A Buddhist Perspective
By Ha Vinh Tho
According to the first of the five precepts (panca sila) given by the Buddha to his lay disciples (upasaka):
“Lay students of the Buddha refrain from killing, put an end to killing, rid themselves of all weapons, learn humility before others, learn humility in themselves, practice love and compassion, and protect all living beings, even the smallest insect. They uproot from within themselves any intention to kill. In this way, lay students of the Buddha study and practice the first of the Five Mindfulness Trainings.” (1)
Even though all religious and spiritual traditions agree to condemn the destruction of life, and although the precept “do not kill” is one of the most universally recognized ethical rules, war and violent conflicts remain an ever-present reality in the history of mankind. For this very reason, it is of utmost importance to reflect on ways to prevent conflicts, to alleviate suffering once conflicts have occurred, and to facilitate reconciliation and healing in post-conflict situations.
The Preamble to the Constitution of UNESCO declares that “since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed.”
The objective of this presentation is to show how the practice of Engaged Buddhism can contribute to the construction of the defenses of peace in the mind.
Developing the Great Compassion
I work in the field of humanitarian action; I train young people to help civil populations, war prisoners, the wounded and the sick in situations of war, armed conflict, and natural catastrophe.
Although neutrality and impartiality are the very guiding principles of true humanitarian action, it is often difficult to maintain this attitude when confronted with the harsh reality of violent conflict. To refuse to take a stand and to maintain an attitude of neutrality can be perceived as a lack of courage or lucidity. Indeed, how not to take sides for the weak against the strong, for the victim against the perpetrator?
I will argue that meditation on the universal law of interdependence, on non-self and on the nature of suffering, is the foundation of the Great Compassion which allows us to develop an attitude of neutrality which is not cowardice and of impartiality which is not indifference.
In the current world situation, characterized by the confrontation of cultures, religions and civilizations, it is more than ever necessary to develop non-attachment to opinions and to wrong perceptions. The Buddha teaches skillful means allowing lifelong learning, and an attitude of tolerance and authentic opening.
I recently acted as a mediator in a dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians, and one of the participants explained:
“Our problem is that there are two competing narratives for one and the same situation.”
Not only is there a competition over land and resources, but there is a competition over the interpretation of reality. Each party is convinced, and wants to convince the world, that his story is the true story.
Each time one is confronted with violent conflicts, one can observe this phenomenon — the two sides have competing narratives, competing stories. And each side sees itself as the “the good guys” versus the other side perceived as “the bad guys.” Most armies are called “Defense Forces”; for instance the German army during the Second World War was called “Wehrmacht,” German for “Defense Force,” and on the buckle of the belts of the soldiers was written “Gott mit uns”: “God with us”, or “God on our side.”
I don’t know of any state that calls its army “Aggression Forces” — the aggressor is always the other side. The demonizing of the other side is a recurring phenomenon in any conflict; otherwise, how would it be possible to kill and maim the so-called enemy, if each one was fully aware that the other is just like oneself?
To give another example, during the Rwandan genocide, the actual physical violence had been prepared through intense radio propaganda by the “Radio Télévision Libre de Mille Collines” (RTLM) that was broadcasting slogans like: “Kill all the cockroaches,” referring thus to the moderate Hutus and to the Tutsis.
These few examples show clearly that “since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed.”
But how can we build these defenses?
The Reality of Suffering
In his first teaching, “The Turning of the Wheel of the Dharma,” Lord Buddha began by explaining the Four Noble Truths, and the First Noble Truth is the truth of suffering (dukkha). Because of this, some people who do not understand the deeper meaning of the Dharma think that Buddhism is a pessimistic world view that emphasizes suffering over joy, and only sees life as a burden best gotten rid of. But this is a very superficial view; the Buddha acknowledges suffering in the same way a doctor acknowledges illness: in order to cure it.
Suffering can be a powerful way to develop compassion and in the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings of the Order of Interbeing, the Fourth Training addresses this reality:
Awareness of Suffering— Aware that looking deeply at the nature of suffering can help me develop compassion and find ways out of suffering, I am determined not to avoid or close my eyes before suffering. I am committed to finding ways, including personal contact, images and sounds, to be with those who suffer, so I can understand their situation deeply and help them transform their suffering into compassion, peace and joy. (2)
I would like to share an experience that I had some years ago, and that helped me understand in a more concrete way the reality of this Mindfulness Training. During a peace conference, I heard a lady from Northern Ireland tell how her sister had lost her son in a terrorist attack, and how, soon after, the man who had killed her nephew had also been shot dead. The mother of the young man who had been killed decided to visit the mother of the one who had killed her son, not in order to seek revenge, but to console her. She said:
“Only a mother who has lost a child can understand another mother who has had the same experience.”
These two women started a powerful peace movement in Northern Ireland that was instrumental in bringing about the Good Friday Peace Agreement that stopped a violent conflict that had been raging for decades.
In the same way, in Israel and Palestine there is a movement called the Parents’ Circle; all members of this circle have lost a son or a daughter in the conﬂict. I have had the privilege to facilitate meetings of the Parents’ Circle. It is a deeply moving experience to see how these people have transformed suffering into compassion. They have been able to overcome the natural striving for retaliation and revenge and to come together, united by their common experience of a terrible loss, to share a message of peace and reconciliation. When they meet, they share their stories, the memories of their lost children, but out of this grief they draw strength, energy of love and compassion, and a strong will to bring an end to war and to violence. Whoever listens to them can only be deeply moved because they speak from the depth of an experience that no theory or abstract ideal can match. They have discovered through their own suffering the reality of the Buddha’s saying:
“Hate is not overcome by hate; by love (metta) alone is hate appeased. This is an eternal law.”
The Realization of Interdependence and Non-Self
From the point of view of conflict prevention and peace building, interdependence and non-self are the most important tools that Buddhism has to offer. What I have called the problem of competing narratives is always based on the false assumption of a radical, unbridgeable difference between me and you, between my community and your community.
At first sight, good and evil, right and wrong, victim and perpetrator seem to be completely separated realities; we may think that if we get rid of the negative, only the positive will remain. But interdependence or, as Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh calls it, interbeing, is the realization of the interconnectedness of all life. The more we become aware of the reality of interbeing, the more we realize our shared responsibility for the state of the world. On one hand, this can seem like a burden; on the other, it makes us conscious that we are not passive onlookers, but that we can do something to bring about transformation and healing. I would like to quote venerable Thich Nhat Hanh who shared a powerful example of this insight:
“One day we received a letter telling us about a young girl on a small boat who was raped by a Thai pirate. She was only twelve, and she jumped into the ocean and drowned herself. When you first learn of something like that, you get angry at the pirate. You naturally take the side of the girl. As you look more deeply you will see it differently. If you take the side of the little girl, then it is easy. You only have to take a gun and shoot the pirate. But we cannot do that. In my meditation I saw that if I had been born in the village of the pirate and raised in the same conditions as he was, there is a great likelihood that I would become a pirate. I saw that many babies are born along the Gulf of Siam, hundreds every day, and if we educators, social workers, politicians, and others do not do something about the situation, in twenty-five years a number of them will become sea pirates. That is certain. If you or I were born today in those fishing villages, we may become sea pirates in twenty-five years.” (3)
If we awaken to the reality of interbeing and non-self, we awaken to the wisdom of non-discrimination. This is the wisdom that can break the barrier of individualism; with this wisdom we see that we are the other person and the other person is ourself. The happiness of the other person is our own happiness, and our own happiness is the happiness of the other people, plants, animals, and even minerals.
This is not only true on a personal level; it is also true for communities, countries, religions, and civilizations.
“Buddhism is made only of non-Buddhism elements. If we look deeply we can see that the elements of non-Buddhism have made Buddhism… It’s exactly the same as a flower. A flower is made from non-flower elements; the sun, the clouds are not flower, soil is not flower, water is not flower. The self is made of non-self elements. It is the same with the other religions.” (4)
The more this insight can become not a mere theory, but an actual experience, the more we can realize that the so-called enemies are always part of a common interdependent reality. And if we strive for the freedom, the peace and the happiness of our own community, the only way to achieve it is by protecting the freedom, the peace and the happiness of the other community. This is true between Israelis and Palestinians, between Americans and Iraqis, between Tutsis and Hutus, between Tibetans and Han Chinese.
This is also the key insight that helps us to be neutral and impartial without being indifferent. I have personally struggled with this dilemma more than once, and I would like to share an experience that had a transformative effect on me.
The first time I visited a detention center, I went to meet with security detainees in a military prison. I spent most of the day having interviews with the detainees and met with dozens of men. I was listening to one story after the other, stories of violence, of fear, of injustice, of hatred, of despair. Taking all these stories in my heart, it was easy to feel a lot of compassion with them and, on the other side, to feel anger arising against the soldiers who had all the power, the weapons, the authority. At some point, I was taking a short break in the courtyard, resting from the intensity of the encounters, from the stench and the claustrophobic atmosphere in the prison cells, when a young soldier came to sit next to me. I felt he wanted to talk to me. He was very young — most soldiers are very young, war is always about elder men sending out young men to do things that they would not do themselves. I asked his age and he was several years younger than my own son. He began to tell me about his life before the military, he told me about journeys he had taken, countries he had visited, and he also said that he was active in his community, helping teenagers who had problems with their families. He told me that after the army, he wanted to study education and do something useful for the youths. I felt he wanted to show me another side of himself, he needed me to see beyond the uniform he wore and the machine gun he carried. After we had talked for a while, he suddenly asked me: “Do you think I am a bad person?”
The question touched me deeply. I realized how easy it is to perceive only the soldier, the one having the power and oppressing the prisoners. In a flash, I realized that if the causes and conditions had been different, I could have been the one with the machine gun and he could have been the humanitarian worker. And I could not be absolutely sure that if I had been the one with the weapon, I would have not been more cruel and harsher on the prisoners than he was. So I told him very sincerely: “No, I don’t think you are a bad person, I understand that you are in a situation that is not easy, just try to do the best you can. ”
Meditation and Mindfulness
True insight into the nature of suffering, interdependence, and non-self can bring about peace, reconciliation, and healing, but it cannot come from intellectual reasoning alone. It needs to be nourished by life experience, by mindfulness in everyday life, by meditation.
Meditation is not about turning away from reality and dwelling in an illusionary inner peace, ignoring the suffering that so many people and other living beings experience day after day.
Meditation is looking deeply into reality as it is, both in us and around us. It is training ourselves not to react immediately with sympathy or antipathy: I like, I dislike, I want, I don’t want, I grasp, I reject.
But rather to create an open space, free of judgment, free of notions and preconceived ideas, allowing reality to unfold and reveal itself in our heart and mind. By doing this, insight and compassion arise naturally, effortlessly, for they are the very nature of our deeper being.
- Upasaka Sutra, Madhyama Agama 128
- Interbeing: Fourteen Guidelines for Engaged Buddhism, Thich Nhat Hanh, Parallax Press
- Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life, Thich Nhat Hanh, Bantam, 1992
- Dharma talk given by Thich Nhat Hanh on December 4, 1997 in Plum Village, France
Ha Vinh Tho, Chan Dai Tue, is half-Vietnamese, half-French. With his wife of thirty-eight years, Lisi (both Dharma teachers ordained by Thich Nhat Hanh), he founded the Eurasia Foundation for the development of special education in Vietnam. Tho is the head of training, learning, and development in a humanitarian organization whose mission is to protect the lives and dignity of victims of war and internal violence.