Tending the World

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 stood alone in front of the U.S. Embassy, with a big peace sign demonstrating against the war in Vietnam.  It was the day of a huge demonstration 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, 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.  It was not simply one-sided. I met people who suffered horribly under the North Vietnamese Communists, 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 whole new understanding. I try to bring respect to everyone involved. I’m not so stuck on my position. Instead of creating scapegoats, seeing evil people and right and wrong, I see delusion, ignorance. 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 1960’s in Vietnam, he understood that true peace would only grow 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. After meeting Thich Nhat Hanh, Martin Luther King Jr. nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize. But because the Young Buddhists refused to swear allegiance to either the Northern or Southern faction, they were considered a threat.  “If you’re not with us, you must be with the enemy.” Many of the Young Buddhists were killed by both sides.  “In war,” says the Buddha, “there are no victors.”  Thich Nhat Hanh and his colleagues continued their work anyway. A bodhisattva commits to heal suffering through failure and success. One of the stories of the Buddha’s own life reveals the hostilities between the neighboring countries of Magadha and Kapilivatthu, where the Buddha’s own Shakya clan lived.  When the Shakya people realized that 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 Kapilivatthu.  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, and this time his army destroyed Kapilivatthu.  Shakyamuni Buddha stood by and watched.   This excerpt is taken from the book, “The Wise Heart”

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