Buddhism and Peace - Jan Willis

Faith in Peace Seminar
G6B People's Summit - Calgary, Alberta, Canada

My thanks to Ms. Howaida Hassan and to the People's Summit for inviting me to take part in this most important conference. It is always good to know who's speaking to you. Therefore, before getting into my talk today, I would like to tell you briefly who I am and what I believe.

I was raised in the Jim Crow era of the Southern United States. In 1963, I marched with Martin Luther King Jr. In 1965, after winning scholarships to universities, my family suffered a cross-burning by the KKK. IN 1967-68, I went to India and met the Tibetans. In 1969, after a cross-burning at Cornell, I joined an armed upraising of students. After that I had to choose between joining the Black Panther Party or returning to Nepal to study in a Buddhist monastery. Ultimately, I chose peace.

I believe that the personal is political; I believe that we must think globally while acting locally; I believe that peace and non-violence are the only sane choices in a violent world; like the great pacifist, A.J. Muste, I believe that there is no path to peace, rather peace is itself the path; I believe that pacifism does not mean passivism; and finally, I believe that Buddhism offers practical methods to help us deal with a violent world and to develop lasting peace, first within ourselves and then systemically.

With this as an introduction, then, I am happy to speak to you today about Buddhism and peace.

I. The Basics of Buddhism

Between 563 BCE and 483 BCE there lived in the southern regions of modern day Nepal, a man named Siddhartha Gautama who had been born a prince of the Sakya clan but who, at the age of thirty-five, after meditating and attaining a state called "Enlightenment," began teaching a completely new doctrine in India. That doctrine has since come to be known as Buddhism. At the end of his life, the "Buddha," as his followers have ever since referred to him, said that he had spent the previous forty-five years teaching only two things: suffering, and its cessation. Indeed, his emphasis upon the suffering inherent in samsara (literally, the realm of "continual going") has caused many over the centuries to view the tradition as pessimistic. In reality, the Buddha preached a doctrine which demands an in depth analysis of suffering and its causes as a means of bringing about suffering's end and, therefore, of ushering in a new and lasting peace, tranquility and insightfulness.

The most succinct formulation of the Buddha's doctrine was provided in the very first sermon that he delivered. That "First Sermon" set forth the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism, namely:

1. There is suffering (duhkha).
2. There is a cause of suffering (duhkha-samudaya).
3. There is the cessation of suffering (duhkha-nirodha); and
4. There is a path leading to the cessation of suffering (duhkha-nirodha-marga).

According to the first Noble Truth, suffering is defined as follows: "Birth is suffering; aging is suffering; sickness is suffering; death is suffering; sorrow and lamentation, pain grief and despair are suffering; association with the unpleasant is suffering; dissociation from the pleasant is suffering; not to get what one wants is suffering." However, there is the further injunction to understand what is meant by the term duhkha in all its connotations. With regard to this, Buddhist texts further delineate "three types/levels of duhkha," namely: suffering 'plain and simple,' that encompasses every kind of physical and mental pain, distress or uneasiness; the 'suffering produced by change,' especially that suffering brought on by the sudden shift of a happy state changing into an unhappy one; and the suffering which is 'inherent in samsara,' that is that type which occurs because of the very nature of all existents within samsara, namely their being ultimately impermanent, painful, and empty of independent existence.

The Second Noble Truth declares that the most palpable cause of our suffering is desire and thirst of various sorts, all of which are doomed to be unsatisfactory since they falsely ascribe permanence to what is, in reality, impermanent. However, the root cause of both desire and hatred is the ignorance which posits a false idea about the self's permanence. Thinking, mistakenly, that the self, soul, or ego exists permanently causes us to desire certain things while it generates aversion towards others. Only by extinguishing this false and illusory idea about the nature of our selves, as well as about the nature of things, can a lasting liberation from suffering be achieved. A state of such liberation is called, in the Third Noble Truth, Nirvana. The notion of Nirvana has been grossly misunderstood over the centuries as being a state akin to complete extinction or annihilation. According to Buddhism, however, Nirvana is not viewed as an extinction of the self; rather, it is only the extinction of the false idea about the self. A more contemporary expression for this might be, "Nothing is lost except what's false." Buddhism never denies the existence of a "relative, impermanent and dependent self." It denies only the erroneous view that the self exists as an inherently and independently existent entity.

The Fourth Noble Truth tells us that there is a Path that leads to the cessation of suffering. Once we have determined that samsara is unsatisfactory, we should enter upon the path and, traversing it, through undertaking various methods of meditation and practice, attain the enlightenment of the Buddha. The multifacetness of Buddhist traditions throughout Asia and over its 2600 year history derives from the great variety of meditative techniques and methods offered under the rubric of the "Path."

As early as the days of the great Indian King Asoka (269-232 BCE), Buddhist traditions began to migrate out of India and to spread into the regions of South and Southeast Asia. Hinayana, or less derogatorily, Theravadin Buddhism spread south to Sri Lanka, and north and east to Burma, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. By the fourth to the eighth centuries CE, Mahayana Buddhism had reached as far as Tibet, China, Korea and Japan.

According to recent world census data, there are about 305 million Buddhists worldwide, most of them living in Asia. However, one finds nearly 1 million (some recent sources make this number 4-5 million) Western-born Buddhists also, who live and practice in Europe and the United States.

II. What Buddhism Has to Say About Peace and the Peaceful Resolution of Conflict

Like all of the major world religions, at its core, Buddhism is a religion of peace. An early Buddhist collection of verses on practice in everyday life, the Pali (Theravadin) Dhammapada, makes this abundantly clear. Verse five of the text (of 423 verses) states:

"Hatred is never appeased by hatred.
Hatred is only appeased by Love (or, non-enmity).
This is an eternal law."

The Pali term for "eternal law" here is dhamma, or the Buddhist teachings. So, this verse on non-enmity has to do with a tenet of the Buddhist faith that is fundamental, namely, peace and non-harm. (Moreover, though not often cited, the very last verses of the Dhammapada condemn the class (varna) and other prejudicial distinctions that would divide people.)

As we move ahead several centuries, we find the famed 8th century Mahayana poet, Santideva, saying pretty much the same thing. For example one finds in Santideva's great work, the Bodhicaryavatara, these verses regarding the dangers of hatred:

"There is no evil equal to hatred, and no spiritual practice equal to forbearance. Therefore, one ought to develop forbearance, by various means, with great effort." --(Ch. 6, verse 2).

And again:

"One's mind finds no peace, neither enjoys pleasure or delight, nor goes to sleep, nor feels secure while the dart of hatred is stuck in the heart" -- (Ch.6, verse3)

Buddhist teachings tell us that hatred and aversion, like their opposites desire and greed, all spring from a fundamental ignorance. That ignorance is our mistaken notion of our own permanent, independent existence. In ignorance, we see ourselves as separate beings, unconnected with others. Blinded to our true state of interdependence and interconnectedness, it is this basic ignorance that keeps us divided. Only practice that leads to overcoming such ignorance will help to free us from the prisons we make for ourselves and for others.

We all harbor prejudices of various sorts. There is no exception to this fact. Not one of us is completely freed of prejudicial attitudes. We don't like certain colors or sounds; we're annoyed by certain circumstances, behaviors, or styles of doing things. We are harsh critics even of ourselves. Having likes and dislikes is taken for granted. Indeed, the ability to discriminate is considered an essential part of what makes us human beings. After all, human beings, unlike other living creatures, can form judgments and make choices. Free will and choice are taken as fundamental rights. So, one might ask, what's the problem?

The problem occurs as, unfortunately oftentimes is the case, when our own individual likes and dislikes become reified and solidified; when we not only form inflexible opinions, but take them as truths; when we form negative judgments about other human beings and about ourselves and these judgments become for us the lenses through which we view and experience ourselves, the world around us, and its inhabitants. At this point, we have entered into the arena of prejudice of a quite pernicious sort, the sort which causes harm and suffering both for ourselves and for others. And whether it be friendships and loving personal relationships destroyed, or wars fought over religion or contested territory, or one group of beings dominating another or restraining their freedom of movement, at this point we cease being human beings at our best.

For centuries, Americans, in general, had enjoyed unprecedented periods of peace and prosperity. Those feelings of security and invincibility suddenly came crashing down, however, with the horrific events of September 11, 2001 when a major terrorist event of catastrophic proportions occurred within our borders, on our home ground. No longer were we simply observers of human carnage; we were its targets. And though not all of us were completely surprised that hatreds of this sort were festering in the world around us, very few of us were prepared for the virulence of the anti-American sentiment that visited such devastating loss of life upon our shores.

Ethnic and racial prejudices run rampant in today's global, multicultural society; our world is filled with conflict. Serbs disdain Croats, the British war with the Irish in Northern Ireland, in Israel there are precious few moments of peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians, Rwandans slaughter each other in the name of tribal purity and, all over the world, wars are waged in the name of religion. Everywhere one looks, ancient hatreds are played out in the contemporary world with devastating consequences.

Since September 11th, we now know that such hate-filled actions are not just events that can be observed from a distance, on television, from the safety of our living rooms. It is no longer the case that we can view ourselves as simply the innocent observers of the "bad guys."

Of course, we had known that guns in our schools and in our homes had become a threat worthy of serious investigation; that violence both abroad and at home has come to the fore in our time. Still, we had not made much progress either in averting or dealing with it. In the aftermath of September 11th, the pressing question becomes: What must we do now? As one Western Buddhist, Lama Surya Das, remarked on the day immediately following, "Of course, the criminals who have perpetrated this act of terrorism must certainly be brought to justice. Terrorism cannot be allowed to continue. We must condemn the crime, but not let our anger escalate into unreasonable aggression, racism, and even more violence in the world we must get to the roots of this, not just punish individuals."

Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, "We have only two choices: to peacefully coexist, or to destroy ourselves." Each and every day, we ourselves encounter--and generate--prejudicial attitudes and behaviors. If we are ultimately to survive at all on this tiny planet that is our mutual home, we must learn to appreciate, and to value, each other as human beings and thus to live together in peace. While a general disarming of all nation states would seem the ideal, this process cannot be begun until we have first disarmed our own, individual hearts.

In reality, at our innermost cores we are all exactly the same: we are human beings who wish to have happiness and to avoid suffering. Yet, out of ignorance, we go about seeking these goals blindly and without insight. We live our lives seemingly oblivious to our own prejudices even though they are right in front of our eyes. In short, we suffer because we embrace the mistaken notion of our separateness from one another.

The illusion of separateness actually works to prevent us from finding the beginning of this erroneous spiral. Buddhist traditions tell us that from the very moment the notions of 'I' and 'mine' arise, there simultaneously arise the notions of 'not me' and 'not mine.' That is, from the moment we conceive of 'us,' there is a 'them.' Once the notions of separateness, difference, and otherness enter our thinking, they then go on‹literally and figuratively--to color all of our subsequent experience, judgments and perceptions. We see the world in terms of us vs. them, me vs. everyone else, mine vs. yours. We are immediately caught up in a world of mistaken, logically unfounded, and seemingly uncontrollable hatred and prejudice. And all these dualistic bifurcations occur at lightning speed and for the most part imperceptibly.

The very deep-rootedness of this mistaken notion of separateness seems to make it impossible even to imagine its cessation. Yet, as Buddhists also tell us, "By insight is ignorance destroyed." To the question, then, "Can racial, ethnic and religious hatreds and prejudices among human beings be ended?," the answer arises, 'Yes, it can.' Of course, ending something so deep-seated and unconsciously operative is not an easy task. But it is a task so urgently needed in our current situation that it is well worth undertaking.

The dismantling of hateful prejudices begins with the recognition that we do, in fact, harbor them. Next, we must be willing to look at our own particular prejudices with honesty and resolve. We need to know how and why we, as particular human beings, came to harbor the specific views we do and, through this understanding, to be willing now to replace them with more positive views and behaviors. Lastly, we need to know that we can indeed make a difference; that we can work together for positive change in our own society and in the world. Thus, with understanding and with practice comes a softening of our rigid views. Our hearts can open and, ultimately, we can transform ourselves into loving individuals and loving neighbors; in short, into human beings at our best.

Especially in the West, the Judeo-Christian injunction that one should "love thy neighbor as thy self" is a common ethical and spiritual guideline. Still, very little thought or attention has been given to the extreme difficulties entailed by both parts of this famous phrase. One cannot simply decide to love one's neighbor. Nor are there too many of us comfortable with the notion of loving ourselves. Both these injunctions call for methods to enable us to carry them out. Yet, for most of us, it is precisely such methods that are lacking. Various religious and philosophical systems throughout history have sought to offer useable advice. One of these traditions, Buddhism, it seems to me, offers, in fact, numerous methods for personal transformation for anyone who wishes to tackle this most serious undertaking.

Hatred is learned. It must be our task to un-learn it. Racism and racial profiling is learned behavior. We must strive to un-learn it. Ethnic and class distinctions are learned. We must come to see and to appreciate the common humanity that unites us.

III. How Buddhist Practice Can Help to Replace a War-like Mentality in a War-torn Country, with a Peaceful Way of Thinking

If one could simply decide to become peaceful, gentle and caring in all their interactions with other beings and with the world, then we should all be enjoying a culture of peace. Yet, to achieve such a culture is not easy. To do requires effort, resolve, patience, cooperation, and practice. Fortunately, however, practice--and here I mean the varied forms of meditative practices that Buddhist traditions have developed over their twenty-six hundred year history‹is available. It needs only to be made more easily and widely accessible. My suggestion here is simple: since meditation is the very heart of Buddhism, Buddhists (and others) should avail themselves of its meditative methods to look deeply into the origins of our various prejudices‹with regard to ourselves as well as towards others--and to transform them. We can change our minds; we can change our views; we can become more peaceful ourselves and, as a consequence, we can help to engender peace in the world. I am suggesting that we make 'hatred,' 'racism,' 'sexism,' and all other Ñisms a sustained focus of our meditations. Let us make them, to borrow a term from Zen Buddhism, our new koans. Transformation is the work of meditation. If we take the present state of things as being dire, we will choose this method and resolve to do the work.

Lastly, I should say that I do not believe that such methods are limited to Buddhism. An inmate in our state's only women's prison once said to me, as she held up her Bible, "I have all the meditations I need right here." I agreed with her. For what could be better advice than, "Count your blessings"? or "Love thy neighbor as thyself"? What I have found is that, for me, Buddhist traditions have offered methods for helping to do those things. Still, we could all cooperate to form methods that are less ladened with doctrinal or dogmatic theory and terminology; methods which speak to us and instruct us without being bogged down in doctrine and belief. As an example, my fourteen-year-old nephew understood what tantric Buddhism is all about when I talked to him about the way athletes use visualization before a game. Buddhism first and foremost is a practical methodology for recognizing and then transforming our ignorance. This has been so from its very inception. The Buddha did not declare himself "enlightened" until he had performed the actions associated with each of the Four Truths Ñ namely, until he had understood suffering, eliminated its causes, realized its cessation, and followed the path. Each of the Four Truths has these specific actions associated with them. It is this pragmatism of Buddhism that I find so appealing and so necessary in our present global community.

Again, it is not enough that we simply use the methods of Buddhism to find inner peace for ourselves (though that is a very important first step). Rather, having found such inner peace, we must share and spread it and this involves further effort and action. My own recent efforts have involved collaboration with a Dutch colleague to develop a series of exercises called "Ending Hate", which help us to recognize our individual prejudices (about ourselves and others) and to transform them into more positive views and behaviours. I would be happy to speak more about this particular project in our Q&A session.

In conclusion, I would like to leave you with these two thoughts:

1) Being a pacifist does not mean being passive.

2) In Tibetan Tantric Buddhism, which is my personal tradition, one is taught to use the end as the means, that is, in order to become a Buddha, we must begin now, to act and think as Buddha. Hence, I believe, like A.J. Muste, that we must stop thinking of peace as some distant and perhaps unachievable goal and make it our goal right now. Again, in Muste's words, "There is no path to peace; peace is the path."

Thank you.

Janice Willis
(BA and MA in Philosophy, Cornell University; PhD in Indic and Buddhist Studies, Columbia University) is Professor of Religion and Walter A. Crowell Professor of the Social Sciences at Wesleyan. She has studied with Tibetan Buddhists in India, Nepal, Switzerland and the United States for more than three decades, and has taught courses in Buddhism for twenty-five years. She is the author of The Diamond Light: An Introduction to Tibetan Buddhist Meditation (1972), On Knowing Reality: The Tattvartha Chapter of Asanga's Bodhisattvabhumi (1979), and Enlightened Beings: Life Stories from the Ganden Oral Tradition (1995); and the editor of Feminine Ground: Essays on Women and Tibet (1989). One of the earliest American scholar-practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism, Professor Willis has published numerous essays and articles on Buddhist mediation, hagiography, and women and Buddhism. Dreaming Me: An African American Baptist-Buddhist Journey. (2001). She enjoys NFL football.