I’m often asked, “What is the Buddha’s position on war?” He simply said all conditions are due to causes. War ensues when causes for war are present and acted upon.
We all say we are against war. But are we? Where does it start? Do we unwittingly call for war by our own actions?
Buddha encouraged us to constantly reflect on our thoughts, words and actions. What is my personal integrity—not what society has determined as acceptable. How do I personally contribute to the abuse of others through acts of commission and omission? What wrongs do I tolerate to keep my friends or social status?
Unless there is personal evaluation of all that I hold dear in ethics and fairness, there is no end to the continual threat of war. Factions don’t cause war, and countries don’t go to war. People like you and me do—with words, guns or bombs. Until we address issues of entitlement fueled by individual greed, hatred and delusion, we contribute to injustice and excess, and perpetrate violence against humanity. We should confess it and change. Don’t just meditate. It takes more than that! Study the Dharma and examine your life in its light. Living for the sake of others could be the perfect practice.
It is not possible to have peace in society when there is injustice caused by dominance of one group over another—domination through violence, law, creed or any means whereby a lesser class of humans is created.
“Whatever I would not wish done to me,” the Buddha said, “I should not do to another.” So, the question to ask oneself is, as a person of privilege— by virtue of race, status, money, fame or societal position—am I willing to give up the notion that I am more important or worthy than the least of my society? Do I believe that my group, society or country is more entitled than another?
As a person of unequal status, what is the limit of my willingness to suffer affront? What escape can I find through skillful means to change situations? How can I develop a mind of non-enmity in response to past abuses and current injustice, and at the same time, work toward a more humane culture?
Here’s another question you can ask: am I aware of institutional and social disparities operating in my town, city, state, and what is my response?
Here’s an example: America’s institutions and laws work as designed—to preserve the balance of power and maintain white privilege. One way to “keep America safe” seems to be to incarcerate as many black men as possible. Statistically, one in three can expect to be incarcerated. Often a routine traffic stop is the first act in this scenario, so black parents get a kind of insurance for our teens once they get a driver’s license. It’s called DWB insurance. DWB stands for “Driving While Black.” Kids get a card to keep with their driver’s license. It advises officers of our children’s right to remain silent until there is an attorney present with them. In America this is necessary because of intimidation and abuse of power against youth of color.
Because we believe such measures are necessary for preserving the safety of the privileged class in a white-ruled society, these injuries continue amidst the outrage of those subject to discrimination. The country is divided by resentment and hypocrisy; those in the population who cannot rely on the legal system to keep their children safe are driven toward revenge.
This is just one small reality. Do you peacefully oppose injustice with your voice, with your vote—or close your eyes to it? Do you go along with your friends or keep quiet even when you disagree with their actions, because you wish to be accepted or not thought of as different?
My North Carolina sangha is all Caucasian. I love them and feel such compassion for them. Many share how much they hurt as they sit around the dinner table and pretend to agree with disparaging talk about blacks and Hispanics. They cannot speak up. They don’t want to be ostracized. Some have spoken up and it cost them relationships with their families. What price are you willing to pay? Think about it. Here’s another question to ask yourself: do you believe our freedoms here are more important than those of others? All blood is precious—my son’s and the son of the village woman on the other side of the world.
Ignorance or denial of one’s privilege is a major contributor to war. The disparity in wages, lifestyle and dignity inflicted upon many to increase the wealth of some breeds illness, hatred and desperation. Are those living a “good” life examining the true cost to human dignity? Are we willing to sacrifice personal comforts to preserve the resources that an entire world needs? Or do we feel we can take the resources of others for our particular comforts? Could you consider giving up your designer shoes and handbags and clothing made in Bangladeshi sweatshops, now that you understand their true cost in human capital?
I myself am guilty of abuse, ignorance and greed. I am working to change my own mind and through my efforts, hope to demonstrate the courage to change and the means by which we can each transform. It is not always comfortable to look reality in the face, but we must!
I didn’t talk about climate change or energy conservation from the dharma seat because I was not willing to walk or ride my bicycle three blocks to the store. I’d drive every time. Then I started talking about it. I still drive, but make each trip really count. I’ve replaced the incandescent light bulbs in the house and wear a sweater instead of turning up the thermostat when I’m chilly. I’ve started educating myself and it’s changing me. I realize I’m part of a problem. We start step by step, like this. No blame—just reflection, awareness and action, however small.
After becoming a Buddhist monastic, I saw the patriarchy and misogyny of the Theravada tradition from the inside. Not to lose heart, I had to undertake Tibetan mind-training practices, accepting defeat and giving victory to others. I recognized that some things in Thai Buddhism would not change with the current people and thinking in power. I did not beg for my Thai sisters to be accepted into the sangha; I didn’t hate my Thai brothers. Instead, I went there and quietly helped Venerable Dr. Lee create a bhikkhuni lineage. Today, there are more than thirty-five nuns thriving in that order. I remain friends with many Thai monks. This is skillful means.
It is not easy to question ourselves and to change. There is no short-term solution. We cannot turn the tide of war as a religious group, society or country. We must each begin the practice of reflection—deciding what is right and living that truth. Then we can sit on our cushions in our dharma halls, deliberating “enlightenment” with a spacious heart and a clear conscience.