Having Peace, Being Peace
Rev. Douglas Taylor
I’ll begin this morning with a responsive reading. Please pull out a hymnal and join me in reading #602
If there is to be peace in the world,
There must be peace in the nations.
If there is to be peace in the nations,
There must be peace in the cities.
If there is to be peace in the cities,
There must be peace between neighbors
If there is to be peace between neighbors,
There must be peace in the home.
If there is to be peace in the home,
There must be peace in the heart.
Do you think that is true? Do you think that the key to world peace is for each of us to find peace in our hearts and to help those around us to find peace in their hearts? My peaceful heart will lead to a peaceful home which will lead to a peaceful neighborhood and community and so on. I think there is something to this, but it certainly doesn’t seem to cascade up the line automatically or we would be there by now. Lao-Tse was on to something when he wrote this, but it’s missing the details of real life. Actually Lao-Tse didn’t write this. Our hymnal gives him credit, but it is doesn’t seem to fit any chapter of the Tao Te Ching with the possible exception of chapter 54 which reads in part:
Cultivate Virtue in yourself and virtue will be real
Cultivate Virtue in your family and virtue will abound
Cultivate Virtue in your village and virtue will grow
Cultivate Virtue in your nation and virtue will be abundant
Cultivate Virtue in your universe and virtue will be everywhere
Translations vary, some use the word “Character” over and over rather than “Virtue.” Still others say, “Follow the Way in yourself and in your family and so on … and you will have real power or abundant power and so on.” So it is possible that the word “peace” could be a liberal translation of the Chinese characters and then have a reverse of the order of the lines. Or it could be that this was a poem version of a passage from The Great Digest from Confucius. Ezra Pound translates a section that read like this:
The men of old wanted to clarify and diffuse throughout the empire that light which comes from looking straight into the heart and then acting, first set up good government in their own states; wanting good government in their states, they first established order in their own families; wanting order in their home, they first disciplined themselves; …
So perhaps it was Confucius who wrote this great poem; maybe it was a modern day mixture of these Taoist and Confucian passages. But someone wrote it, likely in Chinese. It almost sounds Buddhist, but there is no Buddhist scripture that jumps out fitting the rhythm of this poem. All the same, the writings of modern day Buddhists such as The Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh carry this message that world peace begins with inner peace. The Dalai Lama will be coming to Ithaca next month. There are lectures scheduled, and one of the topics he will be speaking on is “The Human Approach to World Peace.” On the Dalai Lama’s official website, there is an essay on world peace with a section titled, “Compassion as the pillar of World Peace.”
This reading in our hymnal that says for there to be peace in the world there must be peace in the nations, in the cities, between neighbors, in families, in the heart, does indeed fit with Buddhist teaching. This reading could easily be a Buddhist or Taoist or Confucian poem of peace. If you want world peace then find peace in your heart. Think globally and act very locally!
I used to fret and fuss at the Eastern religions because I saw them speaking about peace in terms of inner peace, personal peace, spiritual peace. In my limited understanding as a novice to Eastern Religious traditions I would question where might there be some Justice-component to these religions. Where is peace spoken of as world-peace and not just personal inner peace? Meditation and compassion are great, but what about the poor and the oppressed? Inner peace is a fine goal when your people are not being slaughtered, when your country is not being destroyed. What do these religions have to offer about justice and world peace? As I said, these are critiques and judgments I leveled before I had much understanding. Sadly that is a popular activity among many people: making judgments without understanding.
When the Buddhists speak of non-attachment it almost sounds like “don’t get involved.” When Confucius writes about the duty of filial piety it almost sounds like “the bottom of the pile is your lot in life, just deal with it.” But, of course, such is not the case. Now, when you dig into the depth of theology or philosophy behind all this you do get to profound statements that go far beyond one’s own personal inner peace. Of course you do.
Thich Nhat Hanh uses the example of a small boat crossing the Gulf of Siam, a boat full of Vietnamese refuges. He tells of how the small boats would often get caught in rough seas and storms and how many of the people in the boats would panic – causing the boats sink. If one person can remain calm, if only one person on the boat could remain calm and aware and knowledgeable of what needs to be done, then the boat had a good chance of surviving the journey. If there is to be peace in the boat, there must be peace in at least one person’s heart …
The key is your inner peace. Once you have established peace in your own heart, you will be able to work our way up through the next levels. Or as the 14th Dalai Lama says: “We can never obtain peace in the outer world until we make peace with ourselves.” Elsewhere the Dalai Lama writes:
The greatest obstacles to inner peace are disturbing emotions such as anger, attachment, fear and suspicion, while love and compassion and a sense of universal responsibility are the sources of peace and happiness.
I love this. Religious truths have a way of circling around each other at times. Watch: “We can never obtain peace in the outer world until we make peace with ourselves.” But we have trouble obtaining that inner peace because of self-focused emotions: anger, attachment, fear and suspicion are listed. As a solution the Dalai Lama suggests practicing attributes with an outward focused – not an inward focus! Love and compassion are relational emotions. A sense of universal responsibility brings a sense of peace and happiness? So you’re worried about world peace, get peaceful within yourself; and if you have trouble finding your inner peace try experiencing compassion and a sense of universal responsibility (which I think would lead you right back to worrying about world peace!)
The reading I offered this morning from The Buddha and the Terrorist, a Buddhist parable about how Angulimala, the ‘wearer of the finger necklace,’ was awakened to become Ahimsaka, ‘the non-violent one.’ The book was, I must admit, disappointing to me the first time I read it. The Buddha comes along to meet this Angulimala and they quickly get into a conversation about why Angulimala is angry. It turns out Angulimala’s anger is rooted in an experience of rejection from his father. I actually closed the book and put it down in disgust. Are we to solve the world’s terrorism woes by submitting all terrorists to counseling for their daddy issues? Is the answer to our political and theological problems to be found in a psychological analysis?
Then I noticed the endorsement on the back of the book as it lay closed in front of me. Thomas Moore wrote: “There is a virus buried deep in all violence that is contagious, that inspires an equally brutal and mindless response.” Of course: violence begets violence. The only way to overcome hatred is by love. The story is not about Angulimala’s anger at his father; it is about the results of anger, its contagiousness, its perpetual cycle.
There is another story that is similar to this one. In this other story the people of a town are fleeing because a great warrior is coming through the area with his army destroying everything in his path. One monk remains in the temple praying while all the others flee. When the great warrior enters the temple he draws his sword and approaches the monk, shouting, “Don’t you know who I am? I am the one who can cut you in two without batting an eye.”
To which the monk replies, “Yes, and I am the one who can be cut in two without batting an eye.” The great warrior, upon hearing this, bows to the monk and withdraws.
In looking at this short story compared the tale in The Buddha and the Terrorist, I can see why it wasn’t included in some way. While I like the little story, it is unsatisfying. Does the warrior continue on his way, destroying everything in his path except the small town or maybe just the monk? Did the monk’s interaction with the warrior change the warrior, or was the warrior merely impressed by a greater, albeit different, show of power? Would the Buddha just sit there meditating, or would he have gotten up to go out to meet the warrior? What does this story teach us about how to deal with violence in the world: to sit quietly and wait for it to pass – or to meet fear, when it does come to our door, with calm resolution? As I reflected on this I could see why this story was not used in the book. The story of Angulimala offers us a path to follow, a path of active compassion and forgiveness.
I picked the book up again and kept reading, eventually getting to the part of the conversation I included for the reading, about ‘stopping.’
“Stop, monk, stop,” shouts Angulimala.
“I have stopped,” the Buddha replies. “I stopped ages ago, but have you? … I stopped trampling over other people, I stopped desiring to control and dominate people.”
Angulimala replies that injustice and inequality are the order of the day. He is only trying to overcome the oppression that has ruled his own life for so long. “I will not stop until I have killed them all.”
Yet something breaks the cycle. Something enters in to stop the virus of violence, the contagious cycle that feeds on itself with the fuel of anger and frustration and desire. It is initially the Buddha’s compassion that catches Angulimala by surprise; but ultimately what effects the transformation for Angulimala to become Ahimsaka is the power of forgiveness. Forgiveness breaks the cycle; it is a way of getting unstuck, of loosening the bond that holds you to your anger. Forgiveness does not change the past, instead it enlarges the future.
And so we are brought back to the same old worn-out tools we turn to so often: compassion and forgiveness! If there is to be peace in the any level of our common living there must be compassion and forgiveness. Some of you may perhaps recall that I preach once a year on the topic of forgiveness. When I was serving my internship during seminary my supervisor told me “Preach on Forgiveness at least once a year, it is always needed.” Typically I fit this in around Yom Kippur, the Jewish High Holy Day at the conclusion of Rosh Hashanah. Yom Kippur has Forgiveness as its major theme. But this year, I need to look at forgiveness from the perspective of another religious tradition from another part of the world. And so, in digging into the concept of peace from the Buddhist perspective, we’ve uncovered the basic need for compassion and forgiveness for peace to become realized.
Thich Nhat Hanh, who quipped “peace is every step,” writes in his book, Being Peace, about the amount of frustration and anger he noticed in the peace movement. This was in 1987 when the book first came out, but surely it is a timeless observation. He wrote,
The peace movement can write very good protest letters, but they are not yet able to write a love letter. We need to learn to write a letter to the congress or to the president of the United States that they will want to read, and not just throw away.
Can you imagine the letters Thich Nhat Hanh sends to the leaders of the world? Could you imagine writing such letters? Or does anger get in the way of writing a compassionate letter to our political leaders? I wonder if Thich Nhat Hanh writes letters to the leaders of North Korea or China, Burma or Cambodia. Surely he writes to the leaders of Vietnam, for he is Vietnamese though he lives in France.
Certainly this is one of the major details of how it works for my inner peace to build into the peace found in my home which can build into the peace found between my neighbors. In Buddhist teaching, my inner peace is rooted in compassion. If I can interact with the world through my compassion rather than my anger, it will allow and even encourage a similar response from others. This is where the parable of Angulimala takes us as well. It is where the Dalai Lama takes us when he speaks out about world peace.
Just over 16 years ago the Dalai Lama visited Ithaca and gave a series of speeches. In one speech he concluded saying: “We often talk about world peace. And world peace is important. But how can we attain world peace? World peace will not come from the sky, nor from the earth. World peace must come through mental peace. Genuine peace is not just the absence of war. Peace is more than that. Peace means genuine tranquility; I think peace must come from individual transformation. So, whether at the level of family members, or at the national level, I believe a good heart is the foundation.”
Basically he is saying if there is to be peace in the world, there must be peace in the nations, and in the cities, and between neighbors and in the home. If there is to be peace in the world there must be peace in the heart. The details are wrapped up in compassion and forgiveness. If we could learn to practice compassion and forgiveness in our relations, and could inspire others to follow along, then world peace would cascade right up the line – just as our poem says. Peace would be realized among all the world’s people.
In a world without end, may it be so.