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From Inner Peace to World Peace: A Buddhist Perspective

By Dr. Yoichi Kawada
Director, Institute of Oriental Philosophy

[Published in World Order for a New Millennium, St. Martin's Press, 1999]

The Flames of Delusion

The purpose of this chapter is to offer a Buddhist perspective on the question of peace. I would like to discuss three dimensions of peace and the contributions a Buddhist understanding may make to their achievement. These are inner peace; peace in the community of humankind; and ecological peace or peace with Earth. First, we have to understand what the root causes of the absence and the presence of peace are.

In a sermon given by Shakyamuni, the founder of Buddhism, he conveyed his essential outlook on the nature and cause of suffering. On this occasion, Shakyamuni ascended a mountain summit together with his recently converted disciples. Gazing at the view below, Shakyamuni began to expound: "Indeed, this world is burning with many and various fires. There are fires of greed fires of hatred fires of foolishness, fires of infatuation and egoism, fires of decrepitude, sickness and death, fires of sorrow, lamentation, suffering and agony."

What he was trying to convey was his understanding that the phenomenal world that we inhabit is engulfed in the fires of suffering originating in deluded impulses. These fires of greed, hatred and ignorance, raging fiercely in the hearts of people, are the basic cause of the suffering of human existence. Therefore, Shakyamuni urges us first and foremost to come to a clear understanding of the root cause of suffering.

Here, the deluded impulse of "greed" indicates uncontrolled desire for, and attachment to, material comforts, for wealth, power or fame. Desires of this kind grow and multiply without cease, and since their fulfillment cannot bring true and lasting happiness, a person in their grip is condemned to endless torment and frustration.

The deluded impulse of "hatred" describes emotions such as resentment, rage and envy, that are triggered when our egocentric desires are not fulfilled. Unless controlled, these escalate into various forms of destruction and violence. Simply put, the deluded impulse of hatred is the violence that grows from an egocentric view of life.

"Ignorance" refers to willful ignorance of reality, or the true nature of life and the cosmos. Thus it is this deluded impulse that generates discord and rebellion against the principles that govern the functioning of the cosmos. The wisdom that illuminates and reveals the true nature of the cosmos is referred to as "enlightenment," while this kind of willful ignorance is referred to as "fundamental darkness" because it clouds and obscures the light by which we might see things in their true nature. Of all the deluded impulses, Buddhism considers ignorance the most fundamental.

Buddhism views these impulses--greed, hatred and ignorance--as poisons inherent in life; together they are sometimes referred to as the "three poisons." What Shakyamuni sought to teach his disciples in his sermon is that the flames of the three poisons and of all deluded impulses originate in, and spew forth from, the inner lives of individuals to engulf families, ethnic groups, nations and eventually the whole of humanity.

We see this in the world today, where the impact of uncontrolled greed goes far beyond the individual level; it creates economic disparities among racial and ethnic groups, and between countries on a global scale. The avarice of the industrialized nations has deprived people in developing countries of the conditions by which their basic needs can be met. And the greed of the human race is undermining the right of other living beings to exist.

Violence is commonly found within families, in schools and in local communities. Deep hatreds that trace back to distant historical events give rise to intractable ethnic and racial conflicts. In some cases, such historical hatred is bound up with religious causes or identities, and finds expression in terror and random killing.

Willful ignorance of the true nature of existence signifies a state of rebellion against, and denial of, the basic principles of life and the cosmos. As such, it distorts all aspects of life, from individual lifestyles to family, ethnic and national values. In other words, this kind of willful ignorance can be found in all value systems, ways of life, and views of nature that put one into rebellious conflict with the very principles that support one's own existence, the principles that, ultimately, govern the functioning of the living cosmos.

By sharing his enlightened understanding with others, Shakyamuni sought to help people minimize the destructive effects of these deluded impulses and in fact to transform them into the impetus for happiness.

A Tranquil Heart

In India, the equivalent of "peace" is "shanti," which means the state of inner tranquillity. It also means the enlightened condition attained by Shakyamuni sometimes referred to as "nirvana." With respect to the state of inner peace, a Buddhist text describes this as follows: "Tranquillity of mind comes from having successfully transcended greed, hatred and ignorance." As this passage makes clear, the Buddhist approach to peace starts from the fundamental act of surmounting these deluded impulses or inner poisons. The state of having brought these impulses under control, however, is not a static and private inner peace. Rather, it is limitlessly dynamic, expansive and evolutionary in its nature.

The thirteenth-century Japanese Buddhist Nichiren expressed this with the following image: "Burning the firewood of deluded impulses, we behold the flame of enlightened wisdom." In other words, through spiritual practice the energy inherent in our deluded impulses can be transformed in its entirety into the illuminating "flame" of enlightened wisdom. Thus, the three poisons can be subdued so that they no longer produce confusion and disruption; they can no longer drive us to act in a bizarre and destructive manner. It is for this reason that this transcendence of deluded impulses is known as inner tranquillity.

In the state of tranquillity, the light of enlightened wisdom shines brilliantly, unblocked and unhindered by the clouds of deluded impulses. If one surveys the Buddha's teachings, from the earliest scriptures through the subsequent Mahayana tradition, one can see that the core of Shakyamuni's enlightenment was his awakening to the "law of dependent origination." This concept has been expressed in various ways and was developed in great depth and detail in Mahayana Buddhism; its essence is the interdependence of all living beings and indeed all phenomena. Dependent origination teaches us that all things occur and exist only through their interrelationship with all other phenomena and that this fabric of relatedness is of infinite extent both temporally and spatially. Herein lies the basis for the principle of mutually supportive coexistence of all beings so central to Buddhist thinking.

Each human being exists within the context of interrelationships that include other human beings, all living beings and the natural world. In other words, each person is sustained by the interdependent web of life. By awakening to this principle we are able to expand instinctive self-love into an altruistic love for others; we are able to nurture the spirit of tolerance and empathy for others.

The doctrine of dependent origination also provides a theoretical foundation for peace. In terms of concrete action, it manifests itself as the practice of compassion. In Buddhism, compassion indicates the practical ethic of always maintaining an empathetic involvement with others. It means sharing their sufferings and unhappiness, working alongside them to overcome the deluded impulses that are the root cause of suffering, transforming these into happiness, benefit and joy.

Ignorance is considered fundamental among these deluded impulses precisely because it blinds people to the reality of dependent origination, the unavoidable and all-encompassing interrelatedness within which we live. This ignorance gives rise to the greed that drives people to seek the fulfillment of their desires even at the cost of the suffering of others. It also leads to the kind of uncontrolled rage that seeks the destruction of a situation in which one's desires are frustrated. It is for this reason that the deluded impulse of ignorance is considered equivalent to a fundamental egocentrism. It is a blind and finally self-destructive egocentrism because it violently severs the strands of the web of life that supports one's own existence.

The state of mind of one who ceaselessly strives to transcend this fundamental egocentrism is that of inner peace and tranquillity. The heart of such a person is lit with the wisdom of dependent origination, and overflows with the spirit of compassion.

The "Five Defilements"

Buddhism's core contribution to peace is to be found in the struggle against the deluded impulses that, rooted in the depths of the inner life of the individual, cause so much suffering and destruction in the whole of human society. In Shakyamuni's Lotus Sutra, the destructive effects brought about by the deluded impulses are described as "defilements," and classified into five stages, from the innermost and most personal to that which stains an entire age or era. These are: defilements of desire, of thought, of the people, of life itself and of the age.

T'ien-t'ai, a Buddhist philosopher active in China in the sixth century, described the five defilements in the following manner: "The most fundamental of these five are the defilements of thought and of desire, which result in the defilements of the people and of life. These in turn give rise to the defilement of the age." "Defilement of desire" points to deluded impulses such as the three poisons themselves. "Defilement of thought" refers to excessive and unreasoning attachment to specific ideas or ideologies. According to T'ien-t'ai, the defilements of thought and desire are the most fundamental and, through their impact on individuals, bring chaos and disruption to families, nations and states. Passed on from one generation to another, these defilements give rise to the "defilement of life," instilling historical hatred and violence among different peoples, ethnic groups and nations. These defilements finally influence all people living in that era, resulting in the "defilement of the age."

Modern civilization increasingly exhibits the aspects of what Buddhism would term the "defilement of the age." Signs of this include rampant materialism, the ruthless domination and exploitation of nature, and unbridled consumption. Since the end of the Cold War, our world has been spared major outbreaks of conflict stemming from attachment to ideology, that is, defilement of thought. However, the kinds of conflicts that are flaring up are rooted in the irrational passions, such as extreme nationalism, that Buddhism would classify as "defilement of desire." These are considered even more deeply rooted in people's lives and therefore even more difficult to control.

In a world where deluded impulses cast the pall of their negative effects in the form of the five defilements described above, Buddhists have, I believe, a particular mission to contribute to the realization of peace on all planes. In other words, we should not be content with our inner peace of mind but should broaden our horizons and extend our endeavors to include abolition of war--that is, peace of the global human community--as well as peace with the natural world, through truly sustainable development and harmonious coexistence with the global ecosystem.

The Bodhisattva Way in the Modern World

I would now like to elaborate on how the bodhisattva practice, compassionate action based on the Buddhist understanding of life, can contribute to the realization of peace in its three dimensions (inner, community and ecological peace).

First let us consider inner peace, or tranquillity of spirit and mind. In Buddhism, a bodhisattva is one who carries out altruistic acts and seeks to contribute to human society by fully manifesting the qualities of wisdom and compassion. A bodhisattva strives first to transform his or her own life; the locus for this struggle is the realities of human existence and the sustained effort to alleviate people's sufferings. In this way the bodhisattva strives to generate joy for both self and others.

The practice of the bodhisattva has been expressed in contemporary terms as "human revolution." The inner state of one striving for the realization of human revolution can be considered that of spiritual tranquillity; the state of inner peace expounded in Buddhism is a dynamic condition brimming with wisdom and compassion.

Soka Gakkai International (SGI), a Buddhist lay organization, exists to help facilitate people's practice of compassion in daily life by providing an environment of cooperation, spiritual sustenance and support. In this way, the SGI seeks to bring the practice of the bodhisattva to the contemporary world.

While the SGI pursues many diverse activities, the most fundamental of all are the discussion meetings held and rooted in local communities. In present-day society, where unrestrained egotism has brought profound disruptions to the human heart and where humanity is losing sight of the art of coexisting with nature, these small gatherings of people of all ages, races, interests and backgrounds offer a forum for rich and refreshing exchange. In a world afflicted by "social desertification," these meetings serve as a human oasis.

It is, after all, individual human beings who alone can work toward the realization of the grand goals of world peace and the prosperity of human society. As an organization, the SGI has consistently focused on people and on the movement for human revolution through the bodhisattva practice. As Buddhists, we strive to establish a condition of inner peace in daily life and, at the same time, to contribute to the realization of the peace of the world around us, by enabling each individual to develop his or her unique qualities to the very fullest.

Secondly, with regard to the dimension of social peace, or peace in the community of humankind, the SGI's cultural and educational activities support a variety of political and economic measures that are being proposed in various forums, seeking to move them toward implementation. These include the abolition of nuclear weapons and the reduction of economic disparity. As part of the SGI's ongoing efforts to promote public education regarding these and other global issues, we have mounted international exhibitions that have been seen by millions of citizens worldwide. Likewise, we have long been involved in efforts to provide concrete humanitarian support for the world's refugees and displaced persons.

With respect to these questions of security and development, Buddhism upholds the principle of non-violence and calls for a fundamental transformation in our way of life. At the individual level, this means a transformation from a way of life dominated by attachment to material desires to one more focused on spiritual and existential values. At the same time, it also means a compassionate way of life, of being ready to make those efforts required to ensure that the citizens of developing countries can have their basic needs fulfilled. In connection with human rights, we recognize the existence of the supreme life-condition--that of Buddhahood--in all people, and therefore insist that all members of the human family are without distinction capable of manifesting that condition of unlimited wisdom and compassion. Buddhism's unique contribution to the resolution of culturally based conflicts is related to the teaching of "dependent origination" cited above, and to the empathy and tolerance that issue from that cosmology.

As mentioned earlier, the law of dependent origination describes the insight that all things and phenomena are interdependent and all manifest the ordering principle of the cosmos, each in its own unique manner. Since Buddhism views deluded impulses as those that prevent people from clearly seeing this reality, we feel that humankind will be best served when each religious tradition engages in its own characteristic struggle against the three poisons of hatred, avarice and ignorance, while cooperating toward the resolution of global issues. This is how Buddhism views the key concepts of cultural pluralism and religious tolerance.

Coming to the third dimension, "peace with the ecosystem," the Buddhist perspective on nature has always pointed to creative coexistence with nature. Shakyamuni's compassion was not limited to humankind but extended to all living things. The philosophical basis for sustainable development can be found in this kind of creative symbiosis with the rest of the natural world. Such a philosophical outlook will support the kind of lifestyle that is truly in harmony with the ecosystem. The SGI has supported afforestation projects in the Amazon and elsewhere. Local SGI organizations have been involved in a wide range of activities to protect the environment.

In resolving the global challenges confronting humanity, political, economic and scientific measures must be pursued together with a transformation of human consciousness. We should establish a lifestyle of conserving energy, recycling resources and pursuing spiritual values. Our overarching goal should be to cultivate a shared awareness of our common humanity and of solidarity with the living organism that is Earth. As we move toward that awareness, we must develop the wisdom to properly direct toward beneficial ends of the life sciences, including the burgeoning field of genetic engineering. In this, I feel that the outlook of the world's religious and ethical traditions can and must make an important contribution.

A Buddhist approach to peace, I believe, offers important common ground with other traditions. The cause of a truly comprehensive and lasting peace can most effectively be furthered by ceaselessly expanding circles of friendship and understanding through dialogue, exchange and cooperation.

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