Vowing Peace in a Time of War

· Beyond Fear of Differences · ,

by Hozan Alan Senauke, Roshi

San Quentin Prison sits on a bare spit of land on San Francisco Bay. This is where the State of California puts prisoners to death. The gas chamber is still there, but for the last five years executions have been done by lethal injection in a mock-clinical setting that cruelly imitates a hospital room. Five hundred seventeen men and ten women wait on California’s death row, often for 15 or 20 years. The voting public generally supports this state-sanctioned violence. In fact, no politician can get elected to higher office in California without appearing to support the death penalty.

On a stormy evening in March 1999, several hundred people came forward for a vigil and rally to protest the execution of Jay Siripongs—a Thai national and a Buddhist—convicted of a 1983 murder in Los Angeles. Sheets of rain and cold wind beat on everyone gathered at the prison gates: death-penalty opponents, a handful of death-penalty supporters, press, prison guards, and right up against the gate, gazing at San Quentin’s stone walls, 75 or more Zen students and meditators bearing witness to the execution, sitting in the middle of anger, grief, painful words, and more painful deeds.

My robes were soaked through and my zafu sat in a deepening puddle. Across a chainlink fence, ten feet away, 15 helmeted guards stood in a wet line, rain falling as hard on them as on ourselves. I felt a moment of deep connection: black-robed Zen students sitting upright in attention in the rain, protecting beings as best we know how; black-jacketed police officers standing at attention in the rain, protecting beings as they know how. Is there a difference between the activities and mind of Zen students and prison guards? Yes, of course. But recognizing our unity, even in the midst of difference and great turmoil, is the essence of peacemaking. I like to think that there were guards who had the same awareness.

Our witness at San Quentin is part of a great vow that Zen persons take. Bearing witness is the bodhisattva’s radical act of complete acceptance and non-duality. My own understanding of Dogen Zen led me to active resistance and social transformation. I vow to bear witness where violence unfolds. I vow to recognize the human capacity for violence within my own mind, acknowledging conditions of greed, hatred, and delusion that arise within me. I take true refuge in Buddhadharma and seek to resolve conflicts. I vow never again to raise a weapon in anger or complicity with the state or any so-called authority, but to intervene actively and nonviolently for peace, even where this may put my own body and life at risk.

Who will take this vow with me? Am I really ready? Are you? We offer our heartfelt vows over and over again in the zendo. Dogen-zenji and all buddha ancestors are with us in that sacred space. It is stretching a point to characterize Dogen or Shakyamuni Buddha as engaged Buddhists. But all buddha ancestors teach us that the dharma is our own experience. Let us wake up to what is wholesome in the world. Remake Buddhism for this time, this place, this circumstance. In that spirit we can raise our voices in a vow that fits our season. May we realize our vow in action, and step forward from the top of a hundred-foot pole.


Meditating On Peace, echoes of Dogen ring in my ears. In Shobogenzo “Bodaisatta-shishabo” (“Bodhisattva’s Four Methods of Guidance”), Dogen writes, “You should benefit friend and enemy equally. You should benefit self and others alike.” In the same fascicle he explains, “The mind of a sentient being is difficult to change. You should keep on changing the mind of sentient beings, from the first moment that they have one particle, to the moment that they attain the way.” Wielding words like Manjushri’s sword of discriminating wisdom, Dogen’s radical language cuts to the heart of peace, even in his own age of bitter civil strife and political manipulation. The name of Dogen’s home temple, Eihei-ji, means “temple of eternal peace.” His 13th-century world is different from our own, but the conflicts and twisted karma of suffering beings is the same.

Meditating on peace, I also hear other voices from my own time: Zen teachers who are always changing the minds of sentient beings. Three of those voices are present here in body or in spirit.

In the late 1960s the United States was waging an illegal war in Vietnam, while the repression of African Americans, Latinos, Indians, and youth at home reached a pinnacle of violence. Returning from a decade in Asia, Gary Snyder published a piece called “Buddhism and the Coming Revolution” that is radical and completely to the point even today. It set terms for an engaged Buddhist practice of peace that we are still trying to live up to. Gary wrote:

Institutional Buddhism has been conspicuously ready to accept or ignore the inequalities and tyrannies of whatever political system it found itself under. This can be death to Buddhism, because it is death to any meaningful function of compassion. Wisdom without compassion feels no pain…The mercy of the West has been social revolution; the mercy of the East has been individual insight into the basic self/void. We need both. They are both contained in the traditional three aspects of the Dharma path: wisdom (prajna), meditation (dhyana), and morality (shila). Wisdom is intuitive knowledge of the mind of love and clarity that lies beneath one’s ego-driven anxieties and aggressions. Meditation is going into the mind to see this for yourself—over and over again, until it becomes the mind you live in. Morality is bringing it back out in the way you live, through personal example and responsible action, ultimately toward the true community (sangha) of “all beings.” This last aspect means, for me, supporting any cultural and economic revolution that moves clearly toward a free, international, classless world.

Tetsugen Glassman calls us to a great meal with all hungry beings. His vision is as wide as the six worlds: offering food to people on the streets, teaching zazen to those needing spiritual nourishment, feeding the countless hungry ghosts. Hungry ghosts are within and all around us. Tetsugen takes his students out into the bitter city streets so we may begin to feel what it is like to be homeless. Homeless people are not other than ourselves. He draws together women and men of many faiths to bear witness on the killing grounds of Auschwitz, where the hungry ghosts of victims and killers are still crying out to be reconciled. This is Avalokiteshvara hearing the cries of the world and preparing to bring others across before herself.

I hear the patient voice of my own root teacher, Sojun Weitsman, whose dogged personal peacemaking is at once quiet and deeply challenging. Dogen calls forth the principle of “practice-enlightenment.” What I have learned about practice-enlightenment from Sojun is that enlightenment and character development are not two, that wisdom and morality insist on each other. This is also a radical notion. It gets to the root of how we practice in the world, saving beings. I have watched Sojun persistently working away at this truth for years: building a diverse sangha in Berkeley, helping to heal old wounds at San Francisco Zen Center, and drawing a wide circle that links Soto Zen in the East and West.

Talking with his senior students recently, Sojun-roshi said that wherever there is human suffering we should first of all simply help people (including ourselves) before we find fault with systems and organizations, even though such systems really must be changed. Political, social, and economic systems are made up of human beings—ourselves. Even as I confront structures that perpetuate great harm, I try to see all the people who co-create these structures. In order that my own heart of wisdom and compassion may open more easily, I must recognize and admit my own ability to do harm.

These voices and others weave through my dreams. Each in his or her own way makes the case that peace, or non-conflict, calls for independence, interdependence, and vow. The political expression of this dharma position is non-cooperation and non-complicity with any system or government or corporation that causes harm and impedes harmony, even when that system attempts to hide itself and delude us or buy us off with privileges and spectacles.

The dream of peace and the practice of peace actually arise in war and conflict. In every age, war compels people to cover our hearts and act in unimaginably cruel ways. No other animal is capable of such cruelty. Particular details differ, the color and shape of victims, heroes and perpetrators, and the landscape itself, but the face of war is always ugly. Victims need our help. So do the perpetrators.

“Because there is the base, (there are) jewel pedestals, fine clothing.” This is Shakyamuni Buddha’s great teaching of Dependent Origination: Because this is, that is. In an age of war this is an encouraging fact. Because there is war, I know there is also peace. But if I think of peace as something that can be described and held on to, if we create a concept of something called peace and cling to it, conditions for war arise. Dogen teaches that there is a peace beneath and beyond our ordinary notion of peace, and that zazen is simultaneously the door to this peace and its expression. The work of Zen and the dream of peace in the midst of grief and conflict are not different. So what are we to do?

Photo by Piero Fissore

Photo by Piero Fissore


Let Me Offer Three approaches to Buddhist peacemaking: Giving, Fearlessness, and Renunciation. The essential practice of peace is giving, dana-paramita. Giving one’s attention, friendship, and material aid. Giving and spiritual teachings, community, and organization. Giving is the first perfection and the first of the bodhisattva’s four methods of guidance. It includes all other perfections. In “Bodaisatta-shishaba” Dogen advises us that:

“Giving” means nongreed. Nongreed means not to covet. Not to covet means not to curry favor. Even if you govern the Four Continents, you should always convey the correct teaching with nongreed. It is to give away unneeded belongings to someone you don’t know, to offer flowers blooming on a distant mountain to the Tathagata, or, again, to offer treasures you had in a former life to sentient beings. Whether it is of teaching or of material, each gift has its value and is worth giving.

Giving begins with oneself. I give myself to practice and practice offers itself to me. In my search for peace and liberation I find there is always the smell of war. The taste of tears, corrosive doubt, decay fall within the circle of my own body and mind. The war is here, right where I hide behind a mask of self-attachment, a shelter of privilege, cutting myself off from others. True giving is receiving the gift of zazen mind and passing it to others in words and deeds. It means not hiding.

We offer gifts and guidance in many forms. Dogen’s four methods of guidance in “Bodaisatta-shishobo”—giving, kind speech, beneficial action, and identity-action—expand on the Buddha’s own teaching of peace, which is called in Pali the sangaha-vatthu or the foundations for social unity: dana, generosity; piyavaca, kindly speech; atthacariya, helpful action; and samanattata, impartiality or equal participation. At the heart of these teachings is the understanding that peace is making connection. On a simple level, material goods are given. On a higher level, teaching is shared. And on the highest level there is just connection, the endless society of being, the universal assembly of bodhisattvas. In Lewis Hyde’s wonderful book The Gift, he describes dinner in a cheap restaurant in the South of France:

The patrons sit at a long communal table, and each finds before his plate a modest bottle of wine. Before the meal begins, a man will pour his wine not into his own glass but into his neighbor’s. And his neighbor will return the gesture, filling the first man’s empty glass. In an economic sense nothing has happened. No one has any more wine than he did to begin with. But society has appeared where there was none before.

The gift itself is only a gift so long as it remains in circulation. A monk or nun carries an empty bowl from house to house or sits in the zendo with oryoki bowls laid out on the tan. The bowl is emptiness, yet in this material world food is offered so that one may live. Emptiness and form interact and dance. Having eaten, the monk or nun transforms food back into action and practice, turning it back into the emptiness of interdependence and connection that is again offered up to nourish all beings. The dance of peace continues.

When we really embody the bodhisattva vow to save all sentient beings, zazen is a quiet and transformative gift. We receive it in gratitude from buddha ancestors and from all our human teachers, and we pass it on. Again Lewis Hyde:

I would like to speak of gratitude as a labor undertaken by the soul to effect the transformation after a gift has been received. Between the time a gift comes to us and the time we pass it along, we suffer gratitude. Moreover, with gifts that are agents of change, it is only when the gift has worked in us, only when we come up to its level, as it were, that we can give it away again. Passing the gift along is the act of gratitude that finishes the labor. The transformation is not accomplished until we have the power to give the gift on our own terms.

During the recent NATO bombing in Serbia, a friend of mine proposed that the U.S. offer a four-year university education in the United States to every Serbian and Albanian youth of military age. This would provide them with intellectual and technical tools for peace. It would be much cheaper than the billions of dollars we spend on weaponry and death.

The United States (through its proxy the United Nations) has imposed bitter sanctions on Iraq for nearly a decade. Iraq has been bombed so intensely for the last year that bombing is no longer news. For lack of medicine and food, 1.7 million children and old people have died. The shops are bare, the pharmacies are empty. What if we offered the people of Iraq all the food and medicine they require? What would we lose by following a policy of generosity or dana rather than a policy of threat and violence to the innocent? What would the political effects be; what karmic result would arise? Again, it would be a lot cheaper than bombing.

These will be seen as naive proposals, of course. They fail to reckon with the power of arms dealers, the greed of corporations, and the fears of politicians. But shouldn’t we dare to be naive? What is there to lose in speaking obvious truths? Can we skillfully speak the truth of dana to those in power; can we help open their eyes to the pointlessness of war? There is always a path of peace.


The Practice Of Peace Is Fearless. Again this comes back to dana, giving and giving up. To give anything to an enemy or opponent, one must be fearless. A story in The Tiger’s Cave has stayed with me for years:

When a rebel army swept into town in Korea, all the monks of the Zen temple fled except for the abbot. The general came into the temple and was annoyed that the abbot did not receive him with respect. “Don’t you know,” he shouted, “that you are looking at a man who can run you through without blinking?” “And you,” replied the abbot strongly, “are looking at a man who can be run through without blinking!” The general stared at him, made a bow and retired.

Ancient Jataka tales, themselves derived from even older Indian folklore, relate previous bodhisattva lives of Shakyamuni Buddha. Here fearlessness and generosity are twining vines. A prince offers his own body to feed a hungry tigress. A parrot quells a forest fire by shaking river water from his wings until the gods have mercy. A hare sacrifices himself to make a meal for Shakra, king of the gods, who is disguised as a beggar. Again and again, the Buddha-to-be-born gives his utmost effort and his life itself for the sake of other beings in need. Dogen writes: “In the human world, the Tathagata took the form of a human being. From this we know that he did the same in other realms.”

Peace is not always quiet words and gentle demeanor. Steel and strength and sinew are in it. I often think about Maha Ghosananda of Cambodia deciding simply to walk across his country in the midst of a violent civil war. His saffron robes were both refuge or target. I also think about Thich Nhat Hanh, whom Richard Baker described as “a cross between a cloud and a piece of heavy equipment.” Meeting these inspiring teachers, one can feel the steel of intention at the heart of their actions.

But shouldn’t we dare to be naive? What is there to lose in speaking obvious truths? Can we skillfully speak the truth of dana to those in power?

In zazen we become intimate with all kinds of fear—very personal fear. We come to see that fearing death or great loss is not so different from fearing more humble events like meeting one’s teacher face to face, performing a new ceremony, or just sitting still. Fear itself provides an opening into the unknown. If we continue to make peace in awareness of our own fear, everyone’s fear has room to fall away. Mutual respect arises.


A Third Element Of peacemaking is renunciation or relinquishment. Of course, this is also inseparable from giving. Dogen writes, “If you study giving closely, you see that to accept a body and to give up the body are both giving.” In Shobogenzo “Shoji” he tells us to “set aside your body and mind, forget about them, and throw them into the house of buddha…” But renunciation is a difficult principle for Zen people today. Sad to say, the path of Zen as it exists in today’s materialist world gives mere lip service to renunciation. After mind and body drop away the hard work of letting go of things has just begun.

The second bodhisattva precept is not to steal or not to take what is not given. For people like us in the so-called developed world America, Europe, Japan—this is almost impossible. Many of us, even priests, lead privileged lives in rich countries whose economies are built on the theft of our planet’s limited resources and the labors of poor people around the world. The injustice of poverty and wealth is itself a kind of violence. Every time we ride in a car or in an airplane, every meal we eat in a restaurant, every high-tech consumer item we buy involves us in violence. We are stealing. We cannot really step outside of or apart from this system, but if each of us cultivates awareness of the links between consumption and violence, we can begin to make choices about what is of true value in our lives and how much we value the lives of others. Just at that point relinquishment or renunciation is possible. But our efforts need to go further.

In a recent article in the New York Times Magazine, Australian philosopher and ethicist Peter Singer makes a painful and compelling argument for radical renunciation to his middle-class audience, people like many of us. He writes:

In the world as it is today, I can see no escape from the conclusion that each one of us with wealth surplus to his or her essential needs should be giving most of it to help people suffering from poverty so dire as to be life threatening. That’s right: I’m saying that you shouldn’t buy that new car, take that cruise, redecorate the house, or get that pricey new suit. After all, a $1,000 suit [or a set of expensive robes] could save five children’s lives.”

There is an old Quaker saying: “Speak truth to power.” The truth is that global corporations and armed nations advance theft and oppression in the world. Hiding behind the anonymity of brand names and flags, corporations twist the dharma principle of interdependence into a tool for manipulation and greed. Organized religion rarely questions this system. Or if it raises questions, it almost never mounts a decisive challenge. In fact, organized religions often profit from investments and from direct and indirect government support. So our responsibility as renunciates goes far beyond individual relinquishment. We must link up with each other, in the same sense that we are with each other and support each other in the zendo, to tear down institutions built on greed, hatred, and delusion, and to build new structures of liberation and spiritual value that belong to everyone, not just to presidents, generals, millionaires, and bosses.

These new links and structures will take many forms. The circle of sangha can be a model for our workplaces and factories. Our civil society must be built on mutual respect, patience, and participation, rather than silver and gold. I honestly don’t know what this will look like, but I feel it is the responsibility of the Zen community and all communities of faith to be present right in the middle of things.

Until we begin to let go of our self-centeredness and our desires, we can’t really listen or talk to others about peace. We will fail to understand that, in fact, there are no “others.” People at risk or in poverty have a keen nose for hypocrisy or righteousness. We cannot ask poor and oppressed people to make sacrifices while they see us protecting our own lives of comfort and privilege and while we unthinkingly support whole nations of privilege. Giving up privilege—male privilege, white privilege, class privilege, national privilege—is the practice of renunciation in a socially engaged Buddhism.

Photo by Debs

Photo by Debs

Privilege is often easy for others to see in us, while we walk around in it blind. Opening our dharma eye implies renunciation of privilege: no gap between self and other. From the privileged side this looks like sacrifice, but from the side of practice, it is simply letting privilege fall away out of compassion for others and ourselves. Suzuki-roshi said: “Renunciation is not giving up the things of the world, but accepting that they go away.”


Shakyamuni Buddha Tried to head off an impending war between the ancient countries of Magadha and Kapilavatthu (home to his own Shakya clan). He used logic and persuasion and, at last, he sat zazen under a dead tree by the side of the battlefield.

Since it was very hot, the king of Magadha couldn’t understand why the Buddha was sitting under a dead tree; usually people sit under beautiful green trees. So the king asked, “Why do you sit under the dead tree?” The Buddha calmly said to the king, “I feel cool, even under this dead tree, because it is growing near my native country.” This really pierced the king’s heart and he was so greatly impressed by the message of the Buddha’s action that he could go no further. Instead of attacking, he returned to his country. But the king’s attendant still continued to encourage him to attack and finally he did so. This time, unfortunately, Shakyamuni Buddha didn’t have time to do anything. Without saying a word, he just stood and watched his country and his people being destroyed.

The Buddha failed to stop the battle because, as Dogen wrote, “the mind of a sentient being is difficult to change.” This failure must have caused him terrible grief, even as we grieve over the killing fields of our modern world. But his effort to make peace from his own mind-ground is a great lesson. Success or failure is not the issue. Our compassionate hearts and actions have effect beyond success and failure, even though we can’t always see the effect.

Engaged Buddhists and people of all the faith traditions want to create a nonviolent army of peace, what Gandhi called a santi sena. This was seriously discussed last spring at the landmark Hague Appeal for Peace gathering. How many lives might have been spared in Serbia and Kosovo if we had provided ten thousand witnesses instead of billions of dollars of bombs? How many people would benefit if we stood up to corruption, violence, and drug-dealing in our own neighborhoods? The Gandhian practice of active nonviolence includes bearing witness and peaceful intervention. In the midst of local, regional, religious, and national conflicts and wars, a peace army could replace armed soldiers, land mines, tanks, and jet fighters.

The tools of a peace army would be ears to hear, words to share, arms to embrace, and bodies to place in opposition to injustice. This army would be trained in meditation, mediation, reconciliation, and generosity. Its discipline would include patience, equanimity, selflessness, and a deep understanding of impermanence. Its “boot camp” would be very different than our army or navy’s training, but every bit as rigorous. Its social organization would include supply lines of food and medicine and clothing that could be shared with others on all sides of a conflict.

A peace army might sit down on the battlefield, right in the lines of fire in order to save others, enduring the same danger as combatants and civilians. It is necessary to take risks in Zen practice. It is just as necessary to take risks in peacemaking. I think of this as a true expression of identity action: identifying with soldiers, guerrillas, and displaced people, identifying with the bombed and shattered earth itself. Is this suicidal? Maybe so. It is like the action of Thich Quang Duc, who publicly immolated himself in Vietnam in 1963, while his fellow monks and nuns were being targeted for repression and his nation itself was in flames. But peace was his point, not suicide. Quang Duc’s action shocked the world into awareness of Vietnam’s suffering.

Samanattata, or “identity-action” as Dogen renders it, is the peace army’s rule of training. Nationalism, chauvinism, and conventional politics are rooted in separation and ego-identity, but identity-action means nonseparation and interdependence. All beings have the same wish for happiness, comfort, and liberation. Whatever hatred I might see in my enemy or opponent exists simultaneously in me, sometimes as a potential that is contained, and sometimes as an ugly presence. The same is true for the good. This understanding is not confined to Buddhism. It shines through the teachings of Jesus, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, who all preached love in the worst of circumstances.


Bodhisattvas Walk Among Us. In any single breath each of us can become an enlightening being. In the next breath we might fall into old habits of thoughtlessness and violence. Zazen reveals that this choice is always with us. Our most deluded and hurtful actions contain seeds that can flower either as wondrous peace or terrible harm. Our vision can sustain the world if only we dare to look deeply. Our great ancestor, layman Vimala Kirti, described the bodhisattva path this way:

During the short aeons of swords,
They meditate on love,
Introducing to nonviolence
Hundreds of millions of living beings.
In the middle of great battles
They remain impartial to both sides;
For bodhisattvas of great strength
Delight in reconciliation of conflict.
In order to help the living beings,
They voluntarily descend into
The hells which are attached
To all the inconceivable buddha-fields.’

Two thousand years later we are still living up to the challenge, falling short, and vowing again. Let us take our vows seriously and be bodhisattvas. Respect our Zen tradition and buddha ancestors, but be truly accountable to all beings now and in the future. Bring peace and zazen mind right into the middle of our messy, grieving, wondrous world. Please watch your step and don’t waste time.

Sensei Hozan Alan Senauke is vice-abbot of Berkeley Zen Center in California, where he lives with his family. As a socially engaged Buddhist activist, Hozan has worked closely with Buddhist Peace Fellowship and the International Network of Engaged Buddhists since 1991. In 2007 he founded Clear View Project, developing Buddhist-based resources for relief and social change in Asia and the U.S.

From a talk given at the International Symposium on “Dogen Zen and Its Relevance for our Time,” 1998, Stanford University, sponsored by the International Soto School. Reprinted with permission of the author.

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