An Engaged Buddhist View of Shared Security
by Sallie B. King
What might Buddhists have to offer a world longing for security in an
age of violence? This is an important but daunting topic for Buddhists!
What can Engaged Buddhists, who are either pacifist or pushing as much
as possible in the pacifist direction, have to offer to a world so
overrun with violence and war? In the Dhammapada, the Buddha taught
that hatred cannot be overcome by hatred; hatred can only be overcome
by non-hatred. So perhaps Buddhists may have something to offer a
violent world, after all. Let us begin by considering the contribution
of Rev. Nikkyo Niwano.
I would like to express my great esteem and respect for Rev. Niwano's
vision and action in pursuing interreligious understanding and
cooperation. With all the pressing issues before us, some might think
that interreligious understanding should take a low priority. Rev.
Niwano, however, had a vision of world peace that put interreligious
cooperation right at the top in priority, and I believe that he was
My conviction that Rev. Niwano was right in his approach to peace is
based upon an event that occurred in 1988: the shooting down of an
Iranian airbus by an American naval warship. All aboard the airliner,
approximately 290 people, were killed. All but 38 were Iranians; 66
were children. This tragedy was horrific enough, but hard on its heels
came another blow: the American response. In a survey of the American
people shortly after the shooting, over 90 percent said they thought
the American warship was justified in the shooting. This American
response is truly shocking in its implications. The American people
could never have said this if the airplane had been full of Christians,
or Europeans. The shooting would have been intolerable, no matter what
the reason. But to the American people, the people on that airliner
were "other." It is a sad fact of human psychology that the more we
perceive someone as the "other," the more we accept treating them as
less than we expect "our own" people to be treated. In 1988, Americans
could not perceive Iranian civilians and children as people like them.
This is the bottom line.
Rev. Niwano had his finger on exactly this point. Throughout his life,
he taught that all of humankind is one people. He taught that we are
all sons and daughters of the same supreme reality. All our religions
spring from the same supreme source. Rev. Niwano worked hard to
establish and promote organizations that foster interreligious
understanding. I honor and esteem him greatly for his promotion of
interreligious understanding as one of the critical keys to building
world peace. Among all the Engaged Buddhists, he is the one who most
deeply understood this point and most actively worked to promote
healthier understanding among peoples. This is a great legacy.
Let us turn now to our situation today. In order to think about the
challenge of finding a way to "shared security" in the world today, I
would like to examine how the Sri Lankan Engaged Buddhist group,
Sarvodaya Shramadana, has worked with the civil war in Sri Lanka
between the Sinhalese and Tamil peoples.
The Sarvodayans draw upon the Buddha's Four Noble Truths in an
innovative way, using them not only for their spiritual guidance but
also as a template to shape their thinking. When we apply the Four
Noble Truths in this way, they are:
1. state the problem;
2. analyze the cause;
3. envision and believe in complete well-being; and
4. detail the way to cure the problem.
When Sarvodaya applied the Four Noble Truths in this way to the civil
war situation in Sri Lanka, they came up with the following results, as
posted on their website in 2001:
1. The problem is war and violence in Sri Lanka. ("The problem is not
the Tamil Tigers or the Government; the problem is violence.")
2. The cause is poverty and ethnic hatred.
3. The goal is a sustainable, spiritually balanced island that works for all.
4. The way to cure the problem is the Sarvodaya Peace Program. Some of the features of this program are:
(1) Work for a cease-fire. How might it be possible to obtain a cease-fire?
The approach is to eliminate popular support for violence. They list three steps
to achieve this:
? Eliminate violence from the people's hearts and actions through
participation in large, public peace meditations. Educate the media to
support this effort rather than ridicule it. (These meditations
gathered up to 100,000 people, meditating on the traditional Buddhist
value of metta,
or loving-kindness, for oneself, for loved ones, for neutral people,
and for those with whom one was struggling, the so-called enemies. At
the end of the event, participants were asked to meditate in this way
daily at home.)
? Ask everyone you know to stop violence and stop supporting violence.
? Speak against violence and for peace at every opportunity.
(2) Work toward healing, reconciliation and inclusivity for all Sri
Lankans at the local community level. The "1,000 Village Link-up"
program brought volunteers from the more affluent Sinhalese areas to
live for a year in the less affluent Tamil areas, sharing their lives
and developing understanding and friendship.
(3) Acknowledge your own and others' suffering. Acknowledge the pain
you have caused others. Work to heal suffering at the local community
(4) Work to meet all parties' economic, social, and spiritual needs.
(Sarvodaya has identified ten basic needs and has developed very
concrete programs to meet them.)
(5) Have all parties engage in a national conversation on envisioning a
future that works for all, including the writing of a new, inclusive
We may note the following points about Sarvodaya's analysis of the Sri
Lankan civil war and their plan for resolving it. First, the way the
problem is stated is very important. Note that there is no one-sided
blaming in this approach. They simply look for where there is suffering
and name it. Second, the third step, envisioning the goal, is an effort
to state a win-win solution. Sarvodaya embraces a classic Buddhist way
of thinking when they point out that when you remove the fuel, the fire
goes out. It is not necessary for one side to "win" at the other's
expense. The war will end when its causes are removed. Third, the
fourth step assumes the reality of interdependence and points to the
necessity of multifaceted programs.
Using this model, how might this approach be applied to the theme of
finding a way to "shared security" in our current, violent global
1. We must state the problem neutrally: the problem is violence and the threat of violence against civilians.
2. Cause: here it becomes difficult to avoid politics, but note that
the approach implies an emphasis on educated, professional analysis, as
opposed to politicized rhetoric. I am not an expert! But to see how the
approach works, perhaps we could name the following as some of the
causes of our current situation:
? Past wrongs and a history of conflictual relationships.
? Deep poverty and unemployment in developing countries.
? Religious extremism.
? Perceived disrespect for other cultures and religions (here we can
see the direct link between healing interfaith relations and achieving
peace, and the importance of Rev. Niwano's contribution in this area).
? Western dependence on oil.
3. Vision: a peaceful planet that works for all. This includes:
? Economic sufficiency for all.
? Security for all.
? Cross-cultural and interfaith respect.
4. The way to the goal (of course, there are many possibilities here; the following mentions just a few):
? Acknowledgment of past wrongs. We might name here both
the Iranian airbus tragedy--we have never apologized for that--and the
Iranian act of holding American Embassy personnel hostage. There are
always wrongs on both sides.
? A Marshall Plan for the Middle East: a crash program to help the area
develop economically. In the past, this approach has earned the United
States lasting friends.
? Intervisitation programs of all kinds.
? A crash program to develop nonpetroleum energy sources.
And finally: What if after 9/11, instead of Americans reacting the way we did, we had had mass peace meditations, chanting metta,
or loving-kindness, for those who were killed, for those who loved
them, for the heroes of the day, for the traumatized, for the country
as a whole, and for Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda?* This does not mean
wishing the perpetrators happiness from their violent actions! It means
wishing them genuine well-being, based upon genuine causes
of well-being: wisdom, inner peace, gentle behavior, compassion, and
kindness. This may sound insane. However, consider the likely effect of
such a thing on the attitudes of all those involved and of all those
watching around the world. The way the United States did react cost
Americans the sympathy of the world. Perhaps it's time to try something
insane. Take away the fuel and the fire goes out. It's worth reflecting
* This idea was suggested by B. Alan Wallace at a
meditation retreat in Charlottesville, Virginia, the weekend of
December 9 and 10, 2006.
Sallie B. King is professor of philosophy and
religion at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. She is
a trustee of the international interfaith Peace Council and former
president of the Society for Buddhist-Christian Studies. She has
published widely on Buddhism, the cross-cultural philosophy of religion, and Buddhist-Quaker relations.
This article was originally published in the April-June 2007 issue of Dharma World.
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