Q: I am frustrated with how our nation is exporting aggression and I don’t know what to do. I talk to my friends and colleagues, write our elected officials, vote, participate in the PTA, and volunteer at a local charity; but what can one person do to turn the tide?

It may be fatuous to think that one person can move the world, but there are those who seem to have done so. Buddhist wisdom consistently reminds us to recognize how interconnected and thus interdependent we all are in this small world, and that unconditional love and warmhearted compassion are greater than ignorance, prejudice, hatred, and even death.

Twenty-five hundred years ago the Buddha himself said, “Hatred is never appeased by hatred in this world; by love alone is hatred appeased. This is an Eternal Law.” (The Dhammapada, Verse 5). Buddhism also reminds us of the fleeting, ephemeral nature of life, and that turning toward lasting values and deeper meaning can help instill a sense of perspective.

When feeling anger, we should not immediately rush to vengeful retaliation, which will only make us into the image of those who have attacked us, causing more pain. Enlightened Wisdom advocates restraint, reason, compassion, reflection, and understanding in the face of violence and aggression. But this should not be mistaken for mere passivity.

In "Buddha’s Advice on Healing the Community," Thankissaro Bhikkhu writes about the five basic strategies that people use to avoid accepting blame when they’ve caused harm. These strategies of avoidance are:

  • deny responsibility
  • deny harm was actually done
  • deny the worth of the victim
  • attack the accuser
  • claim that he or she was acting in service of a higher cause.
It’s noteworthy that the early Buddhist teaching on moral responsibility serves to undercut all five with the following tenets:
  • We are always responsible for our conscious choices.
  • We should always put ourselves in the other person’s place.
  • All beings are worthy of respect.
  • We should regard those who point out our faults as if they were pointing out treasure.
  • There are no higher purposes that excuse breaking the basic precepts of ethical behavior.
This country has been engaged in war for much of the past 60 years; wars rage in more than 42 countries; the deadly, yet amorphous "war on terrorism" drags on. If we agree with the Dalai Lama, that war is an outmoded means of resolving conflict in our increasingly complex, pluralistic, postmodern world, we must ask ourselves: What can replace it?

Gandhi coupled Hinduism's tenet of ahimsa (nonviolence) with satyagraha—the power of truth—practices and principles to live and to be that can help us solve pragmatic problems. To disarm the heart, practice empathy, and cultivate nonviolence, or ahimsa, in ourselves, it’s important to remember that violence and war don't stem from weapons or exist entirely outside ourselves.

Ahimsa is a practice, not just an ideal; these virtuous principles are not just something the Dalai Lama or Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Jesus, or Buddha could do, but something we can practice in our own lives, in countless ways, great and small.

We all care about—and perhaps even work for—peace in our world, communities, homes, and inside ourselves. But the war, violence, and aggression we struggle with on so many levels all come from the anger, hatred, greed, fear, intolerance, and ignorance in our own minds. The mind is the root, and the only root, of these evils.

To help muster the immense continuous energy required to face the monumental challenges of our complex world, we need to rely on what Buddhist activists call the three freedoms: freedom from undue hope and expectations; freedom from fear and anxiety; and freedom from selfishness and bias.

“The non-violent approach does not immediately change the heart of the oppressor. It first does something to the hearts and souls of those committed to it," wrote Martin Luther King Jr. "It gives them a new self-respect; it calls up resources of strength and courage that they did not know they had. Finally it reaches the opponent and so stirs his conscience that reconciliation becomes a reality.”

Transforming the self transforms the world. Can you see that when you become clear, things in general become a lot clearer? It’s worth reflecting on and it’s worth defending. Too many of the few people I know who actually practice nonviolence have forsaken the political process and much of modern life, finding harmony through the simplicity and purity of their own contemplative, principled lives—often outside of cities and the work-a-day world. These people seem to represent a loss, an untapped natural resource.

It was said that when Buddha or Jesus entered a village their mere presence would raise the consciousness of those around them. Perhaps you have experienced this near highly evolved, content, aware people; they seem to radiate pheromones of love that make you feel peaceful, at home, and secure.

Key elements of all traditional spiritual paths are the practices of nonviolence, forgiveness, love, ethics, and compassion. This necessarily includes purifying ourselves by rooting out anger from our hearts and minds. For over two millennia, Buddhism has stressed nonviolence, non-harming, helpfulness, and altruism, recognizing the interdependence between oneself, others, and the entire environment. What's often not understood is the great power in the possibility of the true nonviolent spirit—the spirit that can hold steady rather than be pulled into troubling situations and perspectives. The power of training your unruly heart and mind keeps you out of the fracas.

If we want to transform the world, we must engage in it. Certainly we need to work externally for peace in the world, for disarmament among nations, and against injustice, racism, and genocide; “The gift of justice surpasses all gifts,” according to Lord Buddha in the ancient Dhammapada.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama has written, “I think it is important to acknowledge here that nonviolence does not mean the mere absence of violence. It is something more positive, more meaningful than that. The true expression of nonviolence is compassion, which is not just a passive emotional response, but a rational stimulus to action. To experience genuine compassion is to develop a feeling of closeness to others combined with a sense of responsibility for their welfare.”

We can work from the outside in as well as the inside out, to be better people and cultivate a noble heart. Every year 15 million children die of hunger. One third of the world’s population is starving, according to the World Health Organization, and it is estimated that some 800 million suffer hunger and malnutrition. Are not these manifestations of the violence and hatred wrought by greed, fear, and over-weaning self-interest? Are not poverty, inequality, racism, infant mortality, slavery, and illiteracy issues of values we ought to be concerned about, far beyond partisan issues or local politics?

I met a great man yesterday. Friends I know from Paris, founders of the France-Burma Aid Association, invited me to meet their mentor Sulak Shivaraksa, one of the grand old men of Buddhism. This brilliant and accomplished 73-year-old activist—an original disciple of the esteemed late Thai master Ajaan Buddhadasa—is traveling the world, promoting peace. Based in Bangkok with his wife in the old wood house he grew up in, he's the epitome of Engaged Buddhism. Author of the memoir "Loyalty Demands Dissent," he has initiated a number of social, humanitarian, ecological, and spiritual movements and organizations in Thailand.

At this moment he is, for the third or fourth time, accused by the Thai king of lese majeste for criticizing the monarchy and may be prevented from reentering his country.

Sulak visited the U.S. five times last year, and noted that although America is exporting violence, attitudes do appear to be changing: He feels that there seems to be a cultural awakening, away from injustice and systemic violence and inequality, toward a search for nonviolence and harmony.

His attitude—and balance between reactive hyper-activism and passivity—can teach us a lot: “In one way we have to be patient and at the same time I’m busy!” he said.

When Jesus said that a victim should turn the other cheek, he was preaching pacifist non-resistance. But when he said that an enemy should be won over through the power of love, he was preaching nonviolence. Nonviolence, like violence, is a means of persuasion, a technique for political activism, a recipe for prevailing—a fearless and forceful way of speaking truth to power.

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