|Buddhist priests of the Big Asakusa Temple prepare for the Second Sino-Japanese War as they wear gas masks during training against future aerial attacks in Tokyo, Japan, on May 30, 1936. (AP Photo)|
Every war is a civil war. We construct an illusory distance between ourselves and whomever we deem to be the enemy of the moment, polarizing them on the side of evil and us on the side of good. President George W. Bush’s familiar rhetoric of the “axis of evil” used to incite and maintain the current state of war is an overt example of this distancing technique. In truth, however, when we engage in any war, there are no clear-cut lines of good and evil; when we battle our “enemies,” we battle our friends and neighbors, our sisters and brothers. Political, social, and economic allegiances are in a constant state of flux; we have all been allies at some point and will be reborn again as allies as our needs and attitudes shift over time. In the meantime, we rend the very fabric of people’s lives in search of a victory that can never come. No matter who wins the battle, we all lose when we fight in service of the monumental deception of selfhood.
The geopolitical borders of the nation-state are not physical walls built to keep our enemies out, but are manufactured conventions, no less fortified, which keep our fragile selves within. The nation is not a physical reality but instead a conceptual construct we use to maintain the fallacy that we are separate from and superior to the other communities around us. This convention is a projection of our collective egos, or our wego, as referred to by David R. Loy in his book, The Great Awakening. Loy posits that just as we individually create and preserve a notion of self, we collectively create and maintain similar group “selves.” This self-identification is inextricably bound up in the dualistic thinking we utilize in an attempt to stabilize an unstable existence. Ironically, the very tool with which we are attempting to steady our world is one of the main causes of instability and conflict. Dualistic thinking is one of the delusions that propagates war.
Peter Harvey, in An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics, cites delusion such as this along with anger and greed as the root causes of war. These three seeds of unwholesome individual action are writ large on an international scale when our collective wegos engage in them. Just as the individual can overcome these poisons by cultivating their opposites (wisdom, compassion, and generosity), so too can nations. This is the Buddhist solution to war. In practical terms, though, what does this mean and how can we apply it to contemporary global conflict?
Increasingly, I believe that justice may be, ironically, a hindrance to peace. That is to say that our conception of “justice,” more akin to retribution, is a source of conflict. In our democratic society, if an individual is wronged, that individual or the individual’s loved ones seek justice. If property damages are involved, people seek to recoup at least the monetary amount of the damages and the costs of legal proceedings. Many murder victims’ families seek the death penalty for those charged with the slaying of their loved ones. We have an “eye for an eye” notion of justice. On an international scale, we think in similar terms. If we as a nation are attacked, our sense of justice will not be satiated until we strike back. Justice, for us, is reactive, vengeful, and delusive.
Although Buddhism generally does not discuss justice, we can apply Buddhist thinking to the concept to shift it from this harmful notion focused on consequences to a proactive, beneficial one focused on motivations. What are the causes of our current conflicts? What ill-will, greed, and delusion are we engaging in that may have led to conflict? How are we responsible, even when we don’t want to admit any responsibility? Instead of striking out, we may be able to avert conflict by looking inward.
If, instead, we do take aggressive action, we are submitting to another delusion—that we can alleviate our own suffering by causing others to suffer. This idea is one which surfaces time and again in Harvey’s discussion of topics like euthanasia and abortion. This fundamental delusion seems to inform much of our decision-making concerning ethical issues. In our often-impassioned attempts to serve justice, we instead create a sustained cycle of suffering. When we act to satisfy our need for justice, there is always the possibility that another group will view those actions as threatening to their wego and act, in turn, to satisfy their own need for justice. This sounds very much like the perpetual revolution of the wheel of samsara.
How are we to break such a cycle? As individuals, in order to escape from the wheel of suffering, we must awaken. With clear vision, we can see through the delusion and we can elect not to participate in our unjust system of justice. That is not the same as “turning the other cheek” when we are wronged. Instead, we should seek resolution over retribution, eliminate the causes of others’ suffering and we eliminate the causes of our own. This is true justice, though it may sound like the converse of our current skewed concept of justice. It may be bittersweet as we are forced to recognize our own responsibility, or at least our own complicity, in the processes that create conflict. If we can make this kind of change on a personal level, we can then effect change on the institutional, national, and global levels.
At the most basic level, this is just another call to give up our illusory sense of self and to stop acting in ways to protect that delusion at the expense of others. This sounds more difficult than it really should be because our society has been built around the glorification of the individual; we are taught from an early age just how to maintain the sense of self. Even our most conformist of institutions, the military, recruits with slogans like “be all that you can be” and “army of one,” again glorifying the individual while simultaneously conditioning soldiers to sacrifice that individuality for the larger wego. We must indeed sacrifice our selves, but not to be replaced by larger, institutional bodies which would lead to a totalitarian state. We must sacrifice our selves for one another, regardless of nationality or other superficial differences like gender, skin color, sexual orientation, religion, or political beliefs. Sacrificing our selves need not mean sacrificing our lives or the lives of others, just sacrificing our misperceptions.
Thich Nhat Hanh’s description of our fundamental relationship with all things is “interbeing.” This is more than a series of cause and effect relationships or links in a chain of being, but an inextricable interpermeation of all beings, each dependent upon all others. In order to successfully coexist with one another, we must awaken to the understanding of this concept. Just as our individual egos collectively form ever-radiating circles of wego based on our self-identification with various groups like families, states, and nations, we have to recognize the multiple layers of the web of interbeing affecting those groups. Our beliefs and actions cannot be separated from those of other individuals, families, states, and nations, again each dependent upon all others. When we strike others, we strike ourselves. When we save others, we save ourselves. We will never alleviate suffering by causing more suffering, we will never achieve justice through retribution, and we will never achieve peace through violence.