Does nonviolence always mean taking a passive approach?
by Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche
According to dharma teachings it is more a question of how to act rather than whether to act. There is no encouragement to be either passive or active, but there is guidance on action. We can speak of actions of body, actions of speech, or actions of mind. One’s actions of body should occur from a deep, grounded stillness. One’s actions of speech should be connected to deep inner silence. One’s ideas or solutions should come from an open, spacious mind. Even in response to violence, these actions are not driven by fear or anger; rather, they are actions that arise spontaneously with confidence and awareness. When awareness is present, you know what to do. Your actions are healing, not harming.
When your sense of stillness, silence, and spaciousness is obscured by internal distress, it is not the time to act. Let me give an example in the realm of action through speech. Perhaps someone has criticized you and you feel you have been disrespected and misunderstood. You write an email to clarify the situation, but you notice your words are sharp and cutting. You feel almost powerful as you write angry words, and there is a sense of relief as you express yourself. Fortunately you do not press the send button, but save your response as a draft. The next day you reread the email and edit it a bit, deleting some of the sharper points of your attack. Again you save it. A few days pass, and by the end of the week you no longer feel the need to send the email. Instead of pressing the send button you delete the email. To qualify as a true healing this has to be more than an example of giving up or letting go because you think that is what you are supposed to do. That only subtly reinforces a worldview where you are a victim and the other person is the aggressor.
What would the internal scenario look like if this were truly a healing transformation? As a practitioner of meditation, as you spend time connecting with openness and the awareness of that openness, you become aware of the hurt and anger that motivated your initial response. As you feel your feelings directly, you host them in the space of being present. You host your feelings because they are there, and hosting means you feel without judging or analysing further. Interestingly, without elaboration, the drive behind the feelings begins to dissolve into the spaciousness of being present. As you become fully present, the harsh words of the other’s criticism do not fit or define you. It is possible that you may experience them coming from an unbalanced or vulnerable place in the other person.
If you do decide that some action needs to be taken, you have connected more fully with a sense of unbounded space within you. This experience of being fully present is powerful. Awareness of this inner space gives rise to compassion and other positive qualities. It is important to realise that you do not arrive at this experience of yourself by rejecting, altering, or moving away from your feelings, or by imposing some prescription of how to behave, or by justifying your feelings by thinking or elaborating upon them. As you continue to be fully present, the feelings release into the openness. If you are truly honest, they no longer define your experience of yourself. Can you trust that this is your true power?
The space of openness is indestructible. It cannot be destroyed; it can only be obscured. Having connected with yourself in this way, whatever you write or communicate will be influenced by that respect and the warmth that marks being fully present. Because you have treated your own reactivity by simply being present, you have come to a trustworthy place in yourself.
In this example, the process took you a week, but as you become more familiar with the power of openness, it can happen in an instant. Even strong negative emotions can be a doorway to direct and naked awareness — a doorway to the direct connection to the space of being. If you meet the moment fully and openly, awareness will define what you do. Awakened or enlightened action will spontaneously arise; it does not come from a plan.
Even physical or verbal actions that may appear forceful arise from the confidence of openness itself and the power of compassion that is always available and always benefits all.