Breaking the Pattern

Zarko Andricevic, a Croatian Buddhist living in Zagreb, applies the Buddha’s teachings to a legacy of war.

In a conflict as complex as the one in the Balkans, how has your Buddhist practice helped you to avoid being swept up in a popular call to war? It is interesting to observe how calls to war follow a similar pattern: first, there is a minor conflict or incident; then, claims of a great threat to general security; this is followed by fear, polarization, and hatred; and finally, violence or war. This pattern unfolds through state institutions, media, and other forms of public opinion making, and it represents a string of conditioned events that will, if left unchecked, thoroughly shape our feelings and views.

It is a powerful and efficient pattern, often not easily noticed. This was especially so in the complex conflict that took place in former Yugoslavia, which played itself out simultaneously in the political, national, cultural, religious, and economic arenas, and was exacerbated by the tightly interwoven histories of the conflicting parties.

During the war, I found it necessary to apply one of the first things one learns in Ch’an Buddhist practice: nonreactivity to external events, as well as to the inner distractions of body, feelings, and thoughts. Training in nonattachment to such external and internal phenomena is necessary if we are to develop a clear and stable mind. With it, we can see and understand the conditioned nature of conflict. That clear seeing, with the application of moral guidelines, makes it possible to resist the call to war.

How can one avoid taking sides, especially when one’s life and the lives of loved ones are at risk? It is easy to take sides because sides offer ready-made answers. Impartiality requires the wisdom of nonattachment, which comes with freedom from judgment and the clarity to discern the causes, development, and effects of specific events. This is not to be mistaken for a retreat into inactivity and apathy. On the contrary: not to take either side ideologically is to be on both sides compassionately. Not taking sides through wisdom is thus inseparable from true responsibility and concern for those who are the real victims in any conflict.

What does your Buddhist practice bring you in terms of a new way of looking at the conflict? The causes of any conflict lie in strong attachment to certain views, and the core of Buddha’s teaching is of great help here. All phenomena, in addition to being transient, arise and disappear according to a complex set of conditions. When we apply this truth to conflict, we give up the simplistic, black-and-white picture through which conflict is usually described and perpetuated. Views about the “good guys” and the “bad guys” simply do not correspond to the reality. Furthermore, we see that we cannot judge something independently from its context—including, for example, terrorism. It is not a manifestation of inherently wicked individuals and groups (or followers of a certain religion!), but rather a product of causes and conditions ranging from poverty, political repression, and economic injustice. Seeing all this in the light of conditioned arising, there is room for hope. Conflict is not a “given” thing, but a human creation that can be uncreated by abandoning its underlying causes. It can never be solved by destruction of the opposing party, for the causes are still there, and all they need is fertile ground to spring forth again.

Given the history of the Balkans, is peace realistic? Buddha’s teaching leads to peace, and many of those who followed it have achieved peace. If there is a path, and if its realization is possible, is peace then realistic or not? Everyone has to answer that question for him- or herself. I do not know if peace is a possibility in the former Yugoslavia or in certain other parts of the world, but I do know that peace is realistic and achievable. Numerous conflicts in the world do not prove Buddhism unrealistic, but rather confirm its analysis of the human condition and the world situation. Buddhism is based on wisdom and compassion, and despite its decentralized structure and nonreliance on power, it survives. By contrast, all the great powers the world has known have come and gone. Bearing in mind the philosophy they relied on—and those that the great powers still rely on today—it is to be expected that this trend will continue in the future.

Zarko Andricevic is a Ch’an Buddhist living in Zagreb, Croatia. He came to Buddhism through the practice of yoga and martial arts almost thirty years ago.


Small Expectations, Small Joys

Dr. Stephen Fulder, a peace activist in Israel, sees a world conditioned to believe in war.

In Israel you live under the constant threat of terror attack. How do you cope with the fear and avoid reactivity? The terror here has been going on for twenty or thirty years, in different ways, whether it’s the threat of war or the constant military response to terror attacks. Everyone here is a soldier, everyone carries a gun, and there’s a general sense of underlying alarm. So this is not new, and in the dharma community we do work with it, and we do address it in retreat, and people do practice to cultivate equanimity in the face of insecurity. However, what the dharma community finds difficult is the low-level anxiety that creeps in under their guard; it’s constantly picked up. Those who don’t practice intensively really feel that it slowly and surely eats away at their joy of life and their relationships, and it is something that changes, very slightly, the color of the mind. This anxiety is our real problem. It very commonly emerges in retreats.

As a peace activist, how do you respond to somebody who says, “Listen, we’re under attack. Violence is our only effective response, and any other method is unrealistic.” Violent response fuels a very clear cycle of reactivity. Such a response is not only ineffective, damaging to both sides, it also prolongs conflict. We have to protect life, but this is not done by becoming more oppressive of another community. Indeed, if you ask whether we’d physically restrain a suicide bomber in order to stop him from blowing up a bus, I think everybody would say sure. But would you bomb a community of Palestinians in order to prevent it? I would say that’s a disaster, and it mustn’t be done. Other ways have not been exhausted. People in the peace movement in Israel talk about pursuing other strategies, but often nobody’s listening. Both Israel and Palestine are like two runaway buses. The public is locked into reactivity on a national level. Out of despair, people say, “Oh, there’s no other way, only violence works.” That simply isn’t true, it’s merely conditioning.

You say nobody is listening. Is that disheartening? What motivates you to continue, then? We’re in this for the long term. It’s not disheartening, because there are always a few people who listen. I have no way of predicting, forcing, or expecting results. We’re really throwing our bread on the water and continuing on. You will despair if you expect results or major change. There are forces here that are so much bigger than we are. But there’s hope. I’ll give you an example: We had three years of intensive dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians. We used to bring Israelis over to the Palestinian communities and sit in dialogue for several days together. This was a very difficult project, but it went on year after year, and major changes happened to people who participated. Along came the second Intifada [Palestinian uprising], and it seemed to wipe the whole thing out. The same Palestinians we were talking to went back to the streets, and Israelis who were more peace-oriented were suddenly taking an aggressive stance. But there was also an irreversible change in some people, and they went on to become the strongest peace activists now working in the Israeli and Palestinian communities. So results do happen, but we cannot predict where they will happen or how. Things have to take their course. So that’s our response: to reduce expectations, to keep going, and to look for small joys, small flowerings of wisdom along the way.

When you say all options have not been exhausted, is there one in particular that you can point to that has not been given a sufficient chance to work? Yes: the option of listening. There is a tremendous amount of political demagoguery on both sides, whipping up anger and hate. There’s very little intentional work at the level of government or NGOs to create more dialogue between people. And dialogue is crucial here, because the vast majority of Israelis and Palestinians do want peace, but people aren’t listening to each other’s stories, or creating a forum where these stories are properly heard. So dialogue and listening, at the level of media or political discourse on both sides, haven’t been explored.

Given the complexity of this conflict, and the mistrust on both sides, how realistic is peace, and how do you respond to those who insist that it isn’t? My response would be that peace is everywhere, you just have to notice it. It’s extremely realistic to know that people are in relationship with each other and that we affect each other’s fate. There’s a total intimacy between our two communities: we live on the same land, use the same water, speak more or less the same language, share the same food. We are like two brothers. So on a local level, interrelation, connection, and peace have already been there. And the Buddhist way is helping us to see that conflict comes only out of despair, out of resignation, out of a negative cast of mind, out of fear and hate. And you see this very, very clearly in the Middle East. Without the fear and hate, slowly these two communities can come together. The minute fear and hate arise, we are far apart again. This has been happening for fifty years. The Buddhist message cleans the psychological landscape of fear and hate, and peace simply happens by itself. People suddenly notice that they no longer need to fight. 

Peace Koan

British Chan Buddhist John Crook asks us who the enemy really is. 

Is there such a thing as a just war? This is a koan.

Does it make sense to say that violence of any type is unjustified? One-sidedness is never wise.

Some say Buddhism is unrealistic with regard to the realities and necessity of war. Is war inevitable? No, except when stupidity rules.

Is the loss of life, what we call “collateral damage,”‘ acceptable in order to defend oneself when under attack?
Not if it is driven solely by self-concern and neglects reflection on why the enemy is an enemy and who exactly the enemy is. Could it be oneself? Who is the danger to world peace? Do you think any of us are clear about that?

How realistic is peace? I can only tell you what I think and feel as a practicing Buddhist. Peace can be realistic given the will, insight into an opponent’s view, patience, and the power to seek reconciliation. Sadly, I do not believe we are on a path to peace. We seem to have entered a period of cultural decadence not unlike that of the closing years of the Roman Empire, with unrivaled military power concentrated in the hands of one superpower whose shaky economics link to expansionist politics of global domination. This superpower is now faced by a profound resentment, usually political but sometimes violent. Further, among the resentful, there are some now capable of using weapons of mass destruction.

The root source of international anger is the profound hypocrisy of the present U.S. government: Iraq is a rogue state but Israel is not, while both are in contravention of UN resolutions; failure to appreciate the Islamic world’s feeling of long-term disrespect while the monstrous actions of Sharon are tolerated; contrasting policies with regard to Iraq and North Korea; the willingness to ignore the delicate structure of the UN, which is the only legitimate authority for a remotely “just” war; and, no doubt, the prevalence of adolescent gestures of imperial exasperation from the White House.

What might be a proper response to all this? The Buddhist response must be one of reflection, not reaction, Reflection looks at process, not the iniquities of others, be they individuals or states. The Middle Eastern process pivots on how the legitimate need for an Israeli state can be balanced against the imposition of an essentially colonial regime in the Arab world.

A Buddhist would tackle the roots of this process by a radical reframing, requiring multilateral understanding, confrontation with prejudice, and a lengthy, patient, and persistent practice of negotiation based not on recrimination but on reconciliation. British experience in northern Ireland is instructive here. Israeli and Western thinkers need to transcend the repeating echoes of the Holocaust. Middle Eastern peace is the key to solving many current problems, possibly that ofIslamic terrorism itself.

There is a story in which a bodhisattva is traveling on a sailing craft from India to Java. One day, far from land, a passenger goes berserk and starts killing people with a great sword. Only the bodhisattva can stop him, but to do so he must kill, a violation of the first precept. Yet it seems he must act if the murderer is not to kill everyone. So he acts: he kills the killer.

It is said the bodhisattva will suffer karmic retribution for this killing, yet because the precept of compassion can outweigh the precept of not killing, the question arises as to whether he was” just” in his response or not. Maybe there were other means available that he did not use? Here lie the roots of a profound koan.

President Bush and Prime Minister Blair claim to be, in a sense, “bodhisattvas” in their expressed desire for peace through war, bur neither one exhausted the means of peacemaking or foresaw that this enemy is hydraheaded, before they acted in contravention of international understanding: the problems can only proliferate.

How would you suggest peace be achieved, then? All of us are forced to contemplate this koan. The unease of the world reveals the inadequacy with which we attempt to answer it and provides one measure of our shameful ignorance.

Originally a biologist, John Crook now studies village and monastic life in the Himalayas and Tibet. He is the first Western dharma heir to Master Sheng-yen.

Why We Love War

Longtime Tokyo resident David R. Loy gets to the bottom of our affinity for violence.

Ahimsa, the buddhist principle of “nonharming,” is connected with a number of other important teachings. As Gandhi put it, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” Instead of contributing to the cycle of reciprocal violence, we must find ways to break it. Buddhist karma emphasizes intentions: greed, ill will, and delusion – the three roots of evil – must be transformed into generosity, lovingkindness, and wisdom. What motivates our violence? And over the long run, does our violence really improve the situation, or does it breed resentment that comes back to haunt us? We need to keep in mind the wider context of our actions. September 11, for instance, cannot be understood apart from the last half-century of U.S. foreign policy.

There is another insight, less obvious yet maybe just as important, that Buddhism has to offer here. It is connected with anatta, the “no-self” teaching. Anatta means that our core is hollow. The shadow side of this emptiness is a sense of lack. Our no-self means we feel groundless, and consequently life often becomes a futile quest to make ourselves more real. Individually, we seek symbolic being in money or fame, or through the eyes of our beloved. But there is also an important collective dimension that feeds ideologies such as nationalism, and group struggles such as war. We are always relieved to discover that the sense of lack bothering us is due to something outside us – personified in the enemy, who therefore must be defeated if we are to become whole and healed.

That is why war is sacred, and why we love violence. It seems to give us clear purchase on the formless sense of lack that haunts us. Violence focuses the source of our dissatisfaction outside of ourselves, where it can be neatly destroyed. No wonder, then, that people tend to rejoice when war finally breaks out, as even Freud and Rilke initially did at the beginning of the First World War. We feel newly bonded with our neighbors in a struggle that is no longer unconscious but something we have some conscious control over. Our problem is no longer inside us, but the evil that is over there.

When wars and revolutions do not bring us the salvation from lack we seek, we need repeated wars and continual revolutions. Since we can never fill up the hole at our core and make ourselves really real, we always need a devil outside us to rationalize our failure and to fight against. We hide this fact from ourselves by projecting our victory sometime into the future. If Afghanistan didn’t give us the security we crave, defeating Iraq will.

When Iraq doesn’t, we’ll find some other evil to fight. North Korea?

The special problem today is that our increasing technological powers make this game increasingly dangerous. If we don’t see through this cycle and stop it, we will destroy ourselves in the process of destroying others. To begin with, we need to put a human face on the enemy. Last year I was fortunate to visit Iran, one of the other countries in Bush’s “axis of evil.” What fine people I met there – including diplomats in the Foreign Ministry!

Perhaps the “axis of evil” actually begins in Washington – not only because of the path of violence that the present administration seems determined to pursue, but because it is the White House that is projecting evil here and there – anywhere but within ourselves.

Ultimately, our individual and collective lack can only be resolved spiritually because that is the only way to realize our true ground. That is the point of the Buddhist path. We need to take our projections back into ourselves and deal with them there. Instead of running away from my sense of lack, mindfulness training (such as zazen) makes me more aware of it. When I “forget myself” in meditation practice, the emptiness at my core can transform into a peace that surpasses understanding, into a formless, spontaneous fountain of creativity that is free to become this or that. And to realize my own Buddha-nature is to realize that everyone else has the same Buddha-nature.

David R. Loy is a professor in the faculty of International Studies at Bunkyo University in Japan.