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"Vowing Peace in an Age of War, Part 3: Giving, Fearlessness, and Renunciation" by Alan Senauke

2 April 2010

read parts one and two

Let me offer three approaches to Buddhist peacemaking: Giving, Fearlessness, and Renunciation. 


The essential practice of peace is giving, Dana paramitta. Giving one's attention, friendship, and material aid. Giving spiritual teachings, community, and organization. Giving is the first perfection and the first of the Bodhisattva's four methods of guidance. It includes all other perfections. In Bodaisatta Shisho-ho Dogen advises us that:

Giving or Offering means not being greedy… Even if we rule the four continents, in order to offer teachings of the true Way we must simply and unfailingly not be greedy. It is like offering treasures we are about to discard to those we do not know. We give flowers blooming on the distant mountains to the Tathagata… .1

Giving begins with oneself and takes many forms. It involves giving material things, teachings, fearlessness, and the essential connection between beings. I have written of this before. It means not hiding. 

During the NATO bombing of Serbia, a friend of mine proposed that the U.S. offer a four year university education in the United States — maybe even here at Stanford — to every Serbian and Albanian youth of military age. This would provide them with intellectual and technical tools for peace. It would be much cheaper than the billions of dollars spent on weaponry and death. 

The United States (through its proxy the United Nations) imposed bitter sanctions and war on Iraq for two decades. It has been bombed so intensely for the last year that bombing is no longer news. More than a million children and old people have died for lack of medicine and food. The shops are bare, the pharmacies are empty. What if we had offered the people of Iraq all the food and medicine they require? What would we have lost by following a policy of generosity rather than a policy of threat and violence to the innocent? What would the political effects be; what karmic result would arise? Again, it would be a lot cheaper than bombing.

These are doubtless naive proposals. They fail to reckon with the power of arms dealers, the greed of corporations, and the fears of politicians that are sold as truth to ordinary people. But shouldn't we dare to be naive? What is there to lose in speaking obvious truths? Can we skillfully speak the truth of Dana to those in power; can we help open their eyes to pointlessness of war? There is always a path of peace.


The practice of peace is fearless. Again this comes back to Dana, giving and giving up. To give anything to an enemy or opponent, one must be fearless. There is a story in The Tiger's Cave that has stayed with me for many years.

When a rebel army swept into a town in Korea, all the monks of the Zen temple fled except for the Abbot. The general came into the temple and was annoyed that the Abbot did not receive him with respect. "Don't you know," he shouted, "that you are looking at a man who can run you through without blinking?"

"And you," replied the Abbot strongly, "are looking at a man who can be run through without blinking!" The general stared at him, made a bow and retired. 2

Ancient Jataka tales, derived from even older Indian folklore, relate previous bodhisattva lives of Shakyamuni Buddha. Fearlessness and generosity are inseparably bound up with each other. A prince offers his own body to feed a hungry tigress. A parrot quells a forest fire by shaking river water from his wings until the gods have mercy. A hare sacrifices himself to make a meal for Shakra, king of the gods, disguised as a beggar. Again and again, the Buddha-to-be-born gives his utmost effort and his life itself for the sake of other beings in need. Dogen writes, “...in the human world, the Tathagata took the form of a human being. From this we know that he did the same in other realms.”3

Peace is not just quiet words and gentle demeanor. There is strength and sinew in it. I often think about Maha Ghosananda of Cambodia simply deciding to walk across his country in the midst of a violent civil war. His saffron robes offered both refuge and target. I also think about Thich Nhat Hanh, whom Richard Baker described as "a cross between a cloud and a piece of heavy equipment." I have walked with these teachers and one can feel the steel of intention at the heart of their actions. 

In zazen [Zen meditation practice] we become intimate with all kinds of fear. We come to see that fearing death or great loss is not so different from fearing more humble events like meeting one's teacher face to face or performing a new ceremony. Fear itself provides an opening into the unknown. If we continue to make peace in awareness of our own fear, there is room for everyone's fear to fall away. Mutual respect arises.


A third element is renunciation or relinquishment. Of course this is also inseparable from giving. Dogen writes, "If you study giving closely, you see that to accept a body and to give up the body are both giving."4  In Shobogenzo Shoji he tells us to "set aside your body and mind, forget about them, and throw them into the house of buddha."5  Renunciation is a difficult principle for Zen people today. The path of Zen as it exists in the today's materialist world gives mere lip service to renunciation. After mind and body drop away the work has just begun.

The second Bodhisattva precept is Not Stealing or Not Taking What Is Not Given. For people in the so-called developed world — American, Europe, Japan — this is almost impossible. Many of us, even priests, lead privileged lives in rich countries whose economies are built on stealing the limited resources of the earth and the labors of poor people around the world. The injustice of poverty and wealth is itself a kind of violence. Every time we ride in a car or in an airplane, every meal we eat in a restaurant, every high-tech consumer item we buy involves us in violence. We are stealing. Really, we can't step outside of this system. But if each of us cultivates awareness of the links between consumption and violence, we can begin to make choices about what is of true value in our lives and how much we value the lives of others. Just at that point relinquishment, renunciation is possible. But our efforts need to go further. 

In a recent article in the New York Times Magazine, Australian philosopher and ethicist Peter Singer makes a painful and compelling argument for radical renunciation to his middle class audience, people like many of us. He writes:

In the world as it is today, I can see no escape from the conclusion that each one of us with wealth surplus to his or her essential needs should be giving most of it to help people suffering from poverty so dire as to be life threatening. That's right: I'm saying that you shouldn't buy that new car, take that cruise, redecorate the house or get that pricey new suit (or I might add, buy those expensive new [Zen] robes!). After all, a $1000 suit could save five children's lives.6

There is an old Quaker adage: "Speak truth to power." The truth is that global corporations and armed nations further theft and oppression in the world. Hiding behind the anonymity of brand names and flags, corporations twist the dharma principle of interdependence into a tool for manipulation and greed, organized religion rarely questions this. In fact it often profits from investments and indirect government support. So, our responsibility as renunciates goes far beyond individual relinquishment. We must link up with each other, in the same sense that we are with each other and support each other in the zendo, to tear down institutions built on greed, hatred, and delusion, and to build new structures of liberation and spiritual value that belong to everyone, not just to presidents, generals, millionaires, and bosses. 

These new links and structures will take many forms. The circle of sangha can be a model for our workplaces and factories. Our civil society must be built on mutual respect and patience rather than silver and gold. I honestly don't know what this will look like, but I feel it is the responsibility of the Zen community, and all communities of faith, to be present right in the middle of things. 

Until we begin to let go of our desires, we can't really listen or talk to others about peace. People at risk are can smell hypocrisy right off. We cannot ask poor and oppressed people to make sacrifices while they see us protecting our lives of comfort and privilege, while we unthinkingly support whole nations of privilege. Giving up privilege—male privilege, white privilege, class privilege, national privilege—is the practice of renunciation in a Socially Engaged Buddhism. Privilege is often easy for others to see in us, while we walk around in it blind. Opening our Dharma eye implies renunciation of privilege. From the privileged side this looks like sacrifice, but from the side of practice, it is simply letting privilege fall away out of compassion for others and ourselves. Suzuki Roshi wrote that, "Renunciation is not giving up the things of the world, but accepting that they go away."

1  "Bodhisattva's Four Methods of Guidance," 44.
2  from "The Tiger's Cave," in A Second Zen Reader, ed. by Trevor Leggett, (Rutland, Tokyo: Tuttle, 1988), 160.
3  "Bodhisattva's Four Methods of Guidance," 46-47.
4  "Bodhisattva's Four Methods of Guidance," 45.
5  Eihei Dogen, from "Birth and Death," in Moon in a Dewdrop, 75.
6  Peter Singer, "The Singer Solution To World Poverty," in The New York Times Magazine, (September 5, 1999), 63

Hozan Alan Senauke is vice-abbot of Berkeley Zen Center and the founder and director of Clear View Project, developing Buddhist-based resources for relief and social change. A musician and poet, he has also directed the Buddhist Peace Fellowship and is a founder of Think Sangha, a group of Buddhist-activist intellectuals and writers.


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