Fifteen years ago, a notorious Thai Buddhist monk told the Bangkok press that "it is not sinful to kill a communist." He later modified his statement, saying, "to kill communism or communist ideology is not a sin." He claimed that he did not encourage people to kill others. Nevertheless, he confessed that his nationalist feelings were more important than his Buddhist practice. He said he would be willing to abandon his yellow robes to take up arms against the communist invaders from Laos, Cambodia, or Vietnam. By doing so, he said, he would be preserving the monarchy, the nation, and the Buddhist religion. Young people in Siam were astounded that a Buddhist monk had tried to justify an act of killing. Although monks in the past have tried to condone "just war," none has ever been able to find any canonical source to support this claim. That is why our monk had to retreat from his earlier statement.
Christmas Humphreys, the founder of the London Buddhist Society, stated that one of the reasons that he abandoned Christianity was that during the First World War when his brother was killed in serving his King and country, both English clergymen and German pastors invoked the same God to guide the soldiers in warfare. The emphasis on pacifism seems to be at once a great strength and a great weakness of Buddhism as an organized religion. It strengthens the religion in moral terms, but what happens when nation and religion are threatened by an enemy? Dean Inge of St. Paul's Cathedral in London once said, "If Christians had been as pacifist as Buddhists . . . there is scarcely any doubt that the `legacies' of Greece, Rome, and Palestine would have been finally and totally extinguished."
Before the end of the Vietnam War, I asked Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh whether he would rather have peace under a communist regime that would mean the end of Buddhism or the victory of democratic Vietnam with the possibility of Buddhist revival, and he said it was better to have peace at any price. He told me that preserving Buddhism does not mean that we should sacrifice people's lives in order to safeguard the Buddhist hierarchy, monasteries, or rituals. Even if Buddhism as such were extinguished, when human lives are preserved and when human dignity and freedom are cultivated toward peace and loving kindness, Buddhism can be reborn in the hearts of human beings.
In all of Buddhist history, there has never been a holy war. Surely Buddhist kings have waged war against one another, and they may even have claimed to be doing so for the benefit of humankind or the Buddhist religion, but they could not quote any saying of the
Buddha to support them. The Buddha was quite clear in his renunciation of violence: "Victory creates hatred. Defeat creates suffering. The wise ones desire neither victory nor defeat. . . . Anger creates anger. . . . He who kills will be killed. He who wins will be defeated. . . . Revenge can only be overcome by abandoning revenge . . . The wise seek neither victory nor defeat.". . .
The spirit of nonviolence permeates Buddhism. The first precept, not to kill, is the foundation for all Buddhist action. This idea is expanded in the notion of non-harming (ahimsa): that one should actively practice loving kindness towards all.
The Buddha said, "There is no greater happiness than peace." The ultimate goal for a Buddhist is to reach the peaceful state of nirvana and the means to reach this goal must be peaceful. To be a Buddhist, one is first of all required to observe the Five Precepts, to ensure that one does not take advantage of oneself or others. Being neutral towards all beings, one can embark on the spiritual journey of meditation and reach tranquility of the mind, so that eventually one might be enlightened and gain the insight or wisdom of seeing things as they really are (panna or prajna). Buddhists call this the realization of total awakening or enlightenment (bodhi). . . .
Every day, we find ourselves in conflict situations, ranging from minor inconveniences to serious confrontations. Conflicts can flare up over backyard fences or national borders, over cleaning up the kitchen or cleaning up the environment. They can involve our most intimate relations or the briefest acquaintances. Whenever people cannot tolerate each other's moral, religious, or political differences, conflict is inevitable and often costly.
But conflict can also open avenues of change and provide challenges. Conflict resolution skills do not guarantee a solution every time, but they can turn conflict into an opportunity for learning more about oneself and others. Violence and heated arguments, where people hurl abuse and become overwhelmed by their feelings, are sure signs of crisis. During crises, normal behavior is forgotten. Extreme gestures are contemplated and sometimes carried out. These are obvious clues that something is wrong.
Conflicts can be positive or negative, constructive or destructive, depending on what we make of them. Buddhists know that everything is impermanent, everything is changing; but in many conflict situations, we forget and become attached to our views, refusing to let them go. We tend to blame the other side alone for our problem.
Insight into impermanence can allow us to alter the course of events simply by viewing them differently. We can turn our fights into fun. Transforming conflicts in this way is an art, requiring special skills. The key Buddhist term, skillful means (upaya), refers to just this kind of process. We must try to develop skillful means to understand conflict. We must remember that crisis, tension, misunderstanding, and discomfort, including our fights and personal differences, are part of life. It is a mistake to expect to avoid conflict all the time. The best we can do is to make conflicts less painful by learning to anticipate them and to manage them constructively. Conflict resolution depends on awareness, and there are clues that can give us ideas for how to deal with it. . . .
To solve the complex problems of today's world, we need Buddhists, Hindus, Christians, Jews, Muslims, and Marxists all to face the situation mindfully in order to understand the structural violence and to avoid blaming anyone. With skillful means and patience, we can solve the world's conflicts nonviolently.
There is a Buddhist saying that describes this approach: In times of war
Give rise in yourself to the mind of compassion,
Helping living beings
Abandon the will to fight.
Wherever there is furious battle,
Use all your might
To keep both sides' strength equal
And then step in to reconcile this conflict. (Vimalakirti Sutra)
The Tibetans have used Buddhism to understand their situation. I think more of us who find ourselves in conflict situations can use meditation as a means to defuse them. If you are in a conflict, it is good to contemplate the person who is causing you the most suffering. Visualize the features you find most repulsive. Think about what makes the person suffer in daily life. Try to understand how he came to do what you find to be so unjust. Examine his or her motivations and aspirations. See what prejudices, narrowmindedness, hatred, or anger he or she may be harboring. Contemplate in this way until understanding and compassion well up in your heart, and watch your anger and resentment disappear. You may need to practice this exercise many times on the same person before you can feel calm enough to understand the other person. This is only one of many meditation practices that can be used in situations of conflict or anger. Another is to meditate on yourself in the same way, on your own suffering caused by attachment and the lack of wisdom.
In conflict situations, nonviolence is the desired end as well as the means to achieve it. The Buddhist approach to conflict resolution requires concentration and the practice of mindfulness. When we make nonviolence a part of our daily lives, we water the seeds of a nonviolent society.
(Reprinted from Seeds of Peace: A Buddhist Vision for Renewing Society (1992) by Sulak Sivaraksa with permission of Parallax Press, Berkeley, California)