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

BY: Hozan Alan Senauke


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"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."

We offer gifts and guidance in many forms. Dogen's four method's of guidance--giving, kind speech, beneficial action, and identity action--expand on the Buddha's own teaching of peace and the Foundations for Social Unity:




(kindly speech),


(helpful action), and


(impartiality or equal participation). At the heart of these teachings is the understanding that peace is making connection. On a simple level, material goods are given. On a higher level, teaching is shared. And on the highest level, there is just connection, the endless society of being, the vast assembly of bodhisattvas. In Lewis Hyde's wonderful book

The Gift,

he describes dinner in a cheap restaurant in the south of France:

"The patrons sit at a long table, and each finds before his plate a modest bottle of wine. Before the meal begins, a man will pour his wine not into his own glass but into his neighbor's. And his neighbor will return the gesture, filling the first man's empty glass. In an economic sense, nothing has happened. No one has any more wine than he did to begin with. But society has appeared where there was none before."

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 means not hiding.

When we really embody the bodhisattva vow to save all sentient beings, then zazen (sitting meditation) itself is a quiet and transformative gift. We receive it in gratitude from the Buddha ancestors and from our all-too-human teachers, and we pass it on.

During the NATO bombing of Serbia last year, a friend of mine proposed that the U.S. offer a four-year university education in the United States to every Serbian and Albanian youth of military age. This would provide them with intellectual and technical tools for peace. It would be much cheaper than the billions of dollars spent on weaponry and death.

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