Somewhere I have saved an old photo from the front page of the Manila Times in 1967. I was in my Peace Corps training at San Lazaro Hospital in the Philippines. In the photo I stand alone in front of the U.S. embassy, holding a big peace sign in a one-man demonstration against the war in Vietnam. It was the day of a huge anti-war rally in Washington and I wanted to be part of it. I thought I knew enough about Vietnam to see that we were wrong to intervene, that we were simply perpetuating the mistakes of the French colonialists before us. My first years of traveling in Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam reinforced this view, as did many of the soldiers I talked to.
Of course, the reality turned out to be more complex than I could have known. I later met people who had suffered horribly under the North Vietnamese Communists, people who were beaten in dismal camps and tortured for ideological retaliation. Similarly, I met many who had lost family members and suffered terribly under the South Vietnamese Diem regime. Up close, everyone had a compelling story. They wanted you to understand and take their side. What is certain is that there are no smug answers. Now I approach activism with a wholly different understanding. I try to bring respect to everyone involved. I'm not so stuck on my position. Instead of creating scapegoats, instead of seeing some people as all wrong and others as all right, I see suffering growing out of the powerful energies of delusion and ignorance. When I take action I do not want to add my own arrogance or aggression to our conflicts.
When Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh took a stand for peace in the 1960s in Vietnam, he understood that true peace would grow only from building schools and hospitals, not from taking sides. His book Lotus in a Sea of Fire described how the Young Buddhist Service Movement, which he helped to found, chose to support everyone, regardless of their politics. Martin Luther King Jr. was so inspired by this work he nominated Thich Nhat Hanh for the Nobel Peace Prize. But back in Vietnam because the Young Buddhists refused to swear allegiance to either the Northern or Southern faction, they were considered a threat by each faction. “If you're not with us, you must be with the enemy.” Many of the Young Buddhists were killed by both sides. In spite of these deaths, Thich Nhat Hanh and his colleagues continued their work. A bodhisattva commits to heal suffering undaunted by outward periods of failure and success.
One of the stories from the Buddha’s own life concerns the hostilities between the neighboring countries of Magadha and Kapilavatthu, where the Buddha’s own Shakya clan lived. When the Shakya people realized that the king of Magadha was planning to attack, they implored the Buddha to step forward and make peace. The Buddha agreed. But although he offered many proposals for peace, the king of Magadha could not hear them. His mind would not stop burning, and finally he decided to attack.
So the Buddha went out by himself and sat in meditation under a dead tree by the side of the road leading to Kapilavatthu. The king of Magadha passed along the road with his army and saw the Buddha sitting under the dead tree in the full blast of the sun. So the king asked, “Why do you sit under this dead tree?” The Buddha answered the king, “I feel cool, even under this dead tree, because it is growing in my beautiful native country.” This answer pierced the heart of the king. Recognizing the commitment and dedication the Shakyas felt for their land, he returned to his country with his army. Later, however, this same king was again incited to war. This time, Shakyamuni Buddha could not stop the conflict, and the Magadhan army destroyed Kapilavatthu.
We cannot control the outcome of our actions. Still, we can turn toward the world, plant good seeds, and trust that they will eventually bear fruit. Whenever a few people are committed to the vision of a free and just humanity, transformation can happen, despite the greatest odds. The story of one such amazing transformation is told in Bury the Chains, by Adam Hochschild. Hochschild’s account begins in 1787, with the meeting of just a dozen men in a London printer’s shop, gathered to consider the evils of slavery. The Caribbean slave trade was the economic underpinning of the entire British Empire, but these men chose to envision an empire without slavery. The key protagonist was Thomas Clarkson, who joined together with a small group of other dedicated abolitionists, especially Quakers, to change the society’s views on slavery.
These few men began a long, deliberate campaign. Clarkson himself rode on horseback thirty thousand miles around England over several decades in service of this vision. He brought a few ex-slaves who were well educated and articulate, who spoke of the horror of their experiences, into the parlors and the meeting houses of British folk. By 1833, this small group had succeeded in getting Parliament to pass a law outlawing slavery in the British Empire, which in turn catalyzed the process of ending slavery around the world.
Hochschild tells us that the Quakers of the time refused to take their hats off to King George or to any king other than God. But when Clarkson died, even the Quakers took their hats off to honor what he had done for humanity.
We are limited only by our imagination. Yes, there will always be a shadow. Yes, greed and fear and ignorance will be part of our psychology. But there are ways we can live wisely. For the bodhisattva, raising a family, running a conscious business, and righting an injustice all can contribute to the fabric of the whole. Every one of us can sense this potential. Human beings can live with more compassion, with more care for one another, with less prejudice and racism and fear. There are wise ways of solving conflict that await our hands and hearts.