and Peace - Jan
in Peace Seminar
G6B People's Summit - Calgary, Alberta, Canada
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.
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.
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
this as an introduction, then, I am happy to speak to you today
about Buddhism and peace.
The Basics of Buddhism
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.
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).
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.
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
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."
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.
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.
What Buddhism Has to Say About Peace and the Peaceful Resolution
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
is never appeased by hatred.
Hatred is only appeased by Love (or, non-enmity).
is an eternal law."
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
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:
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
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)
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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."
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."
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
How Buddhist Practice Can Help to Replace a War-like Mentality
in a War-torn Country, with a Peaceful Way of Thinking
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.