Buddhist Peacemakers

Several Buddhist peacemakers are famous for their work today. What do they have in common? How effective are they?

By Metta Spencer | 2004-04-01 12:00:00

Historically, Buddhism has been predominantly a religion of peace - beginning with the Buddha himself, Gautama Shakyamuni, who taught and actively practiced nonviolence. He even went to a battlefield to intervene when two groups were preparing to fight over the waters of the Rohini River. He talked them out of it. On another occasion, his words kept an Indian king from attacking another kingdom.

The Buddhist doctrine of nonviolence was especially influential during the third century BCE, when the Indian Emperor Ashoka, who had slaughtered hundreds of thousands of people, repented and became one of the most benign rulers of all time. Ashoka devoted the rest of his life to improving the wellbeing of his subjects. He built universities and irrigation systems. He treated people as equals, regardless of their religion, politics, or caste. He could easily have conquered the other kingdoms around him, but instead he made them into allies. Nor was Ashoka totally unique. Although there have been wars between Buddhist rulers, there has never been a Buddhist holy war.

How is Buddhist peacemaking distinctive? Basically, salvific Buddhist practices are individualistic. Ultimately, each person's enlightenment comes from her own perception of ultimate reality - a glimpse attained through meditation. Buddhist peacemakers typically assign special priority to inner work on oneself. Some even prize spiritual calm more than overt action to change real circumstances- a view rare among our Western activists.


Nevertheless, activism is far from alien to Buddhism, and especially during recent decades there has been a growing emphasis on addressing real social and political issues as part of one's spiritual work. This orientation is termed "socially engaged Buddhism." Consider, for example, the career of the monk Thich Nhat Hanh, who spent the Vietnam War working for reconciliation between North and South Vietnam. He combined traditional meditative practices with active nonviolent civil disobedience, establishing a center of Buddhist studies in Saigon; a peace magazine; and a school for Youth for Social Service, which rebuilt destroyed villages. He traveled around the United States, proposing ways of ending the war. Martin Luther King nominated him for a Nobel Peace Prize. He led the Buddhist delegation to the Paris peace talks that led to accords between North Vietnam and the United States, but continued his peacemaking through the 1970s. He organized rescue missions to save Vietnamese boat people from sea pirates and cruel government officials who refused to let them land.

In his advice to would-be peacemakers, Thich Nhat Hanh pays attention primarily to such practices as meditating and watching one's breath. These inner processes are valuable, he says, for dissolving anger - an essential aspect of peacemaking. In one situation he was organizing the rescue of 800 Vietnamese refugees from small boats that lacked food or water. He intended to send them to Australia, over the opposition of the Singapore authorities, who intended instead to let them perish on the open seas. After some journalists heard about his activities and leaked the information, the Singapore police arrived at his flat, took his travel documents, and ordered him to leave within 24 hours. They would not allow his boats to leave the harbor to pick up boat people. He writes,

"What could we do in such a situation? We had to breathe deeply and consciously. Otherwise we might panic, or fight with the police, or do something to express our anger at their lack of humanity....Even the French Embassy was not open. So all of us practiced walking meditation inside our small flat for the rest of the night."

In the nick of time, the French embassy did intervene and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees saved the boat people. Thich Nhat Hanh was able to publicize their plight, and several countries increased their quotas for Vietnamese refugees. He attributes this success to meditation.

There are other "engaged Buddhists" elsewhere. In Thailand, Sulak Sivaraksa has organized volunteer organizations for community development. In Sri Lanka, A.T. Ariyaratne's Sarvodaya Shramadana Society offers social outreach services to minorities, and carries on peace meditation walks with up to 120,000 participants. What these activist Buddhists have in common is their "soft" non-confrontational peacemaking style.They serve others by working on health, education, and agricultural development but some of them seem slower to address thorny intergroup conflicts and political controversies.

Still, a few Buddhist activists wade into conflicts without hesitating to take sides, becoming, therefore, controversial figures themselves. Some even become religious demagogues - notably many Sri Lankan monks, who are politicized Sinhalese nationalists. For example, in the upcoming parliamentary election, several firebrand monks are campaigning on the platform that Sri Lanka must be a unitary, Sinhalese country in which alcohol sales and religious conversions are curtailed by law. One can hardly call them peacemakers.

Junsei Terasawa

But poles apart from these militant monks, we find the extraordinary Japanese monk Junsei Terasawa - possibly the most committed peacemaking activist in the world today. Venerable Terasawa is forever on the move, traveling from one international crisis to the next. Find a war and you will see him in the most dangerous spots, wearing his yellow robe, banging on his drum, and chanting his prayers. When Reagan and Gorbachev were negotiating for disarmament, one-on-one, they could hear Terasawa's drumming in the background. He and some others wrote the peace resolution that Rajiv Gandhi offered to Gorbachev for his endorsement. During the Cold War, Terasawa was allowed to take Japan's most precious possession - a portion of the Buddha's ashes - on his travels through Asia and Europe from one disarmament summit to another. He placed that holy relic on the table before Gorbachev during one meeting, then retrieved it and took it to New York for a UN Disarmament Conference. Terasawa once walked across Eastern Europe to the Brandenburg Gate alone, for he was not permitted to lead the peace march he had planned. Later he was at the barricades defending the Russian White House against the attempted coup. Still later, with the Mothers of Soldiers, he marched from Moscow to Grozny, demanding the release of their sons from the army. He spent ten years in Russia, until Putin's people finally declared him persona non grata. During both Iraq wars, he stayed on the ground until forcibly evacuated; the second time, he was trying to reach Saddam and persuade him to resign. He was inside the Church of the Nativity in Jerusalem with the Palestinians while the Israelis kept them under siege. In 2002 he led the Pakistan-India Prayer March for Peace. Now he is organizing a march into North Korea, which he believes is the most dangerous spot on earth today. While his inner peace and joyfulness are obvious, Junsei Terasawa never avoids conflict or political engagement.

Of course, the political leader of any society must unavoidably confront many this-worldly conflicts in realistic, pragmatic terms. These requirements sometimes appear incompatible with the soft approach of Buddhism, which declines to regard any enemy as irredeemable. Most conspicuous among contemporary Buddhist leaders are the Dalai Lama of Tibet and Aung San Suu Kyi, of Burma. They must reconcile or balance peacemaking methods based on political confrontation with the softer methods of persuasion, compromise, meditation and mindful breathing. Yet they lack any official political authority at all, for their societies are ruled by two of the worst governments on earth. If peacemaking were measured by having reached a mutually satisfactory conclusion to a dispute, neither of these leaders could be called peacemakers - but in fact, both of them have deservedly won Nobel Peace Prizes. And both of them seek to harmonize two antithetical approaches to peacemaking.

The Dalai Lama: Locked Out of Tibet

Tenzin Gyatso is His Holiness, the fourteenth Dalai Lama of Tibet. Born in 1935, he was identified at the age of two as a reincarnation of the Thirteenth Dalai Lama. He was brought to Lhasa to live in the Potala palace and receive his training. When he was 16, Mao took over his country, sending Chinese troops ever closer to the Potala and the young Dalai Lama, who continued to rule in a partial way for ten more years. In 1959, after an abortive popular uprising against the Chinese, he had to flee to India, followed by 80,000 other Tibetans. He still lives there, in Dharamsala. During the repression between 1951 and 1979, an estimated 1.2 million Tibetans perished - one-sixth of the population. Previously, native Tibetans had numbered about six million but now their population is estimated at four million, though they have been joined in Tibet by 7.5 million Chinese. Population transfer is the main threat to the survival of the Tibetan culture. The country is now called the Tibetan Autonomous Region of China.

In socio-economic terms, traditional Tibet had compared favorably with most Asian countries. Famine was unknown. Today, however, the Tibetan population (as opposed to the Chinese settlers) is among the poorest in the world. The society's cultural identity is being erased in its homeland. There once were more than 6,000 monasteries and temples with nearly 600,000 resident monks and nuns, but by 1976 all but eight monasteries and nunneries had been destroyed. Some rebuilding has since been permitted, but these monasteries are managed by state bureaucrats.

The high Tibetan plateau is undergoing environmental degradation. Its grasslands have been put under cultivation and militarization is taking its toll. Nuclear testing, uranium mining, and toxic dumping are endangering human and animal populations. Nuclear weapons have been built in the northeastern region. In 1988, there were also war maneouvres involving chemical weapons technology.

Outside the home country, Tibetan culture is flourishing. Most astonishing is the Western admiration of Buddhist teachings. The Dalai Lama himself does not encourage conversion to Buddhism, but this is an important cultural trend anyway - especially in France, where Buddhism is the fourth largest faith, after Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. There are 600,000 Buddhists in France.

Most expatriate Tibetans have adjusted to their host societies very well. Many Tibetan books were rescued, and well-established institutions are teaching the language and the traditional Tibetan arts. An exile government was established in 1960. The Tibetan diaspora democratically elects a national assembly and, since 1990, a Council of Ministers, chaired by a prime minister. This body assists the Dalai Lama in all matters concerning the exiled Tibetans. The present prime minister is a philosopher, Samdhong Rinpoche. Whenever this government is re-planted in Tibet, a Council of Regents will take over the Dalai Lama's political duties and he will step out of all governmental roles. In 1988, the Dalai Lama introduced a proposal before the European Parliament in Strasbourg. He suggested turning Tibet into a demilitarized zone, the world's largest natural park, where nonviolence would be observed. Tibet would become a huge neutral territory between India and China, allowing them to withdraw their troops. This proposal was not accepted and, so far, the Chinese have not agreed to begin actual negotiations.

The Chinese government has claimed since 1979 that everything except total independence is open for negotiation. Accordingly, the Dalai Lama and his government have repeatedly offered a number of proposals no longer calling for independence, but merely for internal autonomy.

The military option

Despite their soft Buddhist approach, the Tibetan government-in-exile cannot ignore the military option. In a 1994 book, the Dalai Lama recalled with regret the failure of his country's defence against the Chinese invasion of 1950:

"One official, now deceased, assured me that we had no cause for concern: our gods would protect us from the Chinese... My predecessor, Thupten Gyatso, the thirteenth Dalai Lama, when he died in 1933, clearly pointed out in his testament that one day communism would pose a terrible danger. He already understood that we could never physically resist our great neighbors, China and India, that we had to use an adroit diplomacy; and so he turned to our small neighbors, Nepal and Bhutan. [He proposed a] common defence: raise an army and train it as best as possible. Just between us, this isn't strictly practicing nonviolence. ... [Nepal and Bhutan] quite simply ignored the offer. Now I can see the whole range of my predecessor's vision... [I am convinced that if his vision had materialized] Tibet would have been able to resist twenty years later. But he wasn't listened to..."

Whether or not this military strategy might have been effective, clearly violence cannot now help the Tibetan cause. There have been uprisings inside Tibet, especially between 1987 and 1992, but they have always been crushed. For a time, the Dalai Lama's elder brother, Gyalo Thondup, worked with the CIA, helping an armed opposition inside Tibet, but the results were disastrous and eventually the United States gave it up.

As a realist, the Dalai Lama looks for ways of protecting his people. As Samdhong Rinpoche explained to me two years ago in an interview for Peace Magazine, the government-in-exile has good relations with the pro-democracy movement inside China and has consulted with Gene Sharp about possible nonviolent strategies. He said he was anticipating some significant developments. Since then, two groups of envoys, including the Dalai Lama's brother Gyalo Thondup, have traveled through China and Tibet, meeting with officials and, no doubt, attempting to resolve conflicts. These developments are favorable but not dramatic, for they have not yet led to official negotiations. Another positive change is the creation of a conflict resolution centre in Dharamsala, where young people are learning methods of conflict resolution, if not also Gandhian-style strategies of direct action.

The Dalai Lama himself remains optimistic and friendly toward the Chinese. He says the situation inside Tibet is far better today than twenty years ago. For his exile government, a great deal hinges on the willingness of the international community to confront the Chinese regime. A number of countries have called for China to respect Tibetan human rights and the UN Commission on Human Rights often points out the plight of Tibet. Nothing has come of these initiatives, for "constructive engagement" is politically preferred - at least by business interests trading with China. And anyway, international pressure alone probably is not enough. It needs to be matched by domestic nonviolent resistance on the part of the Tibetans and pro-democracy Chinese.

Thus the Dalai Lama, as a political leader, addresses two challenges. One is to develop the capacity of his people for nonviolent resistance to Chinese domination. The other is to win over public opinion in the West. Fortunately, he is vastly talented in the latter project, for his goodness as a religious figure already has made millions love him. When he comes to Canada to offer his Kalachakra initiation this month, the participants will be there for spiritual reasons - yet, as a spiritual virtuoso, he will simultaneously reveal himself as the best possible advocate of political freedom for Tibet.

Now we turn to another clear-headed politician with a beautiful soul - the woman who inspires Burma.

Aung San Suu Kyi: Locked Inside Burma

Aung San Suu Kyi leads the movement for human rights and democracy in Burma. She was born in 1945 as the daughter of the national hero, Aung San, who had led the Burmese Army during World War II. As independence approached, this soldier had adopted nonviolent methods, negotiating an agreement of solidarity among the numerous ethnic groups that compose Burma's fractured population. When his daughter was only two years old, and he was only 32, Aung San was assassinated.

Aung San Suu Kyi was educated in Burma and New Delhi, where her mother was Burma's ambassador. She studied philosophy, politics, and economics at Oxford University and continued graduate studies in New York until joining the staff of the United Nations. She married Michael Aris, a professor of Tibetan and Himalayan Studies at Oxford, where they lived and brought up their two sons.

But while she enjoyed a pleasant life abroad, the people of Burma were finding life less agreeable. In 1962, a military coup under General Ne Win launched the so-called "Burmese path to socialism." He nationalized the economy, formed a one-party state, banned independent newspapers, crushed dissent, and isolated Burma in the world. With the economy stagnating, ethnic insurgencies began. Of Burma's 42 million population, the Burmans (or "Myanmars") are the largest ethnic group, with 68 percent. Other large groups - notably the Shan and Karen - have waged wars of independence for 50 years, declining in strength, until now they have reluctantly accepted ceasefires.

In August 1988 rioting began. Although the protesters were mostly nonviolent, the government cracked down and killed thousands of people. Suu Kyi had returned to Rangoon to care for her ailing mother but immediately became politically engaged. In her first public speech, she addressed several hundred thousand people, demanding democracy. Instead, the government reconstituted itself as the "State Law and Order Restoration Council" - SLORC. It declared martial law and arrested thousands. The dictator, General Ne Win, had resigned and promised elections. SLORC expected the votes to be divided among so many parties that no clear winner would emerge. But Suu Kyi became general-secretary of a new party, the National League for Democracy (NLD) and went around the country making speeches to crowds, defying harassment by soldiers and the arrest of her supporters.

Eventually she was prohibited from standing for election, and then was placed under house arrest, where she would remain for six straight years. Nevertheless, in May 1990, the election was held and her party, the NLD, won 82 percent of the parliamentary seats. SLORC simply refused to recognize these results, but convened a national assembly to draft a new constitution. It collapsed because even the delegates they had hand-picked walked out in disgust over the unfair procedures. The newly elected parliamentarians were not allowed to take their seats, so many of them went abroad and formed a government-in-exile. Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Prize, though she could not go to Oslo to receive it.

In 1995, she was released and immediately resumed her immensely popular political activities. In 1999, her husband died of cancer in Britain, and she could not go to his bedside because she would not have been allowed back into Burma. Repeatedly, she and other NLD leaders were confined to their homes, to jail, or to a car when they tried to travel. Then in May 2003 an NLD convoy of cars, led by Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD vice-chairman, U Tin Oo, was attacked by thugs, who perpetrated a massacre. Depositions by eyewitnesses indicate that the operation was controlled by the SLORC - or rather the SPDC, as the dictatorship is now called. The number of victims killed or injured, captured or missing, remains a mystery, but both of the NLD leaders were injured, then taken into custody, where they remain.

Another Attempt to Seem Flexible

Though unrepentant, the SPDC saw that they could not hold out forever against world opinion against this crime against humanity. Immediately they began trying to appear more flexible. Their new ploy is to re-convene the national assembly that failed in 1990 and produce a new constitution, without changing any of their undemocratic procedures. They also have put forward a seven-point "roadmap" for a tripartite negotiation among themselves, the ethnic communities, and the political parties. Almost all these groups have declined to participate under the procedural rules that have been offered. The NLD says they cannot make any decision about participating while they cannot even consult their leaders.

As with the other peacemakers we have discussed, Suu Kyi places great emphasis on inner peace. She meditates at least one hour every day and displays no animosity toward her oppressors. If anything, she seems to pity them for their ignorance and poor judgment. In every statement she shows her commitment to nonviolence.

Certainly her nonviolence is brave and exemplary. In one case, she walked directly toward some soldiers who were shooting in her direction. Moreover, a year and a half ago, she went out to give a speech but the government told people not to come to see her. They came anyway. The police and firemen came with high pressure water hoses to spray the people. She got out of her car, climbed up on a fire truck, and lectured the firemen in front of thousands and thousands of people. She told them, "You don't do this to the people!" They did not turn the hoses on the people. What an extraordinary example of nonviolent action!

Her commitment to nonviolence reflects, not just her Buddhist faith, but her opinion that it is the only practical solution to Burma's problems. Yet she does not reject those young people who continue to use violence in their joint struggle against dictatorship. And she regards the military or police as necessary for the foreseeable future. However, she said,

"The intention of the army should be right. I once had a talk with an army officer who was full of hatred for the Communists whom he had fought. And I said, 'I find this very disturbing that you fought them out of a sense of hatred. I would like to think that you were fighting motivated by a love for the people you were defending rather than out of hate for those whom you were attacking'....Of course, one may argue this is splitting hairs. If you are killing the enemy, can you be motivated by love?"

Alan Clements questioned the effectiveness of the Buddhist approach to nonviolence. He distinguished between two paradigms of nonviolence - one rooted in a belief in God, as in the movements led by Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, Vaclav Havel, and Nelson Mandela. The other version is rooted in the Buddhist belief in inter-relatedness, without a god. The Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, and Daw Suu herself take this approach. But he pointed out that these non-theistic Buddhist movements have not been successful in bringing about political change. Why not?

She acknowledged his point, but gave a practical rather than a religious explanation, saying that it was probably because of the way in which Christianity is organized. Although a Buddhist might have a favorite monastery, he is not confined to it. But Christians go to the same church for years and years and develop congregational relationships. "I have often thought," she said, "that this is probably one of the reasons why Christian-based political movements tend to take off quickly and efficiently. The organization is already there."

Alan Clements asked how to advise people who feel hopeless because of failure to win democracy. She replied,

"The only cure is work. I think that those who are really doing everything they can, whatever it is, do not feel either despair or hopelessness. ... One must ask, 'Are you doing everything you can?' I think, if the answer is truly 'Yes,' then you feel neither hopeless nor despairing."

Aung San Suu Kyi's expatriate admirers could do more. Almost certainly, she would endorse a stronger commitment to nonviolent action, were she able to speak freely and publicly, yet this option is not often adopted. Hundreds, if not thousands, of pro-democracy Burmese have been trained by Robert Helvey (the man who taught the Serbian youth how to get rid of Slobodan Milosevic without losing a single life, and who showed the Georgians how to get rid of Eduard Shevardnadze). Yet Helvey tells me that the movement has not taken all the actions that are possible. His approach, widely called "political defiance," is pursued by some committees inside Burma, but ignored by expatriates. Many deny that it is possible to do anything significant without resort to violence - though others are doing what they call impossible, whereas warfare has been ineffective. But political defiance is not for impulsive amateurs; it requires as much strategic skill and planning as war.

The international community (including Canada) could exert more pressure to help brave nonviolent activists abolish the dictatorship. Our democratic politicians will do so only when there is sufficient pressure demanding it.

Nevertheless, Aung San Suu Kyi herself expresses optimism about the long-term prospects for democracy. She believes Burma is becoming more civilized, and she cautions Buddhists against using karma as an excuse for doing nothing. She said,

"If what is happening now is a result of what happened before, all the more reason why you should work harder now to change the situation....If you want democracy, you'll have to work for it. You've got to join it. The more people are involved, the quicker we'll reach our goal."

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2004

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2004, page 11. Some rights reserved.

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