Vowing Peace in an Age of War

A Zen priest explains that only through giving--in the deepest sense of the word--can we hope to cultivate peace

This essay was based on an address delivered at the Dogen Symposium at Stanford University in 1999 and appeared in the Summer 2000 issue of Turning Wheel: Journal of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship. Eihei Dogen (1200-1254), poet and scholar, was the founder of the Soto school of Zen in Japan.

Awake or asleep

in a grass hut

what I pray for is

to bring others across

before myself

--Zen Master Dogen

San Quentin Prison sits on a bare spit of land on San Francisco Bay. This is where the state of California puts prisoners to death. The gas chamber is still there, but for the last five years executions are done by lethal injection in a mock-clinical setting that cruelly imitates a hospital room. About 550 men and 11 women wait on California's death row, usually for 15 to 20 years. The voting public supports this state-sanctioned violence. In fact, no politician can get elected to higher office in California without appearing to support the death penalty.

On a stormy evening in March of 1999, several hundred people came to vigil and rally to protest the execution of Jay Siripongs, a Thai national and Buddhist, convicted of a 1983 murder in Los Angeles. Sheets of rain and a cold wind beat on everyone gathered at the prison gates: death penalty opponents, a handful of death penalty supporters, press, prison guards, and--right up against the gate, gazing at San Quentin's stone walls--75 or more Buddhist students and meditators bearing witness to the execution, sitting in the middle of anger, grief, painful words, and more painful deeds.


My robes were soaked through, and my zafu sat in a deepening puddle. Across a chain-link fence, 10 feet away, helmeted guards stood in a wet line, rain falling as hard on them as on ourselves. I felt a moment of deep connection: black-robed meditators sitting upright in attention in the rain, protecting beings as best they know how. Is there a difference between our activities? Yes, of course. But recognizing unity, even in the midst of difference and turmoil, is the essence of peacemaking. I imagine there were guards who were aware of this unity.

The essential practice of peace is giving, or dana paramita. Giving attention, friendship, and material aid. Giving spiritual teachings and community.
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