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Towards a Culture of Peace: A Buddhist Perspective

Towards a Culture of Peace: A Buddhist Perspective 1
Phra Paisal Visalo


One of the most accurate and concise descriptions of the twentieth century was made by a renown and prodigious British musician, Yehudi Menuhin, who said that “it raised the greatest hopes ever conceived by humanity, and destroyed all illusions and ideals”.

At the dawn of the century, hopes for lasting peace prevailed the earth. Even the First World War was believed to be “the war that stops all wars”. Less than two decades later, however, the Second World War broke out, followed by cold war, and its subsequent proxy wars in every corner of the world. After the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of cold war, global peace was expected and “the end of history” was believed to be imminent. But that optimism was shattered by civil wars in Balkan and other countries in Asia and Africa.

The previous century boasts one of the bloodiest eras. Between 1900 and 1989, 86 millions have perished in various wars. On top of it was 48 million people who were killed by their own governments (including the ones led by Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot). Many of them were victims of the unprecedented extensive genocides.

The twenty first century features no better prospects. The first year of this century was marked by international terrorism that triggered anti-terrorism wars all over the world, not to mention civil wars and armed conflicts in 30 countries, with a combined population of 2.3 billions. In other word, today a third of the world’s population is at war. 2

These wars and armed conflicts are made possible not only by the sole decision of the leaders. Waged against people’s consent, any wars cannot last. Decade-long wars and armed conflicts have been perpetuated by support of people from all walks of life. They do not just endorse them but are also willing to shoulder their costs, materially, physically, or morally.

Though part of the inclination toward wars and the willingness to absorb their costs has been driven by brilliant political propagandas or powerful political manipulation, but for the propaganda and manipulation to succeed, one factor is indispensable, namely, culture. Culture involves collective belief, value, and attitude shared by people in the same country. And part of the culture has been used to justify violence and encourage people to resort to its use. Thus, wars can erupt at national scale. Such part of culture can be called “culture of violence”.

Components of culture of violence
According to Buddhism, three fundamental attitudes or mental qualities are essential in thrusting people to use violence and wage wars. First among them is the sense of superiority, or conceit, regarding ethnics, race, language religion, or wealth. Twinned to this attitude is the one that regards people of different identity as inferior. Getting too extreme, such a negative attitude results in the denial of one’s humanity, and to inflict violence on them is just one small step ahead. A case in point is the Holocaust which could happen because some Germans regarded the Jews as a “disease”, a “virus” or being “subhuman”. Similarly, civil war in ex-Yugoslavia escalated rapidly and brutally as people from both sides denied each other humanity. While the Croats were described in Serbia as “vampires”, the Serbians were represented in Croatia’s newspapers as “beasts in human form” or “bloodsuckers”. During the Gulf War, killing of retreating Iraqi soldiers was described by the US Marines as “turkey shoot”. A lieutenant-colonel compared the Iraqi troops he saw from his plane with “cockroaches”. 3

Conceit is conducive to maltreatment against people regarded as inferior. No conceit is more dangerous than the morally superior one since it tends to regard “others” as “evil”. Once one is taken as evil, his or her existence is not warranted for and he or she needs to be eliminated. Violence against other is thus morally justified and the act of violence glorifies the perpetrators.

While identity helps to forge unity among people from the same category, it excludes people of different category who are then regarded as “others”. Hence, the separation between “they” against “us” and the tendency toward hostility. The hostility is rapidly intensified once the sense of “they” against “us” is strengthened by the moral label “we are good, you are evil”. Difference of ethnicity, race, or language can give rise to such hostility. But it cannot be compared to religious or sectarian difference. The more devoted one is to one’s religion, the stronger sense of one being “good”, and more likely to regard people who believe and behave differently as “bad” or “evil”.

During the cold war, one important question was “which side you are?”. Today it could be replaced by “who you are?”, white or black, Thai or Burmese, Hindu or Muslim, Sunni or Shiite. These identities, especially the religiously related ones, become an explosive political issue which determines power relationship of different actors in the political arena. It is a powerful force that mobilizes the country’s political resources towards the desired course of action. Moreover, it influences the projection of other people (with different identity) as an enemy or a culprit responsible for the decline or crisis in one’s country. The Jews in Germany were, for example, denounced for being the source of all corruptions and problems in Germany before and during the Second World War. Politics of identity therefore contributes to the current accumulated hatred and wide-spread violence with the support of existing culture of violence (especially the sense of superiority/inferiority of one’s identity). The politics of identity is intensified by culture of violence, and vice versa.

The second component of culture of violence is the attachment to ideas or ideologies. If such attachment goes extreme it can drive the believers to do everything, even sacrificing oneself or killing the others, to fulfill an idea or ideology. On one hand the world witnessed the heroic sacrifice of innumerable people for the rise of Communism in Russia, China, Vietnam, and Cambodia. On the other hand, massacres that shocked the world have taken place in these countries simply for the eradication of obstacles to ideology adhered to by the rulers. 4

Communism is now on a decline and is being replaced by many other ideologies that command people’s mind and drive them towards violence. One of them is nationalism which can lead to either the restoration of sovereignty or ongoing civil wars. Furthermore, religion is another ideology that can fuel various forms of violence, i.e. international war, civil war, terrorism, and communal violence.

Obsessed with a particular ideology, people who share different ideology are taken as an enemy. And engulfed with hatred, one has no hesitation in attacking other. With the obsession driven by conceit that supposes ourselves to be morally superior to others, the nonbelievers or morally inferior or evil persons are thought to be unworthy for living. With such conviction, some pro-life activists feel justified in invading the abortion clinic and shooting doctors inside. Some extremist environmental activists can also kill animal torturers. Similarly, an obsessive religion can engender hostile attitude to the nonbelievers, perhaps much more than other ideologies can.

The third component of culture of violence is craving. The most powerful craving nowadays is consumerism which promises us that the more we consume the happier we become. Such a belief leads to insatiable desires, competition, and exploitation in every level, from personal to global. Hence, violence, crime, armed conflict and wars. It is estimated that about a quarter of wars and armed conflicts nowadays has been triggered by struggles for natural resources. Fighting among different ethnic groups in the same country is also motivated by attempts to control natural resources. Genocide in Rwanda, for example, is linked to competition for land, thus many land owners have been killed by people of the same ethnic in the same village.

Apart from direct violence, exploitation and interest-induced conflict also lead to another kind of violence such as poverty and famine. Everyday around 1.1 billions or one in five of the world population live in hunger. Widespread hunger and malnutrition exists, despite the abundance of food in the world, thus the problems cannot be attributed to a lack of resources. The real reason is the unjust economic and trade system designed to serve the insatiable desire of a few, at the national and global levels, the result of which is a huge gap between the rich and the poor. While every year, 9 million poor people die of a lack of clean water (the problem of which can be addressed with 9 billion USD), the Europeans spend 11 billion USD just for ice cream, and 12 billion USD for perfume, not to mention 24 billion USD spent globally for skin care and 38 billion USD for hair care.

Globalized economy and communication, especially the liberalization of market, has propelled consumerism stimulating the desire and competition for natural resources all over the world. Meanwhile, the rapid expansion of western culture has led to increasing insecure feeling. People fear that their local cultures will be marginalized and their identity disappeared. The intimidation forces them to fight back to preserve their beloved culture and identity. The notion that their race, language, and religion are superior to others has been reinforced time and again and it has led to more entrenched conceit. Along with that, attempts are made to use traditional ideology or identity as a weapon to wage wars against globalization. The robust religiosity and nationalism thus exists everywhere, mostly in militant versions, as a reaction to the perceived threats from outside. The growing diversity of ideas and beliefs in the globalization age has also led to conflicts and hostility even in the same community and, at times, could be attributed as a cause of violence.

In sum, in the age of globalization, conceit and clinging to ideas and craving are being intensified and contribute to the expansion of culture of violence.

Culture of peace

The culture of peace is defined by the collective attitude, value, and belief that discourage violence and lead to reconciliation and peaceful coexistence. While the culture of violence is founded on conceit, attachment to ideas, and craving, the culture of peace rests on respect of others, tolerance, and contentment.

Values or attitudes that unite people, regardless of identity and belief, are badly needed in the age of globalization to prevent increasing polarization. Apart from extreme prosperity that exists amidst abject poverty, the world witnesses the rise of globalism hand in hand with the rise of tribalism. There is also a huge division between the world of materialism and the world of religiosity – between the McWorld and Jihad. Not to mention the division between secularism and fundamentalism. The bipolarity is well registered in many respects in this age of extreme.

The world’s divisions can be relieved once every faction opens their minds, respects others’ identity, and practices generosity. This can be achieved only when we recognize humanity in each other. We have more in common than different, i.e. the pursuit of happiness, aversion to suffering, longing for respect, desire to be good, and care for our dignity.

Apart from realizing and giving due respect to our common humanity, a belief in nonviolence is another intrinsic value to the culture of peace. Violence helps to settle a problem temporarily, but creates new problems in the long run, or even exacerbates the old problems. Though the use of violence may lead to the elimination of some evil persons, it can produce the new ones as well including the perpetrators themselves. Violent revolution can neither eradicate all evil people nor create lasting peace. After their opponents are gone, they tend to point their guns to each other and a new round of purge will start.

Last but not least, the culture of peace rests on simplicity that enables us to experience happiness through good work and meaningful life, and achieve inner happiness through peaceful mind free from anger, hatred, and greed. In other word, the awareness that happiness is not out there, but right inside our mind.

Religion and its contribution to culture of peace

The three fundamental components of culture of violence, conceit, attachment to ideology, and craving, are essentially self-centered attitudes. It is the nature of ego or self, either personal or collective, that demands everything to support its greatness. Identity, ideology or materials are therefore used by ego to serve its own interest.

Every established religion aims to reduce selfishness and free one’s mind from self-centered attitudes. It therefore goes against culture of violence. By cherishing love, tolerance, respect for humanity in everybody, and pointing the way for inner happiness, each religion is supportive to culture of peace. In fact, each religion regards peace for humanity as its ultimate objective.

Practicing the teaching of each religion can inspire goodness or new quality of mind, i.e. compassion, generosity, and sacrifice for the others. Religion is therefore a main force for reconciliation in society. It can help to reduce exploitation or oppression as evidenced in campaign against war, slave abolition, dictatorship, and campaign for civil rights of the coloured people during the past centuries.

However, undeniably, religion can instigate violence. Oftentimes, religion is to justify violence in different forms, including war for religious propagation and preservation. Historically, religion was frequently used to sanction violence to people who were not devout believers. Likewise, a lot of violence and war are waged in the name of religions.

As mentioned before, religion, as an identity, is used to reinforce
self-centered attitude or superior conceit among the devout believers, while the nonbelievers are labeled as evil. Moreover, the extreme attachment to religion can contribute to strong conviction that holds anything is permissible for the glory of religion. In other word, deviated religious adherence could be a license to kill people of other faiths. This attitude is apparently shared by a lot of fundamentalists or extremists.

It should be noted that the extreme notion does not exist just among religious fundamentalists, but also the secularists including communists, neo-conservatives , or environmentalists. In numerous incidents, millions of people were killed by extreme secularists like Nazis, and communists. Some extreme environmentalists even declared recently that “everything is permitted”.

Religion is also used to support consumerism. A lot of religious teachings are misused to embrace the pursuit for prosperity and material accumulation. Turning to god or the sacred for fortune and wealth becomes a global phenomenon. Religious establishment becomes a spectacular showcase of material excess as religious leaders are bestowed with a luxurious life. It is not exaggerated to say that many religious establishments become the medium of consumerism that sanctions and intensifies craving and lead to more competition and exploitation.

In short, religion (or its interpretation) can be a source of culture of violence. This is the challenge for believers who wish to see religion as a beacon for culture of peace.

Beyond the extreme religious attachment

Religion has a lot of potential to create the culture of peace. Initially, however, religion has to avoid being the source of culture of violence.

Religion can contribute to violence if the religious attachment has gone extreme and nurtured conceit. To curb this tendency, religious believers must be encouraged to cultivate critical self-reflection or critical self-awareness that prevents conceit from dominating the mind. In fact, each religion essentially aims to free one from self-centered attitude. Once one understands deeply the essence of one’s religion, selfishness will be gone, and conceit and craving can no longer exist. Anger and hatred will also find no place in mind. One is unlikely to be overwhelmed by dualist perspective of “they” against “us” or pass moral judgment that “we are good” and “you are evil” since one is well aware that this is conceit in disguise. Critical self-reflection helps one to be aware that the line that divides good and evil is in our mind, rather than out there. 5

A lack of critical self-awareness creates a time bomb in our mind which can explode any time. Thus, one can create all forms of violence. Even without weapon in hand, the 9/11 terrorists have managed to kill thousands of people with the commandeering of commercial planes. Through the practice of deep and critical self-awareness, one can get rid of the time bomb in one’s mind and be free from conceit and self-centered attitude.

Once the mental bomb is defused , we will be free, open, and stay aloof the wall of religion or identity that separates us from others. From there, we can see common humanity in every human being. In spite of holding on to many religions or faiths, all of us are one. In fact every human being can wear various identities, not only Buddhist, Christian, or Muslim. But our religious identification can sometimes keep us from seeing others in entirety. We see them as to what religion they profess or which religious “label” they have, but nothing else .6 Such an attitude toward religion obviously narrows our perspective. Even though religion should otherwise deepen our mind and broaden our perspective.

Religion can be compared to the “root” that helps to deepen our mind and enable us to feel secure and grounded. It can be more than that, however. Religion should give us the “wings” that free our mind, and help us to see the world and humanity from a broad perspective. From a bird’s eye view, all differences of human on the earth, be it religion, race, skin, language, are undistinguishable. Only our common humanity is apparent.

Realizing oneness of humanity brings us closer and helps us see each other as friends, brothers or sisters, undivided by religion, race, or skin. Anger and hatred will wither away. We will realize by then that our enemy is not human being, but conceit, craving, attachment to ideology, and selfishness. Eliminating human being can never be a real solution to problems which can be permanently solved through freeing the opponent’s mind from negative qualities with the help of love and goodness. The more violence we use, the more anger and hatred developed in our mind, leading to more violent response. The spiral of violence will become endless. Thus the Buddha said “Conquer anger by love, conquer evil by good, conquer the miser by liberality, and conquer the liar by truth”.

Ultimately, freedom of mind can be achieved not just through renouncing self-centered attitude, anger or hatred alone, but attachment to religion as well. Any ideology or religion can imprison or fetter our mind. But religion can also give us the wings to fly above the ideological prison. And that state of mind happens when the true essence of religion is understood and religious detachment is attained. As Buddha said, we have to use a raft to cross the river. Once ashore, we have to leave the raft behind. No wise man would bother carrying the raft with him.

Even when the true essence of religion is not fully understood, being on guard against attachment to religion can be useful for us and others. The following contemplative mindfulness of Thich Nhat Hanh’s Order of Interbeing is a good reminder for all religious who care for peace:

“Aware of the suffering created by fanaticism and intolerance, we
are determined not to be idolatrous about or bound to any doctrine,
theory, or ideology, even Buddhist ones. Buddhist teachings are
guiding means to help us learn to look deeply and to develop our
understanding and compassion. They are not doctrines to fight,
kill, or die for.

“Aware of the suffering created by attachment to views and wrong
perceptions, we are determined to avoid being narrow-minded and
bound to present views. We shall learn and practice nonattachment from views in order to be open to other’s insights and experiences. We are aware that the knowledge we presently possess is not changeless, absolute truth. Truth is found in life, and we will observe life within and around us in every moment, ready to learn throughout our lives.”

Realizing the true essence of one’s own religion brings about deep and comprehensive transformation of one’s mind. With free and open minds, all human beings embrace each other with unbound compassion. We can thus witness common humanity in all persons regardless of identity difference. This can significantly contribute to culture of peace in the deepest level.

Action for culture of peace

Apart from helping to cultivate deep personal transformation, religion can help to reinforce the culture of peace by promoting change in collective value and attitude through peace education and media, humanitarian work, and action to stem violence in society.

Peace Education

My definition of peace education is the promotion of values for peaceful co-existence, i.e. tolerance, respect for diversity, forgiveness, and compassion. Through both formal and non-formal education, people can learn to respect dignity of human life, regardless of religion, language, race or ideology. Faith in nonviolence and the understanding that violence always begets violence are among peace attitudes that need to be cultivated. In addition to peace attitudes, peace education should embrace skills for peaceful conflict resolution. Conflict is a fact of life and, like difference in ideas, it can be both negative and positive, depending how it is handled. Learning to deal with conflict constructively forges mutual understanding among parties involved in conflicts.

Peace Media

Peace media should also be an integral part of peace education. Through emphasizing our common humanity rather than the tad bit of difference we share, they can extensively reduce bias or stereotype toward the minority or people of different ethnics and religions. Their way of life, tradition, beliefs, and aspirations should be presented in such a way that nurtures better understanding among peoples.

Apart from reducing anger and hatred, peace education and media should play the role in keeping materialism and consumerism at bay. Materialism and consumerism are now the main forces dominating present education and media even though it is too artificial to quantify reality simply in monetary term. Therefore, promoting alternatives to materialistic worldview and happiness beyond wealth or consumption should be an important task to be completed through peace education and media. The value of peace emanated from good work and inner peace should be upheld.

Humanitarian Work

The core values of culture of peace are love and generosity. Such values are best manifested not through preaching but concrete humanitarian work. Culture of peace is developed by concerted efforts to relieve fellow humans from all kinds of suffering, i.e. poverty, physical or mental abuse, exploitation, and oppression. Uplifting the quality of life contributes to the prosperity of culture of generosity and develops peace in society. Moreover, it also portraits that happiness can be attained through giving, not excessive possession or consumption. The less egoistic the believer is, the more likely she or he shares the suffering of fellow human beings. In other word, humanitarian work is an important indicator of how much one is free from egoistic attitude.

Action to stem violence

Violence exists at various levels, personal, communal or national. By reducing or stopping violence, one can show succinctly that violence is unacceptable. The reason that violence is widespread in society is the belief that violence (at least the domestic one, or capital punishment) is acceptable. Religion should play an active role in stemming all forms of violence, including wars.

Beyond direct violence is structural violence which creates and upholds the structure that promotes or justifies exploitation systematically and leads to poverty, sickness, and human rights violation. Structural violence is ingrained in the current economic, political and judiciary systems that massively inflict suffering on people. Religion should play a role in stemming structural violence.

To achieve that, these values are indispensable, namely, compassion toward those in suffering, courage to face all difficulties, wisdom to understand profound causes, and self-awareness to overcome conceit, attachment to ideas, and craving. All these moral forces can strongly inspire believers to take on difficult task as shown in history. On the contrary, however, religion has recently been used to propel killings among believers. The time is ripe for religion to drive the believers to sacrifice themselves to protect lives of others and bring peace to the world through compassion, courage, wisdom, and self-awareness stemming from their deep personal transformation. There is no other way for culture of peace to prevail the world.

1 Keynote address for the International Conference on Religion and Culture at Payap University on June 25, 2006

2 Jessica Williams “50 Facts that Should Change the World” (Cambridge: Icon Books,2004) p.140

3 Jonathan Glover “Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century” (Yale: Yale University Press,1999) pp 50,130

4 The following remark by one of Stalin’s cadres illustrates the influence of ideological attachment, which in extreme case, is tantamount to a license to kill people, “Our great goal was the universal triumph of communism, and for the sake of that goal everything was permissible – to lie, to steal, to destroy hundreds of thousands and even millions of people, all those who were hindering our work or who could hinder it, everyone who stood in the way.” Such an attitude also prevailed among the communist workers in other countries, including Cambodia. During the Khmer Rouge regime, one of its slogan was “One or two million young people are enough to make the new Kampuchea!” The rest of the population, which amounts to around six millions, was dispensable. (ibid, pp. 259,306)

5 Solzhenitsyn, the Russian Nobel laureate, made this point succinctly clear that: “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being”.

6 A Croat remarked the role of nationalism in reducing people to only one dimension of nationality:
“The trouble with this nationhood, however, is that whereas before, I was defined by my education, my job, my ideas, my character – and , yes, my nationality too – now I feel stripped of all that. I am nobody because I am not a person any more. I am one of 4.5 million Croats”.(Glover,p.152) It is undeniable that religion can play the same role of reducing person’s identities to one of religion.

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