Views from Abroad: Tricycle asks four Buddhists—in Croatia, Israel, Britain, and Japan—to weigh in on war and the possibility of peace.
Why We Love War
Longtime Tokyo resident David R. Loy gets to the bottom of our affinity for violence.
Ahimsa, the buddhist principle of “nonharming,” is connected with a number of other important teachings. As Gandhi put it, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” Instead of contributing to the cycle of reciprocal violence, we must find ways to break it. Buddhist karma emphasizes intentions: greed, ill will, and delusion - the three roots of evil - must be transformed into generosity, lovingkindness, and wisdom. What motivates our violence? And over the long run, does our violence really improve the situation, or does it breed resentment that comes back to haunt us? We need to keep in mind the wider context of our actions. September 11, for instance, cannot be understood apart from the last half-century of U.S. foreign policy.
There is another insight, less obvious yet maybe just as important, that Buddhism has to offer here. It is connected with anatta, the “no-self” teaching. Anatta means that our core is hollow. The shadow side of this emptiness is a sense of lack. Our no-self means we feel groundless, and consequently life often becomes a futile quest to make ourselves more real. Individually, we seek symbolic being in money or fame, or through the eyes of our beloved. But there is also an important collective dimension that feeds ideologies such as nationalism, and group struggles such as war. We are always relieved to discover that the sense of lack bothering us is due to something outside us - personified in the enemy, who therefore must be defeated if we are to become whole and healed.
That is why war is sacred, and why we love violence. It seems to give us clear purchase on the formless sense of lack that haunts us. Violence focuses the source of our dissatisfaction outside of ourselves, where it can be neatly destroyed. No wonder, then, that people tend to rejoice when war finally breaks out, as even Freud and Rilke initially did at the beginning of the First World War. We feel newly bonded with our neighbors in a struggle that is no longer unconscious but something we have some conscious control over. Our problem is no longer inside us, but the evil that is over there.
When wars and revolutions do not bring us the salvation from lack we seek, we need repeated wars and continual revolutions. Since we can never fill up the hole at our core and make ourselves really real, we always need a devil outside us to rationalize our failure and to fight against. We hide this fact from ourselves by projecting our victory sometime into the future. If Afghanistan didn’t give us the security we crave, defeating Iraq will.
When Iraq doesn’t, we’ll find some other evil to fight. North Korea?
The special problem today is that our increasing technological powers make this game increasingly dangerous. If we don’t see through this cycle and stop it, we will destroy ourselves in the process of destroying others. To begin with, we need to put a human face on the enemy. Last year I was fortunate to visit Iran, one of the other countries in Bush’s “axis of evil.” What fine people I met there - including diplomats in the Foreign Ministry!
Perhaps the “axis of evil” actually begins in Washington - not only because of the path of violence that the present administration seems determined to pursue, but because it is the White House that is projecting evil here and there - anywhere but within ourselves.
Ultimately, our individual and collective lack can only be resolved spiritually because that is the only way to realize our true ground. That is the point of the Buddhist path. We need to take our projections back into ourselves and deal with them there. Instead of running away from my sense of lack, mindfulness training (such as zazen) makes me more aware of it. When I “forget myself” in meditation practice, the emptiness at my core can transform into a peace that surpasses understanding, into a formless, spontaneous fountain of creativity that is free to become this or that. And to realize my own Buddha-nature is to realize that everyone else has the same Buddha-nature.
David R. Loy is a professor in the faculty of International Studies at Bunkyo University in Japan.
Image 1: Untitled, Moratorium Day, October 15, 1969, Greenwich Village, New York © Frank Olinsky
Image 2: © Frank Olinsky