Peace Begins with Me|
by Charles Kowalski (Tokai University)
Keywords: Peacemaking, peace in daily life, mindfulness, philosophy of peace
A peaceful heart makes a peaceful person.
A peaceful person makes a peaceful family.
A peaceful family makes a peaceful community.
A peaceful community makes a peaceful nation.
A peaceful nation makes a peaceful world.
- Maha Ghosananda1
World peace begins with the thoughts and actions of every individual. This belief is evident in the thoughts of many Nobel Peace Prize laureates and other world-renowned peacemakers whose ideas will be examined here: the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh2, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Peace Pilgrim3 and Mother (now Saint) Teresa of Calcutta. This paper will draw on the ideas of peacemakers such as these to explore answers to the question of what it means for us to be "people of peace", who are at peace ourselves and are thus able to be bearers of peace in our families, workplaces, classrooms and communities.
Several principles form common themes in the writings of these peacemakers. Four of them will be examined here: interdependence; compassion; mindfulness; and the balance of contemplation and action.
"Interdependence" refers to the realization that all people, and all living things, depend upon one another for existence.
Several languages have succinct words for this concept. Japanese expresses it as jitafuji ("self-other-not-two"), a concise summary of the Buddhist principle of "non-duality", which parallels the Christian tenet of "love your neighbor as yourself". The Vietnamese word tiep hien translates roughly into English as "interbeing", a common word in Thich Nhat Hanh's works. In Africa, the words ubuntu in the Nguni language family and botho in the Sotho family refer to a recognition of shared humanity, in this sense mentioned by Archbishop Tutu (1999, p. 31) -
. . .a person is a person through other persons . . . A person with ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are . . . tortured or oppressed, or treated as if they were less than who they are.
Tutu ascribes the peaceful transition to democracy in South Africa, and the widespread willingness to forgive former enemies and welcome them back into the community, in large part to the prevalence of ubuntu in African thought.
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The idea of interdependence includes the recognition that nearly everything necessary for our own well-being derives from the effort and cooperation of others. Howard Cutler, who by his own admission was conditioned as an American and a psychologist to embrace "independence" and shun any form of "dependence", reports his reaction on hearing the Dalai Lama (1998) speak on interdependence in a public address:As 'Our Dependence on Others' was not my favorite topic, my mind started to wander again, and I found myself absently removing a loose thread from my shirt sleeve . . . began to think about how many people were involved in making my shirt. I started by imagining the farmer who grew the cotton . . . It occurred to me that virtually every aspect of my life came about as the result of others' efforts. My precious self-reliance was a complete illusion, a fantasy. As this realization dawned on me, I was overcome with a profound sense of the interconnectedness and interdependence of all beings . . . It made me want to cry. (pp. 56-57)
A person who views all human life as interdependent, and his or her own well-being as interconnected with others', will be naturally inclined to treat others with kindness. The realization that all humanity is interconnected, and that what oppresses or impoverishes one diminishes the whole, leads to compassion for all human beings.
Research on human universals (e.g. Brown, 1991; Kinnear et al., 2000) shows that compassion, in the sense of respect, care, and service toward one's neighbors, is a quality valued by every culture known to exist. It is espoused as a virtue by all the world's major religions, and also forms a central feature of the atheist and secular humanist moral codes.
The Dalai Lama (1998, pp. 91-92) defines compassion as "a mental attitude based on the wish for others to be free of their suffering . . . associated with a sense of commitment, responsibility, and respect towards others. . . based on the rationale that all human beings have an innate desire to be happy and overcome suffering, just like myself . . . [and] have the natural right to fulfill this aspiration."
Compassion for others is closely linked to understanding. "Understanding and love are not two things, but just one . . . To develop understanding, you have to practice looking at all living beings with the eyes of compassion. When you understand, you love. And when you love, you naturally act in a way that can relieve the suffering of people." (Thich Nhat Hanh, 1987, pp. 14-15) Comments from workshop participants echoed this idea: "If you have compassion for others, you try to understand them, and that eliminates hate. . . Conflict stems from misunderstanding — through misunderstanding we find it hard to have compassion for others. With compassion we can resolve misunderstanding and conflict."
The Dalai Lama (1998), quoted above, links compassion and happiness (one's own as well as others'); and also speaks of peace of mind as related: "Everything starts with us, with each one of us. The indispensable qualities are peace of mind and compassion" (1994, p. 83). Maha Ghosananda agrees: "If we are compassionate, then our mind becomes peaceful. This is the only way to have true peace in our mind. Then, when we have peace in our mind, our neighbor will also be peaceful. It is contagious" (quoted in Hunt, 2002, p. 282). Reflection on the thoughts of these peacemakers suggests that peace of mind, compassion, and happiness complement one another in a "virtuous circle" a depicted below in Figure 1.
Figure 1: A symbolic representation of a "virtuous circle"
For many of the peacemakers cited here, the way of peace in daily life begins with mindfulness, moment-by-moment awareness of thoughts, emotions and actions, and their consequences. Thich Nhat Hanh (1975, pp. 75-76) asks, "How can we live in the present moment, live right now with the people around us, helping to lessen their suffering and making their lives happier? . . . The answer is this: We must practice mindfulness."
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There are several aspects to mindfulness. The most basic form is mindfulness of the present moment; being so fully conscious of the moment that neither the past (regrets, bitter memories or painful experience) nor the future (anxiety, fear, worry, or anticipation) can distract or interfere.
One technique used in mindfulness training is conscious breathing, either concentrating on the breath itself (e.g. by counting) or repeating a mantra, affirmation or prayer to the rhythm of the breath. This can be practiced while sitting still or while walking; in the latter case, conscious attention to one's surroundings also helps develop mindfulness. Mundane tasks, such as washing dishes or cooking, also provide opportunities to practice.
Another aspect of mindfulness is mindful speech, awareness of one's words and their effect, for good or ill, on the listener. St. Teresa of Calcutta referred to mindful speech as "silence of the tongue", attained by "speaking the word. . . that enlightens and inspires, brings peace, hope, and joy, and by refraining from self-defense and every word that causes darkness, turmoil, pain, and death" (in Maalouf, 2001, p. 61). Maha Ghosananda advises, "In speaking, be rightful, lovely, timely, and useful. This is the right verbal action. . . Create mindfulness and comprehension" (in Hunt, 2002, p. 275).
It could be said that mindful speech, as well as most other aspects of mindfulness, ultimately have their source in mindfulness of thoughts and emotions. Peace Pilgrim (1982, p. 15) describes the power of thought, "If you realized how powerful your thoughts are, you would never think a negative thought. . . I don't eat junk food and I don't think junk thoughts!" Maha Ghosananda (1992, p. 53, quoted in Hunt, 2002, p. 264) phrases it this way:
The thought manifests as the word.
The word manifests as the deed.
The deed develops into the habit.
The habit hardens into the character.
The character gives birth to the destiny.
The Buddhist tradition presents an image of a "river of feelings", with one's emotions, pleasant or unpleasant, flowing by like a river, and one's self sitting on the bank, observing each one and calling it by name as it goes by. A person who uses this image to observe emotions from a more detached, objective viewpoint, and realize the temporary nature of each, is less likely to be controlled by them.
Another image, one uniquely tailored to Japan, might be of an internal kaiten-zushi, with the self watching thoughts and feelings go by like plates on a conveyor belt, and appraising each one, "I like this; I'll take it and make it part of me. This one I don't like so much; I'll let it go by and wait for something better." To try to stop the plate forcibly from passing in front of one's place, of course, would cause a back-up that would ultimately overturn all plates. Suppressing emotions has a similarly catastrophic effect. Peace Pilgrim (op. cit., p. 64) has this alternative for dealing with one such frequently suppressed emotion, anger: "Do not suppress it; that would hurt you inside. Do not express it; that would not only hurt you inside, it would cause ripples in your surroundings. What you do is transform it. You somehow use that tremendous energy constructively on a task that needs to be done, or in a beneficial form of exercise."
Awareness of one's own reaction to situations could be called an extension of this aspect of mindfulness. As Charles Swindoll (1982) said, "Life is 10% what happens to me and 90% how I react to it." Mindfulness of the importance of our own reactions, e.g. when confronted with a person we consider annoying, can be attained by something as simple as a grammatical transformation:
That person is annoying!
That person annoys me.
I am annoyed by that person.
I am annoyed.
An exercise like this could lead to the realization that, although the person in question might somehow be innately annoying, the more likely explanation is that the annoyance comes from a reaction between the person's actions and one's own reaction — and one variable in that equation can be controlled.
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Contemplation and Action
While the previous sections have had a contemplative focus, the last section will concentrate on the relationship of contemplation to action. By no means are these mutually exclusive; indeed, it could be said that contemplation without action is powerless; action without contemplation is dangerous. However much contemplation might increase one's feelings of compassion, those feelings are of little value to the recipient unless they lead to concrete actions. At the same time, taking action without mindfulness (e.g. when under the influence of anger) can be counterproductive, or worse. St. Teresa brings the two together thus, "These two lives, action and contemplation, instead of excluding each other, call for each other's help, implement and complete each other. Action, to be productive, has need of contemplation" (in Maalouf, 2001, pp. 69, 71).
This is an important point for those in the peace movement, where discourse is often characterized by anger (at politicians and corporations, for example, or at people's perceived indifference to global issues). Thich Nhat Hanh under the arresting chapter heading "A Love Letter to Your Congressman" writes, "People in the peace movement can write very good protest letters, but they are not so skilled at writing love letters. . . Can the peace movement talk in loving speech, showing the way for peace?. . . That is why it is so important for us to practice mindfulness, to acquire the capacity to look, to see, and to understand. Peace work means, first of all, being peace" (1991, pp. 110-111).
A long time ago, there lived three brothers. All of them studied medicine and became doctors, but only one – the youngest – ever became famous. His name was known far and wide as a miracle worker; patients who seemed to be beyond all hope would go to him and be cured. One day, someone asked him, "Why are you the only famous one among your brothers?" His reply was, "I can cure people even at the point of death, so everyone knows me. My older brother can detect and cure sickness before it grows too serious, so there are few who know him. And my eldest brother takes such good care of people's health that they rarely get sick at all, so he remains unknown outside of his village. Thus, although my name is better known than my brothers', their skill is greater." 4
What does it mean to be a peacemaker? Although the word may conjure grand visions of singlehandedly pulling the world back from the brink of war or winning the Nobel Peace Prize, such feats are the province of the younger brother in the story. A peacemaker's work is often like that of the elder and middle brothers, less dramatic but more effective in that it makes drastic intervention by the younger brother unnecessary. And teachers, in particular, are in a position like that of the eldest brother, capable of planting seeds of peace in students, not only by teaching the way of peace but also by making the classroom into a peaceful place, and above all, making ourselves into peaceful people, in the realization that peace begins within each one of us.
(1) Cambodian Buddhist patriarch and multiple Nobel Peace Prize nominee. Cited in Hunt (2002), p. 276.
(2) Vietnamese Buddhist monk, nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Martin Luther King, Jr.
(3) American peace activist, 1908-1981.
(4) Chinese legend, paraphrased from Brand-Jacobsen & Jacobsen (2002), p. 84.
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