Peace and Harmony, Then and Now
Here I Stand
This year’s Hanamatsuri theme—decided many months ago—is “Peace and Harmony.” How ironic it seems in this time of war to talk of “Peace and Harmony.” How difficult a task it is to achieve peace. How difficult even to talk about it.
I’m generally an okay guy, so I always intended to follow the theme of the festival. So I thought I’d speak about inner peace and my gratitude for the example of the man whose birth we celebrate today: Shakyamuni Buddha, who’s peace still radiates down to us after 2500 years. And I will talk about those things and that man, but over the last three months I have spent more time than I ever have in my life, looking for clarity on another kind of peace: international peace. The peace between nations seems so far removed from the peace the Buddha embodied, yet, in the end we cannnot separate them. So for me the challenge has become to speak of today’s theme of peace in a way that reflects the tragic reality of today’s war.
Facing this challenge, I will be speaking strong words and sober ones. I cannot turn my conscience away from either the light or the dark of this day. This is my duty to you, to my country, and to the Buddhadharma. I know this seems no way to celebrate the joys of the Spring and the birth of the Buddha. But do not fear: though I begin in the dark, I move to the light. This is both the shape of my talk and my hope for the world.
Our nation is dealing death in a far and foreign land. Our troops have invaded that nation and have killed thousands upon thousands of persons. And their violence is turned against them: they are being killed, themselves. That killing continues, even in this very moment. Let us sit a moment in sorrow.
On this day I am called to be mindful of this suffering, this terrible dukkha our own country is bringing to another. Yet on this day I am called also to be mindful of another and so much happier thing.
Our religion is founded on a blessed birth in a far and foreign land. The Buddha arrived in that nation and has given his teaching to thousands upon thousands of persons. And their minds are turned to insight: they are awakened, themselves. That mindfulness continues, even in this very moment. Let us sit a moment in joy.
I shall talk more of peace of that birth, but for now I must turn to war, not peace. I want to be honest with you—nothing else would fully honor the Buddha today—so I am going to structure this talk around my own experience of peace and its lack. I am going to take you through my thinking, these last months, about our war in Iraq, a war whose supporters, I know, feel is a war for peace.
I am a member of the Forge Institute for Spirituality and Social Change. We are a group of spiritual leaders and teachers who believe that there are many paths to the sacred. Our mission is to encourage respect for these paths in a pluralistic society. My own path is Buddhist, but my fellows even in just my local Forge group, include Buddhists, Jews, Hindus, and Christians. Since well before the war in Iraq began, we have been having a sincere and passionate dialogue on it. Naturally our early debate was on the propriety, the morality of going to war. Was it a Just War? Lately our talk has turned to what might follow the war. Will it be genuine peace? Indeed, what is genuine peace? I want to take you with me through these conversations. As we travel, you’ll see how I have tried to find a Buddhist path to peace. You may not agree with me, but I invite you to walk with me for a time. I will try to share myself with you.
Finding Myself against the War
I begin with a letter I first wrote to the President soon after 9/11. Over time it changed its focus from Afghanistan to Iraq. Here is how the letter begins in its most recent version:
“He insulted me, he beat me, robbed me!”
Think this way and hatred never ends.
“He insulted me, he beat me, robbed me!”
Give this up and in you hatred ends.
Not by hate is hate defeated; hate is
Quenched by love. This is eternal law.
You have many capable counselors. I offer you one more: the Buddha, the speaker of the words I’ve just quoted. I have recently been working on applying Buddhist wisdom to our lives at work. Your work, Mr. President, is now the central work of the world.
The Buddha does not condone the actions of terrorists who bring death from the sky; no responsible or compassionate person does. Nor does the Buddha support the development and stockpiling of weapons of mass destruction. Yet death from the sky is a common event in many countries, and weapons of mass destruction are more than common, at home and abroad. We as Americans must acknowledge that we ourselves have brought both death and weapons to many lands—indeed, we are now threatening to do so again.
Shall we go to war? The Buddha would say this is not a skillful question. Instead, he would ask “How do we best counter terror and support a free country and a free world?” Given an ongoing threat from Iraq, you, Mr. President, would answer “war.” But the Buddha would still say “peace.”
How old that sounds to me now, though I finished it only two months ago. But these times move forward quickly and soon after writing that letter, I criticized myself for not carefully examining my own views. I realized my position on peace was not actually informed by much effort or investigation, so I began to make that effort. I began to see the state of things as truce, not peace.
Truce is a temporary state between wars. Peace is something else altogether. Truce describes a state when war might break out again at any moment, where a feeling of hostility erodes our freedoms. A state when that hostility is not only felt as coming from our possible enemies, it is felt inside ourselves. Truce is the state of feeling anger and fear. When we have been lucky enough not be in in war, truce is what we have always lived in.
This doesn’t just apply in world affairs. This situation of truce happens all the time. Perhaps an example would help. Here’s a familiar situation I describe in my book WWBD@W:
What would Buddha do if he had a conflict with a teammate?
When conflict arises in your own family, don’t blame others. Instead, look for the cause in your own mind and action and pursue the solution there.
Anguttara Nikaya 3.31
Peace within a team, like peace within a family, is vital to the well-being of both individuals and the group. Blaming someone else does no good at all, in fact, it makes things worse. If you think the problem lies in someone else, then the solution must lie there as well. There’s nothing you can do; you’re powerless. This is no way to be. Instead, if you own the problem, then you begin to own the solution. You will think of things you can do to make things better (no matter what the other person is doing).
When team conflict arises, ask yourself: “How have I contributed to this situation?” You know it takes two to tango; it’s doubtful that you are ever simply an innocent victim. (And if somehow you are an innocent victim, drop that role now. Own the problem and empower yourself to end it.) Look for what you can do to contribute to a solution. Victims assign blame, winners make things better. In the end, would you rather be the one who’s morally right, or the one who’s fixed the problem? (Hint: which one do you think your company prefers?)
The Buddha mentioned families; I talked about work teams; you can add in playgrounds, classrooms, retirement homes, congregations, the UN. Anywhere people gather, we fight. If all we do is apologize, after, we achieve only truce, not peace.
As I thought about a war in Iraq, I asked if we were prepared to create peace, rather than truce. Are we prepared to dismantle—even ever so slowly—the machinery of an unsustainable economy? Are we prepared to turn our backs on the riches of empire? Are we willing to pay great costs for this in relinquishing material goods, in scaled-back scope of exploitative experiences, and even (given the slowness of this sort of peace-making and the speed of hatred and violence) in lives? Are we willing to fundamentally revision our relations with the rest of the world? If we are willing to do these things, to embark on becoming a nation that focuses on exporting our privileges, indeed that glories in doing so, then, and only then, can we and should we try to turn truce to peace.
Turning truce to peace has always struck me as a profoundly Buddhist practice. In fact, that practice, both inner and outer, is the path before us now and at all times. It is the way to nirvana and the creation of the Pure Land. All this grows from the teaching of the Buddha on ahimsa, non-violence.
The Buddha was inarguably anti-war. He placed fundamental value on appreciating the relationship of cause to effect. A prime example of this is his explicit disavowal of violence, simply because violence inevitably causes further violence. No amount of killing—no matter the justification, the precision, the humaneness, or the aim—will lead to an end to killing. This is simply karma, the “eternal law” the Buddha spoke of in the Dhammapada I quoted. It is a law as inexorable as gravity. In Buddhism, at least canonical Buddhism, there can be no doctrine of “just war.” Any real justice can only be meted out through karma, and karma dictates that only peace ends war. In this, Buddhism departs from the Hinduism of the Bhagavad Gita and the rationales of seemingly all Christians since (but emphatically not including) the Crucified One. The Buddha taught in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta that a nation would prosper because it maintained virtue and would fall if it lost virtue. No military power could alter this. The Dhammapada, verse 201, tells that
Winners gain hatred.
Losers gain sorrow.
The tranquil lives calmly,
Turning away from both.
Whether you gain victory or defeat in a war, the Buddha teaches that you will lose in the end. Though this teaching has been diluted over time, this principle of ahimsa remains an essential component of the Buddhadharma. We ignore it at our peril.
I understood this, and yet still had a certain desire to ignore it. I had to ask myself if I really followed the Buddha all the way on never embracing war. I was repelled by the prospect of intitiating war, yet I was also uneasy with the idea of not fighting back. And I was also disturbed by the idea that non-intervention might allow dictators (in Iraq and elsewhere) to perpetrate atrocities.
I sat with this unease. Slowly my own, personal answer came to me. Though I doubted it was good foreign policy in the short-term, I came to feel we had to follow the example of the Buddha in the long-term. We had to be prepared to lose the battle, knowing the war can only be won by never fighting it. At the time, I wrote, “We all are groping in the dark for solutions to the harm caused by tyrants. I may well not be headed in the direction of regime-change-effectiveness. I may, in fact, be a fool. So be it. At least I know if I am a fool, I am a fool for peace.”
Of course I came in for immediate criticism. You may be feeling the same frustration with me that at least one Forge Guild member felt. He accused me of avoiding “stepping up to the plate” when it came to fighting oppression. He asked if there were some circumstances when political leaders had to authorize deadly force? I had to admit there were. I imagined a politician doing it, and I imagined myself watching it happen, and at this point I realized something really crucial and liberating, something great about America.
Our country operates on many levels at once and we need to acknowledge them all. On the level of politics, no one truly advocates the Buddha’s way, the way of peace. On that level politicians debate the notion and definition of “Just War,” and they act on their decisions. But on another level, the Buddha’s level, we try to talk about what is in the long run best in the many worlds; we bring in spiritual criteria that aren’t admitted to the situation rooms of the politicians; and we advocate other solutions than war. On this level we make peace, real peace.
Our nation demands both these ways of addressing problems, and many others as well. This is how free societies work and this was my realization. On the level of religion and intellectual debate we need to have people who think as I do, as well as others who think as Donald Rumsfeld does. It is exactly the moral and intellectual contribution of persons who will not compromise, in fact are trying not to, that constitutes their “stepping up to the plate.” It is not only morally acceptable but morally necessary for some people in a free country to plan peace, to reject the fight, to take purely principled stands.
I felt better. I realized that not only could I stand with the Buddha, but that this was okay to do in the real world. Buddhism often contrasts the relative and the absolute. These are two ways of seeing the same thing, the world we are part of. The relative levels sees all the myriad differences between things. It sees people as separate beings, it sees life and death, and joy and suffering. It sees this broken, saha world. This is the truth of the relative level. The absolute level sees the unity of all things. It sees all beings as one, or even as not existing at all. It sees all things at once in their full harmony. It sees the Pure Land all around us. This is the truth of the absolute level.
We live in a complex world that is simultaneously relative and absolute. Politicians, and the soldiers who fight their wars, live on the relative level. They must do this; this is how they pursue their duty and get things done. Our rich lives are impossible without their work. The Buddhas and the bodhisattvas live on the absolute level, that is their duty. Our true happiness is impossible without their work. But they speak to us who are torn between the two levels. They have vowed to help us, if we open ourselves to them. I felt called to open myself to their grace regarding this war. I felt called toward the absolute and now I felt that was okay. It was okay with the Buddha and it was okay with the government. But just as I was getting comfortable with my stand for peace, we began the war.
Now everything changed. The questions shifted, as they had to. I had just become used to the way things were and they passed away. Such is impermanence, another lesson of the Buddha. Whatever our feelings about the war before it began, the war is here; we must accept it as we accept all things in the world. So now I had to come to terms with a war I found profoundly against the dharma. How could I make my peace with this war? And with my country?
The Real War
To make peace with this war, I first had to admit that all the death and dukkha brought about by this war was nothing new, nothing new at all. It was not as if those unfortunate Iraqis weren’t going to grunt and sweat under a weary life, anyway. And they were all going to die, anyway. I had to accept that though this may not be a Just War, it is still just a war. It’s not a return to slavery; it’s not the Black Death.
When all is said and done, this is simply how the world works. We are born, we struggle, we die. If there is a larger plan, it’s revealed after death, not before. Jesus said his kingdom was not of this earth. I imagine he knew that this pokey planet of ours is simply brimming with dukkha, with suffering and dissatisfaction; that there’s no full cure for pain; that this is simply how it is in this vale of tears. In that sense, Jesus was a Buddhist.
Okay, you are probably thinking, “Come on, things are bad, but they’re good too. You can’t just give up.” Yes, you’re right, of course. I’m not giving up, neither did Jesus or the Buddha. They remained, in their own ways, concerned with the world. Here’s an example from WWBD:
What would Buddha do when he sees injustice?
The innocent who suffers insults, whips, and chains, whose weapon is endurance and whose army is character—that person I call holy.
Buddha was definitely on the side of the oppressed and suffering; he had no truck with the ignorant, the greedy, and the hateful. Yet Buddha was still a man of his times. He rebelled against the religion of his day by accepting people regardless of their social station, but he did not concern himself much with politics. He was much like Jesus, who was content to give to Caesar what was Caesar’s.
Buddha here admires not the revolutionary but the quiet person who stands up to injustice. In the last hundred years we have learned how to continue Buddha’s rebellion in new ways. Civil Rights leader Rosa Parks sat down. The lone man in front of the tank in Tiananmen Square stood up. How are we carrying forward the social justice of Buddha?
We can’t end death or suffering on the outside; the real solution is inside. Though sometimes we can make a difference outside, the real battle is in here. This is why the Buddha said “Better to conquer the self than a thousand times a thousand enemies” (Dhammapada 103). This is why Jesus and the Buddha became spiritual activists instead of political activists.
These two great teachers did not focus attention on avoiding war. Why not? Because they saw the shortest road to peace led in quite another direction. Peace comes from eliminating dukkha. Probably all of us here know the Buddha’s prescription for curing the disease that causes dukkha: we must cut the root of attachment, of clinging, of the insatiable desire for pleasure. In cutting that root, we cure the disease of selfishness and end its symptom, dukkha.
Thinking this way, I was able to let go of my depression about the war. It will be fought and won, but it won’t change much, for good or ill. However this war ends, whether swift or slow, the joy of the liberated Iraqis and of the victorious Americans will be like a bubble, a lightning flash, a dream, unless these countries find real peace. This peace is what matters.
So, what really creates peace among nations? Can the Buddha help us here, though he didn’t speak directly about it in the sutras? Yes, he can.
Nations find peace the same way persons do: through cutting the root of selfishness. We fight wars for peace, but though we win the war, we fail to create the peace. Look at the looting, yesterday, of the National Museum in Baghdad. So tragic! So pointless! Thousands of ancient treasures lost forever, smashed to bits, for what? No reason but this: violence begets violence. Hussein’s violence begets our own. Our own begets the confused Iraqi people’s. When will the cycle end?
This cycle only ends when we stop trying to end violence with violence. When we instead create peace and justice through changing the way we think and live as nations. Just as with people, we cannot change other nations. In WWBD I wrote:
What would Buddha do when a friend lets him down?
One should not pry into the faults of others, what they’ve done and left undone. Consider instead what you yourself have done and left undone.
Buddha was sure right about this. How do I know? As country singer Hank Williams used to say, we better not mind other people’s business, ’cause it’s all we can do just to mind our own. Hey, when you get Buddha and Hank agreeing on something, well, it just has to be true.
I went on to say that as we do mind our own business, we overcome the bad business of others. I suggest this is just as true for nations as for people. They must find peace for themselves. But we can help them find it by attaining it ourselves, by embodying it, and by exporting it. Alright then, how shall we attain this peace?
As the person attains peace through clean mind, clean speech, and clean action, so a nation attains peace through a clean environment, a clean government, and a clean economy. We will create these, with the grace of the Buddhas, through living sustainably. We will create them through the use of geothermal electricity generation; through giving up gas-guzzling vehicles; through energy-efficient housing; through vastly increased public works projects at home and abroad; through using the American military machine for humanitarian projects; through the evenhanded enforcing of UN commitments; through a radical reprioritization of international finance to encourage sustainable agriculture, not permanent indebtedness; through a change in things as basic as our subsidized and harmful diet; through the tying of most-favored nation status—and something like least-favored nation status—to human rights; and so on.
All this is heiwa: peace. I am no linguist in Japanese or even English. But I know that the Japanese word heiwa derives from two radicals, or character parts. The first means “simple” or “basic” and the second means “harmony.” So peace is a return to simplicity of being, to living in harmony with ourselves and our world.
And so we also return to today’s theme: peace and harmony. A true peace among nations, heiwa, can only come when we all live simply (hei), in harmony (wa) with each other. This will never come while we cleave to a false sense of national selfishness, but will easily come when we fully realize our inseparability from all nations. Just as persons are not-two, so are nations. Just as we see transparency, shuunyataa, pervades all beings, making them ourselves, so we see it pervades all nations, making them our own. Just as the Buddha Nature manifests in us when we let go of personal selfishness, so peace manifests in nations when they let go of national selfishness. The path to peace begins in every heart and leads to the Pure Land manifest on earth.
Let me remind us that seeing all beings as ourselves and all countries as our own does not mean dissolving into a bland oneness. This is the mystery of the relative and the absolute. It is well expressed in the word wa and its stand-alone form choowa. This latter word for harmony adds the radical wa to the kanji, choo, meaning “quality” or “tune.” So we can think of choowa as the delicate and beautiful interbeing of different tunes or sounds. Choowa or harmony means, well, harmony: as when voices blend in song, yet remain also separate. On the relative level they exist independently as voices, but on the absolute level they are inseparable from the music of their interbeing, their shuuyataa, their choowa, their harmony.
Back to the Buddha
I have tried to show how I came to believe that Buddhists can and should oppose war. This follows directly from the Buddha’s teaching. Living in peace and harmony is a manifestation of the Buddha Nature inside and the Pure Land outside. This can happen even during war. It can happen now.
Of all days to peace to blossom, today is best. Today is always best simply because it is today. But today’s today is particularly perfect, for today we celebrate the birth of the Buddha who teaching so challenges and inspires us. Today we celebrate the one whose life can still give us joy so many years later. Despite all the darkness of the day, the Buddha’s light outshines it.
The myths of his birth tell us this was always so. I read from the Lalitasvistara:
After the queen had entered Lumbini Park and had descended from her splendid carriage, she moved from one tree to another until she gradually came to the place where that great jewel of trees the plaksa grew. Moved by the power of the Bodhisattva’s glory, the great tree bowed down and saluted her, bending it branches toward her. Stretching out her right arm like a flash of lightening in the air, she laid hold of a branch of the tree and then gazed up to heaven with her mouth open, expectantly.
The Bodhisattva, appearing at the end of ten full months, emerged from the right side of his mother’s body, fully formed, in full possession of both memory and knowledge and unsullied by the fluids of his mother’s womb.
Filled with profound reverence, the Gods Brahma and Sakra attended to receive the Bodhisattva and wrap him in a silk garment of gold and silver threads, recognizing and knowing him. When the Bodhisattva descended to the ground, the earth split open and a great lotus rose to receive him. Naga kings showered him with streams of warm and cool water as a heavenly host sprinkled him with a rain of sweet water and flower blossoms. The Bodhisattva placed himself on the lotus and looked toward the four winds.
Then standing alone, the Bodhisattva took seven steps to the east and said:
“Behold I shall be the first of all dharmas that are the virtuous roots of salvation.”
As he walked, a divine white umbrella and two magnificent fans moved above him in the air unsupported. And at every spot where the bodhisattva set his foot a lotus sprang up to greet it.
Taking seven steps to the south, he said:
“I shall be worthy of the offerings of both gods and humans.”
Then taking seven steps to the west, he exclaimed: “I am the noblest on earth, for this is my final birth.”
Taking seven steps to the north, the Great One said: “I shall be unequaled among all beings.”
The Bodhisattva faced the earth, took seven additional steps and proclaimed:
“I will extinguish the fires of hell with the Great Rain of Dharma, and fill all in those realms with great joy.”
Taking seven more steps, as faced the zenith, he said:
“I shall reveal myself to all beings, always visible above them.”
I love this story because it just radiates the power we have invested in the Buddha and the Dharma. It shines with 2566 years of faith. And we can still take part in it. Just as a heavenly host sprinkled him with a rain of sweet water and flower blossoms, we can sprinkle him with our sweet tea and Spring flowers, today. It is our honor.
But I want to add one more thought, because the Buddha is not only out there, he is also in here.
What would Buddha do to search for perfect knowledge?
Your mind becomes Buddha. Your mind is Buddha. All the many Buddhas’ ocean of perfect knowledge begins in your very mind and thought.
Amitayur Dhyana Sutra 17
Buddha doesn’t have to do anything to gain perfect knowledge. He knows he has it already. He knows we have it already. But somehow we seem to be left out of the loop. How ironic that we don’t know we have perfect knowledge! What went wrong?
Buddha’s words here teach us where to find that perfect knowledge we crave. In this way they help us answer what went wrong with us. The great ocean of Buddha knowledge begins—has always begun—in your mind at this very moment. That ocean of truth is something we gain by looking inside, not outside. As our thought becomes freed from our ego, our mind becomes Buddha; this is the birth of perfect knowledge. We have lost touch with that boundless, oceanic mind, but it remains inside us. When we find the courage to stop clinging to the self, we will find ourselves swimming in that ocean.
I add today: when we stop clinging to the self the Buddha is born again, born inside each one of us. Every day is Hanamatsuri. Happy birthday. This again is the mystery of the relative and the absolute.
The Vietnamese Zen Teacher Thich Nhat Hanh understands both relative and absolute. Coming of age during the Vietnam War (which we should realize the Vietnamese call “The American War”) he also understands both war and peace. A Buddhist, a meditation teacher, a peace activist, he is also a poet. He captured a sense of the relative and absolute, of peace and war, and of the personal and the national 25 years ago in his poem “Please Call Me By My True Names.” Its stanza speak of the sufferer and the cause of suffering, the killer and the victim. But Thich Nhat Hanh always speaks of “I”: he is both these persons. We are always both these persons, just as we are ourselves and also the Buddha who is born today. Here is the conclusion of the poem:
Please call me by my true names,
so I can hear all my cries and laughter at once,
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.
Please call me by my true names,
so I can wake up
and the door of my heart
could be left open,
the door of compassion.
Compassion is the door where peace may enter and from which peace may flow. This compassion is the root of the great Indian monk Shantideva’s beautiful vows:
May I become an endless treasure
for those who are poor and destitute.
May I turn to all they need
and be then placed close by them.
Without any sense of loss,
I’ll give up my ease and body,
my past, my present, and my future,
for the benefit of all.
Without any sense of loss! That is true peace and true offering.
One reason Shantideva could imagine his sacrifice as being without any sense of loss, is that he was living in a very different form of society than ours has been. He was living in a traditional culture with a treasured place for monks and a mindfulness of the dukkha of possessions. This gave peace to him as he vowed to give up everything for others. He knew what he was letting go of, but also how that was also a liberation. As Buddhists in America, this is part of our duty: to help lead America toward such mindfulness and peace. We remain our own flawed and foolish selves, of course. Very well, we are fools, as I’ve admitted. Then let us be fools for peace, because we are also Buddhas and our country needs us.
I want to encourage us to go still further, though. I believe here in America, the greatest country that has ever been, we can go even beyond Shantideva in one sense: we can help carry this internal peace of persons into an external peace of nations. We can help create a new culture where a loss in income and creature comforts is overwhelmingly outweighed by an increase in justice, freedom, compassion, and insight. This is the creation of peace I spoke of above. This is the path of the Buddhas. This can be our legacy to the world. As we create it here in America, the borders of this peace will soften and we, like Thich Naht Hanh, like Shantideva, even like the Buddha himself, may become an endless treasure for the benefit of all.
Let us aspire to find this peace for ourselves, for all beings, and for all nations.
I conclude with this prayer, one you may recognize, one so needed now:
May all beings be free from hatred.
May all beings be mentally happy.
May all beings be physically healthy.
May all beings live in peace.