Home » Discussion » "Vowing Peace in an Age of War: Part 4" by Alan Senauke

"Vowing Peace in an Age of War: Part 4" by Alan Senauke

6 April 2010

An Army of Peace

Shakyamuni Buddha tried to head off an impending war between the ancient countries of Magadha and Kapilavattu, home to his own Shakya clan. He tried logic and persuasion and, at last, he sat zazen under a dead tree by the side of the battlefield.

...Since it was very hot, (the king of Magadha) couldn't understand why the Buddha was sitting under a dead tree; usually people sit under beautiful green trees. So the king asked, "Why do you sit under the dead tree?" The Buddha calmly said to the king, "I feel cool, even under this dead tree, because it is growing near my native country." This really pierced the king's heart and he was so greatly impressed by the message of the Buddha's action that he could go no further. Instead of attacking, he returned to his country. But the king's attendant still continued to encourage him to attack and finally he did so. This time, unfortunately, Shakyamuni Buddha didn't have time to do anything. Without saying a word, he just stood and watched his country and his people being destroyed.1

The Buddha failed to stop the battle because, as Dogen wrote, "The mind of a sentient being is difficult to change." This failure must have caused him terrible grief, even as we grieve over the killing fields of our modern world. But his effort to make peace from his own mind-ground is a great lesson. Success or failure is not the issue. Our compassionate hearts and actions have effect beyond success and failure, even though we can't always see that effect. 

Engaged Buddhists and people of all the faith traditions want to create a nonviolent army of peace. How many lives might have been spared in Serbia and Kosovo if we had provided ten thousand witnesses instead of billions of dollars of bombs? How many people would benefit if we stood up to corruption, violence, drug dealing in our own neighborhoods. The practice of "active nonviolence" includes bearing witness and peaceful intervention. In the midst of local, regional, religious, and national conflicts and wars, this peace army could replace armed soldiers, land mines, tanks, and jet fighters.

A peace army's tools would be ears to hear, words to share, arms to embrace, and bodies to place in opposition to injustice. This army would be trained in meditation, mediation, reconciliation, and generosity. Its discipline would include patience, equanimity, selflessness, and a deep understanding of impermanence. Its "boot camp" would be very different than our army or navy's training, but every bit as rigorous. Its social organization would include supply lines of food and medicine and clothing that could be shared with others.

A peace army might sit down on the battlefield, right in the lines of fire in order to save others, enduring the same danger as combatants and civilians. It is necessary to take risks in Zen practice. It is just as necessary to take risks in peacemaking. I think of this as a true expression of identity action: identifying with soldiers, guerrillas, and displaced people, identifying with the bombed and shattered earth itself. Is this suicidal? Maybe so. It is like the action of Thich Quang Duc, who publicly immolated himself in Vietnam in 1963, while his fellow monks and nuns were being targeted for repression and his nation itself was in flames. But peace is the point, not suicide. 

Samanattata or identity-action, as Dogen renders it, is the peace army's rule of training. Nationalism, chauvinism, and conventional politics are rooted in separation and ego-identity, but identity-action means non-separation and interdependence. All beings have the same wish for happiness, comfort, and liberation. Whatever hatred I might see in my enemy or opponent exists simultaneously in me, sometimes as potential, and sometimes as an ugly presence. The same is true for the good. This understanding is not confined to Buddhism. It shines through the teachings of Jesus, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, who all preached love in the worst of circumstances.

Bodhisattvas Walk Among Us

Bodhisattvas walk among us. In any single breath each of us can become an enlightening being. In the next breath we might fall into our old habits of thoughtlessness and violence. Zazen reveals that this choice is always with us. Our deluded and hurtful actions contain seeds that can flower as either wondrous peace or terrible harm. Our vision can sustain the world if only we dare to look deeply. Our great ancestor, Layman Vimalakirti, described the Bodhisattva path this way.

During the short aeons of swords,
They meditate on love,
Introducing to nonviolence
Hundreds of millions of living beings.

In the middle of great battles
They remain impartial to both sides;
For bodhisattvas of great strength
Delight in reconciliation of conflict.

In order to help the living beings,
They voluntarily descend into
The hells which are attached
To all the inconceivable buddha-fields.2

Two thousand years later we are still living up to the challenge, falling short, and vowing again. Let us take our vows seriously and be Bodhisattvas. Respect our Zen tradition and buddha ancestors, but be truly accountable to all beings. Please bring peace and zazen mind right into the middle of our messy, grieving, wondrous world. Watch your step. 

A number of people knowlingly and unknowlingly helped with the writing of this essay: Robert Aitken, Santikaro Bhikkhu, Laurie Senauke, Helen Schley, Greg Mello, Ken Jones, and Diana Winston. Nine bows to them and countless others.

1 Dainin Katagiri, Returning To Silence: Zen Practice in Daily Life, (Boston, London: Shambhala, 1988), 16.
2 The Holy Teaching of Vimalakirti, trans. by Robert A. F. Thurman, (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1976) 70.

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.


Major funding provided by: National Endowment for the Humanities, PBS, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and the Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation. Additional funding provided by: the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations, the Shinnyo-en Foundation, the Shelley and Donald Rubin Foundation, the Bumper Foundation, and viewers like you.