Providing people with physical well-being and wealth does not necessarily lead to peace. Lewis Lapham recently wrote:
Apparently it is not poverty that causes crime, but rather the resentment of poverty. This latter condition is as likely to embitter the 'subjectively deprived' in a rich society as the 'objectively deprived' in a poor society.
Mental attitudes and the actions to which they lead are the key.
Buddhists believe that the minds of all living beings are totally interconnected and interrelated, whether they are consciously aware of it or not. To use a simple analogy for the interconnection, each being has his or her own transmitting and receiving station and is constantly broadcasting to all others his or her state of mind and is constantly receiving broad- casts from all others. Even the most insignificant thoughts in our minds have some effect on all other beings. How much the more so do our strong negative emotions and our acting out of them in direct or indirect forms of physical violence! In other words, each thought in the mind of each and every one of us brings the world either a little closer to the brink of global disaster or helps to move the world a little farther away from the brink. If each time we feel irritated, annoyed, thwarted, outraged, or just plain frustrated, we reflect on the consequences of our thoughts, words, and actions, perhaps that reflection in itself will help to lead us to behave in a way that will contribute to global peace. If every time we get angry at our wife or husband, girl friend or boy friend, parents or children, we are aware that we are driving the entire world toward the brink of war, maybe we will think twice and wonder whether our anger is worth the consequences. Even if we feel our cause is just, if we in thought, word, and deed make war against injustice, we are still part of the problem and not contributing to the solution. On the other hand, if we concentrate on putting our own minds at peace, then we can broadcast peace mentally and generate peace through our actions. We should use a peaceful mind to act for peace in the world.
As to the interrelations between the minds of beings, the being we may be about to harm or even kill, from a Buddhist point of view, may well be our own parents, children, wives or husbands, or dearest friends from former lives.
Because Buddhists see the problem of war as a karmic one, the solution is seen as the practicing and teaching of correct ethical behavior. Good deeds lead to good consequences, bad deeds to bad. If you plant bean seeds, you get beans; if you plant melon seeds, you get melons. If you plant the seeds of war, you get war; if you plant the seeds of peace, you get peace.
The most fundamental moral precept in Buddhist teaching is respect for life and the prohibition against taking life. Generally speaking, all living beings want to live and are afraid of death. The strongest desire is for life, and when that desire is thwarted, the response is unbelievably powerful anger. Unlike almost all other religions, Buddhism teaches that there are no exceptions to this prohibition and no expedient arguments are admitted. The taking of life not only covers human life but all sentient beings. Reducing the karma of killing is equivalent to putting out the fire under the pot of boiling soup. If we end killing, the world will be at peace.
The prohibition against stealing says, more literally, that one must not take what is not given. Stealing, whether it is by individuals, corporations, or nations, occurs because of selfish greed. From the time of the Trojan War, sexual misconduct has also been a cause of war, as has been lying. National leaders whose minds have been clouded by drugs are not rare in history either-- their conduct is rarely just and peaceful. The international drug trade in itself has become a major impediment to peace in most parts of the world. The taking of intoxicating substances is also prohibited by fundamental Buddhist teachings.
The Buddhist vision is a world in which all life is sacred, in which selfishness, in the guise of greed, anger and foolishness, does not interfere with the basic interconnectedness of all living beings. That interconnectedness, when freed from the distortion of selfishness, is based upon the potential for enlightenment that every being shares.
A beautiful vision, some might say. But how can such a peace be realized in a world such as ours? Isn't it mere impractical fantasy? No, it is not. Now the time has come to outline some concrete and practical steps that can be taken towards making it a reality. As a beginning, here are three steps.
If the karma of killing is the flame beneath the soup pot, by re- ducing it, we directly affect the boiling turmoil of violence and war. We need to reduce the atmosphere of killing and violence, both in our society and in our own lives. Each one of us can re- duce the level of killing in our own lives by the very simple act of becoming vegetarian. An ancient sage once said:
For hundreds of thousands of years
The stew in the pot
Has brewed hatred and resentment
That is difficult to stop.
If you wish to know why there are disasters
Of armies and weapons in the world,
Listen to the piteous cries
From the slaughterhouse at midnight.
In a more contemporary vein George Bernard Shaw wrote a "Song of Peace:"
We are the living graves of murdered beasts,
Slaughtered to satisfy our appetites.
We never pause to wonder at our feasts
If animals, like men, can possibly have rights.
We pray on Sundays that we may have light,
To guide our footsteps on the paths we tread.
We're sick of war, we do not want to fight,
The thought of it now fills our hearts with dread
And yet we gorge ourselves upon the dead.
Like carrion crows, we live and feed on meat,
Regardless of the suffering and pain,
We cause by doing so. If thus we treat
Defenseless animals for sport or gain,
How can we hope in this world to attain
The Peace we say we are so anxious for?
We pray for it, o'r hecatombs of slain,
To God, while outraging the moral law,
Thus cruelty begets its offspring-War.
For those who still do not see the logical relationships, I shall try to spell them out more clearly. Non-human life is not qualitatively different than human life, according to Buddhist teachings. Just as when a human is killed, an animal too most often responds to its death with thoughts of resentment, hatred, and revenge. While it is dying, these thoughts or emotions poison its flesh. After it is dead, its disembodied consciousness continues to broadcast thoughts of resentment, hatred and revenge to the minds of its killers and those for whom it was killed. Think of the billions of cows, pigs, chickens and sheep that are killed for consumption each year in the United States alone. Those of you who have passed the slaughter yards on the interstate highway near Coalinga, California, have probably noticed not only the stench but also the dark cloud of fear and violence that hangs over the place. The general mental atmosphere of that entire county is thick with thoughts of violence with which such thoughts within our own minds can all too easily resonate.
One of the problems of modern society is that the karma we generate is often indirect and not immediately obvious to us, even though it can be quite powerful. We are no less responsible for the death of the animals when we buy meat wrapped in plastic in the supermarket than if we had killed them ourselves. We are no less responsible for the environmental poisoning of people by chemicals that we pour down our drains or by industries we work for or whose products we buy, than if we had personally added the poison to their food. So too we may not be directly aware of the ways in which we may be providing support for many conflicts and wars around the world. Of course, it is much worse to do something wrong, clearly knowing that it is wrong than to do it in ignorance. Yet ignorance does not absolve us of blame.
To be continued