Buddhist Pacifism

Sep 2006

My mandate from the Star is to comment on current issues from a Buddhist perspective. As such, I have several times used this space to advocate against war. If one is a follower of the Buddha, one must be a pacifist. As the Buddha stated, "Hatred is never overcome by hatred, hatred is overcome by love. This is a law eternal."

Whenever I dare to suggest that there might be better ways to resolve conflicts than air-strikes and massacres, inevitably emails arrive accusing me of being "unrealistic." This charge is worth examining. Just how and why is it more realistic to deal with problems by violence?

Recent history certainly does not support that position. Is Iraq or the world better off because of the American invasion? Is Israel more secure after inflicting wholesale carnage on Lebanon? Has the fighting in Sri Lanka benefited either the Tamils or the Sinhalese?

The corollary of the Buddha's law is that hatred only breeds more hatred. This is particularly true in modern wars, where the technologically dominant side relies on heavy use of air-power. Aerial bombardment is a nasty, and cowardly, tactic. It has the advantage of minimizing casualties among one's troops, but only at the cost of death and displacement among the hapless civilian population. And most pertinently, it creates bitterness among the survivors, breeding a new generation of terrorists.

In one respect the Buddhist position on war is certainly more realistic. The Buddha said that men strap on swords, and slay one another "just for sensual desires." In modern parlance, wars are fought for material gain. A study of history bears this out. The propaganda of war always claims it is for a noble goal such as democracy or civilization. Look a little closer and you find that wars are waged for land, water, oil or other resources. War is the terror of the greedy; terrorism is the war of the desperate.

The importance of oil in the Iraq war is obvious. What is less well understood is the critical role of water in the recent Lebanon-Israel war. Israel claimed to be acting to secure the release of its prisoners. But there is plenty of evidence that this campaign was planned long before-hand. Israel has a critical shortage of fresh water and there is a long history of her planners looking for ways to acquire rights to the Litani River. (For a good analysis of this google "Israel's Water Wars" by Jason Godesky)

It is fair to ask a pacifist, if one rejects war, how then do we solve conflicts? While there is no quick fix , a beginning must be made if we are to find peace and security or even to survive as a species. The cycle of violence and counter-violence must be broken and it usually behooves the more powerful side, as having more room to manoeuvre, to make the first step. The essential thing is a change of attitude. There must be a willingness to see the other person's humanity, and to understand the issues from their point of view. This must involve what the Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh calls "deep listening."

Here is a practical suggestion. Canada, as a multi-cultural society has a unique opportunity to be a peace-maker. We have people living in our country from, and with connections to, all parts of the world. Why doesn't the Canadian government facilitate forums for open dialogue between representatives of warring sides; Israeli and Arab, Tamil and Sinhalese and so forth? These forums could explore ways and means to find just settlements, in a venue removed from the immediate bitterness and danger of the battle-field. A commendable private venture that does just this is Peace it Together (www.creativepeacenetwork.ca) which brings together Israeli and Palestinian youths to spend time together camping in the Canadian wilderness. This small first step could be greatly expanded.

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