Peace: How Realistic Is It?

Views from Abroad: Tricycle asks four Buddhists—in Croatia, Israel, Britain, and Japan—to weigh in on war and the possibility of peace.


Peace Koan

British Ch"an Buddhist John Crook asks us who the enemy really is.

Is there such a thing as a just war?
This is a koan.

Does it make sense to say that violence of any type is unjustified? One-sidedness is never wise.

Some say Buddhism is unrealistic with regard to the realities and necessity of war. Is war inevitable? No, except when stupidity rules.

Is the loss of life, what we call "collateral damage,"' acceptable in order to defend oneself when under attack?
Not if it is driven solely by self-concern and neglects reflection on why the enemy is an enemy and who exactly the enemy is. Could it be oneself? Who is the danger to world peacel Do you think any of us are clear about thatl

How realistic is peace? I can only tell you what I think and feel as a practicing Buddhist. Peace can be realistic given the will, insight into an opponent's view, patience, and the power to seek reconciliation. Sadly, I do not believe we are on a path to peace. We seem to have entered a period of cultural decadence not unlike that of the closing years of the Roman Empire, with unrivaled military power concentrated in the hands of one superpower whose shaky economics link to expansionist politics of global domination. This superpower is now faced by a profound resentment, usually political but sometimes violent. Further, among the resentful, there are some now capable of using weapons of mass destruction.

The root source of international anger is the profound hypocrisy of the present U.S. government: Iraq is a rogue state but Israel is not, while both are in contravention of UN resolutions; failure to appreciate the Islamic world's feeling of long-term disrespect while the monstrous actions of Sharon are tolerated; contrasting policies with regard to Iraq and North Korea; the willingness to ignore the delicate structure of the UN, which is the only legitimate authority for a remotely "just" war; and, no doubt, the prevalence of adolescent gestures of imperial exasperation from the White House.

What might be a proper response to all this? The Buddhist response must be one of reflection, not reaction, Reflection looks at process, not the iniquities of others, be they individuals or states. The Middle Eastern process pivots on how the legitimate need for an Israeli state can be balanced against the imposition of an essentially colonial regime in the Arab world.

A Buddhist would tackle the roots of this process by a radical reframing, requiring multilateral understanding, confrontation with prejudice, and a lengthy, patient, and persistent practice of negotiation based not on recrimination but on reconciliation. British experience in northern Ireland is instructive here. Israeli and Western thinkers need to transcend the repeating echoes of the Holocaust. Middle Eastern peace is the key to solving many current problems, possibly that ofIslamic terrorism itself.

There is a story in which a bodhisattva is traveling on a sailing craft from India to Java. One day, far from land, a passenger goes berserk and starts killing people with a great sword. Only the bodhisattva can stop him, but to do so he must kill, a violation of the first precept. Yet it seems he must act if the murderer is not to kill everyone. So he acts: he kills the killer.

It is said the bodhisattva will suffer karmic retribution for this killing, yet because the precept of compassion can outweigh the precept of not killing, the question arises as to whether he was" just" in his response or not. Maybe there were other means available that he did not use? Here lie the roots of a profound koan.

President Bush and Prime Minister Blair claim to be, in a sense, "bodhisattvas" in their expressed desire for peace through war, bur neither one exhausted the means of peacemaking or foresaw that this enemy is hydraheaded, before they acted in contravention of international understanding: the problems can only proliferate.

How would you suggest peace be achieved, then? All of us are forced to contemplate this koan. The unease of the world reveals the inadequacy with which we attempt to answer it and provides one measure of our shameful ignorance.

Originally a biologist, John Crook now studies village and monastic life in the Himalayas and Tibet. He is the first Western dharma heir to Master Sheng-yen.

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