Recently I opened the New York Times to find a photograph that I can’t put out of mind. It was taken in Syria, although it could have been half a dozen places on the planet: men standing in a row one-to-one over other men prostrated on the ground. The men standing carry rifles; the men on the ground have their faces pressed to the earth, their bodies hunched like rabbits, bare backs exposed to the sky. Off to one side the commander of the armed men, as the caption states, says a short prayer. His face is turned to his god in an expression that I interpret as either compassion countermanded by military discipline or vindictiveness justified by religion. The text reports that shortly after the photo was taken, the men on the ground were shot.
Everything in me wants to shield these crouching men, to intercede against the armed murdering the unarmed. As a Buddhist, vowing to extend peace and protection to all beings without exception, I am caught in contradictions. If I were present, would I reason with the commander? Interpose my own body? Shoot the soldiers? What if I were one of the men pointing his gun, or one of the targets? In any case I am too late and this scene is 10,000 miles distant. Once more, as I read about and see conflicts and tragedies all over the world, I feel helpless. We see so much of the suffering of the world, and have so little capacity to do anything about it. I want to hold a shield large enough to protect the men on the ground, as well as the men holding the guns. They are, after all, next. But the shield is too big for me. I can’t hold it up alone. I need help.
As a Buddhist, I take refuge in Buddha and Dharma and Sangha. As a son of the McMahon family, coming from a warrior tradition, I turn toward my clan and culture for direction, seeking enduring visions to counterbalance the images of modern media. For inspiration, I look to legends: legends drawn from my adopted family of the Buddha’s Sangha, with its tale of the enlightenment of Shakyamuni Buddha; legends from my blood family, and from the rich sources of our Western cultures. In the home of my grandparents McMahon, the Iliad—that foundational Western war epic—and the Bible served as our principal texts. What shields, what visions of peace and protection, might I find in these legends combined that could help me to fashion my own shield?
Like me, Shakyamuni Buddha was descended from a warrior clan: his, the Shakya’s; mine, the McMahons. In my mind’s eye I see him in his all-night vigil under the bodhi tree. Intent on enlightenment, he would have had to draw on ancestral wisdom to fend off all that Mara—his arch enemy, representative of the forces of Greed, Hate and Delusion—threw at him. Leading the charge on his elephant, Mara summoned his demonic legions, brandishing a thousand arms, threatening the unarmed Buddha beneath the bodhi tree. But the swords and lances of the enemy could not pierce the shield of Buddha’s awareness; they were, rather, absorbed into its pliant surface: against it, flaming mud balls turned to flowers. Mara delivered a parting shot, a murderous disc that mysteriously became a canopy of flowers spreading over the Buddha, sheltering him as he meditated through the night. The morning star appeared in the east, signaling awakening as the Buddha proclaimed, “I, along with the great earth and all sentient beings, simultaneously achieve the way.” Walking dusty roads and lush forest paths for the next forty years, he and his followers established an awakened way, a way of peace and protection that has served for 2,500 years.
In contrast to the battle between Buddha and Mara, metaphoric and bloodless, the Iliad’s vision is literal and bloody, one I know in my bones. Grandfather McMahon served in both World Wars, taking part in the liberation of a Nazi prison camp in the second. It’s no accident that the Iliad was an often read and discussed text in the household of my grandparents. In its depiction and glorification of war, the Iliad leaves nothing to the imagination. Yet after hundreds of murders, maimings and battles, Homer places a passage unlike anything that has come before: a respite, a reconciliation of peace and war, a vision crafted on the shield of Achilles.
Achilles, the greatest of the Greeks, has lost his original shield to Hector, the greatest of the Trojans. The original shield, as Achilles inherited it, was typical for a great warrior of his day, designed to ward off real lances and swords, decorated with images of death and destruction, signifying the power of the warrior bearing it, inspiring panic in the enemy.
After Achilles loses his shield and his identity, the blacksmith god, Hephaestus, crafts him a new shield with a radical new vision. In his loss and vulnerability, Achilles now understands the magnitude of what he protects: no less than a civilization, which he envisions as “two noble cities,” the city of peace and the city of war. On this new shield, images of wedding feasts, harvest, hunt and dance depict the city of peace. In their dance of innocent youth,
The girls were crowned with a bloom of fresh garlands,
the boys swung golden daggers hung on silver belts . . .
The city of peace appeals to the peace lovers, the antiwarriors among us. But to look away from the reality of war is to be blind to the full vision of civilization that Homer/Hephaestus fashions. Even in the city of peace, the dancing boys carry daggers. In this epic vision, war is justified to those fighting it; defense is necessary, glorious, divinely sanctioned. The brave and doomed citizens of besieged Troy march out of their gates to meet the enemy. Their deities tower over them, “magnificent in their armor.” War is a preordained affair of the gods. In Achilles’ world, garlands, golden belts and silver daggers, and the burnished armor of war form one overarching reality.
Shakyamuni’s invisible shield, Achilles’ finely crafted shield—both offer clues for peace and protection in this twenty-first-century planet Earth, a world marked by every manner of human ignorance, negligence and evil. The clue I take from Shakyamuni is not to fend off Mara’s weapons of greed, hatred and delusion, but to absorb them into all the awareness of which I am capable, facing fear, righteousness, defensiveness, offensiveness. I take confidence that I can allow my sense of helplessness to open into resolve: this is the world I stand for, in all its terror and beauty. Yet, as Achilles needed Hephaestus, I don’t make my shield all by myself. I call on the ancient wordsmith, Homer himself, to help.
A neighborhood of peace and a neighborhood of war are represented on my shield. In one quadrant, modeled on my own community of East Oakland, California, I envision neighbors circling around the commons tree, observing the ancient rite of solstice. In carefully wrought flakes of silver, lights twinkle like stars in the branches. In an adjoining quadrant, the neighborhood of war, stands a prison camp. From my bird’s-eye view I make out both sides of the massive iron gate: on the inside, an assembly of figures crowds before it, wrought in skeletal detail; outside, about to force the gate open, is a battalion of uniformed men. Instead of guns, they hold bundles of food, blankets, medicine in their arms. This is my shield, and I direct my craftsman to fashion images of how things are, as well as how I wish them to be, liberation emerging from imprisonment. At the center of my shield, I place a figure beneath a canopy of leaves. Everything else is moving around him but the figure itself is still. Fashioning the face, the craftsman leaves room for ambiguity. From one angle, as its downcast eyes seem to take in the surrounding scenes, it is mobile and reflects a range of sentiments—the emotions any sensitive and caring human would have in the presence of celebration, devastation, incarceration, liberation. From another, its features are impassive, neither distressed nor happy, seeing all as it is. Emblems of war and emblems of peace: at once compassionate and dispassionate, the motionless seated figure encompasses them all on the surface of my shield.
Achilles’ shield is vast—a civilization, a cosmos—but still limited, protecting some beings but not others, the homeland of the Greeks but not the foreign land of the Trojans. After more than 3,000 years, it still reflects the way of the world, with gods and demons on both sides of every conflict, and within their borders each tribe, clan, nationality, celebrating feast and harvest, wedding and dance. Buddha’s shield of nondual awareness, on the other hand, absorbs conflict into its very fabric, turns flaming mud balls into flowers. Instructed by both, the real and the ideal, I extend protection to the naked-backed men huddled on the ground, and peace to the soldiers standing over them with ready rifles. Mine is an act of the imagination, but so was that of Homer singing the Iliad; so was that of the tellers of the legend of Shakyamuni. At least it’s a start.