Dharma and the Iraq War
April 2, 2003
In the short time since the war began, I've
taught in Idaho, California, and Missouri. In all these places,
people were asking for Dharma advice on how to work with the emotions
that were coming up for them around the war. The following, then,
is not meant as a political statement - although my personal view
is present - but as suggestions on how to work with our feelings
about what is happening.
The Nobel Peace Prize winner, His Holiness the
Dalai Lama, was in the midst of giving the traditional Tibetan New
Year teachings when the Iraq War broke out. The day after fighting
began, he said, "The war is happening now. Let's pray that
at least something good comes from it." I interpreted this
to mean that we did our best to prevent it and now, instead of falling
prey to feelings of despair and anger, which only create more suffering,
we must shift our attention to deal with the situation in a constructive
way. How do we do this?
Many people who were hoping the conflict could
be resolved without violence are now feeling helpless, afraid, and
angry. First we need to work with these destructive emotions that
not only enhance our suffering, but also limit our ability to help
others. Then we seek to generate a kind and compassionate heart.
Having done this, each of us will discover his or her own ways to
create and contribute to peace.
Many people feel helpless to change the course
of events as governmental leaders seem to be blindly pursuing their
own agenda. If we give in to feeling helpless and thinking that
there is nothing we can do, it is as if we are saying cause and
effect do not exist. But the law of cause and effect does exist;
that is a fact of daily life as well as a basic Buddhist principle.
We can plants seeds for peace through Dharma practice, social action,
and generosity to aid organizations. We may not be able to stop
war instantly or single-handedly, but it's important the voice of
peace be spoken and heard, regardless of whether it has an immediate
or long-term effect. The mutual support that we offer each other
just by speaking words of peace helps us and others. In addition,
the power of speaking our truth has an influence. Making prayers
for peace; doing the taking and giving meditation (tong.len); meditating
on Chenresig, the Buddha of Compassion, also have effects. We can
attend peace rallies, write to our leaders, engage in social action,
and contribute to aid organizations. We may not be able to get food
and medicine to those on both sides of the war who are subject to
bombing and live fire, but we can at least help the poor and ill
in our own country. Reaching out to others with our thoughts and
actions is what is important. Helplessness cannot survive in an
environment of care.
Two kinds of fear may arise in reaction to the
war. One is self-centered, the second other-focused. Self-centered
fear is debilitating. We may fear a variety of things: increased
terrorist activities in our own countries, the end of the carefully
constructed international cooperation that the U.N. has fostered
since its inception; the loss of rights and freedom due to the present
administration's security policies; a failing economy that restricts
our lifestyle. There is a quality of panic about fear, as the mind
creates worst-case scenarios that end with, "This situation
will overwhelm me."
Asking ourselves a few questions helps to counteract
- How likely to happen is the situation I
fear? How much of this is my mind writing horror stories? Often
we find that the drama we create is highly unlikely to occur.
- Even if it did happen, what resources do
I have to deal with it? We find that there are external resources
in the community to draw on as well as internal resources of the
strength that comes from Dharma practice and the compassion born
- Although this fear is unrealistic, but real
dangers may be present. What can I do to prevent them? Here we
again come to the power of speaking the voice of peace, of positive
aspirations, and of reaching out to others in whatever way we
can. We each have different ways to help. For some it may be healing
an interpersonal conflict; for another it may be social or political
action; for a third it may be offering service of any kind.
Other-focused fear is concerned with the
safety and well-being of others. Imagining what it would be like
living in a city being bombed or one in which clean water and food
are in short supply, we find the suffering of those experiencing
this unbearable. We worry if these people will live, if their loved
ones will survive, if their homes and belongings will remain. We
fear for the lives troops and civilians on both sides of the conflict.
This fear has the potential to transform into compassion, the wish
that living beings are free from suffering and its causes. That
compassion is dynamic and invigorating, and although tinged with
the sadness of witnessing suffering, it is optimistic that in the
long-run suffering and its causes can be removed.
However, if we aren't careful, other-focused
fear can morph into personal distress in which we become more focused
on our own uncomfortable feelings when we see others suffering than
on their misery. Personal distress impedes the development of true
compassion. Another possible glitch with other-focused fear is bias.
That is, we have compassion for the well-being of those that we
view as victims of aggression, but lack compassion for those we
label perpetrators. In fact, we may even develop animosity towards
the perpetrators, in which case our way of thinking resembles theirs
in some aspects: we see things in terms of "us and them,"
blame others, and wish them ill. In other words, we are compassionate
to one side but hostile to the other. This is not genuine compassion,
which goes beyond bias.
Helplessness and self-centered fear are
extremely uncomfortable emotions, and we frequently resort to anger
to divert ourselves from experiencing them. At present, our anger
is likely to focus on government leaders, whose actions seem ignorant
and counterproductive to the welfare of our own and other countries.
Or we may be angry at the situation, "I don't have a bone to
pick. Why am I stuck in the middle of other people's conflicts?"
Here it is helpful to remember that our
own actions - our karma - caused us to be in this situation. There's
no one outside to blame. If we hadn't created the karmic causes
through our own harmful actions, we wouldn't be in these circumstances.
Instead of rejecting the situation, we must accept it and make the
war and the threats to safety that go with it our Dharma practice.
We may wonder, "What did I do in
the past that I find myself involuntarily dragged into this conflict
now?" If we look closely, we may find that in the past we have
stirred up conflict by back-biting, gossip, or spreading false stories.
We may have a little of Sadam and Bush inside ourselves. Our spiteful
speech, which hurts others to the core, is our weapon of mass destruction.
Our control issues in which we impose our way on those around us
are our bombs and artillery attacks. It's rather sobering to recognize
this, and even though it's not at the scale where it influences
as many people, still our jealousy and hatred and the actions motivated
by them bring suffering. There's work we can start doing now to
clean up our own attitudes and behavior as part of our contribution
Some people fear and distrust Bush, Cheney,
and Rumsfeld as much or more than Sadam. It is extremely easy to
vilify the coalition's leaders, in which case we put more anger
into an already hostile environment. Here, too, our mind has become
like those whose war cries we dislike, just the object of our hatred
is different. We see the world in terms of "us and them,"
denounce one side and praise the other, and wish harm to those who
disagree with us. This does no good at all, either for ourselves
This is where compassion comes in. How
can we have compassion for those who promote war? How can we be
kind to those whose political views differ from ours? How can we
wish well to those who harm others, including government leaders
and soldiers on both sides?
In my mind opposing the war and supporting
the troops are two different issues. I don't hate the US and British
troops. These young men are as much victims of others' agendas as
everyone else is. I wish them well; I don't want them to be killed
or to kill. We can love our country's soldiers as individual sentient
beings and still oppose the actions they engage in.
Similarly, opposing this war doesn't mean
we don't love our country. In fact, it is because we care about
our country that we don't want its leaders to take us down a path
that we consider mistaken. We appreciate the freedom we have here
but think that an international policy based on understanding and
respect for other cultures will protect it better than the current
What about the government leaders who
command them to fight? How can we hate those whose ways of thinking
are so ignorant and misguided? Just imagine - if we grew up in Bush's
family or in Sadam's home town with all the conditioning they received
as youngsters, it's highly likely that we would think like them.
Aren't both of them victims of the conditioning they received? Aren't
they oppressed by the force of their own ignorance, attachment,
and hostility? When we think of the karma they are creating and
the results they will experience due to it, how can we hate them?
Aren't they objects worthy of our compassion?
Compassion isn't just for those who are
ostensibly suffering in the conflict. Compassion is needed especially
for those who perpetrate harm. We need to wish them to be well and
happy. If they were content, they wouldn't be doing what they are
doing. People only harm others when they're miserable themselves,
not when they feel happy.
Compassion doesn't necessitate that we
agree with what others think or do. We can speak out against harmful
activities while having compassion for their perpetrators. Compassion
doesn't mean we escape the realities of war. In fact, I believe
it sees those realities more accurately and leads us to creative
ways of seeking resolutions. A kind heart is something we have the
capability and power to generate. We have some work to do; let's
begin right now, and let's help each other do it.
May all sentient beings have happiness and its
May all sentient beings be free from suffering and its causes.
May all sentient beings not be separated from sorrowless bliss.
May all sentient beings abide in equanimity, free from bias, attachment