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Cultivating Peace in a Violent World

by Ruben Habito

ZenMKZCAs we welcome the New Year 2008, we are made acutely aware of the fact that we all live in a world wracked by violence on so many fronts. The recent assassination of Benazir Bhutto, Pakistani opposition leader, is one more incident among countless others indicating this sad state of affairs. The brutal response of the military rulers of Burma against Buddhist monks and lay people who took to the streets in peaceful protests against the regime, causing death and injuries to many, together with mass arrests, torture and imprisonment of multitudes in that country is another example of unbridled violence against innocent people reported by the media to the entire world. Untold instances of armed violence continue to be perpetrated by our fellow humans against one another in various ways in different regions of the world. Millions are uprooted from their dwellings due to threats on their lives from political, social, economic, religious or other factors, and live as refugees. World Health Organization statistics show that 30,000 children die of hunger and malnutrition on a daily basis globally. Rainforests in land areas totaling roughly half the size of the state of California continue to be ravaged and depleted annually. (A cursory reading of State of the World, an annual publication of the Worldwatch Institute, notably from 2002 to the forthcoming 2008 editions, gives us a panoramic view, as well as highlight particular features in the ailing condition of our global society.)

In the midst of all this, an earnest question arises from deep within our hearts: can we all live in peace together, toward a sustainable future, in our global community, in our immediate circles of human relations, and within our own selves? In other words, is there a way of stopping these wars raging on all fronts, causing untold human suffering and pain, and eating away at the very core of our own being?

This is a tall order indeed, and we may feel numbed in resignation, overwhelmed by a sense of powerlessness to do anything.  But before we wring our hands in near-despair, daunted by the magnitude of the task before us, let us ask the question again, on a more manageable scale, from a point of departure where we can find our bearings, and actually take an initial step, however small.

The question can be asked anew, by each of us: How can I live in a way that contributes toward peace in this world?

Put in this way, we can give ourselves some breathing space, and turn to the little garden of our own lives, to consider how we may cultivate peace therein, right here, where we are, as a point of departure.

In the practice of seated meditation, zazen, that we have come to cherish, we take a relaxed but attentive seated posture, pay attention to our breathing, and focus our mind on the here and now with each breath. This practice of settling our body and silencing our mind opens us to a place of peace, a place that is home. It is also a place wherein we are able to hear the sounds of the world in the depths of the silence.

But wait. Some, in fact, many of us, will be quick to note that this practice of settling down to sit in silence, far from leading us to inner peace, only opens our eyes more clearly to and heightens our awareness of the conflict and turmoil in our day to day lives.  As we plunge more deeply into the recesses of our consciousness, this or that unfulfilled desire, that unhealed wound from the recent or remote past, this resentment harbored against a parent, a sibling, an acquaintance, co-worker, employer, an ex-spouse or lover, or current spouse or lover, and so on, can well up and loom large on the horizon of our conscious mind. In the midst of this silence we are able to recognize that there are wars being waged within ourselves. As we go deeper into the silence, we can also come to realize that these inner wars I find within myself are not separate from, are intimately connected to, and in fact, constitute part of the cause of, the wars going on in the world “out there.”

The question thus comes to us with a heightened focus: how can I stop the wars within myself, and thereby contribute to stopping the wars raging “out there”?

The answer can be found in the depths of that very silence itself. In the same silence that exposed us to our nakedness, to our frailty, to our vulnerability, we may be able to discover that there is balm that will heal our woundedness. As we recognize, and acknowledge, and accept our woundedness, somehow, in that acknowledgement and acceptance, something shifts within us. As I acknowledge and accept my own woundedness, borne in the particular events and encounters, in all the twists and turns of my own life journey, somehow it is that very woundedness that becomes the place of birth of com-passion, the capacity, and the power, to “suffer-with,” in my life with others, with everyone else in the world. This is the power that enables me to embrace each and everyone in this world in my heart, and thus bear the wounds of the Earth as my own, as my own wounds are cast in the ocean of the woundedness of all beings. As I immerse myself in that deep, deep stillness, I surrender to the Boundless Compassion that penetrates the entire universe, thus unleashing its power and letting it be activated in my own life.

All this may sound too splendidly simple, like an all-too-quick fix to the world’s, and to my own individual problems. No, I am not saying, “just sit in silence, and all will be well.” What I am hoping to convey, though, is this invitation: Give yourself this opportunity to sit in silence, and see for yourself. In that silence, cup your ears well and listen from the depths, and let yourself be taken over by that Boundless Compassion that awaits your discovery therein.

But it is not a venture that can be completed in one sit, or in a day, or in a week’s silent retreat, or a few months, or even after years and years of this practice. It may not be completed even in a lifetime of practice. No, it may not be completed, but at least, it is begun, with every sit, with every breath.

As we make a habit of this practice of sitting in silence, and get the knack of it, perhaps, gradually, it can also open our eyes, and our heart, to the small yet manifold ways we can make a difference in this world. It will open to us pathways for bringing our own lives, and the world, closer to becoming a place of peace. Every person I encounter or relate to, whether it be a member of my immediate household, a co-worker, the clerk at the grocery store, or the driver who just cut me on the highway, or those individuals who speak ill of me, or those who may have betrayed me or hurt me, I am able to recognize as bearing wounds of their own, and thus am able to embrace them in my heart as my own self.  As I am able to embrace the world’s wounds as my own, I am able to take responsibility for them, and thus in my little ways, be enlightened and empowered to take steps toward addressing them. In feeling the pain of the world as my own pain, I am no longer able to continue in a life of smugness and indifference. Rather, I cannot help but be engaged in those kinds of tasks that seek to alleviate the sufferings of my fellow sentient beings in this world, in the various ways, big and small, that are available to me.

A famous Zen Master (Shunryu Suzuki) wrote a book with the title Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. The hint being given us here is simple. With each sit, we are invited to take on this “beginner’s mind.” With every sit, with every breath in fact, we can begin to stop the wars raging within, and in doing so, offer our contribution to bringing a little more peace into this world of ours.

Ruben L.F. Habito
Maria Kannon Zen Center
January 1, 2008