On several occasions I’ve heard people ask the Dalai Lama how to end war, and he’s always answered the same way: begin by trying to resolve the conflicts in your own life. But how do we do that? This meditation goes through some of the Buddhist approaches to understanding the causes of war, both in ourselves and others, and how we might eventually be free of them.
What does Buddhism have to say about war?
I’m Scott Snibbe and this is A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment. I’m in my meditation room today because for this episode I want to lead a meditation about war. My daughter said it would be better to call this a meditation on peace, and of course that’s what this meditation is meant to promote. But this is a meditation we can do when we’re thinking about war and violence and other forms of violent aggression in the world.
In thinking about what Buddhism has to say about war, what came to mind for me is the absolute basics of Buddhist ethics. In our culture, ethics can sometimes seem like something specialized, something that certain very saintly people do, like Gandhi, or for academics who study it. But in Buddhism, ethics is the foundation of a happy life, good relationships, and a thriving, healthy world.
Buddhist ethics: nonviolence, kindness, and controlling our minds
The simplest way that I’ve found to explain Buddhist ethics comes from Alan Wallace. And he describes Buddhist ethics as nonviolence, kindness, and understanding and gaining control over our minds.
For the first principle, nonviolence, it includes nonviolence of body, speech, and mind. Nonviolence of body is kind of obvious: to not harm people with our body in any way. Most of us have mastered that at an early age, thankfully. We don’t punch people when we get angry at them, or worse.
Then comes nonviolence of speech, where you speak to connect people. That’s what Robert Thurman calls it, speech that’s connecting rather than disconnecting; gentle, meaningful, purposeful; forceful when it needs to be.
And then nonviolence of mind. You know, even for those of us who’ve mastered nonviolence of body and speech, sometimes thoughts come into our head. And, from talking to friends and from leading this meditation at the Buddhist Center the other night, even some people were willing to admit that there have been times where, at least in their mind, they thought they wanted to kill somebody, at least for a moment.
So, most of us have that capacity. At least in our mind. Maybe fleeting thoughts of violence.
The second principle is kindness, which you could describe as benefiting others, in the infinite number of ways that can be done.
And then the last part of Buddhist ethics is gaining control over our mind. And that’s just about everything on the Buddhist path, starting with the popular mindfulness techniques of learning simply how not to mindlessly react.
That’s impressive enough for many of us. But it builds up to incredible states of mind, cultivating limitless love and compassion for all beings.
The Buddha’s comment on hatred was this, Hatred never ceases through hatred. Hatred ceases through love. This is an eternal law. That comes from Alan Wallace, a book called Buddhism with an Attitude.
And I think you’ve heard that before. There’s other spiritual traditions that say the same thing, that only violence comes from violence. Hatred comes from hatred.
But how do we cultivate love in ourselves and others?
How the Dalai Lama says we can end war
I’ve been at teachings with the Dalai Lama several times when someone asked him how to end war. And I’ve always heard him answer in the same way, which was a very surprising answer.
He said, Make up with everyone you have a conflict with. And it might actually catch your breath to hear that. It’s easy to say, Make up with everyone you’re mad at, but it’s hard to do.
And you also have to show love for yourself by keeping yourself from any physical and psychological harm. Ending violence and anger in ourselves doesn’t mean that we have to actually confront people who might pose a danger to us or to others. It only means that we eventually process the anger and even the hatred that we have toward them.
Whenever that becomes possible. It may not be immediately possible. It might not be possible for years. But this meditation today is about how to create those causes for peace in our own minds and in the greater world by drawing on several stages of the path to enlightenment, what’s called the lamrim in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition and which most of the meditations that I lead in this podcast are based on.
Meditation on ending war
So settle yourself into a meditation posture. You can straighten your spine, tilt down your head, half close your eyes, relax all the muscles in your shoulders, neck, body.
A meditation session begins with a motivation.
Today, in particular, we can set a motivation to meditate in order to end violence on earth. And to do that by starting with ourselves, the people close to us, the people we encounter on a day to day basis. Trying to root out the causes of violence in a sphere of humanity that we interact with.
Then, picture a bright light in front of you at the level of your forehead, body’s length, in front of you. Like a little star, shining light in all directions.
And imagine that that light is the essence of all the good qualities human beings can manifest: kindness, love, generosity, patience, wisdom understanding cause and effect, and the interdependent nature of reality.
And as that light penetrates our body, our body becomes hollow—still in the shape of our body, but a hollow shell of light.
And those feelings start to melt into us through the rays coming from that little star.
If you like, mix that light with anyone you know or know of who embodies qualities of peace, having stabilized their own mind, having gone through the difficulty of reconciliation, making up with people they had difficulties with, or creating peace between groups, countries, people in conflict, people at war.
And then let that light float towards you, slowly, until it comes to rest at the crown of your head,
And then the light melts down through the crown of your head, and the white light, it spreads through your entire body, clarifies your body so that you can only be gentle and helpful, and forceful too, but only in the ways that would prevent someone from doing harm and go no further.
We use the term bless, sometimes blessing your body, which really means just inspiring, motivating, creating the causes for a body that contributes to peace.
Then let that light melt down, like a glowing liquid. It comes to rest at your throat, and the light turns red there, fills your body with red light originating at your throat.
And there it blesses, inspires, creates the causes for peaceful speech, speech that’s connecting rather than disconnecting, speech that brings people together, that’s a cause of love, understanding, reconciliation.
Then imagine the light melting down to the center of your chest, and it pauses at the center of your chest and turns blue, and sends blue light rays through your entire body.
And those bless your mind, inspire your mind, direct your mind so that we have more control over our thoughts. We direct them toward virtue, toward benefiting others, towards peace rather than war, towards connection rather than disconnection, towards cooperation rather than conflict.
Then imagine as this blue body that we’re able to move. We float up and we decide to go visit the places on earth where there are violent conflicts right now: Israel and the Gaza Strip, Ukraine and Russia.
Imagine as this blue body, you send down blue healing light, feeling the pain of the people fighting and injured.
May people below, on all sides of the conflict, be able to overcome the grief of their loved ones dying.
As you send out blue light below, may people overcome their physical and mental injuries.
May these wars end and may the people in conflict create the causes of long term peace, and enjoy safe, happy, fulfilling lives.
You can go to another place on earth where there’s fighting and make the same wishes, aspirations, sending it through blue light, light of your compassion.
And wishing those fighting not to suffer, wishing for them to have all the causes of peace.
And you can imagine that your body returns to your seat. Still feeling that compassion though for everyone fighting and wishing that you could be a cause for ending conflict.
As we focus on the breath for a minute, try to feel that essence of peace, nonviolence, in a way that transcends words, a deeply felt sense of ending war.
Understanding our enemies
“I don’t understand” is a common thing we say about the people we disagree with: How could they have stormed the capitol on January 6th? How could they have voted for Joe Biden?
But the essence of Buddhism is to understand, to see that everything has a cause. That people’s actions make sense to them, even if we disagree with their actions, and even when their actions cause harm.
So we meditate on cause and effect to try to understand others.
Because the root of violence is this not understanding. Dehumanizing the people we disagree with.
Think about some of the conflicts going on today, violent conflicts.
Hundreds, in some case thousands of years of history lead up to today’s conflicts.
Generation after generation, becoming hurt again and remembering the hurt of past generations.
Think about the trauma and pain of individuals on both sides of a conflict. Most people just wanting to live their lives without suffering.
And then some people, wrongly conditioned through great effort, that killing another person might be the solution to their problems.
It takes so much effort to overcome our natural aversion to killing another person,
and it’s usually done by dehumanizing them, saying they’re an animal.
Or that they’re far away and I don’t need to think about them. Just press this button and your problem will go away.
But those who kill suffer lifelong psychological problems. Killing doesn’t solve their problems, but only makes them worse, both inside their own minds, feeling restless, anxious, not at peace, unable to sleep. Also within their families, because they’re not at peace with themselves. They cause conflict in their family.
And then in the outer world with the enemy, where by killing an enemy, they’ve only created more enemies that may last generations.
Try to imagine, if you can, what would I do if I were born a Palestinian in the Gaza Strip or a Jew in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv?
What if I were born Ukrainian or Russian?
How much of a choice would I have based on the place and the culture and the family that I was born into?
To create the causes for peace, the Dalai Lama says to make up with the people we are in conflict with.
What would that take? And could we do it?
Of course, making up with someone doesn’t mean you have to get near them if they’ve caused you harm.
It’s a matter of gradually letting go of your anger toward them, seeing the cause and effect in their mind that led to their actions, and their own potential to be kind and loving. If they were only taught compassion and nurtured with love.
What if we all could embody nonviolence, kindness, and gaining control over our mind?
What if we could each be nonviolent in our body, speech, and mind; kind in our actions; seeking to benefit everyone we encounter, even those who cause harm; acting skillfully through being kind and gentle and loving when appropriate. And being forceful and powerful when we need to. But always without hatred.
In Buddhism, it’s actually allowed to use violence in self defense, but only to defend yourself. And with this added provision: only if you can win.
Because otherwise you only cause more death and suffering. When the Chinese invaded Tibet, many Tibetans fought back against the invasion. But the Dalai Lama always said to be nonviolent. He said even though they commit violence against us and cause us so much pain, still, even if we kill even one Chinese person, we make a hundred Chinese enemies. So it’s simply logical to be nonviolent.
What if your mother came running at you with a knife?
When I learned about the Buddhist ethics on non violence, they used this example: what if your mother came running at you with a knife, and you had a gun in your hand?
You’d almost certainly put down the gun and then wrestle with your mother, willing to sustain even serious injuries to get her knife away.
That’s how Buddhism says we should treat anybody committing violence, as if they are a dear loved one, under the grips of mental illness; someone we need to help subdue their disturbed mind.
What if we all gained control over our minds? What if we only saw delusions as our enemies and not each other?
In whatever way makes sense to you, imagine now a world where everyone’s human rights are respected, where people are at peace, where we all help one another.
There’s no guarantee these thoughts will end war.
But at the very least, these thoughts will be the cause of peace in yourself and among the people you encounter in your life.
And if you’re still feeling hopeless, remember impermanence, one of the foundations of reality: that nothing is permanent, everything changes. There have been wars and tragedies as big and worse than the ones we’re living through right now. And each of them came to an end. Many resulted in lasting peace. And there are even cases like with the US and Japan or France and Germany, where sworn enemies who killed millions of each other’s people turned into peaceful trusting allies.