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Buddhism World Peace and Nuclear War

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by Sangharakshita

... Babylon until many years after the event, and equally unlikely that anyone in the Persian Empire knew that King Ajatasatru had, shortly after the demise of the Buddha, defeated the Vriji confederacy, until long after that unscrupulous monarch had achieved his purpose. Even during the First and Second World Wars there were countries that were not affected, to any serious extent, by the events that were convulsing the rest of the globe. On the contrary, in some cases they even profited from them. But peace is no longer divisible in this kind of way.

Peace has become a seamless garment, and the world has either to wear the whole garment or go naked to destruction. There can no longer be any question of a scrap of peace covering one part of the world's nakedness and not another.

This makes it impossible for us to think in merely geo-political terms. We have also to think in geo-ethical, geo-humanitarian, or geo-philanthropic terms. Since peace is indivisible, so that the stark choice before us is either world peace or no peace, one world or no world, we shall be able to achieve peace only if we realize that humanity too is indivisible, and if we consistently act on that realization. In other words, we shall be able to achieve peace only by regarding ourselves as citizens of the world, and learning to think not in terms of what is good for this or that nation-state, this or that political system, this or that ideology, but simply and solely in terms of what is good for the world, or for humanity, as a whole.

There can be no peace - no world peace - so long as the governments and peoples of sovereign nation-states insist on regarding their separate, sometimes mutually exclusive, interests as paramount and to be pursued at all costs. Nationalism is in fact the curse of modern history. It is nationalism that was responsible for the rise of sovereign nation-states, and it is sovereign nation-states that produced nuclear weapons in the first place, that produce and possess them now, and that have the power to unleash their destructive capacity upon mankind. Peace and nationalism are therefore incompatible. Nationalism is not, of course, the same thing as patriotism. Nationalism is an exaggerated, passionate, and fanatical devotion to one's national community at the expense of all other national communities and even at the expense of all other interests and loyalties. It is a pseudo-religion, an idolatrous cult that demands bloody sacrifices.

Patriotism, on the other hand, is simply love of one's country, in the sense of an attachment to, and a desire to care for and protect, the place where one was born and grew up, and it does not exclude smaller or larger interests and loyalties, or honest pride in such things as one's own history and culture. Thus patriotism, unlike nationalism, is not incompatible with peace, even though peace goes beyond patriotism which, in the famous words of Edith Cavell, is `not enough'.39 This does not mean that in order to achieve peace we have to stop loving our own village or city, our own province, our own country, or our own continent, but rather that we have to love them because they are all parts of the world and because we love the world. It means that we have to identify ourselves with humanity, rather than with any particular section of it, and love humanity as ourselves. We have to feel for the different national communities, and the different ethnic and linguistic groups, the same kind of love that we feel for the different limbs of our own bodies.

Of this kind of love the Buddha, as he stands between the opposing S'akya and Koliya forces, is the supreme exemplar. The Buddha identified himself with both the S'akyans and the Koliyans, and because he identified himself with them both he could love them both. After all, even apart from the fact that he had attained Enlightenment and thus identified himself with all living things (not in any abstract, metaphysical sense, but in the sense of experiencing the joys and sorrows of others as his own), he was related by blood to both parties in the dispute. Through his father he was related to the S'akyans, and through his mother to the Koliyans. Among the warriors on both sides he had uncles, cousins, and nephews, besides old friends and childhood companions. Thus the Buddha's position was similar to our own. We too stand between opposing forces, though the forces with which we have to deal are as much superior to those of the S'akyans and Koliyans as the Buddha's sanity and compassion are superior to ours.

Moreover, in our case we do not stand unambiguously between these forces but only too often identify ourselves with one or the other of them and are perceived so to identify ourselves. If peace is to be achieved, however, we have to identify ourselves with both parties, just as the Buddha identified himself with both the S'akyans and the Koliyans. Though we may not be related to them by blood in the way that the Buddha was related to his embattled paternal and maternal relatives, nevertheless we are related to them, inasmuch as we all belong to the same organic species, homo sapiens, and it should not be necessary for us to attain Enlightenment in order to realize this fact. If we identify ourselves with both parties and with humanity in this manner, then we shall be able to stand cleanly and unambiguously between the `fell incensed points' of the mighty opposites of our day. We shall be able to speak as the Buddha spoke, because we shall love as the Buddha loved. We shall be a voice of sanity and compassion in the world.

We shall be able to appeal to reason. We shall be able to remind humanity, in its own name, what things are of greater value and what of less. We may even be able to remind it what is the most valuable thing of all.

But between the Rohini incident and the situation in which we find ourselves today there are, as I have pointed out, both similarities and differences. Some of those differences are very great, even if only in terms of scale. Though the implications of the incident are of universal significance, and although that significance has already emerged to a limited degree, it will have to be explored much more deeply if we are to appreciate the full extent of its applicability to the issue of world peace and nuclear war. In exploring the significance of the Rohini incident in this way we shall naturally have to go beyond the immediate context of the incident itself. We shall even have to go beyond the issue of world peace and nuclear war, though not beyond Buddhism, and at least touch upon closely related issues of even greater consequence to every individual human being and, in fact, to mankind as a whole. We shall have to touch upon issues on account of which the issue of world peace and nuclear war itself is of such overwhelming importance.

In other words, we shall have to touch upon questions of ultimate significance for every `rational animal' or `thinking reed'.

Now what I have already said on the subject of Buddhism, world peace, and nuclear war, as well as what I am going to say, all rests on a single assumption. Some people would regard it as a very big assumption indeed, but I nevertheless hope it is an assumption you share with me, since otherwise it will be difficult for us to explore together the significance of the Rohini incident in the way that I have proposed. Indeed, it might even be useless for us to do so. The assumption to which I refer is the assumption that nuclear war, particularly full-scale nuclear war and nuclear holocaust, is not inevitable. It is the assumption that nuclear weapons can be abolished and world peace, in the sense of the absence of nuclear conflict, achieved. If that was not my assumption I would not be wasting my time and yours by talking to you this evening. Admittedly the risk of nuclear war is very great. Admittedly world peace is very difficult to achieve. But as we contemplate the possibility - perhaps the increasing possibility - of nuclear holocaust we should not allow the sheer horror of the prospect to reduce us to inaction, like frightened rabbits mesmerized into immobility by the headlights of an approaching car. Neither should we allow ourselves to be seduced by the united siren voices of fanaticism, fundamentalism, and fatalism as they seek to assure us that nuclear holocaust is in fact the prophesied Armageddon and that instead of trying to avert it we should welcome it as the righteous judgement of an angry God on sinful humanity. Whatever other religions may believe, Buddhism, like secular humanism, believes that ills created by man - and many not created by man - can be remedied by man. This does not mean that it underestimates the difficulties involved, least of all those which stand in the way of the achievement of world peace through the abolition of nuclear weapons, and it certainly does not mean that it subscribes to the shallow optimism of which some forms of secular humanism have been guilty.

But it is time we returned to the figure of the Buddha, as he stands between the opposing S'akya and Koliya forces, and began our deeper exploration of the significance of that sublime incident as it applies to the situation in which we find ourselves today. One of the things that strikes us as we look at the pro-peace, anti-nuclear movement is that it is not a strong and unified body of opinion speaking with one voice about what has to be achieved and the means to its achievement. It is not a movement at all, so much as a motley collection of forces eddying more or less confusedly about matters of growing popular concern. Some of these forces even seem to be moving in contrary directions, as we can see in the case of the great debate as to whether nuclear disarmament should be unilateral or multilateral. All such differences are, of course, differences about means rather than ends. ...

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