Peace is a Fire
January 2nd, 2000, was a sunny day in San Francisco and there was much activity going on at the Zen Center on Page Street. Sometime after breakfast myself and four others had our heads shaved, except for a square ½ inch on the back of the crown; this was reserved for shaving during the ordination ceremony later that day.
During the ordination ceremony the five of us received the Sixteen Bodhisattva Precepts in the Soto Zen lineage of Buddhism. This was a great day for us, with many of our family and friends coming long and short distances for the occasion; my two sisters had flown from Dublin, Ireland, to be at my ordination. You could say it was a grand affair, though as things go in the West, fairly low key.
Of the Sixteen Bodhisattva Precepts, three of them are known as the Three Pure Precepts, and they are usually rendered as i) vowing to avoid all evil, ii) vowing to do all good, and iii) vowing to purify the mind. The third one is also often rendered as ‘vowing to save all beings’.
For the last 3½ years or so I’ve been working in the Zen Center’s development office, helping maintain the database of donors, members and interested persons. The software package we use is Raiser’s Edge, I guess it’s supposed to give you an ‘edge’ in your fundraising. Well, whatever, each person or organization that is recorded in Raiser’s Edge is stored as a ‘constituent’, and whenever you close a constituent’s record you are asked “do you want to save changes?’’. Clicking ‘yes’ gets a ‘ping-ping’ and the message ‘’constituent has been saved’’ appears. This often brought a smile to my face; so here I am, I thought, saving all beings.
On the face of it, viewed as a task, or as a goal, the vow or intention to save all beings is, well, let’s say grandiose, if not plain old impractical. In fact, it’s so impractical that we know it isn’t meant literally; and, literally or not, save them from what? This is one of the many worthwhile things a Zen monk, or any sincere practicing Buddhist gets to ponder.
Generally, our intention is to save them from suffering, something which is much easier said than done, especially when you realize that their (our) fundamental approach to life is more likely going to perpetuate than ameliorate suffering. In some ways we’re in a no-win situation as it will all end in disintegration, or death; it’s all impermanent and our story is, in the end, one of loss. (Even if you make it into Heaven, in Buddhism the cautionary note is, that too is impermanent!).
So the Buddhist turns his and her attention to the problem and nature of suffering, seeking for themselves and for others release from suffering through understanding, or insight, and seeking to adopt an approach to life that ameliorates rather than perpetuates suffering. The ordination ceremony is a rite of passage representing this new direction in one’s life.
The cultivation of Wisdom and Compassion is the primary focus of all Buddhist practice. And so at the core of the vow to save all beings there is a deep commitment to understand the nature of suffering. Most Buddhists engage in meditation practices which help bring about inner-peace, and this inner-peace, or calm, helps in the cultivation of Wisdom & Compassion; in fact the cultivation of compassion and insight also helps bring about inner-peace.
I originally started this contribution to the ‘American Peace Project’ with the title ‘Against Peace’. What I had in mind is the idea of doing nothing, which somehow the expression ‘give peace a chance’ conveys to me. It suggests that all we have to do is not be violent, not go to war or lift a fist to anyone and peace will follow. Although I believe these to be very worthy precepts for an individual and a society to hold, more is needed to achieve peace.
It may be the word ‘chance’ that carries this passive impression for me…..if the phrase were ‘give peace a try’, that would not convey to me the same sense of passivity, though maybe there is still some sense of it in the ‘give’….like it’s optional, without commitment, decided on a whim; ‘make peace not war’, or simply ‘make peace’ would go further along the road in conveying the sense of effort and commitment that’s needed to achieve peace, particularly if faced with an opponent that is far from ‘giving peace a chance’.
Cultivating an inner peace has helped me tremendously in maintaining an external peace in my relationships – at work, in the neighborhood and at home. It is a measure of inner-peace which enables one to not be reactive in argument, which allows one to address the concerns and difficulties the other is facing, and allows you to express yours in a non-threatening way; it allows one to be committed to a process of non-threatening behavior, because you yourself feel less threatened; it gives one the inner-calm-space from which to respond in a reasonable & thoughtful manner; basically it enables one to remain calm in the face of adversity and in so doing to be able to respond reasonably rather than react defensively. This sounds good, and it is, many people have found it to be so.
(I am looking forward to Al Gore’s book ‘The Assault on Reason’, for the assault on reason is also an assault on the ability to be reasonable and responsible and I feel that there is much in our present culture (or lack of) that promotes reactivity at the expense of response-ability).
As you may guess, I would really like all people to develop inner-calm, inner-peace, for their own well-being and for the well-being of those around them. I’m not really interested in whether people become Buddhist or not, just that they learn peaceful ways.
One of the lessons I think I’ve learned over the last decade or so is that peace, that is peace between you and me, takes effort and commitment, it often requires negotiation. Happily, you don’t have to be a Buddhist, or even a meditator, to understand this – there are many examples of leaders committed to peace.
An example that comes to mind is the late President J.F. Kennedy, because a few weeks ago I watched the movie Thirteen Days, and recommend it as an example of statesmanship in the pursuit of peace.
Time and again we see Kennedy under pressure from his military command to take action which would lead to war – his commitment though, is to avoid war, while not ignoring the threat of missiles in Cuba.
It seems true that in the line he took he did expose Americans to a possible nuclear hit, by delaying military action against Cuba (and thus giving them time to arm nuclear missiles) in the pursuit of a peaceful resolution of the crisis, and he considered that risk worthwhile as his other options would have almost certainly lead to (nuclear) war with the USSR. So in order to negotiate peace, he accepted some risk, because the risk of not accepting that risk was greater.
More recently, President Clinton made a considerable effort to broker a peace agreement in Northern Ireland, and that eventually proved successful. I was on a trip back to Ireland in ’99 or ’98 when the peace talks seemed to be breaking down, and whenever one side of the conflict would loose their cool and leave the talks, it was the Americans who would bring them back and keep the talks moving, keep them on track; I don’t think it would have succeeded without the drive and commitment of the US administration of the time…..I believe Clinton had similar hopes for the Middle East; the last round of talks there fell through just before his term of office was up.
I spent a month in Ireland, Belfast, this year, playing a supporting role in the emerging Zen Center there, and I was very happy to hear other people sharing this view, saying that Clinton had been a big factor in bringing peace there.
I believe that there are some acts that dehumanise the receiver and the perpetrater..war and violence are, in my view, such acts. Often we choose not to do things because we ‘have our pride’, in the sense of self-worth; there are certain things we will not do, such as stealing or robbing, because we believe ourselves to be above it, we would feel small if we did it, we would let ourselves down.
Violence and war should be viewed in the same way, but with much greater emphasis, something to be avoided if at all possible; we know that if we go to war, or resort to violence, we have failed ourselves, let ourselves down in our own eyes, and in a sense, let the ‘opponent’ win by getting us to trash our deeply held values.
We need to set limits, establish values, as to what we will and will not do; limits to the behaviour that we are willing to accept as coming from ourself(ves)…..much of this has been done and codified in domestic and international law; often these limits will be challenged by this or that situation, or rather, our ability to keep our own values, individually and collectively, will be challenged, and the question then is, can we hold fast…..
So peace takes effort and commitment, it is not a passive thing, and pursuit of it can be helped by recalling how horrifying war is, War is Hell, and how much suffering war brings….I am not saying that we should never fight, or never be prepared to fight, but it should really be a last resort; we should, in my opinion, be tenacious in not going to war, in finding other ways to secure external peace. We should be proactive about peace, passionate about it (look at Kennedy in Thirteen Days)….and, wouldn’t it be nice if we were aglow with inner-peace while we are consumed by our goal of external peace through peaceful means? In the words of Sangharakshita, founder of the Western Buddhist Order, ‘Peace is a Fire’.
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