say, or we are a Chinese menu ("Pick one from column A, one from column B, etc."). Or, moving from China to Sweden, we are a smorgasbord of dishes hot and cold. Among all of these metaphors, my favorite is this: We are a no-host bar of religion. By that, I mean that no American religion, however large, can claim to be the host or home religion in the United States in a way that would render all others mere invited or uninvited guests. At a no-host bar, anyone may buy anyone else a drink, and anyone may accept the drink without conceding thereby that his benefactor owns the bar and may throw him out at closing time. It doesn't work that way in the United States. As we mill about this no-host bar, serving one another rather than sitting serenely waiting to be served or not by some head bartender of religious beverages, our confusion is our glory.

Why are we gathered here this evening? What is our subject? With due deference to Buddhist tradition, let me propose that our ultimate subject is mindfulness. It is concentration in the sense in which one of the most quoted writers in the English language, Dr. Samuel Johnson, used that word concentrate in one of his most famous quips: "You may depend upon it, sir, when a man knows that he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully."

Wonderfully and terribly at once, we may want to add, once past the initial smile. A retired country doctor in rural Wisconsin once observed that his long years of practice had been a great school of humanity not because he had sat at the bedside of so many dying patients. No, the moment of death was not the moment of truth. The moment of truth, so often repeated, had been the moment just after he had told a patient who thought himself or herself well and healthy that he or she had only a short time to live. That moment, he said, was the moment of truth.

Of what truth, exactly? Beyond the truth of the patient's mortality, there was the doctor's own mortality, and beyond that the mortality of all whom he had known or ever would know. "Sad mortality o'ersways [our] power," Shakespeare wrote.1 Or, as Dr. Johnson's immediate contemporary, Thomas Gray, put it:


The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power
And all that beauty, all that wealth e'er gave,
Await alike th'inevitable hour.
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.2


The truth of that repeated moment in a humble physician's life is the very truth that launched Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, upon his search for enlightenment so many centuries ago. Enlightenment is not knowledge, though it begins from knowledge. It is rather what one does with the knowledge already disturbingly in one's possession.

The Buddha's search for enlightenment interrupted the life he had been living until the truth of universal suffering and death intruded upon his consciousness - namely, a life lived within the illusionary cocoon of property and power. Jesus spoke of that cocoon in one of his parables:


The lands of a certain rich man brought forth plentifully. And he thought within himself, saying, What shall I do since I have no room to store my harvest? And he said, This will I do: I will pull down my old barns, and build new ones and larger; and there will I store all my harvest and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, thou has much goods laid up for many years; take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry! But God said unto him, Thou fool, this night shall thy life be required of thee. Whose then shall those things be, which thou has provided?3


The rich farmer knew that at some point God would take back the life God had given. It was not knowledge that the man lacked but wisdom. And where lay the path of wisdom?

Later on in his discourse, Jesus gave an answer of which the Buddha might have approved. He said:


Fear not, Little Flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell what you have, and give alms; provide yourselves with purses that do not age, a treasure in the heavens that never runs out, where no thief lurks, nor any moth devours. For where your treasure is there will your heart be as well.4


Well and good, I hear you say, but why bring up these tales of private inspiration at a symposium on so large and public a subject? What's the connection? Let me begin my answer to that question with an unhappy woman in T. S. Eliot's play The Cocktail Party. Why am I unhappy? she wonders. She doesn't know, but she hopes there is something wrong with her, she says, because, if not, there is something very wrong with the universe. We understand her question easily enough, but if there is something wrong with the world, can she possibly hope to be untouched? Or if there is something wrong with her, can its effect possibly be separated from the collective effect upon the universe of the human species to which she belongs?

The life of the individual and the life of the species are inseparable. So much is this the case that we must now contemplate the real possibility that our species will go extinct, just as so many have done before us. As we meet this evening, some of the world's most distinguished scientists, like concerned physicians drawing conclusions from a syndrome of symptoms, are poised to give the diagnosis that Homo sapiens may have only a short time to live. They are contemplating the possibility that the ten-thousand-year epoch of geological stability during which human civilization arose may be coming to an end. Called the Holocene era, this epoch might have lasted another ten thousand years were it not for the profound effect upon the planet of the activities of our species, especially over its past century of life.5 The Holocene epoch is yielding to what some propose to call the Anthropocene era but which, as one reads the details, seems worthy of being called the Anthropocidal era. To be blunt, we are slowly killing ourselves, and so the question of the day - and of this evening in particular - must be: Can we defend ourselves against ourselves? We are putting ourselves on the road to extinction. Can we stop ourselves in time?

The details of how the various forms of anthropogenic pollution threaten the very conditions of life on planet Earth are not the most predictable or proper subject of this evening's symposium. But if you were listening closely, I constructed the bridge from these opening remarks to the subject of the symposium in the closing questions of my previous paragraph - namely, "Can we defend ourselves against ourselves?" Perhaps we can, but when one is one's own enemy, the first step in self-defense must be a change in our understanding both of defense and of ourselves. And because the mortality that heaves into view at the dawn of the Anthropocene is not personal mortality but species mortality, the needed change of consciousness must be species wide. Culturally different in its expressions in different cultures, it must nonetheless be analogous to the change that Siddhartha Gautama sought when he left the wealth and comfort of his father's house, or the one that Jesus sought when he counseled his "little flock" in Galilee not to trust the treasures of earth but only those of heaven.

Still thinking defense, let me propose a small thought-experiment to you. We have all been following with horror the continuing spectacle of an uncapped oil well spewing a monstrous lake of oil upward from the ocean floor into the Gulf of Mexico. This gusher lies a mile beneath the ocean surface in an environment that we understand less well than we understand the surface of the moon, as one scientist remarked to National Public Radio. One-third of all the seafood consumed in the United States is now at most serious risk. Preliminary estimates of the damage that will be done to food production, ocean and river shipping, tourism and the revenue it brings, as well as the physical health of all who live and work along the coast, climb very quickly into the trillions. All this you know.

Let me now ask you to ask the following question: What if rather than an industrial accident, the explosion at the Deepwater Horizon oil rig had been an act of war? What if al-Qaeda had been behind it? What if this accident had been an act of war? What would be our response?

Is it not immediately obvious that our response would be both military and huge? Would it not be like our response to the attacks of 9/11/2001? No less a figure than Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates used the word gusher to characterize the near doubling of the U.S. defense budget that occurred in the aftermath of those attacks, a doubling exclusive of the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In a roundtable discussion with reporters, after a speech announcing unprecedented cuts in the Pentagon budget, Secretary Gates said, "The gusher has been turned off and will stay off for a good period of time."6 But note well, the as much as $15 billion that Secretary Gates intends to cut come from a Pentagon budget of fully $547 billion, again leaving aside the cost of current conflicts. After the cuts have been made, the budget will be 97 percent intact. Given the history of a budget that has gone ever upward, the Los Angeles Times had some reason to refer to "sharp cuts" in a May 9 report.7 And yet, at the same time, we do well to recall that the threat that has become reality in the Deepwater Horizon blowout was a threat against which the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), rather than the Pentagon, would properly be seen as the first line of defense. And what is the EPA's budget?

Last February, President Barack Obama and Lisa P. Jackson, administrator of the EPA, held a press conference to trumpet a whopping 34 percent increase in the EPA budget - that is, however, an increase from $7.8 billion to $10.5 billion.8 In other words, even after so large an increase by percentage, the entire budget for the defense of the country from environmental disaster equaled less than the announced 2.7 percent reduction in the military budget. When environmental breakdown can have the ominous consequences that we are witnessing in the Gulf of Mexico, we might well expect a nationwide outcry against this blatant misallocation of defense resources. How much less safe would the nation be if the EPA budget were tripled to $22 billion, which could be accomplished with the same $15 billion by which the Pentagon budget is to be reduced?

But we know, don't we, that no such general outcry is to be expected. And why is that? It is because, to return to the language used earlier, we are, as a species, much, much better at defending ourselves against others than against ourselves. We are hardwired for intraspecies conflict, adapted for it by eons of natural selection. Not everyone would say, as General George S. Patton does in the film that bears his surname, "I love war." But we men, in particular, are addicted to combat in some form. The World Cup thrills the world as it does because it simulates world war, and nothing so galvanizes our attention. But this is the very element in our evolved human nature that now most imperils us. This is the part of ourselves that we must defend against if we are to meet the larger enemy that no army can defeat.

Through the late 1970s and into the 1980s, Syria and Iraq came repeatedly to the brink of war over the water of the Euphrates River. Syria was smaller but upstream. Iraq was larger but downstream. Then, suddenly, they made peace and formed a common front against Turkey, larger than either and upstream of both. Turkey's massive Ataturk Dam made allies of erstwhile enemies.9 So it has often happened before, and so it will surely happen again, for, sadly, resource wars and resource alliances seem an ominous probability as political efforts to find a common, peaceful solution continue to come up as lamentably short as did the recent Copenhagen conference on climate control.

And yet we may ask, we must ask: Is it not within our reach to, as it were, move figuratively upstream from the region where military victory or defeat is paramount? If we can do this, then we may still have a chance to defend ourselves against ourselves before it is too late. Such is the question before this symposium. As political leadership falters, as resources continue to be so grotesquely misallocated against the range of threats that truly imperil national and international security, can the religions of the world, and especially the two most strongly represented here this evening, step into the breach? Can they teach the world that moving upstream of war is not abandoning defense but rather engaging the real enemy? Later this evening we shall hear more about the "Arms Down!" campaign,10 whose specific goals-and they must be specific to be effective-may seem a step removed from the environmental crisis, but there is a hidden connection between that crisis and everything that is bought and paid for in the name of "national security." And there is in both Buddhism and Christianity a connection between recognizing illusory security as illusory and beginning the quest for true security.

In the very longest run, of course, even the sun will go dark. Life on Earth is not eternal life. The answers of the Buddha and Jesus are ultimately directed to questions larger than the question of preserving life on a single planet lost in the immeasurable vastness of the universe. But the solitary planet matters, the solitary individual matters, and what happens to the soul - whether it rests in the illusory security of wealth and arms or achieves the mindfulness that I said at the start was our ultimate subject this evening - matters as well. It is easy to laugh at the thought that the inner peace sought by the religions has any connection at all with the outer peace that must now be the condition of human survival. But there is a connection, and my hope is that through the remainder of this evening we may come a little closer to it.


1. William Shakespeare, Sonnet 65:
Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea, But sad mortality o'ersways their power How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea, Whose action is no stronger than a flower? O how shall summer's honey breath hold out Against the wrackful siege of battering days When rocks impregnable are not so stout, Nor gates of steel so strong, but time decays? O fearful meditation! Where, alack, Shall time's best jewel from time's chest lie hid, Or what strong hand can hold his swift foot back, Or who his spoil of beauty can forbid? O none, unless this miracle have might: That in black ink my love may still shine bright.
2. Thomas Gray, "Elegy Written in a Country Church Yard."
3. Luke 12:16-20.
4. Luke 12:32-34.
5. Cf. Bradford Plumer, "Planet Doom: Nine scenarios for imminent apocalypse-only one is global warming," New Republic, May 13, 2010, 23-25.
6. Greg Joffe, "Gates: Cuts in Pentagon bureaucracy needed to help maintain military force," Washington Post, May 9, 2010.
7. Julian E. Barnes, "Gates Seeks Big Cuts in Military Spending," Los Angeles Times, May 9, 2010.
8. Amanda Wills, "Obama's 2010 Budget to Increase EPA Funding by 34 Percent," http://earth911.com/news/2009/05/14/.
9. Cf. Michael T. Klare, Resource Wars: The New Landscape of Global Conflict (New York: Henry Holt & Co., 2001), 161-89.
10. The Arms Down! Campaign for Shared Security is a worldwide campaign collecting signatures on petitions calling for every nation to reduce its military expenditure for nuclear and conventional weapons and reallocating the money toward achieving the United Nations' Millennium Development Goals by 2015.


Jack Miles, distinguished professor of English and religious studies with the University of California at Irvine and senior fellow for religious affairs with the Pacific Council on International Policy, is a writer whose work has appeared in many publications. His book God: A Biography won a Pulitzer Prize in 1996. He is currently at work as general editor of the forthcoming Norton Anthology of World Religions.

This article was originally published in the October-December 2010 issue of Dharma World.

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