To all the good people of Ukraine, Russia,
and surrounding countries of the world
who are peacemakers—lovers of peace—
we share your anguished cries
and our hearts break one thousand times.
May you be out of danger and find safety today.
May the children be unafraid today.
May your homes and cities and countryside be protected today.
And for the today that is delayed,
may you have fierce patience and faith
in the goodness of people and life. 

To all those in power raining down the violence, 
Division, and the deception of your unexamined minds upon good people, 
your plans and strategies are old and broken. 
Your words of promise are empty and self-serving, 
your tools and instruments are wasted potential. 
Stop your running. Stop. 
The enemy you face is not across any border. 
The conflict you create will never find an end. 
This path has no success. 
May you and each of us realize we are one people.
One Earth. One world. 
We have one past, one present, and one future. 
May we free ourselves and each other 
of the afflictive states of body and mind, 
views and beliefs, attachment and denial, 
and bring forth the great virtues 
of our enlightened mind, heart, and humanity. 
May we be tireless in our efforts 
to realize our true nature, 
our true potential, 
and find our fulfillment in each other’s happiness. 

***

In the Zen tradition we speak about great doubt—doubt in samsara as a viable path—and of what is true and real. What is the self and what is suffering, we ask. What is liberation? What is the meaning of these words we “know” and use all the time?

In the Lankavatara Sutra, someone asks the Buddha, “What is speech? What are words?” And the Buddha says, “Speech is a combination of projections. It arises due to attachment to habit energy and the discrimination of our own mind.” By themselves, sounds have no meaning. The meaning of a certain word is given by the context in which it’s delivered, as well as its tone. Saying, “Hey,” in a soft voice is not the same as yelling, “Hey!” Context and tone matter, which points to the ways in which words can become weaponized.

Language doesn’t just describe our experiences and the landscape we find ourselves in, but it also creates them. That’s why the Buddha gave so much attention to language. Of the “Ten Wholesome Actions”—a teaching akin to the Ten Grave Precepts in Zen—four of these relate directly to language. They are: not speaking deceptively, not speaking harshly, not speaking divisively, and not speaking meaninglessly. In other words, they ask that we not use this powerful tool that is language to numb the mind, or to create harm. 

In Buddhism we often say that words don’t have inherent meaning. This doesn’t mean they have no meaning at all, but that their meaning is not born of itself. It’s born of our views and our actions. What is the meaning of the word “war,” for example? What is the meaning of a “country” that people will fight and kill and die for? What is the meaning of “freedom,” which some people will attack and others will try to protect? Who controls that meaning? Who gets to speak, even? And what do we hear when others speak? 

We all rely upon a basic, agreed-upon understanding of the meaning of things. When you say something, I can rely on the fact that you mean it. When you say something is true and place your integrity within that truth, then we have something we can trust together. But when the meaning of words is attacked, splintered, denigrated; when what we say isn’t based on our integrity or wholesomeness, then what’s left? What do we have between us? What can we trust? When histories are rewritten, when actions have disappeared, when words are given false meanings, we lose the glue that holds us together.

Destructive, self-serving, or false views are never presented in terms that say, “This is what we want to destroy, inhibit, limit or control.” Instead, they always seem to express, “we care about you.” That’s not trustworthy. There’s a bill in South Carolina known as the Freedom from Ideological Coercion and Indoctrination act, which purports to protect children from psychological distress stemming from exposure to “inappropriate material.” But what is inappropriate, when, and how?

When is it appropriate to teach children, about the Holocaust, for instance, or about the genocide of indigenous people in this country, or about slavery? When is it appropriate, and in what ways? We should be having this conversation, so our children and young adults can begin to think critically, so they can begin to understand themselves in their environment and within their legacy and ancestry. So they—and we—can begin to take full responsibility for what we’ve received or been denied, and the costs of either. To avoid that discomfort, on the other hand, ensures a limited life based in ignorance. It’s a life in which we’ll never be free. We’ll never be able to hold the complexity of humanity. From a Buddhist perspective, to try to protect a child or any person from the necessary experiences of discomfort and adversity that life presents us with, is a form of imprisonment. It’s not liberation.

Let’s take another example. The people in Ukraine are being bombed. What’s the connection of this type of suffering with the rest of the suffering in the world? What is its meaning? Well, all suffering arises from a deluded self. There’s no other way for it to arise. It’s created, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s not necessary. It’s not necessary in this life to destroy life, but it’s easy to do that. How much of our mental, emotional, and physical energy, our resources and creativity, have we poured into destruction? The Buddha said that suffering will continue because that is the nature of desire. It’s the nature of samsara to continue, until it stops—until we stop. There are moments when we need to be stopped. And the difficulty is that it often seems that to stop the killing, we must kill—which might help to stop it temporarily, but it won’t bring peace, not real peace.

In the Jataka Tales—stories of the Buddha’s past lives—there’s a story about a man named Angulimala, or “Finger Garland.” Angulimala had been deceived by a jealous teacher who convinced him to kill a thousand people and cut off their little fingers as proof. With these, Angulimala made himself a mala or garland. After many years, Angulimala had only one more person to kill, and one morning, he saw the Buddha walking along the village road. Intent, Angulimala ran after him to finish his onerous task, but no matter how fast he ran, Angulimala couldn’t catch up with the Buddha, who was still walking calmly ahead. Finally, Angulimala called out, “Why won’t you stop?!” And the Buddha turned around and said, “I have stopped, Angulimala. It’s you who haven’t stopped. Stop, Angulimala! Stop.”

What each of us does has consequences. So we should act carefully, wisely, but we should act.

In a moment of true liberation, we can’t rely on what we’ve known or done before. We can’t rely on meaning or precedent. We have to break free of them, as well as of our old way of seeing the world. Sometimes we need to be shaken to the core in order to stop. Otherwise, we can just spin and spin.

Our greed, anger, and ignorance are based on our belief that we don’t have what we want. This seems to be true universally, but only in the human world. An oak tree doesn’t whine and suffer because it wants to be a maple. A tulip doesn’t feel insecure amidst a crowd of daffodils. Cats clearly have no interest in becoming dogs. We cling to what we want, thinking that it’s elsewhere, and then we move to acquire it at all costs. Isn’t this the doctrine of patriarchy—trying to find fulfillment through domination? But this strategy is broken, the view that it rests upon is tired and worn out. And yet. The very same mind that creates domination—which is no different than your Buddha mind—can give rise to bodhichitta, the aspiration to awaken. That’s why, when used skillfully, words and meaning can give rise to a harmonious community and the possibility of lovingkindness. Mind and words can call us in, bring us to a full stop. 

As we make our way along the path, our efforts may sometimes seem too small to bring about our freedom, let alone anyone else’s. But this is the deception that we need to see through. We should know that while we’re just ordinary people, here in this world for just a few moments, we are here. We are here in this time and place. So how will we use this time? What each of us does has consequences. So we should act carefully, wisely, but we should act. 

May we aspire to this enlightened wisdom that we have so profoundly—and I hope gratefully—received and bring forth that impartial compassion that is our birthright. We each have a responsibility in this world. We are responsible to each other and to every animate and inanimate being. This is really the only path to happiness and joy: not only knowing but living out of that truth. The evidence for this is in every ordinary action.

Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.

This article is only for Subscribers!

Subscribe now to read this article and get immediate access to everything else.

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? Log in.