Buddhism, culture of nonviolence and peace

Buddhism, culture of nonviolence and peace

Lecture by Chan Master Žarko Andričević held during the Week of Interreligious Dialogue in 2012.

First of all, I would like to congratulate the hosts on celebrating the twenty-fifth anniversary of the spirit of Assisi and express my gratitude for the invitation to this Week of Interreligious Dialogue.

I will begin the lecture with a few words about how Buddhism is perceived today in the West, and then I will return to the topic of nonviolence, the place and importance it holds in Buddhism, and the relevance of this teaching for us today, here.

Buddhism enjoys great respect in the West today, primarily due to its pragmatic approach to addressing common human problems, as well as its consistent advocacy for nonviolence and the emphasis on virtues such as compassion and understanding, virtues that are so lacking in today’s world. This image of Buddhism is further supported by the public actions of prominent members of this religion, such as His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who gained global popularity through his nonviolent struggle for the freedom of the Tibetan people, as well as his exceptional personality that embodies the highest virtues advocated by Buddhism, namely, compassion and wisdom. We had the opportunity to meet the Dalai Lama directly during his visit to our country. Right alongside him is the Vietnamese monk, Zen teacher, writer, poet, and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh, whom Martin Luther King Jr. nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize as early as 1967. As a third person, I would mention Aung San Suu Kyi, a politically active Burmese leader inspired by Buddhism, who spent over 15 years under house arrest, fighting for the establishment of democracy and human rights in her country. She is also a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. What is characteristic of these three exceptional individuals is that they come from different Buddhist traditions from which they draw inspiration for their peace activism, and through their actions, they have provided the world with an outstanding example of nonviolent perseverance in the pursuit of freedom, peace, and human rights.

In a world where violence is a daily occurrence and conflicts, terrorism, and wars still rage on, claiming a vast number of human lives, examples of nonviolent social and political action bring hope and inspire a genuine interest in a radically different approach to addressing this fundamental human issue. A different, nonviolent approach to conflict resolution and dealing with difficult and contentious life situations is deeply embedded in the spiritual practice of Buddhism. Moreover, we could say that nonviolence (Sanskrit: ahimsa) represents the core of Buddhist practice.

Violence, its nature, its causes and roots, and how to overcome it

Let’s see what Buddhism tells us about violence, its nature, its causes and roots, and how to overcome it.

Violence (Sanskrit: himsa) is any mental, verbal, or physical act that harms oneself or others. Violence, regardless of the form it takes—whether directed towards oneself, towards others, towards other forms of life, or towards nature itself—represents a mode of action that fosters, creates, and spreads discord, deepens division, leads to further violence, and increases the amount and intensity of unnecessary and avoidable suffering. It is important to emphasize that perpetrators of violence are not exempt from the state to which they subject their victims. Violence, like all phenomena, requires a whole host of causes and conditions for its arising. It involves a complex set of internal and external factors that lead to the emergence of negative emotions such as anger, rage, hatred, envy, fear, etc. In this sense, violence is always the consequence of an emotionally painful, narrow, and distorted perspective when we perceive a certain object, event, or person as separate from ourselves and opposed to ourselves. 

External causes of violence, conflict, and wars are often considered their true causes. However, Buddhism goes two steps further in its analysis of violence. At the next and deeper level, it considers the internal causes of violence. Buddhism sees them in selfishness or preoccupation exclusively with one’s own interests or the interests of a group. Being preoccupied with one’s own interests leads to a narrowed perception of reality in which we view everything solely in relation to ourselves and become the central reference point around which the world revolves. Such a perception of reality represents a highly distorted image in which neither we, nor other participants, nor specific events and situations are seen as they truly are. Selfishness is essentially a form of attachment to a character structure formed and shaped by experience, which is actually nothing more than a collection of habits formed in us, exhibiting a distinctive and recognizable pattern of behavior. Attachment is expressed through deeply ingrained negative emotions of greed and aversion, which act as a strategic pattern in assessing every newly arising situation. The stronger the attachment, the stronger our response to external circumstances and situations. On such prepared ground, emotions like fear, anger, and hatred easily sprout, leading to verbal or physical violence, plunging us into a vicious cycle of conflict.

At an even deeper level, we come to what we call the root cause of violence and conflict, as well as all human suffering and misery. Buddhism identifies the fundamental cause in human ignorance (Sanskrit: avidya). Ignorance is a term in Buddhism that signifies ignorance of the nature of reality, which includes ignorance of one’s own nature, i.e., the nature of the self, as well as the nature of phenomena in general. In ignorance, with a coarse grasp of reality, we perceive ourselves as separate from other people, other forms of life, and ultimately from nature itself. We deeply believe in our separate and distinct existence, so it is entirely natural that everything that falls outside the scope of our identification is perceived as opposed to us. Ignorance is based on the duality of self and others, self and everything that is not the self. Yet, even we ourselves experience our own complexity and inner contradiction in a conflicting manner. Ignorance lies at the core of our disharmony with ourselves and with the world and therefore represents the fundamental cause of human suffering.

The way out of the vicious circle of violence and conflict that the world is immersed in, according to Buddhism, lies in a deep inner transformation. The belief in the possibility of transformation in Buddhism is based on the understanding that in the world, nothing is truly fixed and unchangeable, but everything is in a constant process of change. From the smallest to the largest things in the universe, nothing remains the same for even a moment, everything is constantly changing. Similarly, in us, human beings, there is truly nothing that is pre-determined, fixed, and unchangeable. When we look deeper into ourselves, we will see that even what appears to be fixed and unchangeable, such as our character, is nothing more than a collection of habits that become stronger and more rigid through repetition, leaving the illusion of substantiality and immutability. In order to change the course of our lives from one immersed in violence and conflict to one leading to freedom, it is necessary to invest a certain effort that requires motivation and inspiration, both of which are found in deep reflection on our own life and life in general.

There is a saying in Buddhism that we can learn the most about our past by observing our present, but also that we can learn about our future based on what we do in the present. The present is indeed the only time we have. Whether our past will completely determine our present, i.e., whether we will respond to situations we encounter according to established patterns, or whether we will change that pattern with a different response and start a new, positive, and different developmental process, depends entirely on us and on the level of our understanding. The opportunity for a new beginning is always present, it presents itself to us from one moment to another. Whether our future will look different depends on the change in the way we deal with ourselves, others, and life situations in general.

Choosing nonviolence as a way of acting in the world

What we call different behavior is, of course, nonviolent behavior, or the non-harming of oneself and others. The criterion of “oneself and others” is extremely important because by applying it, we free ourselves from selfishness and are able to consider an act and its consequences from a much broader and deeper perspective. Through such action and way of living, we take responsibility and control of our lives, and begin to consciously manage it in a direction that leads to freedom from suffering. In addition, we build around us a network of friendly, favorable, and supportive conditions.

Choosing nonviolence as a way of acting in the world may seem like a bad strategy or even an expression of inner weakness. However, it is important to bear in mind that violence, despite creating the illusion of power, always arises from fear, inner turmoil, and confusion. Therefore, it is an expression of weakness and helplessness, and certainly the worst of all strategies, as history clearly shows in personal and societal relationships. On the other hand, nonviolence and non-harming come from a mind that is peaceful, steady, and focused. It is actually an expression of inner strength, determination, and wisdom, and as a strategy, it has no alternative. We could say that the strength and power of nonviolence as a fundamental commitment come from the fact that it is rooted in the very nature of reality, while violence is a creation of a mind clouded by ignorance, a mind alienated from its own nature, a mind that is insecure and fearful and can only pretend to have power.

The purpose of nonviolent action in Buddhism is twofold. On one hand, by such action, we contribute to harmony within ourselves and in our environment, thus creating conditions worthy of human life. On the other hand, we create conditions conducive to “turning the light inward,” as is said in the Chan tradition. This turning inward signifies the practice of meditation or the practice of nurturing the mind. It is true, namely, that our views of the world depend on our experience of the world; furthermore, our experience of the world depends on the state of our mind, and the state of our mind depends on the degree of its cultivation. In this sense, it is not enough to simply behave morally correctly, i.e., to want to behave nonviolently. It is necessary to position ourselves in a way that such behavior is a completely natural and spontaneous response to the world as we see and experience it. Otherwise, the moral norms we impose on ourselves through discipline and conviction of their correctness will not be easy to uphold for the simple reason that they are not accompanied by direct experience of the world view on which those norms and principles rest.

True nature of the mind is limitless and free

By cultivating the mind, we discover our inner and hidden potentials and create conditions for their full realization. In Buddhism, it is said that the true nature of the mind is not hindered by anything, it is limitless and completely free. This is a state in which the nature of reality itself reveals itself and is reflected in the mind. A mind free from the illusion of separate existence, free from the dualistic perception of self and others, directly sees reality and reflects phenomena as they truly are. A mind liberated from the illusion of separate existence is free from attachment; free from attachment, it is also free from suffering. In other words, with the cessation of ignorance, selfishness also ceases; with the cessation of selfishness, negative emotions cease; with the cessation of negative emotions, the desire to harm and commit violence also ceases. In a positive sense, the reality that is revealed with the cessation of selfishness is a reality based on the law of conditioned arising, according to which all phenomena in our life and in the universe arise and disappear due to causes and conditions. According to this law, which Buddha first discovered in the history known to us, everything that exists exists in relation to other things. If the causes and conditions that led to the emergence of a particular phenomenon cease to exist, then that phenomenon will also cease to exist. In other words, nothing exists by itself, separate and independent of all other phenomena. Furthermore, this means that all phenomena in the universe are interconnected and interdependent. Such a view of reality completely abolishes violence and harm, because it is entirely clear that it is impossible to harm others without also harming oneself. It awakens in us completely opposite feelings, feelings of responsibility, compassion, and benevolence.

Different ways of viewing the world or reality condition different emotional responses to reality as seen and experienced in this way. A mind that is scattered and agitated and that perceives itself as separate and opposed to the world responds to the world with emotions of greed and aversion, as well as all other negative emotions derived from them. In the process of cultivation, the state of the mind changes from scattered to focused, and ultimately to unified and, ultimately, to liberated.

Evolution of the self

This process could also be described as a kind of evolution of the self. We could call the scattered mind the small self, or the self characterized by selfishness and focus on “me and mine.” The focused mind is that of one who has dedicated themselves to “turning the light inward,” who lives in accordance with the moral principles of non-harming, and follows the path. We could call it the larger self that begins to encompass others. The mind in a state of unity represents the big self. In this state, the mind can merge with the body and the environment, even to the point of merging with the entire universe. It is permeated by an indescribable and deep sense of peace and love for everything that surrounds us. Boundaries that separate us from others and the environment cease to exist, and we experience everything as ourselves. This is a consequence of transcending the conflict between the body, mind, and environment that otherwise constantly simmers in our usual experience. The next phase in the evolution of the self is the insight into its illusory nature. This is the phase of the liberation of the mind in which the self is replaced by the wisdom of seeing things as they truly are. This realization is entirely natural and spontaneous and is accompanied by emotions of benevolence, compassion, joy, and impartiality.

The awakened or liberated mind in Buddhism is described as the mind of wisdom and compassion. Wisdom helps us avoid trouble for ourselves, and compassion helps us avoid trouble for others. My teacher, Chan master Shifu Sheng Yen, used to say that wisdom and compassion have no enemies.