The Buddhist Vision of Peace

Originally printed in the September - October 2003 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Mullin, Glenn H. "The Buddhist Vision of Peace." Quest  91.5 (SEPTEMBER - OCTOBER 2003):176-179, 184.

By Glenn H. Mullin

Theosophical Society - Glenn H. Mullin is a Tibetologist, Buddhist writer, translator of classical Tibetan literature and teacher of Tantric Buddhist meditation. Mullin has written over twenty-five books on Tibetan Buddhism. Many of these focus on the lives and works of the early Dalai Lamas.During the lifetime of the Buddha there lived a murderer called Angulimala, or "Thumb Necklace." He was known by this name because from each of his victims he removed a thumb, which he wore on a string around his neck.

The Buddha heard of Angulimala and decided to attempt to bring him to the path of peace. At the time it was rumored that Angulimala had robbed and killed almost a thousand people, and that his necklace was made of 999 human thumbs.

In order to meet Angulimala face-to-face, the Buddha set off alone and on foot through the forest where the deadly criminal was believed to be in hiding. Angulimala saw the Buddha approach. He sprang out from behind him, club in hand, and attempted a strike. The Buddha, however, had anticipated the move, and deftly side-stepped the blow. The attack continued at length; but the Buddha remained fearless, keeping his eyes fixed on his attacker and remaining constantly out of reach.

Eventually Angulimala became so exhausted that he fell to the ground. The Buddha sat beside him, placed his arm lovingly over his shoulder, and spoke consolingly to him. The distraught criminal began to weep violently, for never before had anyone shown him such love or forgiveness. They sat like this for several hours, Angulimala's body shaking with uncontrollable sobs.

This experience of compassion completely transformed Angulimala. He asked the Buddha to ordain him as a monk and to allow him to live with the Sangha community. The Buddha accepted. Angulimala took up the practices of meditation and self-purification, and eventually attained sainthood.

One of the most popular Tibetan folk heroes is the eleventh century yogi Milarepa. Numerous episodes from his life are quoted as evidence of the powers of love.

One day a hunter and his dog were out chasing deer. In its attempt to escape, the deer happened to wander into the meadow where Milarepa sat in meditation. Beholding his profound sense of calmness and his aura of kindness, the exhausted animal came and lay down beside him in the hope of finding refuge. A few moments later the hunting dog appeared on the scene, and it too lay down beside Milarepa.

Finally the hunter arrived. At first he was determined to kill his prey, but after a short period in the presence of Milarepa he was so moved by the sage's saintliness that he vowed to give up forever the cruel habit of killing wild animals. He asked to be accepted as a disciple, and in fact himself later became a famous yogi.

Another popular Buddhist figure is the Third Dalai Lama, who lived during the sixteenth century. Even as a young man the fame of his learning and saintliness had spread throughout Asia. News of his greatness reached the ears of Altan Khan, warlord chieftain of the terrible Tumed Mongols. Altan was intrigued by what he had heard of this marvelous teacher and therefore invited him to come and instruct the peoples of Mongolia. The Third Dalai Lama arrived in 1578.

His wisdom, compassion, and presence impressed the great Khan, who asked his people to turn away from the path of war and hatred, and instead to cultivate the way of peaceful co-existence. This singular event marked the end of the age of terror that the Mongols had wreaked upon their neighbors, from Korea and Japan in the east to Europe in the west. From that time onward the Mongolians have followed the spiritual legacy laid down for them by the Third Dalai Lama.

The basic intent behind all of the Buddhist anecdotes of this nature is to point out that peace in one's environment is brought about not by subduing the outside world, but by subduing one's own mind. Stated simply, the ultimate contribution an individual can make to the cause of peace and harmony begins at home. If I can become more peaceful, loving and saintly, this will immediately cause these qualities to spread into my immediate environment. The result is a chain reaction that forever spreads outward.

Conversely, if I do not cultivate a peaceful, loving, and compassionate nature within myself, then I cannot really contribute to peace in society as a whole. No matter what public statements I make or what physical demonstrations I engage in, nothing done in the name of peace has any meaning as long as my own character remains violent and intolerant.

Numerous techniques for developing a peaceful and loving mind have been preserved and developed in the various Buddhist traditions. An important writer on the subject in classical India was Shantideva, whose eighth century work A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way, or Bodhisattva-charya-avatara, is as popular with Buddhist teachers today as it was at the time of its composition some twelve hundred years ago.

In this text Shantideva comments, "It is impossible to cover the entire world with leather, but bycovering one's feet with sandals the same effect is created. Likewise, it is impossible to bring this world into harmony by destroying all harmful beings that exist; but by covering one's mind with the gentleness of loving patience the whole world becomes harmonious."

From the Mahayana point of view we need to make this contribution to world harmony not only because it is a sensible and desirable thing for ourselves personally, but because it is our spiritual obligation.

This theme is approached from a number of angles.

Firstly, although the world may be somewhat of a harsh environment, we owe our very existence to it. Someone else gave birth to us; the food that we eat is grown and brought to us through the kindness of others; the clothes we wear in order to protect ourselves from the elements come to us through the kindness of others; the houses we live in and the materials from which they are made entail the services of others. It may be argued that these services are not necessarily done out of a conscious act of kindness; the Buddhist answer is that an unconscious kindness should nevertheless be appreciated for whatever benefits it has given to us.

A second contemplation looks at our responsibility from the viewpoint of reincarnation. Here it is posited that, although any one-world system will have its beginning and end, existence itself is beginningless. Therefore we have had countless previous lives.

Moreover, our relationships with others is not something constant; those who are strangers or evenenemies in this life may well have been friends, relatives, and even parents to us in some previous life. Over the trillions of trillions of past lives there is no living being with whom we have not at one time or another had a friendly relationship, and who has not at one time or another shown kindness to us. Consequently there is no living being to whom we do not owe a debt of kindness.

In addition, all beings unconsciously want to be loved and to receive kindness. It is only out of the forces of delusion that anyone acts with cruelty and unpleasantness. Harmful beings are as if driven by the inner blinding negative forces of the three root delusions: attachment, hatred, and ignorance. These forces control them and render them powerless.

It is our responsibility to remain calm in the face of adversity, kind in the face of unkindness. We must attempt to diffuse rather than to further intensify their delusions.

Shantideva gives the example, "If someone attacks you with a stick, why become angry at the person when in fact it is the stick that causes you the pain? If you argue that it is the person that propels the stick, remember that the person is in turn propelled by delusion. So the real enemy is only delusion, and it is only this that needs to be destroyed. . . And how is delusion destroyed in the world? Only by first destroying it from within one's own mindstream."

From the Buddhist perspective, the ultimate solution to the world's problems is nothing more and nothing less than our own enlightenment. And it is precisely this—the wish to achieve full enlightenment in order to contribute to the well-being of the world—that constitutes the basis of the Bodhisattva path.

The importance of the mind and its attitudes are constantly stressed in the Buddhist tradition.

Shantideva writes, "What is generosity? It is not the act of giving nor of dispelling poverty;otherwise, as the omniscient beings of the past have attained the perfection of generosity there would no longer be any poverty on earth. The perfection of generosity is the possession of a generous mind, an attitude that wishes to share with others and to see them separated from need."

Buddha once said, "The mind is like a horse; the body and speech are like the cart. Wherever thehorse goes, the cart will automatically follow."

Thus by cultivating a peaceful mind endowed with love, kindness, and compassion, our every deed of body and speech becomes a contribution to peace.


One of the principal meditation techniques used to cultivate this type of attitude is that known as "the six causes and one effect," a method transmitted by Maitreya Buddha to Asanga (about 3rd century) and later refined by Shantideva. The method is given this name because the six causal meditational steps prepare the mind for the experience of the resultant Bodhisattva aspiration.

This meditation begins with the preliminary of developing a sense of equanimity towards all beings. One thinks about the three types of living beings those who have brought us happiness or pleasure ("friends"), those who have brought us difficulties or suffering ("enemies"), and those who have done neither ("strangers"). One then contemplates how even in this lifetime friends become enemies or strangers, strangers become friends or enemies, and so forth, and that over our stream of millions of lifetimes our relationship with others is constantly changing. Therefore friends, enemies and strangers should all be held in equal respect.

This preliminary—that of developing a sense of equanimity toward others—is a very useful daily exercise. In terms of generating a mind of peace and harmony it is an indispensable step, and is likened to preparing the field in which we shall plant the seeds of the enlightened attitude. When it has been firmly established as a daily habit one can proceed with the actual "six causes and one effect."

The first of the six causes is to contemplate how in one of our billions of previous lifetimes each living being has been a mother to us. This step is called "recognizing all beings as a mother." They have also been friends, brothers and sisters, enemies and so forth; but here it is the mother image that is emphasized because of the exceptional nature of motherhood and the emotional tone it encompasses.

The second cause is to contemplate the many ways in which a mother shows kindness to a child, not only giving it life but also protecting and caring for it at great personal sacrifice.

Next is the cause called "the aspiration to repay kindness." If each being has at one time or another been a mother to me and has brought me all the benefits that a mother instinctively does, my debt to each living being is immeasurable. I should try to repay this debt.

This leads to the fourth and fifth "causes." How does one repay their kindness? By always treating them with love and compassion. Here love means the aspiration to see them have happiness and its causes, and compassion means the aspiration to see them be free from suffering and its causes.

This leads to the sixth "cause," that of a sense of universal responsibility. One must think, "May I personally take responsibility for the happiness of others, and help them in any way that I can to remain free from suffering."

At this point a very strong question arises, "But do I have the wisdom, skill, and power to contribute significantly to universal happiness and freedom from sufferings? And if not, who does?"

The obvious answer is that one's ability to contribute in this way is dependent upon the level of one's enlightenment. Therefore the aspiration arises, "May I achieve full enlightenment in order to be able to fulfill love and compassion, and to be of maximum benefit to the world."

This is the type of contemplation to be pursued daily by the Mahayana Buddhist in order to maintain attitudes conducive to peace and harmony.

There is a Tibetan proverb that states, "Before accomplishing self-progress you cannot accomplish other-progress." The meaning is that first one makes one's own spiritual base firm; only then can one make a real social contribution.

Conversely, once one's own spiritual balance has been established one's energies naturally become acontribution to the well-being of others. One's every thought becomes meaningful, every word helpful toothers, and every bodily action of universal benefit.

Shantideva wrote, "The Bodhisattva spirit is like a magic elixir; when one possesses it everything that one touches turns to gold." The meaning is that when love and compassion are present, every encounter with others inspires peace and harmony.

The world is large and its problems many. However, history has proved again and again that a single individual can make a difference. This is true in both a negative and a positive sense: an evil person can bring great suffering and darkness to others; and an enlightened being can bring great happiness and enlightenment. If it is our wish to contribute to peace and happiness in the world not only in this lifetime but throughout the rosary of our future incarnations, it is important that we begin the pacifying by removing attachment, hatred, and ignorance from within our own mindstream, and by replacing these negative traits with qualities such as nonattachment, love, compassion, and wisdom.

Ours is the kaliyuga, "the dark age" in which aggression, violence, and strong delusion dominate the world atmosphere. The intensity of the times is like a great fire that either destroys or purifies those who dwell within it.

The choice is our own: to be destroyed by the world atmosphere, or to use it to our own advantage. By using it to our own advantage, enlightenment is more easily attained now than it is in less intense times.

Alternatively, if in this desperate age we do not take up the armor of love, compassion, kindness, and tolerance, then we easily become caught in the strong wind of the present world trend, and our life energies then automatically add to the negative atmosphere rather than contribute to peace and harmony.

As the Dalai Lama has said, "We all live on this planet together; whether or not we like it, we depend upon one another for our peace and happiness . . . .

"Technology has given us a lot of physical benefits, but it still has not brought about a world free of violence and hatred. It has not produced an atmosphere of peace and harmony. If anything, it has increased our ability to kill and has increased humanity's collective fear and suffering.

"Peace is an inner quality. We cannot talk about a peaceful world as long as the human spirit is dominated by hatred. Peace can only be achieved in human society when the individual human beings cultivate qualities such as love and compassion within themselves. Love is our only hope, our only tool for peace. If anything can save humanity in this time of crisis, it is only the power of love,compassion, and tolerance."

American Theosophist May 1987

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