Monday, October 29, 2012

Master Po on nonviolence

Readers of the previous post entitled "Reflections on Simone Weil's 'The Iliad, or the Poem of Force' and the Question of Consciousness" may be asking themselves, "How does this have anything to do with my life, since -- unlike Achilles or Ajax in the Iliad -- I am never faced with the question of using lethal force against another person?"

That is a good question.  

However, even if we (unlike Achilles, Ajax, Hektor, and the rest) are not engaged in daily life-or-death struggles around the walls of Ilium, this does not mean we do not encounter other human beings every day.  If we do, then we undoubtedly wrestle with the problem presented by Simone Weil's definition of force (or violence): that which turns a person into a thing.

As the interesting little segment above from the classic early 1970s television series Kung Fu tries to convey to its viewers, it is possible to be filled with a form of violence, even without doing physical violence.  In the flashback to the Shaolin Temple, Master Po (perhaps the most well-known and beloved character in the series) explains:
In a heart that is one with nature, though the body contends, there is no violence.
And in the heart that is not one with nature, though the body be at rest, there is always violence.
The essay by Simone Weil cited in the previous post opens an interesting perspective onto this seemingly contradictory pair of declarations.

If violence (as she believes) is that which turns another person into a thing, then our hearts can be filled with constant violence without our body ever raising an actual finger in physical contention with another.  To select a simple and unfortunately familiar example, we can in our minds (and our words) treat other drivers on the road as things and not as other people as we drive along the highways and roads during our day-to-day errands and commutes (and we can sometimes perceive others doing the same to us).  We may even refer to another driver as a "stupid pick-up truck" or some other phrase, showing that we are reducing that person in our minds to an object.

This may seem to be a bit of a stretch -- the reader may think, "well, I am not really confusing the human being in the vehicle with the mechanical object that he is driving."  However, if we are honest with ourselves, we may reflect on times that we have done the exact same thing by reducing the spiritual being in front of us to the physical aspects of the body that they are inhabiting at the moment!

This brings to mind the powerful monologue delivered by the late great Israel Kamakawiwo'ole at the beginning of his stunning performance of "Kaleohano" in May, 1996 when he said of the human body (as opposed to the eternal soul): "It's only a facade, brah.  It's a thin curtain.  It's only temporary.  Us guys is forever" (see the 2:15 mark in this video of the event itself).

To return to the assertion of Master Po from the clip above, then, we can apply Simone Weil's definition of violence as that which seeks to turn a person into a thing and agree with the Shaolin monk that it is possible for one who does not physically contend with others to nevertheless be filled with violence, and that it is also possible for one who does not wish to physically contend with another to find himself or herself in a situation where he or she must physically contend with another, while yet seeing the adversary as completely human and refusing to treat him as anything less (though this is very difficult).

It is noteworthy that Master Po precedes each of his statements with the qualifying statement "the heart that is one with nature" (or, in the second case, "the heart that is not one with nature").  We have seen that Simone Weil (and the Iliad) both provide overwhelming arguments that to reduce a person to a thing is contrary to nature.  It is unnatural, and it is wrong.

It is also worth noting that Simone Weil argues, perhaps contrary to Master Po although not necessarily, that it is almost impossible to use force without being "turned to stone" oneself -- that employing force not only reduces one's adversary to a "thing," but that it threatens to reduce the one who uses it to a "thing" as well.  The previous post cited her assertion that:
[. . .] the conquering soldier is like a scourge of nature.  Possessed by war, he, like the slave, becomes a thing, though his manner of doing so is different -- over him, too, words are as powerless as over matter itself.  And both, at the touch of force, experience its inevitable effects: they become deaf and dumb.  
Such is the nature of force.  Its power of converting a man into a thing is a double one, and in its application double-edged.  To the same degree, though in different fashions, those who use it and those who endure it are turned to stone.  22.
It is extremely interesting that at the legendary Shaolin Temple (which was in fact a real institution, and which historians agree was instrumental in the development of the incredible martial arts of China) took such care to inculcate in those who trained in these methods of combat an abiding focus on compassion and humanity.  It is as if they knew that handling such methods of violence could easily turn the martial artist into "a thing," and they wanted to avoid that dangerous possibility.  Rather than walking through life seeing others as targets to be attacked or objects to be subdued, the masters of the Shaolin Temple stressed the opposite: affirming the subjectivity and humanity of everyone, even those who have for whatever unfortunate and unnatural reason become an adversary.  

Recent scientific studies of brainwave patterns appear to confirm the conclusion that the kinds of thoughts that we dwell on for thousands of hours actually create physical changes within our brains and our brainwave patterns as well, as discussed in this post from last October.

In light of all this, it would seem that this is a subject of great importance to all of us in our daily lives, whether we are involved in actual "combat situations" like those immortalized in the Iliad or not.  We might want to consider Master Po's advice to young Kwai Chang Caine, and seek to avoid reducing other people to the status of things, even if we are only doing it inside our minds.