What the Dharma Teaches About Peace and Politics

Updated June 1, 2020

Many Buddhist practitioners have questioned what to do in these turbulent times. More than anything, I believe the world is in need of a spiritual perspective. The Dharma teachings of generosity, virtue, loving-kindness, and wisdom are non-partisan. The benefits of dharma teachings can be used by Republicans and Democrats, by Green Party and Libertarians, by Iraqis and Israelis. The Dharma welcomes everyone and encourages all to awaken together.

But how, as dharma practitioners, do we find our own place in a complex political world and find a way towards peace? Our first task is to make our own heart a zone of peace. Instead of becoming entangled in an embattled bitterness or cynicism that exists externally, we need to begin to heal those qualities within ourselves. We have to face our own suffering, our own fear, and transform them into compassion. Only then can we become ready to offer genuine help to the outside world. Albert Camus writes, “We all carry within us our places of exile, our crimes, our ravages. Our task is not to unleash them on the world; it is to transform them in ourselves.”

A dharma practitioner who wants to act in the sphere of politics must quiet their mind and open their heart. Meditate, turn off the news, turn on Mozart, walk through the trees or the mountains and begin to make yourself peaceful. Make yourself a zone of peace, and allow the sensitivity and compassion that grows from our interconnection to extend to all beings. If we’re not peaceful how can we create harmony in the world? If our own minds are not peaceful, how can we expect peace to come through the actions that we take?

We can either react to terrorism and insecurity with fear and create a frightened, barricaded society—a fortress America—or we can use the teachings of Dharma to respond calmly, with both prudent action and a fearless, steady heart. Thich Nhat Hanh tells us, “When the crowded refugee boats met with storms or pirates, if everyone panicked, all would be lost. But if even one person stayed calm, it was enough. It showed the way for everyone to survive.”

Through practice, we can learn to make our own hearts a place of peace and integrity. With a quiet mind and an open heart, we can sense the reality of interdependence. Inner and outer are not separate. We are all in the same boat. Buddhist teachings have always taught that life cannot be divided into compartments. Our relationships with others, right speech, right action, right livelihood are part of the eight-fold path. They are factors of enlightenment. Our relations, and society as a whole, are an expression of the enlightened heart. Thus we can understand Gandhi’s challenge, “Those who say spirituality has nothing to do with politics, they do not know what spirituality really means.”

When we understand this, our next task is to see for ourselves what is needed to bring to benefit the world. How does peace come about? What are the conditions for peace? The Buddha taught that peace is possible both individually and collectively but that it depends on skillful causes and conditions. Inner peace grows from mindfulness, compassion, and respect. Outwardly, it requires the same conditions. When asked about the creation of a wise society, the Buddha counseled visiting ministers that when a society comes together to make decisions in harmony, when it honors its elders and the wise ways they have established, when it cares for its most vulnerable members, women, and children, when it respects the environment and listens to its citizens and its neighbors, it can be expected to prosper and not decline. For the Buddha, a wise society is not based on greed, on hatred or delusion, but on generosity, respect, mindfulness, and compassion.

In this political climate, we are bombarded with propaganda from every political point of view that dulls the senses and overpowers our inner value system. Whatever our political perspective, we will encounter troubling images and feel anger, frustration, even outrage, and impatience. If we stop and breathe and meditate, we will feel underneath these reactions our fear and under this our connectedness and caring. If our actions come from this deep sense of caring, they will bring greater benefit and greater peace. From a quiet heart, we have the ability to look and see how our society treats its most vulnerable members. How does it treat the poor, the elderly, and children? Is it acting in ways that foster greed, hate, fear, and ignorance? What can we do nationally and internationally to support generosity and respect, to minimize violence, and to end racism and exploitation? What rings true for each of us as followers of the Dharma? We need to take an honest look and see what we are doing as a society.

America has sometimes confused power with greatness. But genuine greatness is not a matter of mere power; it is a matter of integrity. When we envision a society of compassion and justice—and as a nation, we are called upon to do this—our actions can stem from respect for all beings, and peace is the result.

Once we have looked clearly, we can set a long-term intention, and dedicate ourselves to a vision of a wise and compassionate society. This is a Bodhisattva’s act. Like setting the compass of the heart, this intention expresses our deepest values. If we set a long-term intention, it remains empowering no matter who wins a particular election, or what governments rise and fall. It becomes our way of practice. Thomas Merton taught, “Do not worry about immediate results. More and more you must concentrate on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself.” With a dedicated intention, we are willing to face the sufferings of the world and not shy away, to follow what we know is true, however long it takes. This is a powerful act of the heart, to stay true to our values, and live by them.

A beautiful example of a long-term intention was presented by A. T. Ariyaratane, a Buddhist elder, who is considered to be the Gandhi of Sri Lanka. In the past decades, there was a terrible civil war in Sri Lanka. During the fighting, the Norwegians tried to broker a temporary peace, and once the peace treaty was in effect, Ariyaratane called the followers of his Sarvodaya movement together. Sarvodaya, combines Buddhist principles of right livelihood, right action, right understanding, and compassion and has organized citizens in one-third of the nation’s villages to dig wells, build schools, to meditate, and collaborate as a form of spiritual practice. More than 650,000 people came to the gathering to hear how he envisioned the future of Sri Lanka. At this gathering he proposed a 500-year peace plan, saying, “The Buddha teaches we must understand causes and conditions. It’s taken us 500 years to create the suffering that we are in now.” Ari described the effects of 400 years of colonialism, of 500 years of struggle between Hindus, Muslims, and Buddhists, and of several centuries of economic disparity. He went on, “it will take us 500 years to change these conditions.” Ariyaratane then offered solutions, proposing a plan to heal the country.

The plan began with an initial cease-fire and five years of rebuilding roads and schools. Then it went on for ten, twenty-five, fifty years with specific programs to learn each other’s languages and cultures, to right economic injustice, and to bring the islanders back together as a whole. And every 100 years there is proposed a council of elders to take stock on how the plan is going. This is a sacred intention, the long-term vision of an elder.

In the same way, if we envision the fulfillment of wisdom and compassion in the United States, it becomes clear that the richest nation on the earth must provide healthcare for its children; that the most productive nation on earth must find ways to combine trade with justice; that a creative society must find ways to grow and to protect the environment and sustainable development for generations ahead. A nation founded on democracy must fulfill it at home and then offer the same spirit of international cooperation and respect globally. We are all in this together.

Seeing clearly, we need to act. To empower our vision, we need to start now, and be willing to plant seeds, for however long it takes, to benefit our society and ourselves. At Spirit Rock Meditation Center, Sylvia Boorstein has taught a class called “Informed Citizenship as Spiritual Practice,” which encourages people to ask themselves: What can I do as a wisdom holder, as a Bodhisattva, a member of this society to best contribute to the world in these times? It might be registering people to vote, or working politically, or making our vision heard in organizations of power or in the government, speaking up or writing. It might include working with children, or helping to create a business climate of responsibility and integrity, or working internationally, or tending to poverty, racism, and injustice locally. Each person has to find specific steps to offer their vision and energy to society and to empower those around them. If we don’t do this, change won’t happen. The vision will not be fulfilled.

The Buddha’s teachings of compassion and wisdom are empowering; they encourage us to act. Do not doubt that your good actions will bear fruit and that change for the better can be born from your life. Gandhi reminds us: “I claim to be no more than an average person with less than average ability. I have not the shadow of a doubt that any man or woman can achieve what I have if he or she would simply make the same effort and cultivate the same hope and faith.”

Jack Kornfield, PhD, one of the leading Buddhist teachers in the West, is author of 16 books and a founding teacher of the Insight Meditation Society and Spirit Rock Center.

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