by Bhikkhu Bodhi
The textbooks of history come into our hands bound in decorative covers and set in crisp clear types. To the discerning reader, however, their glossy pages are stained with blood and wet with streams of tears. The story of man's sojourn on this planet has generally not been a very pretty one. For sure, deeds of virtue and flashes of the sublime light up the tale like meteorites shooting across the night time sky. But the pageant of events that the records spell out for us unfolds according to a repeated pattern in which the dominant motifs are greed and ambition, deceit and distrust, aggression, destruction and revenge.
Each age, when the dust of its own battles clears, tends to see itself as standing at the threshold of a new era in which peace and harmony will at last prevail. This appears to be particularly true of our own time, with its high ideals and great expectations aroused by dramatic shifts in international relations. It would be ingenuous, however, to think that a package solution to the tensions inherent in human coexistence can be devised as easily as a solution to a problem in data management. To cherish the dream that we have arrived at the brink of a new world order in which all conflict, in obedience to our good intentions, will be relegated to the past is to lose sight of the grim obstinacy of those deep dark drives that stir in the human heart: the defilements of greed, hatred and delusion. It is these drives that have brought us into this world of strife and suffering, and it is these same drives that keep the wheel of history turning, erupting periodically in orgies of senseless violence.
Like any other stream, the stream of mundane existence inevitably flows in the direction of least resistance: downwards. The task the Buddha sets before us is not the impossible one of reversing the direction of the flow, but the feasible one of crossing the stream, of arriving safely at the far shore where we will be free from the dangers that beset us as we are swept along by the stream. To cross the stream requires a struggle, not against the current itself, but against the forces that carry us down the current, a struggle against the defilements lodged in the depths of our own minds.
Though violence, either overt or subtle, may hold sway over the world in which we are afloat, the Buddha's path to freedom requires of us that we make a total break with prevailing norms. Thus one of the essential steps in our endeavor to reach the abode of safety is to "lay down the rod," to put away violence, aggression and harmfulness towards all living beings. In the Buddha's teaching the "laying down of the rod" is not merely an ethical principle, a prescription for right action. It is a comprehensive strategy of self-training that spans all stages of the Buddhist path, enabling us to subdue our inclinations towards ill will, animosity and cruelty.
The key to developing a mind of harmlessness is found in the ancient maxim stated in the Dhammapada: "Putting oneself in the place of another, one should not slay or incite others to slay." The reason we should avoid harming others is because all living beings, in their innermost nature, share the same essential concern for their own well being and happiness When we look into our own minds, we can immediately see with intuitive certainty that the fundamental desire at the root of our being is the desire to be well and happy, to be free from all harm, danger and distress. We see at once that we wish to live, not to die; that we wish to be happy, not to suffer; that we wish to pursue our goals freely, without hindrance and obstruction by others.
When we see that this wish for well being and happiness is the most basic desire at the root of our own being, by a simple imaginative projection we can then recognize, again with intuitive certainty, that the same fundamental desire animates the minds of all other living beings as well. Just as we wish to be well, so every other being wishes to be well; just as we wish to be happy, so every other being wishes to be happy; just as we wish to pursue our goals freely, so all other beings wish to pursue their goals freely, without hindrance and obstruction.
This fundamental identity of aim that we share with all other beings has implications for each stage of the threefold Buddhist training in morality, mental purification and wisdom. Since all other beings, like ourselves, are intent on their welfare and happiness, by putting ourselves in their place we can recognize the need to regulate our conduct by principles of restraint that hold in check all harmful bodily and verbal deeds. Because afflictive deeds originate from the mind, from thoughts of animosity and cruelty, it becomes necessary for us to purify our minds of these taints through the practice of concentration, developing as their specific antidotes the "divine abodes" of lovingkindness and compassion. And because all defiled thoughts tending towards harm for others arise from roots lodged deep in the recesses of the mind, we need to undertake the development of wisdom, which alone can extricate the hidden roots of evil.
Since the state of the world is a manifestation and reflection of the minds of its inhabitants, the achievement of a permanent universal peace would require nothing short of a radical and widespread transformation in the minds of these inhabitants -- a beautiful but unrealistic fantasy. What lies within the scope of real possibility is the attainment of a lasting individual peace within ourselves, a peace that comes with the fulfillment of the Buddha's threefold training. This internal peace, however, will not remain locked up in our hearts. Overflowing its source, it will radiate outwards, exercising a gentle and uplifting influence upon the lives of those who come within its range. As the old Indian adage says, one can never make the earth safe for one's feet by sweeping away all thorns and gravel, but if one wears a pair of shoes one's feet will be comfortable everywhere. One can never be free from enmity by eliminating all one's foes, but if one strikes down one thing -- the thought of hate -- one will see no enemies anywhere.
Buddhist Publication Society Newsletter cover essay #18 (Spring 1991)
Copyright © 1991 Buddhist Publication Society
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A Remedy for Despair by Bhikkhu Bodhi