Removing the Thorn

Andrew Olendzki reveals the Buddha's prescription for peace on earth.

Andrew Olendzki

© Marc Swanson
In a remarkable passage in the Attadanda Sutta, the Buddha speaks frankly about his fear and dismay about the state of society:  

Fear is born from arming oneself.
Just see how many people fight!
I’ll tell you about the dreadful fear
That caused me to shake all over.
Seeing creatures flopping around,
Like fishes in shallow water,
So hostile to one another!
—Seeing this, I became afraid.

This image—fishes flopping around in the shallows—seems as apt today as ever. As the world’s resources diminish and the number of people in need of them increases, things may well get only more desperate. Even in the Buddha’s time the situation seemed overwhelming. The Buddha acknowledges his despair, but he also describes his breakthrough to a deeper understanding:

Seeing people locked in conflict,
I became completely distraught.
But then I discerned here a thorn
—Hard to see—lodged deep in the heart.

It’s only when pierced by this thorn
That one runs in all directions.
So if that thorn is taken out—
One does not run, and settles down.
                          (Sutta Nipata 935—39)

This pivotal insight shapes how conflict and peace are to be understood in the Buddhist tradition. Human society is formed by the collective action of its individuals; it thus reflects the qualities of heart and mind of each person. Peace in people’s hearts creates peace in the world; turmoil in people’s hearts creates turmoil in the world. The harmful behavior people manifest in the world can be seen as having a single cause. That cause is desire.

Desire comes in two forms, attachment and aversion. The first makes us grab after the things we like and hold onto them, the second makes us avoid or resist or attack the things we don’t like. Attachment leads us to consume resources at any cost, take from others what has not been given to us, and drives us to exploit others for personal gain. It also underlies such personality traits as pride, arrogance, conceit, selfishness, and the lust for power. Aversion compels us to turn away from what we find unpleasant, to shut out or discriminate against those we don’t like, and to destroy what we fear or what we don’t understand. It also causes such aberrant behaviors as violence, cruelty, bigotry, and other acts of hatefulness.

But these thorns in the heart can be removed. It is just the thorn, driving us mad with pain and fear, that makes us crazy enough to hurt and hate, that makes us lose touch with our innate goodness. Like a ferocious lion with a thorn in its paw, we are only in need of a healer to come pull out the thorn that afflicts us. The Buddha was such a healer. Having diagnosed the problem as desire—so embedded in the heart that it is often hard to see—his prescription was simply to apply awareness to the problem, and to do so in massive doses. Because the workings of desire are hidden in the unconscious functioning of the mind, we must bring greater consciousness to bear on the moment. We have only to learn to see things clearly, and a natural process of healing will occur.

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