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

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Our witness at San Quentin is part of a great vow that Zen students take. Bearing witness is the bodhisattva's radical act of complete acceptance and non-duality. In this time and place it leads me to active resistance and social transformation. We vow to bear witness where violence unfolds. We vow to recognize the human capacity for violence within our own minds. We take refuge in the Buddha-dharma, and seek to resolve conflicts. We vow never again to raise a weapon in anger or in complicity with the state or any so-called authority, but to intervene actively and nonviolently for peace, even where this may put our own bodies and lives at risk.

Who will take this vow? Am I ready? Are you?

Meditating on peace, echoes of [the 13th-century Zen master] Dogen ring in my ears. In "The Bodhisattva's Four Methods of Guidance," Dogen writes, "You should benefit friend and enemy equally. You should benefit friend and enemy alike." His radical language cuts to the heart of peace. His 13th-century world was different from our own, but the conflicts and twisted karma of suffering beings are the same.

In every age, the dream of peace and the practice of peace arise together with war and conflict. They are deeply related. In every age, war compels people to cover their hearts and act in unimaginably cruel ways. No other animal is capable of such cruelty. The color and shape of the victims, heroes, and perpetrators may differ, and the landscape itself, but the face of war is always ugly. The victims need our help. So do the perpetrators.

"Because there is the base, there are jewel pedestals, fine clothing." This is Shakyamuni Buddha's great teaching of Dependent Origination: Because this is, that is. Because there is war, I know there is also peace. But if I create a concept called peace and cling to it, conditions for war arise. So what am I to do? How can I sustain upright sitting in the midst of grief and conflict?


Let me offer three approaches to Buddhist peacemaking: giving, fearlessness, and renunciation.


The essential practice of peace is giving, or

dana paramita

. Giving attention, friendship, and material aid. Giving spiritual teachings and community. Giving is the perfection and the first of the bodhisattva's four methods of guidance. Dogen advises us that:

"Giving means non-greed. Non-greed means not to covet. Not to covet means not to curry favor. Even if you govern the Four Continents, you should always convey the correct teaching with non-greed. Giving begins with oneself. I give myself to practice, and practice offers itself to me. In search for peace and liberation, I find there is always the smell of war. The taste of tears, corrosive doubt, and decay fall within the circle of my own body and mind. The war is here, right where I hide behind a mask of self-attachment, a shelter of privilege, cutting myself off from others. True giving is receiving the gift of zazen [meditation] mind and passing it to others in words and deeds. It means not hiding."

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