Violence and the sacred: finding inner peace in times of outer conflict

A few weeks ago I happened to be reading Vali Nasr’s The Shia Revival on the way back from a martial arts session. I’d received a pretty firm kick in the side, and was conscious of pain in that area. I don’t want to overdramatize it, the injury meant sleeping was difficult for the following month, but there was no permanent damage. Among the themes discussed by Nasr is the martyrdom of Husayn and its commemoration by Shi’as in the form of the Ashura ritual. This reading, and the pain I was feeling, provoked me to reflect on the nature of spirituality and violence.

Perhaps I should say up front that I’m not a Muslim. Images of men and boys beating their foreheads with the flats of their swords, their foreheads bloody, during the Ashura, is a sight that has attracted condemnation in the West. Having not seen the ritual myself, I can’t comment on it with any authority. But it strikes me that the act itself may not be entirely different — on a physical level — to the martial artist who beats his hands on bamboo, stone, tree trunks, etc., or beats his body with his fists or with wood, to harden it and make it less susceptible to pain. Or to the Hindu ascetic who hangs his body from hooks — and we can find other, similar, examples. Of course there’s a spiritual dimension to the Ashura as well — as there is to Hindu asceticism, and some, though not all, martial arts.

This all sharply contrasts spirituality in the West today, which is often about comfort — about “being in the moment” when things are easy. Authentic spirituality, by contrast, requires discomfort. It’s about the potential of radical transformation in accordance with the eternal, the Truth. The practitioner doesn’t want to express himself, if, at least, he really is pursuing spirituality; he wants to express what is eternal.

Reluctance and enlightenment

The “enlightened” man or woman becomes so in adversity — in physical confrontations and in meeting overwhelming odds, the end of which seems to promise only utter defeat and catastrophic loss. The Buddha, so we are told, pushed himself to absolute extremes — including to the brink of starvation — before his epiphany that a less austere “middle way” — i.e., what we call Buddhism — was possible. Marcus Aurelius wrote his Meditations while encamped away from home, battling an enemy, for years on end. It was not the life that Aurelius wanted, but it was the life that caused him to reflect on how best to live.


According to Hinduism, when Krishna taught Arjuna the way in which the spiritual man was to behave and differentiate himself from lower types of men — and when the Hindu god revealed His transcendental form to his disciple — He did so on the battlefield. The battle could not be avoided. The enemy had come, and, at that point, it was inevitable. Arjuna, like Aurelius, was reluctant to fight. It seemed that he was about to suffer violence. But this was also the moment that Krishna decided to teach him essential lessons in behavior, in composure, in timeless values and the transcendental Truth.

Again, in the history of Zen, while we certainly find satori (awakening) expressed through the act of painting, cleaning a mirror, sweeping leaves, and so on, we also find it expressed through the arts of the Samurai, and especially through the art — or Way — of the sword (kendo).

Transforming violence into peacefulness

There are certain ways in which peacefulness can be attained in times of outer violence, but all of these require a certain inner condition, expressed in outer composure. In military victory, for example, the enemy is forgiven, and the lives of the enemy warriors spared. (Societies tend to exalt this kind of military leader, while we generally loathe those who inflict unnecessary pain, torment or death on the defeated.)

The forgiveness of the defeated enemy also suggests that the victors, at least, perceived there to have been a kind of brotherhood in the actual battle. We know that this is something that warriors have felt at different times and in different places. Warriors, if the name means anything, respect their enemy. Hence history furnishes us with anecdotes about warriors not taking unfair advantage of a situation to strike — something which seems quite alien to us today. The very existence of “rules of war” imply that there is some camaraderie of some sort — or at least some trust, even in conflict — between the different sides. Perhaps the best known example of chivalry is that of Ṣalāḥ al-Dīn Yūsuf ibn Ayyūb (Saladin). Seeing Richard the Lion-Heart in battle on foot — his horse having been killed — the Muslim warrior sent him one of his best horses, saying that a king should not fight like a common soldier.

Such a gesture suggests that the battle was not one of personal animosity or hate, but one of necessity. But “necessity” needs to be understood, at least in some cases, in a transcendental sense, i.e., that the battle is seen as an inevitable consequence of the powers of heaven and earth — that battle has appeared at this moment, just as a hurricane, or a crop-destroying storm appears at that moment. It is what happens when heaven and earth are out of balance. Hence, in Sun Tzu’s Art of War, he says that, “the art of war is governed by five constant factors […]: The Moral Law; Heaven; Earth; The Commander; Method and discipline.” Heaven may signify “night and day, cold and heat, times and seasons,” but there is the suggestion of divine laws (which the Chinese see embodied in nature, and which can be determined and worked with through feng shui).

There is an oft-repeated story in Zen, which illustrates this point about the impersonal versus the personal: sworn to avenge the murder of his lord, a samurai tracked down the killer, who was a member of a rival clan. He snuck up on the murderer, unsheathed his sword, and was about to strike. The murderer spat in the face of the samurai, who then sheathed his sword and walked off, letting the killer live. According to the story, he did so because he had become angry at being spat on, and, had he have killed his target, at that instant he would have done so not out of justice, but out of anger. He would no longer have acted under heaven, to borrow from the Chinese terminology.

Talk of violence and the eternal might worry some readers. But, take a walk through any city in almost any country on a Saturday night (and not just then) and you’ll see people engaged in violent confrontation — verbal or physical — because of an insult, a wrong word, or a wrong look. Modern, Western spirituality has tried to deal with reality by denying it — by pretending that meditation will somehow magically keep one safe. It won’t. Authentic spirituality has to deal with the human condition. And if history, news, and the lives of at least some of the people we know, tell us anything, then we know that violence is something that we will have to confront in one way or another. The higher way has been to engage it, and to transform it into peacefulness.

The one aspect of martial arts that I think does not get enough attention is compassion. When do we hear it mentioned? Yet we know that the Shaolin monastery and centers of Zen Buddhism are the origins of much martial arts, so we can be sure that it is a part of the tradition.

There are two ways that compassion is shown in martial arts training: Either the more advanced student will strike you so that it doesn’t hurt you. Or, he will strike you so that it does hurt you. In the former case, it is because he perceives that you are not yet physically and mentally prepared to take a harder blow. In the latter case it’s because he wants you to develop, mentally and physically, to be able to defend yourself against injury or death if you are attacked on the street. It is an act of respect and brotherhood. With regard to the blow to my side, that left me in pain for a month, I can, then, only regard it as a great act of compassion and friendship. That, I think, is the proper attitude.

Angel_headshot_smallAngel Millar is an author, blogger, and the editor of People of Shambhala.



One Reply to “Violence and the sacred: finding inner peace in times of outer conflict”

  1. Intersting. You may go further and compare, during WWII, the nazi bombing of Warsaw, with that of Dresden or other european cities by Allied forses…

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