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Buddhism World Peace and Nuclear War

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by Sangharakshita

Lecture 162: Buddhism, World Peace, and Nuclear War - Edited Version

GAUTAMA THE BUDDHA GAINED ENLIGHTENMENT at about the same time that Cyrus the Great captured the city of Babylon and founded the Persian Empire. Five years later he paid a visit to his home town, Kapilavastu, just inside the modern state boundary of Nepal.38 It was fortunate that he did so. A dispute had arisen between the S'akyans of Kapilavastu and their neighbours the Koliyans of Devadaha, to whom the Buddha was related through his mother, and, as a result of this, war was about to break out between the two peoples. The original cause of the dispute was comparatively trivial. Both the S'akyans and the Koliyans were accustomed to irrigate their fields with water from the River Rohini, which flowed between their respective territories, but that year it was obvious that there would not be enough water for them both. The Koliyans therefore proposed that they should have the water, on the grounds that their crops would ripen with a single watering. This proposal the S'akyans flatly rejected, saying that they would have no mind to beg food from the Koliyans later on in the year and that, in any case, their crops too would ripen with a single watering. Since neither side would give way, the dispute became very bitter and eventually blows were exchanged. To make matters worse, the Koliyans started casting aspersions on the origins of the leading S'akya families, saying that they had cohabited with their own sisters like dogs and jackals, while the S'akyans cast aspersions on the leading Koliya families, saying that they were destitute outcasts who had lived in the hollows of trees like animals. Reports of these aspersions soon reached the ears of the leading families themselves, who immediately came forth armed for battle, the S'akya warriors shouting `We will show the strength of those who have cohabited with their sisters!' and the Koliya warriors shouting `We will show the strength of those who live in the hollows of trees!'.

Thus it was that, one fine morning, the Buddha came to know that war was about to break out between his paternal and maternal relations. Realizing that unless he intervened they would destroy each other, he at once went to the place where the two armies were gathered. As soon as they saw him his kinsmen on both sides threw away their weapons and respectfully saluted him. When the Buddha asked them what the quarrel was all about, however, they were unable to tell him. Eventually, after cross-examining various people, the Buddha succeeded in establishing that the cause of the quarrel was water. Having established this, he asked `How much is water worth?' `Very little, Reverend Sir.' `How much are warriors worth?' `Warriors are beyond price, Reverend Sir.' Then said the Buddha `It is not fitting that because of a little water you should destroy warriors who are beyond price,' and they were silent.

Some features of this `Rohini incident' are only too sickeningly familiar to us today. They are, in fact, characteristic of disputes and wars from the Stone Age down to modern times. There is the same clash of vital interests between different groups of people, the same unwillingness to compromise, the same dreadful escalation from harsh words to isolated acts of violence, and from isolated acts of violence to preparations for full-scale war. There is the same fatal spirit of belligerence, the same readiness, on the part of large numbers of people, to fight without really knowing what they are fighting for. There is even, we note, the same irrelevant mutual vilification, suggestive of antipathies that have long lurked beneath the surface and now have an opportunity of breaking out. But there is also - and this is more encouraging - the same solitary voice of sanity and compassion that, if only we listen carefully enough, we can hear even today. There is the same appeal to reason, the same reminder of what is truly most valuable, that has been heard if not from the Stone Age than at least from the Axial Age, and heard, perhaps, with increasing frequency - regardless of whether men paid attention to it or not.

But although there are similarities between the Rohini incident and the situation in which we find ourselves today there are differences too. The quarrel between the S'akyans and the Koliyans involved only the inhabitants of two small city states living side by side at the foot of the Himalayas. The quarrel between the superpowers of the twentieth century involves hundreds of millions of people occupying continents separated by vast oceans and it affects, directly or indirectly, the whole world. The S'akyans and the Koliyans were armed, like the heroes of Ancient Greece, with swords and spears and bows-and-arrows, and they fought either on foot or from horse-drawn chariots. The superpowers are armed with a variety of nuclear weapons, i.e. they are armed with a variety of weapons capable of destroying life on a scale not only unprecedented in history but not even imaginable before the present century. The S'akyans and Koliyans could actually see each other across the waters of the River Rohini. They spoke the same language, even as they worshipped the same gods, and it was possible for one man to make himself heard by the warriors on both sides. Now it is possible for hundreds of millions of people to quarrel without actually seeing one another, and even to prepare to destroy one another without knowing, humanly speaking, who it is they are preparing to destroy. As for their all speaking the same language, they speak it neither literally nor metaphorically, even as they certainly do not worship the same gods, and despite our marvellously improved facilities of communication it is not really possible for one man to make himself heard by them all. Indeed, those same marvellously improved facilities of communication are used, only too often, either for the exchange of insults or for the reiteration of positions known to be unacceptable to the other side. Thus facilities of communication are used for purposes of non-communication.

Highly significant as these differences are, there is one difference between the Rohini incident and the situation in which we find ourselves today that is more significant, perhaps, than any of them. Had war actually broken out between the S'akyans and the Koliyans there would have been the possibility of one side winning. No such possibility exists in the case of nuclear war between the superpowers. Even limited nuclear war would be so destructive of human life, and do so much damage to civilization and to the earth itself, that neither side could be victorious in any humanly meaningful sense of the term. Limited nuclear war must therefore be regarded as an absolutely unacceptable option. Full-scale nuclear war is even more unacceptable, if that is possible. Full-scale nuclear war is a prospect so frightful that no one with the slightest imagination can even contemplate it without an effort of will. All the deepest instincts of humanity recoil from it in utter horror. Full-scale nuclear war means nuclear holocaust, with hundreds of cities reduced to rubble, hundreds of millions of people burned or blasted out of existence, and millions more doomed to an agonizing death from the short- or long-term effects of nuclear radiation. Full-scale nuclear war means fire-storms and `black rain'. It means the destruction of the ecosphere. It means the death of the earth. It means the suicide of humanity.

Nuclear wars are fought with nuclear weapons. If even limited nuclear war is unacceptable it follows that nuclear weapons are unacceptable too. Nuclear weapons must therefore be abolished. They would still have to be abolished even if there was at present no intention, on the part of the superpowers and others who have produced them, ever actually to make use of their dreadful destructive capacity. So long as nuclear weapons exist in the world there will always be the risk of accidental nuclear attack due to mechanical failure or human error - not to mention sudden insanity in one or other of the seats of power - and so long as there is the risk of accidental nuclear attack there will be the risk of full-scale nuclear war.

Thus we are obliged to regard the very existence of nuclear weapons as being tantamount, in the long term at least, to the actual use of those weapons. Control of nuclear weapons is therefore not enough. There is no way of ensuring that nuclear weapons are not used, and that a nuclear holocaust does not take place, other than by making sure that nuclear weapons no longer exist. So long as the superpowers and the small powers have their stockpiles of nuclear weapons prevention of nuclear war is no more than a pleasant dream. Indeed, it is a dangerous dream, since it tends to make us oblivious to the very real threat to humanity that the mere existence of such stockpiles represents. There is no one in the world, perhaps, who does not want peace (what peace really is I shall try to explain later on), but if one wants peace it is important to realize that even in the very limited sense of absence of nuclear conflict peace is impossible without the total abolition of nuclear weapons. Working for peace therefore involves, to a great extent, working for the abolition of nuclear weapons, and working for the abolition of nuclear weapons involves working for peace.

Peace of course means world peace. Even if the Rohini incident had led to war, and S'akyans and Koliyans had been killed by the thousand, hostilities would no doubt have remained confined to that particular stretch of the Terai. For thousands of years it was possible for some parts of the world to suffer all the horrors of what we now term `conventional war' while others remained profoundly at peace. It is highly unlikely that anyone in Magadha knew that Cyrus the Great had captured Babylon ...

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