Zen and the art of brutality; or, How can a Buddhist write such violence?

A lot of people read my fiction and tell me something like, “Wait. I thought you were Buddhist?” Even friends are sometimes surprised that I am (by intention if not always by action) so committed to compassion and nonviolence and the pursuit of enlightenment, yet I write such cruel characters, such violent events, such a harsh and unenlightened world.

But perhaps the fullest and most thoughtful expression of this perceived contrast between my spiritual practice and my writing practice came in a recent comment from my friend Marie Marshall (author of Lupa and I Am Not a Fish). Her question is actually so well expressed I’m going to quote from it:

I was struck by the violence in Hagridden which, although not described in a matter-of-fact way, seemed simply to be ‘what happened’. You, as the author, neither relished it nor shrank from it, and it was simply a necessary part of the ‘drama’ of the book being played out on the page. Yet by inclination you are a Buddhist, and Buddhism is a pacifistic philosophy. On the face of it, there is absolutely no expression of horror, not even the mildest ‘tut-tut’ from the voice of the author, in the work.

I assume that in your writing you attempt, as I do myself, to allow things to happen because they happen. ‘This happens’, rather than ‘Isn’t it terrible that this happens’. Where does your/our own morality sit? Where does that author’s philosophy sit? Do you – do we – as I suggested in my review of Hagridden, make an amoral narrative a moral position in its own right? Is an amoral position more powerful, in a way, than trumpeting our agenda? Or is this simply what we ‘ought’ to do as honest authors?


Where to begin?

I hesitate to write too much about Buddhism here (as I am wont to do, actually) because I am not a good teacher on Buddhism. Frankly, I’m not even a very good practitioner. So I don’t want to misrepresent things here; which is to say, this is just my poor, limited understanding of what I personally understand (or misunderstand), and please don’t mistake it for genuine dharma.

But I remember some of my earliest formal instruction in Buddhism, from Theravada yogi Thynn Thynn. She showed us a cycle of judgment, three lines: a “good” judgment line, a “bad” judgment line, and a “neutral” line. They were arranged in concentric circles, each line a cycle that fed back on itself, judgment begetting more judgment.

I saw immediately what was going on: we needed to strike a balance, to find Buddhism’s famed “Middle Way,” and so we were supposed to train ourselves to avoid both “good” and “bad” judgments and remain neutral.

But I was wrong.

Thynn Thynn taught us that “neutral” is also a judgment, a matter of forced perception. And because “neutral” is still a form of judgment, it’s not the same thing as NONjudgment — and what we wanted to do was free ourselves from the cycle of judgment entirely.

I wouldn’t say that nonjudgment is the same thing as Marie’s “amoral” position, because I share our common connotation of amorality and so don’t think of “Buddhist” judgment in those terms. If I were being one of those frustrating Buddhists, I’d say that nonjudgment is neither moral nor amoral — it exists beyond such duality. But then, all “amoral” means is “without morality,” which is about as close to nonjudgment as we layfolk need to get.

And in terms of my writing, Marie has it pretty well spot-on: I try to tell the story that needs to get told in the way it needs to get told; and, in the case of Hagridden, my objective, external, distant narrative voice — the voice of No-Narrator, if I were being clever — is a cultivated thing. It’s the voice I needed to adopt to write that book. And that No-Narrator is nonjudgmental: the voice is just the voice of the story, and you readers get to make of that whatever morality you will.

But I can’t say that Hagridden — or any of my fiction — is amoral in the conventional sense, because I, the author, have a pretty strong set of morals, rooted in Buddhism and pacifism,* and they can’t help but manifest themselves in the work I write.

Consider, for example, my short story, “Lightning My Pilot.” In it, a mother inadvertently sets up a fantasy world for her son, one in which clouds are “god-ships,” and then she struggles with her creation as the boy commits to the fantasy and the fantasy turns violent. “Why are the god-ships fighting?” the boy says during a lightning storm, and we realize he’s assuming the thunder and lightning are a war in the clouds. Later, during a rainstorm, he says, “I’m not in their war, but all this rain, it’s like their blood, so if I got wet, it’d be like they got their blood on me. Would they feel sorry about that?”

The mother is horrified by the world she’s helped create.

Except this wasn’t just her creation. When the boy sees the concern on his mother’s face, he tells her not to worry, that he can handle whatever she has to tell him.

“It’s what he’d said when his father deployed,” the mother realizes.

Later, we get a few other details: a photo of the uniformed (but absent) father, along with his framed special forces patch; the fact that, at some point not long ago, the boy attended a funeral for “Daddy’s friend Mike.”

“Lightning My Pilot” is about the relationship between the mother and son, about the bond they form through this fantasy, about the boy showing his mother a form of compassion she hadn’t fully realized before. But when I tell people about that story, I call it my anti-war story.

That’s my moral perspective. (It doesn’t have to be yours.)

I wrote that story a few years ago, shortly before taking up the first full-scale revision of Hagridden, so that story and Hagridden share these themes in common: what it’s like for families during wartime, the ways in which war can (sometimes quietly) ravage the lives of noncombatants on the homefront.

And as violent as Hagridden is, as much as it depends on the horrors of wartime to drive its story, I consider it an anti-war novel. This is certainly a sentiment some of my characters express, though there are also characters who seem to revel in the violence of war. Because that’s the world, not as we wish it to be but as it is.

I often confess to being an idealist, but people tend to dismiss idealism as fancy and foolishness. So I try to amend the label and call myself a realistic idealist, by which I mean I hold my world and myself to certain ideals, however unattainable they might be, if only to strive to become better than I am — and we are — now. But I don’t think you can hold ideals without knowing about our shortcomings, and it’s that world — the world that strives but fails — that I think makes the most compelling fiction.

I once attended a conference panel on Buddhist fiction in which someone questioned whether any such thing is possible. They cited Robert Olen Butler as having said that Buddhist fiction is impossible because fiction requires plot and plot depends on desire, but Buddhism seeks to extinguish desire. No desire means no Buddhist plot and no Buddhist fiction.**

But, I scribbled in my notebook from that conference, it is the seeking to extinguish desire that is the point. Buddhists desire No-Desire, so to speak, and therein lies all the internal and external conflict a writer would ever need. We try to make ourselves better or — more often and more foolishly — we try to force the world around us to conform to what we think is “better,” and that struggle is the stuff of most great fiction.

And sometimes that struggle is violent, and cruel, and without morals.

And I try to write that struggle without judgment. Because, as Marie says, that’s my job as a writer. And maybe it’s my job as a Buddhist, too.

* I feel I can’t write this honestly without addressing the misperception that Buddhism is a pacifist religion. It’s not. There are a lot of important teachings about nonviolence, and certainly Buddhists are supposed to try to transcend anger as we would any other emotion. And by and large, many, if not most, Buddhists are committed to pacifism and Buddhist cultures have tended to be less violent than most other cultures. But Buddhists get angry; Buddhists go to war; Buddhists even commit atrocities. It would be dishonest not to acknowledge that.

** Actually, what Robert Olen Butler has said — in many articles and interviews, though I’m quoting here from his book From Where You Dream, is this:

And, as any Buddhist will tell you, you cannot exist as a human being on this planet for thirty seconds without desiring something. [. . .] In fact, one way to understand plot is that it represents the dynamics of desire.

Published by Samuel Snoek-Brown

I write fiction and teach college writing and literature. I'm the author of the story collection There Is No Other Way to Worship Them, the novel Hagridden, and the flash fiction chapbooks Box Cutters and Where There Is Ruin.

8 thoughts on “Zen and the art of brutality; or, How can a Buddhist write such violence?

  1. Excellent. I am not a very religious person. If someone asks me, I usually say there is nothing in Buddhism with which I disagree, I meditate, etc. I do not see Buddhism as amoral–perhaps there are no words in English to describe some tenants of Buddhism. However, as you point out, Buddhists are human and, as such, individuals in Buddhist cultures, like people everywhere, commit horrible acts. As a writer, if one writes about reality at all, especially in novels, a lot of not very nice things will occur. I fail to see how that necessarily has anything to do with religion.

    1. Or, it has everything to do with every religion.

      Which is essentially the same thing, yeah?

      (I’m one of those annoying Buddhists.) 🙂

      I particularly like your comment about “no words in English,” because the farther I progress in my studies (I’m much more an academic Buddhist than a good, practical Buddhist), the more I realize how little I’ll ever truly understand until I learn the languages. Pali, Sanskrit, Tibetan.

      I have a lot of work to do. 🙂

      1. Years ago when an undergrad, I took a course where I wrote a paper on Zen Buddhism. I turned in blank sheets to make a point. Not sufficiently brave, I did have a backup which I eventually turned in. Sometime go to a Buddhist country, e.g. Thailand. I have had two Thai exchange students live with me. Both Buddhist. Easy.

      2. When I was an undergrad, I wrote a poem called “Revelation of the Mystic.” It, too, was a blank page. I showed it to my poetry professor. He gave me side-eye and said, “Very clever.” 🙂

  2. Thank you, Sam.

    In my original comment I tried hard not to use any quasi-Buddhist terminology, because although I know a little about the philosophy I am not a practitioner and therefore know a good deal less than you. As Alexander Pope put it –

    A little learning is a dangerous thing;
    Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian Spring.

    Also I used the term ‘amoral’ because there is something concrete about it – it refers to something that relates to the everyday world, to our ‘politikos’, to how we observe and interact with what goes on around us – because the very word comes from the Latin ‘mores’, meaning ‘custom’, and thus it is not an abstract thing. A book is concrete in that way; you produce it, we interpret it, it affects us all. To write is to judge, because to do is to judge; when the Apostle Paul wrote ‘The saints shall judge the world’ (1 Cor. 6:2), arguably it was not judging as in pointing the finger he had in mind, but rather than by the simple act of existing, and by doing the things that they were spiritually impelled to do within the world, the 1st Century Church ‘judged’ the world. The Buddhist position of ‘nonjudgment’ is (ugh, I have to coin something ugly here) meta-concrete; it is not an action but a state. Would you agree? At least, that’s how it strikes me.

    What you have described is, to a great extent, how I try to write as well. I am very aware that my attitudes and opinions must and do influence what I write and how I write it. I know, for example, that as a historian with a particular interest in how language, culture, and ideas develop, my fiction will express the fragility of history. As someone who is Biblically literate, I will wrestle with theology, and there will be scriptural intertextuality in my writing. As someone interested in Anarchism, I will question the powerful’s construct of ‘reality’ and truth. At least, I would be surprised if these things did not surface in what I write – you can probably think of a dozen instances of each in ‘Lupa’, for all I know!

    ‘Hagridden’ remains an outstanding piece of fiction, by the way. If you didn’t have a ‘name’ before, then you certainly have one now.

    Meanwhile, I still have, on the back-burner, the idea of re-writing ‘Seven Samurai’ from the point of view of Shino, the girl in boy’s clothing…

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