Three Means To Peace
Joseph Goldstein on how three principles of meditation can be applied to the
world's conflicts. The method is mindfulness, the expression is
compassion, and the essence is wisdom.
question confronting spiritual life today is how we can best respond to
the tremendous conflicts and uncertainties of these times. The war on
terror, the seemingly intractable violence of the Middle East, poverty
and disease, racism, the degradation of the environment, and the
problems in our own personal lives, all call us to ask: What is the
source of this great mass of suffering? What are the forces in the world
that drive intolerance, violence and injustice? Are there forces that
hold the promise of peace? Do we really understand the nature of fear
and hatred, envy and greed? Do we know how to cultivate love and
kindness, energy and wisdom?
The great discovery of the
meditative journey is that all the forces for good and for harm playing
out in the world are also right here in our own minds. If we want to
understand the world, we need to understand ourselves. Can we do this?
believe something helpful has emerged from the interaction of various
Buddhist traditions in the West over the last thirty years. I call what
has arisen from this sometimes confusing and other times illuminating
interaction of traditions the “One Dharma of Western Buddhism.” This
term does not refer to some hodge-podge of teachings mixed together in a
watered-down, confused mix of methods and metaphysics. Rather, its
defining characteristic is the very Western quality of pragmatism. It is
allegiance to a simple question: “What works?” What works to free the
mind from suffering? What works to engender the heart of compassion?
What works to help us awaken from ignorance?
This pragmatism not
only serves our individual practices, but it also illuminates a question
that has plagued religious (and other) traditions for thousands of
years: is it possible to hold differences of view in a larger context of
unity rather than in conflict and hostility?
Rather than take
religious views and teachings to be ultimate statements of absolute
truth, they might be better understood as skillful means to liberate the
mind. Instead of pitting one view against another, we might let go of
rigid attachment to any view, and ask the very pragmatic question, “Is
this teaching leading my heart and mind to greater wisdom and peace, to
greater kindness and compassion? Or does it lead to more divisiveness,
to more selfishness, to more violence?”
This approach to religion
is of vital importance now, as we explore methods for understanding the
various forces at work in the mind. Whatever particular spiritual path
we follow, we can draw on elements from different traditions,
harmonizing methods of mindfulness, the motivation of compassion and the
liberating wisdom of non-clinging. These three qualities—mindfulness,
compassion and wisdom—are not Burmese or Tibetan, Thai or Japanese,
Eastern or Western. They do not belong to any religion but are qualities
in our own minds and hearts, and many different practices enhance their
Mindfulness is the key to the present moment. Without it
we simply stay lost in the wanderings of our minds. Tulku Urgyen, the
great Dzogchen master of the last century, said, "There is one thing we
always need and that is the watchman named mindfulness—the guard who is
always on the lookout for when we get carried away by mindlessness."
is the quality and power of mind that is aware of what's
happening—without judgment and without interference. It is like a mirror
that simply reflects whatever comes before it. It serves us in the
humblest ways, keeping us connected to brushing our teeth or having a
cup of tea. It keeps us connected to the people around us, so that we're
not simply rushing by them in the busyness of our lives. The Dalai Lama
is an example of someone who beautifully embodies this quality of
caring attention: after one conference in Arizona, His Holiness
requested that all the employees of the hotel gather in the lobby so
that he could greet each one of them before he left for his next
The Buddha also spoke of mindfulness as being the
path to enlightenment: "This is the direct path for the purification of
beings, for the overcoming of sorrow and lamentation, for the
disappearing of pain and grief, for the attainment of the Way, for the
realization of nirvana."
We can start the practice of mindfulness
meditation with the simple observation and feeling of each breath.
Breathing in, we know we're breathing in; breathing out, we know we're
breathing out. It's very simple, although not easy. After just a few
breaths, we hop on trains of association, getting lost in plans,
memories, judgments and fantasies. This habit of wandering mind is very
strong, even though our reveries are often not pleasant and sometimes
not even true. As Mark Twain so aptly put it, "Some of the worst things
in my life never happened." So we need to train our minds, coming back
again and again to the breath, simply beginning again.
though, our minds steady and we begin to experience some space of inner
calm and peace. This environment of inner stillness makes possible a
deeper investigation of our thoughts and emotions. What is a
thought—that strange, ephemeral phenomenon that can so dominate our
lives? When we look directly at a thought, we see that it is little more
than nothing. Yet when it is unnoticed, it wields tremendous power.
Notice the difference between being lost in a thought and being mindful
that we're thinking. Becoming aware of the thought is like waking up
from a dream or coming out of a movie theater after being absorbed in
the story. Through mindfulness, we gradually awaken from the movies of
What, too, is the nature of emotions—those powerful
energies that sweep over our bodies and minds like great breaking waves?
In a surprising way, mindfulness and the investigation of emotions
begin to deepen our understanding of selflessness; we see that the
emotions themselves arise out of conditions and pass away as the
conditions change, like clouds forming and dissolving in the clear open
sky. As the Buddha said to his son, Rahula, "You should consider all
phenomena with proper wisdom: 'This is not mine, this is not I, this is
On the subtlest level, we learn not to identify
with consciousness itself, cutting through any sense of this knowing
faculty as being “I” or “mine.” As a way of cultivating this radical
transformation of understanding, I have found it useful to reframe
meditation experience in the passive voice; for example, the breath
being known, sensations being known, thoughts being known. This language
construction takes the "I" out of the picture and opens us to the
question, "Known by what?" And rather than jumping in with a conceptual
response, the question can lead us to experience directly the unfolding
mystery of awareness, moment after moment.
The wisdom of
understanding selflessness finds expression in compassion. We might say
that compassion is the activity of emptiness. Compassion arises both on
the personal level of our individual relationships and on the global
level of great cultures and civilizations interacting with one another.
The integration of the understanding of our own minds with what is
happening in the world today has enormous implications.
Six weeks after 9/11, I was teaching loving-kindness meditation (metta,
in Pali) at a retreat for lawyers. In this practice, we start sending
loving wishes to ourselves, and then send those loving wishes to various
categories of beings, including benefactors, friends, neutral persons,
enemies and, finally, all beings. At the retreat, I suggested the
possibility of including in our metta even those involved in acts of
violence and aggression. One of the participants from New York commented
that he couldn't possibly send loving-kindness to al-Qaeda, nor would
he ever want to.
For me, that simple and honest statement raised a
lot of interesting questions. What is our response to violence and
injustice? How do we understand the practice of loving-kindness and
compassion? What are our bedrock aspirations for the world and
In doing the meditation on loving-kindness, we repeat
certain phrases; for example, "May you be happy, may you free of mental
and physical suffering, may you live with ease." However, when we get to
people who have done us harm, either individually or collectively,
often we don't want to include them in our loving wishes. We don't want
to wish them happiness. In fact, we may well want to see them suffer for
the great harm they have done. These are not unusual feelings to have.
right there, in that situation, is the critical juncture of
contemplative practice and our life of action in the world. If we want
to enhance the possibilities for more compassion and peace in the
world—and in ourselves—we need to look beneath our usual and, perhaps,
instinctive emotional responses. In situations of suffering, whether
small interpersonal conflicts or huge disasters of violence and
destruction, there is one question that holds the key to compassionate
response: in this situation of suffering, whatever it may be, what is
our most fundamental wish?
In the current Middle East situation,
with so much violence on both sides, I find my metta practice including
all in the wish, "May you be free of hatred, may you be free of emnity."
If our aspiration is peace in the world, is there anyone we would
exclude from this wish, whether they are terrorists, suicide bombers,
soldiers lost in violence or government policy-makers? "May everyone be
free of hatred, free of emnity." These are the mind states that drive
harmful acts. If our own response is emnity or hatred or ill will,
whether we acknowledge it or not, we are part of the problem.
message is not new, but the challenging question remains of what to do
with these feelings when they do arise, because for almost all of us, in
different situations, they will. How do we find compassion in the
middle of storms of anger, hatred, ill will or fear?
importantly, we need to acknowledge that these feelings are arising. In
this regard, it is mindfulness that can bring the gift of compassion,
both for ourselves and others. Mindfulness sees the whole parade of
feelings, however intense, without getting lost or drowning in them, and
without judging ourselves for feeling them.
One of the
transforming moments of my meditation practice happened when I was lost
for several days in recurring feelings of intense fear. I tried being
aware of them as they arose, noting “fear, fear,” but I still felt
caught in the intensity of the emotion. Then, at a certain point,
something shifted in my mind and I said to myself, "If this fear is here
for the rest of my life, it's O.K." That was the first moment of
genuine acceptance, and it entirely changed my relationship to fear.
Although it would still arise, I was no longer locking it in with my
resistance. Genuine mindful acceptance allowed the fear to just wash
Through mindfulness, our hearts become spacious enough
to hold the painful emotions, to feel the suffering of them, and to let
them go. But it takes practice—and perhaps several different
practices—to open to the difficult emotions that we're aware of and to
illuminate those that are hidden.
There are some particular
difficulties and challenges in being with difficult emotions. We often
live in denial. It's not always easy to open to our shadow side. And
even when we are aware, we can get caught in justifying these feelings
to ourselves: "I should hate these people—look at what they did." From
justifying these feelings of hatred and emnity (which is quite different
than being mindful of them), there can come a strong feeling of
self-righteousness. We forget that the feelings and emotions we have are
all conditioned responses, arising out of the particular conditions of
our lives. Other people in the same situation might feel very different
things. Although at times it may be hard to believe, our feelings are
not necessarily the reflection of some ultimate truth. As Bankei, the
great 17th-century Zen master, reminded us: "Don't side with yourself."
about our feelings and view is the shadow side of commitment. We
sometimes confuse this self-justification with the feeling of passionate
dedication. But great exemplars of compassion and social justice,
people like Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi, Aung San Suu Kyi and
others, illuminate the difference.
It is not a question of
whether unwholesome mind states will arise in us—or in the world around
us. Feelings of hatred, emnity, fear, self-righteousness, greed, envy
and jealousy all do arise at different times. Our challenge is to see
them all with mindfulness, understanding that these states themselves
are the cause of suffering and that no action we take based on them will
lead to our desired result—peace in ourselves and peace in the world.
method is mindfulness, the expression is compassion and the essence is
wisdom. Wisdom sees the impermanent, ephemeral nature of experience and
the basic unreliability of these changing phenomena. Wisdom opens our
minds to the experience of selflessness, the great liberating jewel of
the Buddha's enlightenment. This understanding, in turn, engenders a
compassionate engagement with the world. Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, a
great Tibetan master, taught: “When you recognize the empty nature, the
energy to bring about the good of others dawns uncontrived and
effortless.” And wisdom reveals that non-clinging is the essential
unifying experience of freedom. We see that non-clinging is both a
practice to cultivate and the nature of the awakened mind itself.
T.S. Eliot expressed this well in a few lines from "The Four Quartets."
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well.