As we enter into the autumnal months of 2020, with worrying resurgences of COVID-19 in many European countries and a seemingly unmitigated spread in the United States—compounded by historic wildfires and hurricanes—one might think that world leaders would feel a sense of urgency and commonality, now moreso than at any time before. The SARS-CoV-2 novel coronavirus does not discriminate between races, ethnicities, or nations. Neither does the climate crisis.
Nonetheless, many headlines today speak of new wars. “Taipei speaks of ‘real possibility’ of war as US undersecretary for economic affairs pays visit that Beijing regards as provocative,” writes Helen Davidson for The Guardian. The US and China “are sleepwalking into confrontation in the South China Sea,” Zhou Bo remarked last month in the Financial Times. Earlier this month, Sino-Indian border relations took yet another worrying turn as both sides accused the other of firing warning shots. Meanwhile, Iranian leaders are trading new threats with the US administration, less than two months before a much-anticipated US presidential election.
The situation may appear dire, and yet our long history of Buddhist wisdom offers advice for just such periods. However, this advice may fall short of expectations, as vipassana meditation teacher Paul Fleischman wrote in 2002:
The historical record contained in the Pali Canon describes the Buddha as finding a middle path between involvement in specific political issues—which he never did—or complicitous acceptance of injustice—which he also attempted to avoid. Never a direct critic of particular governments or policies, he was assertive and forthright in teaching Dhamma, the way of life. (Barre Center for Buddhist Studies)
Buddhist practice doesn’t offer a nation for us to cheer for or a leader with whom we should fall in line. In fact, the ideal is to step out of our identifications with nations, rulers, even our perceptions of ourselves as human beings. Our goal is to follow the Buddha toward simply being “awake.”
But the path to awakening is paved with clear markers of progress. As noted, one of those is in transcending national identities. These, like other markers of identity in our conventional world, have unquestionable value and importance, but they also can be manipulated; most obviously in asserting conflicting claims of ownership by one nation or people as opposed to another.
To combat such claims and the potential contempt and violence that may flow from them, the Buddhist tradition offers a number of tools. Of paramount importance is the fact that these tools not only help us to reduce belligerence, but they also help us handle the other urgent crises of our time: the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change.
The first of these tools is renunciation. This virtue of the Buddhist tradition is, sadly, all but lost among modern adherents. Buddhist laypeople enjoy their material comforts and wish for little change to their lives en route to promises of a rebirth in a Pure Land or other auspicious destination. Others are agnostic or skeptical of rebirth altogether, making it necessary for Buddhist thinkers to reframe virtues into “naturalistic” horizons. No matter how one approaches material comforts, however, one can practice renunciation of desires and aversions. As T. Prince writes: “True renunciation is a matter of the heart and mind rather than the body. It is renunciation of the world of desires and aversions within, rather than of the world of ‘objects’ without. Finally, there is the ultimate renunciation, which is the renunciation of one’s ‘self’ in its entirety, and the consequent destruction of all ill.” (Access to Insight)
The great Tibetan scholar Gampopa (1079–1153) reminds us in his Jewel Ornament of Liberation that in Buddhism, ethics has three classifications:
1) Moral ethics of restraint,
2) Morality of accumulating virtuous Dharma,
3) Morality of benefitting sentient beings.
The first means to restrain your mind in a proper place; the second one means to mature the Dharma qualities of your mind; and the third one means to fully mature sentient beings. (p.197)
This brings us to the second tool Buddhism offers us: a fundamental cosmology of interconnectedness. It is the illusion of “self” that wraps around a set of interconnected processes to create division. This is driven by desires and aversions that can exist on the surface level of our awareness—for example, a desire for pizza or ice cream—or can be hidden from us in this moment—such as desires for human connections that replicate or fill a void from one’s childhood.
Letting go, even imaginatively at first, of that sense of a separate self, one comes into contact with our fundamental connectedness. And in that connectedness is our innate goodness, or Buddha-nature. At this level of realization, we can look into the eyes of everyone else and see them as holy beings. At the same time, we can know they are suffering. It’s like knowing that these words exist in front of us and at the same time knowing that what exists in front of us are just pixels on a screen.
Even when confronting a difficult person, or in this case a belligerent national leader, we can use the interaction as an opportunity to call together friends. Rather than trying an egotistical head-to-head competition, wherein the illusions of self and nationalism are only sure to grow more entrenched, we could build greater alliances and forge common bonds with others who are troubled by this menace. With friends come multiple perspectives and some of those perspectives might offer ways of deescalating the confrontation altogether. This show of virtuous restraint can then attract more allies who wish to build the coalition of peace. And, ideally, the domino-effect of peacebuilding goes on from there.
This path of personal responsibility, moral cultivation, and then reaching out to build community has been offered by Buddhist teachers for centuries. As the Dalai Lama stated in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States:
Terrorism cannot be overcome by the use of force because it does not address the complex underlying problems. In fact the use of force may not only fail to solve the problems, it may exacerbate them and frequently leaves destruction and suffering in its wake. Human conflicts should be resolved with compassion. The key is non-violence. (His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet)
Gampopa. 1998. The Jewel Ornament of Liberation: The Wish-Fulfilling Gem of the Noble Teachings. Translated by Khenchen Konchog Gyaltsen Rinpoche. New York: Snow Lion.
Prince, T. 2010. “Renunciation.” Access to Insight (BCBS Edition)
Coronavirus: WHO warns Europe over ‘very serious’ Covid surge (BBC News)
Taiwan calls for global coalition against China’s aggression as US official flies in (The Guardian)
The risk of China-US military conflict is worryingly high (Financial Times)
Shots Fired Along India-China Border for First Time in Years (The New York Times)
Trump’s Swift Response to Iran Plot Claim Contrasts With Russia Bounties (Newsweek)
The Buddha Taught Nonviolence, Not Pacifism (Barre Center for Buddhist Studies)
Relevant Comments by HH The Dalai Lama Subsequent to the Sept. 11, 2001 Terrorist Attack on the US (His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet)