The Future of Peace:
On the Front Lines with the World’s Great Peacemakers
Scott A. Hunt
384 pp.; $24.95 (cloth)
UC Berkeley Buddhism professor Scott A. Hunt has assembled a collection of profiles of men and women he believes are advancing the cause of world peace. He entitles it The Future of Peace. The author doesn’t supply a question mark, but the reader well might. At this writing, on what appears to be the verge of an American invasion of Iraq, the future of peace looks none too good.
But that doesn’t stop Hunt. He’s not a geopolitical Pollyanna exactly, but he does believe, as he declares straightaway on page one, that “our world, like our mind, becomes exactly and only what we make it.” So no matter how bloody our history, Hunt as a matter of (Buddhist) principle believes that things have the potential to become radically better. In that spirit, he sets about to interview luminous sages like the two Nobel Peace Prize winners the Dalai Lama and Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who will persuade him that things don’t have to be as bad as they seem. The book’s epigraph, which Hunt takes from Margaret Mead, is precisely on point: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
The Future of Peace is valuable book, and a flawed and curious one as well. Although it’s written entirely in the first person and is packed with James Bond-worthy details about the mechanics of interviewing dissident figures living under Third World dictatorships (jostling with trigger-happy government soldiers, shaking car tails, and the like), we get precious little sense of Hunt’s own story besides the fact that he doesn’t take “no” easily. Hunt slips the most salient personal information into his first chapter, a reverie about meditating in a Himalayan cave and being suffused with a mystical sense of peace that he wants to share with the world: “It was in that moment, in that dazzling flight of the imagination, with the most profound and sincere desire to help spread peace, that the idea of this book was born.” The story reveals much that will be confirmed over the course of the next three hundred or so pages: that Hunt is an extraordinarily earnest and idealistic man, that he is not much of a prose stylist, and that he sees the vocation of peacemaking largely through Buddhist glasses. Of the book’s seven chapters, four are devoted to eminent Buddhists.
Two are celebrated political figures: Aung San Suu Kyi, a devout lay practitioner resisting the military dictatorship in Burma from her virtual house arrest in Rangoon; and the Dalai Lama, struggling with the Chinese oppression of Tibet from his northern Indian exile. The other two, Thich Quang Do and Maha Ghosananda, are monks trying to lead scholarly, meditative lives, but whose willingness to speak out on behalf of human rights has marked them as threats to the repressive Communist regimes of Vietnam and Cambodia, respectively.
In the West, there’s a fair amount of handwringing over whether Buddhism is sufficiently concerned with the plight of the world. Hunt doesn’t address Western Buddhism directly, but these profiles, situated in certain Asian countries where being a Buddhist unwilling to kowtow to the government can be tantamount to a death sentence, add up to an inspirational course in applied Buddhist ethics. Although Hunt is fond of global questions like “What is peace?” he settles down to business when he asks his subjects how their training in mindfulness and compassion has allowed them to endure the unspeakable with such serenity, indeed with a marked propensity to chuckle. Aung San Suu Kyi tells a wonderful story from her prepolitical days, when she was taken on the roller coaster at Coney Island and, exclaiming to herself, “So this is fear!” immediately set about to master the unworthy emotion. Thich Quang Do spent over fifteen years in a prison cell, 4 x 6.5 feet, and was able to joke with his captors. “No one can imprison my mind,” he told Hunt.
“That’s why I’m happy.”
After his family (along with a significant percentage of the population of Cambodia) had been wiped out by the Khmer Rouge, Maha Ghosananda quit his safe exile in Thailand and appeared in monk’s robes at a Khmer camp, where by all rights he should have been killed, or tortured and killed, on the spot. “Hatred is never pacified by hatred,” he says to Hunt. “Only through love is hatred pacified.”
Hunt could have called his book “Profiles in Buddhist Courage” and left it at that. But in trying to live up to “The Future of Peace,” he chooses to deal with the non-Buddhist world in a mere three chapters, which makes for an ungainly, neither-fish-nor-fowl structure. I can’t complain too bitterly. His chapters on ex-Costa Rican president Oscar Arias, architect of the peace plan that ended the Nicaraguan-Contra war, and on three “peacemakers” caught up in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, have their pluses and minuses. But it’s the final and most thematically unlikely chapter, on primatologist Jane Goodall, that is his tour de force. Goodall has spent too much time with our closest evolutionary ancestors—her beloved but occasionally brutish chimpanzees—to accept the Dalai Lama’s proposition that humans are essentially good. They’re not, she says. Aggression is “hard-wired” into us. Yet her entire career, from the early years spent establishing a cross-species bond with the chimps to her current relentless campaign to battle environmental degradation in all its forms, speaks to the value of cultivating our better instincts. Hunt quotes Darwin to the effect that the advance of civilization can be measured by the human ability to extend our “social instincts and sympathies” to “all nations and races” (all species, Goodall would add). So Hunt makes use of Western science to close the circle, returning to his opening Buddhist premise that peace, and every other worthwhile thing, comes from expanding the boundaries of the self. Nice job. ▼
Joseph Hooper is a contributing editor at Men’s Journal magazine and a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, Elle, and the New York Observer, among other publications.