Last Friday, while going through old files, I came across a dharma talk I gave at the Won Buddhist Temple in Manhattan, NY in 2004. When I learned of yet another senseless shooting at the Chabad Synagogue in Poway, California, I re-read my talk and ended sharing at our Zen service on Sunday, which was dedicated to Lori Kaye and all those affected by the shooting. Sadly, my talk, given 15 years ago, is still relevant. I offer it here, with the hope that it gives others some guidance for creating a better world for all
An End to Violence: Creating the Seeds of Peace
A dharma talk given by Do'an in 2004, at the Won Buddhist Temple in Manhattan, NY
Lately, I have been thinking about the role violence has taken in modern culture, and it brought me back to reconnecting with the roots of nonviolence, which I have long been neglecting. I believe my recent reawakening came while watching the presidential debates, after hearing both candidates say that it was a goal of theirs to kill terrorists. Not calls to end terrorism, not even to a call to address the causes of terrorism, but just to kill terrorists. It shook me terribly to know that the policy-makers for our country were so blatantly advocating for the ending of other people’s lives. After the debates, I began to examine the prevalence of violence in our society in a much more critical way than I ever had before. When had our culture become so accepting of violence? Where did it begin? I knew it originated long before the tragedy of 9/11. I didn't have to look very hard to find how pervasive violence has become. It seems lately it is everywhere.
Violence is so pervasive in our culture that most of us don’t even notice it anymore. When I asked other people about the statements the candidates made during the debates, not one person I asked noticed the violence. This disturbed me even further. I realized I had to do something. It wasn’t enough for me to sit and point out every incident of violence I came across. But what could I do? I am only one person, I couldn’t single-handedly stop the conflicts happening everywhere. I spent some time seriously meditating on this, clearing my mind, so I might figure out what I could do. Through my meditation, I realized, I was thinking too broadly about this.
When thinking about violence, most people think of war, violent crime, television and video game violence. But these are only examples of the high-profile violence we have grown accustomed to seeing. These kinds of violence are actually the cumulative results of the smaller more insidious acts of violence that we have allowed—and sometimes even cultivated—in our daily lives, often without awareness.
Violence starts out small and like a stone thrown into water, it ripples out in ever widening circles. Many of our attempts to stop violence, the war on terrorism or the war against drugs, for example, only ends in spreading more violence. This is partly because the methods used to stop the particular violence being used leads to more divisiveness, to more selfishness, and ultimately to retaliation through more violence. However, I believe that despite the methods employed, there is a bigger problem here. Our attempts to stop or quell violence doesn’t work because we are only addressing the symptoms, rather than the source. The only way to end violence is to stop it where it begins.
One doesn’t have to start by launching huge campaigns against war, or against the government policy-makers. There are many people who do wage such campaigns, and as well intentioned as their actions may be, they will do little good, because the roots of violence hasn’t been identified. Ironically, the very people who protest against war, demanding peace, often contribute to the violence through the actions and ways in which the protests are held. How is this possible? Because violence begins within ourselves. If one hasn’t identified the roots of violence he or she is carrying inside, it grows and spreads, touching and polluting everything in their lives.
This isn’t a statement meant to make one defensive. Rather it is a diagnosis, like a doctor describing an illness. After all, the doctor doesn’t blame the patient for having the disease. Violence is the disease we all have become infected with. Fortunately, the prognosis is a good one—pending some much needed lifestyle changes. I believe that it is a natural state for humans to be peaceful and loving. The philosopher, St. Augustine said, “Peace is the quest, nay the hunger of every soul.” Unfortunately, we got lost somewhere along the way, and in the process we have conditioned ourselves away from that natural path toward a culture of violence. I did a lot of reading and meditating, in my quest to come up with answers regarding how to change the roots of violence to seeds of peace. Since I believe that moving away from violence toward peace is a process, I came up with three steps a person can do to begin reducing the amount of violence in the world.
The first step is to treat oneself well. We treat ourselves violently by over working ourselves, piling on demands greater than one person can handle, and ignoring the needs of our bodies and spirit. We can begin by slowing down, getting proper sleep, eating well, and exercising regularly. Meditate everyday. Be gentle with ourselves, and loosen our hold on opinions. Stop judging and being overly critical of ourselves and others. It’s a lot of things, but I have found the best way to incorporate them all into my life is to slow down and develop a practice mindfulness. The Buddha said that mindfulness “is the direct path for purification of beings, for overcoming of sorrow and lamentation, for the disappearing of pain and grief.” There is a lot of anger and pain in the world because there are so many people with unmet needs as basic as compassion and belonging. When these needs are fulfilled, anger dissolves and the seeds of peace take root. But because these needs are so widely unfulfilled, we walk around being mirrors for each other reflecting frustration and despair at feeling so disconnected and misunderstood. It’s no wonder that people can be so rude to one another. We are terribly rude to ourselves and we have come to accept it as normal.
The second step for reducing violence in our lives is to reduce our consumption of violence as much as possible. As we begin to treat ourselves with more compassion, the need to be surrounded with peace and compassion becomes more desirable. A new awareness opens us up to the world, because as we learn to care for ourselves in a positive way, we begin to experience our connection to all things. Countless studies have demonstrated that exposure to depictions of violence causes desensitization and creates a climate of fear. The American Psychiatric Association supported a study in 1998 that determined that by the age of 18 a child will have seen 16,000 simulated murders and 200,000 acts of violence.(https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12593343) Therefore, it makes sense to limit exposure to or avoid violent programs and activities that promote and desensitize us to violence. Also, I recommend reducing the amount of network news viewing (which “sells” violence as news) and seek alternative news sources. Network news programs have one major flaw in that they are corporations and their ultimate goal is to make a profit, not to offer information to the public. The cost to us is that the “news” we often receive is skewed or manipulated in such a way so that it can be marketed to consumers (us). In a culture of violence, violence and fear is considered selling points. Seek out multiple and alternative sources for information. Support nonprofit and independent news agencies, which don’t have the same pressure to sell news as entertainment as the major networks do. I am not suggesting developing a rose-colored view of the world. It is important to know what is going on in the world, even when it may be something negative, however, it is crucial to get a balance of information. Make room in your life for news and information that is un-sensationalized; look for the positive stories happening around the world--they are out there. In fact, there is more good going on in the world than bad, but in a culture addicted to violence, the good stories are largely ignored.
Also, reducing consumption of materials and the amount of waste we produce, conserving energy, as well as recycling and repurposing are also major factors in reducing violence. Our dependence on material objects has created a demand on the environment that is, frankly, abusive. This abuse has led to a rapid increase in the extinction of species, and to the mistreatment of indigenous people all over the world. A study sponsored by the American Museum of Natural History reported that if present trends continue as they are now, one half of all species of life on earth will be extinct in less than 100 years. (http://www.mysterium.com/extinction.html) One half of all species will be extinct. In less than 100 years! Materialism has led to a worldwide problem concerning waste and the pollution of the air, water, and the earth. We can contribute directly to the reduction of violence to the world by simplifying our needs and cutting back on our over dependence on material things.
The third step we can take to reduce violence is through improving our relationships with the people around us. This step is closely related to the first step, because we can only treat others as well as we treat ourselves. However, we are not living as hermits in the world, we all depend on one another in many aspects—from the food we eat to the shelter over our heads and the clothes we wear—we must be grateful for what other people can provide. Therefore, we can all do with a little practice in gratitude, compassion and kindness for others. Even for those who may not seem worthy of it..
In many ways, our language and behavior toward others is violent. The way we treat people (and the way we are treated in return) can be violent. Most often we are busy and believe we have no time to even greet the person helping us at the service counter, and often the person serving us treats us as an annoyance. What has happened to the connection? I think of a Korean Buddhist proverb that says “to touch sleeves with another person is to have shared 500 lives.” So we are not strangers! It is amazing how different the interaction can be when looking at that person as a long-lost friend. And, what a difference a simple smile can make. Also, we can pay better attention to our language and how we communicate both verbally and through body language. Learning how to effectively communicate through disagreements and conflicts can fundamentally change our relationship with others.
I believe if we begin with these three steps we will make great progress toward reducing violence in the world. One doesn’t need only to launch great campaigns against the ruling powers of the world to affect violence. Once one has learned how to live compassionately with his or herself, with his or her environment, and with the people around him or her, then any action, no matter how small, will be filled with compassion and peace. And like the stone dropped in water, the ripples of compassion and peace spread ever outward.
I think it’s important to be patience with oneself. In the beginning, all I saw was the violence that I had blindly accepted in my life. I felt disappointed in myself, but quickly realized that holding such criticism was violent. Change is a process. It takes time. But it needs to start right now. And as we work to change, we need to remember to look for the beautiful and positive things that are happening in the world. A violent-centered society seeks to hide those things, but if you look you will find them. Find them, cherish them, and share them. Uproot the roots of violence, and nurture the seeds of peace that already live inside you, so they will grow strong and spread to cover the world like a beautiful and loving garden.
A blog by the Lotus Heart Zen Meditation and Study Group members