On the Word “Warrior” and what has become its common use

Preface: A student recently gave a public talk re climate change, and ended by vowing to be a “Buddhist compassionate warrior…..on behalf of all children and young people in the world.”

It was a beautiful talk, filled with insight and heart, given by a wonderful, committed person who offers great service to our world on many fronts. She may well be one of the most socially and politically active people I know.

In my reply to her talk, I included my response to the use of the word “warrior,” about which I have thought, and which I have opposed, for many years, given its increasing approval and self-application by many good people who sincerely work for and want the very opposite of war.

– Eihei Peter Levitt

“As to the “warrior” language you mention, it is clear what you mean when you say this word, and the spirit in which you mean it. This is often or even always the case when the word ‘warrior’ is used by good people in the eco or spiritual context.

So, what’s my concern and why have I continued to disagree with its usage for decades?

Please allow me to do my best to say it this way:

In our meal chant we chant

manjusri bodhisattva, great wisdom
samantabadhra bodhisattva, great activity
avalokitesvara bodhisattva, great compassion
all bodhisattva mahasattvas
wisdom beyond wisdom
maha prajna paramita

When people say “warrior,” and identify themselves through that word in the eco or spiritual context, I believe they mean what we chant in our meal service, with all of the courage [heart] it takes to be wise, compassionate and active intact. But, for me, the difference is that there is no taint of war and all of the ignorance and destruction that is associated with war, when we chant these models of what qualities and human attributes are needed to get things done in the world, given the challenges we created and that we now face.

If more than the fearlessness of great wisdom, great compassion and great activity are needed, with the underlying support of the beginningless and endless sangha of bodhisattva mahasattvas that exist throughout space and time, and all of the wisdom/prajna that exists as well, then I wonder what it could be. Does war, or do warriors, and what makes people willing to kill those who they believe are ‘others’, have something to offer that these bodhisattvas–who are none other than ourselves–do not?

I know that there is an argument that says the word “warrior” is now being redefined, recycled, as it were, when people in favour of peace or environmental or personal health (think yoga, meditation, diet here) use it, but why would we need to use a word that is drenched in the blood of innocent people and their natural environment (think of what napalm did, what the atomic cloud did, to the environment) to express life affirming human attributes, qualities, states of being, actions?

And what does it say about our ability to come up with new visions, new actions and solutions, new paradigms, that are creative and truly representative of our vision for a world that nourishes and supports life in all of its dimensions, when we choose (remember, it is a choice when we say what we say) to depend upon a word that is associated with devastation, destruction, and the ignorance that is at the root of such effects?

It does not inspire confidence in me to think we cannot do better than to recycle the language of the dualistic, divisive consciousness and paradigms of a history I find shameful, criminal and against everything that people truly want for themselves, for all generations to follow, and for the miraculous life of all citizens in what we still call and somewhat objectify as ‘the natural world.’

American poet William Carlos Williams said that we cannot die “unless death has first possessed the imagination.” I admit this may be arguable from a certain standpoint, but I love the emphasis his statement places on the unified expression of body and mind ie when the mind, in every part, both seen and unseen, says it is time to die, we can die.

Let me say, then, what I most believe: we cannot and will not have peace, or sustainability, or pervasive, meaningful change in the direction of a life that is completely in favour of providing the nourishment that life itself truly needs, unless peace, sustainability, and life-giving nourishment fully “possess the imagination,” and every means through which this imagination is expressed. I say this in the spirit of a story I mentioned in my dharma talk this last sesshin, when our ancestor Yunyan said to Dongshan, who was about to depart, “You are now in charge of this great matter; you must be most thoroughgoing.”

We intuit and experience the world in many ways, but, by and large, what we call ‘thought’ takes place in language, and so the language we use is an essential conveyor of our thinking. In mystical Judaism it is said that when a word is used, it releases the inner qualities of that word–what that word was intended to express from its very seed or origin–into the world. Perhaps the most famous example in western culture appears in Genesis where we are told that the creator said, “Let there be light,” and instantaneously, “there was light.” The word and its inner meaning or expression were one. This, we are told, is how light was brought into the world. From a Buddhist perspective, let’s just say that the causes and conditions that make light possible were present, which is how and why it came to be.

Words come with the associative qualities that both personal experience and culture provide, and, like all things, whether they are seen or unseen, they come with their roots attached. Given the power of words to create a world, to which I’ve just referred in the story above, it matters a great deal which words we use, and how we use them. After all, it is we who are now in charge of this great matter, and so we, too, must be “most thoroughgoing.”

That said, the word war has as a Latin root, gewin, which means “struggle, strife,” and as the Old High German root, werran, and the German verwirren, which means “to confuse, or perplex,” which suggests that, originally, the sense of the word that has landed as war, or warrior, in English, is “confusion, or to bring into confusion.”

Given all I’ve written thus far, I don’t believe much of a further comment is needed about this etymology, other than to say that if offered the chance to study with, follow, or be a warrior by any description, I will defer to the advice of Melville’s character, Bartleby the Scrivner, and say, “I prefer not to.”

How about if I stop here? I’ve used plenty, too many, words, I’m sure, but I am grateful for the opportunity to say them. Please know that I honour the extraordinary work you have been doing for a lifetime, and am profoundly grateful for your continued and active commitment to creating a world based on the values we share, and so it is in the spirit of supporting that work that I’ve written as I have.”

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