Nonviolence in the face of riot police (photo by Marc Dunne, via Flickr)

From the frontlines of the G8/G20 summit, Michael Stone reflects on nonviolence and engaged living. The second in a three-part series.

If my commitment to the dharma demands that I place non-harm in body, speech and mind at the core of my actions, then what is my stance on protesters venting their anger at shop windows and police vehicles? When the media jumped on the images of burning police cars, our collective attention was, once again, drawn away from political, social and ecological issues and into the fetishization of violence. But where is the real violence? Do Buddhists turn away from the issues at stake when the G8 and G20 meet, or do we embrace those issues and stand up for what we believe in?

There is no overall Buddhist social theory. We can gather that a Buddhist vision of is not about Left or Right but about waking up to all forms of suffering and the interdependence of all things. If we value interdependence, then what is the appropriate response when uranium is mined from native land and sold to India to run Canadian-built nuclear reactors? Or when depleted uranium from spent fuel rods are being turned into weapons and dropped on the people of Iraq and  Kosovo, with disastrous long-term health consequences?

Thich Nhat Hanh, one of the most peaceful and engaged Buddhist teachers I know, writes:

“If nonviolence is a stand, then it would be an attack on violence. But the most visible form of violence is revolutionary and liberational violence. So if you stand for nonviolence, you automatically stand against actual revolution and liberation. Quite distressing! ‘No! We are not against revolution or liberation. We are against the other side, the side of the institutions, the side of the oppressors. The violence of the system is much more destructive, much more harmful, although it is well hidden. We call it institutional violence. By calling ourselves nonviolent we are against all violence, but we are first against institutional violence.’”

Both Patanjali and the Buddha taught a path of compassionate action rooted in interdependence and respect for all creatures. Though a commitment to non-violence has helped me find resilience, generosity and equanimity in my inner life, the protests in Toronto challenge my definitions of non-harm in a profound way because if people simply marched in the way they were told, we’d be guilty of indifference or even complicity in deep and widespread institutional violence.

With media attention focused overwhelmingly on the violence of the protesters and the police, it become more and more difficult to have meaningful conversations about the politics of the G8 and G20 and the deals being signed behind closed doors. Today when I ask my well informed friends about those meetings, very few can name the agenda or the outcome.

Outside of Dharmasala, India, the home of H.H. the Dalai Lama, Toronto is the largest community of exiled Tibetans. When you ask young Tibetans what they think of H.H. the Dalai Lama they will speak with great reverence, and most of the store windows in the west end of the city have photos of His Holiness smiling. But off the record, many of the young people questions whether strict non-violence can really bring about change in Tibet. A culture is slowly being extinguished, and while it’s true that hatred is not settled with hatred, we are justified in asking, as one Tibetan asked me rhetorically, “when is it time to take a stand and make sure nobody takes away your home or ruins your land?”

Throughout history, when people are silenced or denied the means of genuine dialogue or participation, anger arises. If we can understand anger as a natural response to imbalance and oppression, we can see how anger is healthy. It is only when actions taken out of anger have the intention to cause harm that anger becomes unhealthy.

If a marginalized group uses violence to bring attention to a cause, and if that cause confronts institutional violence, then what? As the rain clouds grew heavy over the clashes that June afternoon, and as over 1,000 protesters were arbitrarily rounded up and arrested as my son and I made our way home, I wondered what I could do and where I stood.

Part three will be published tomorrow!

Michael Stone is the director of Centre of Gravity Sangha in Toronto and the author of many books, most recently Awake in the World: Teachings from Yoga and Buddhism for Living an Engaged Life (Shambhala Publications, 2011). Find Michael at