Removing the Thorn

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

Andrew Olendzki

To heal the individual wounds brought about by desire, the Buddha prescribed mindful meditation, the careful, moment-to-moment observation of everything arising and falling in the field of phenomenal experience. When we are able to see what is actually occurring within us, wisdom will gradually evolve. The principle is simple, but it takes practice. To heal the collective wounds of our planet, likewise brought about by desire in its various forms, it seems to me we might apply the same prescription. The way to bring collective mindfulness to bear on the collective field of experience is through witnessing and sharing what has been seen by others.

We can see many examples today of the beneficial things that can happen when an atrocity is caught on tape and shared widely with others, or when evidence of wrongdoing is brought to light and exposed before the court of world opinion. Just as the evil we are capable of as individuals lies lurking unexamined deep in our psyches, so also much of the cruelty and abuse that takes place in the world is hidden from view. And just as uncovering our personal demons can begin a process of healing, so also can the revealing of cruelties and injustices that have been kept secret have a transformative effect on global behavior.

According to the Buddha, the human world is protected by twin guardians, two forces in the mind that watch over and guide moral behavior. The first guardian of the world is hiri, a word that connotes conscience, moral intuition, and self-respect. It refers to that within the human psyche that knows the difference between right and wrong, between what is noble and ignoble, between what is worthy of respect and what is not. Each of us has within us an innate moral compass, and it is the view of the Buddhist tradition that religion is not the source of this but rather a form by which it is given expression. The second guardian of the world is ottappa, which comprises such notions as social conscience, a cultural or collective sense of morality, and respect for the opinions and the rights of others.

Buddhism teaches that anything we do that is wholesome will be done with the support and guidance of these two inner guardians. Conversely, everything we do that is unwholesome can only be done when these moral guides are disregarded. So if there is something morally reprehensible occurring in an individual or in a society, it means that we lack sufficient clarity of awareness of what we are doing. It means we are temporarily blinded by our greed, hatred, or delusion, or by some combination of the three, such that we refuse to attend openly to the deeds we are committing. When attention has been brought to bear on the matter—in sufficient amounts, with sufficient intensity, and with sufficient honesty—we will naturally shy away from doing harm to ourselves, to others, and to both.

Does this sound idealistic? I don’t think it is. It is rooted in a very sophisticated understanding of human nature. So let’s spend more time on that collective zafu, shining the light of awareness into the dark corners of the world. The possibility exists for radical universal transformation. We have merely to start the process, in our own mind, and the rest will naturally fall into place.

Andrew Olendzki, Ph.D., is the executive director of the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies in Barre, Massachusetts, and is editor of Insight Journal. This column is the author’s third in a series of reflections on selected passages from the Pali canon.

Image 1: Live Free or Die, Marc Swanson, 2003, crystals, polyurethane foam, adhesive, 5.5 × 2.5 feet, courtesy of Marc Swanson and Bellwether

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