Humanism: The Way to Peace

There’s a lot of Buddhist teachers that have great aspirations for world peace. They hail from all the great traditions of Buddhism, be it Zen, Tibetan, Nichiren, and so on. Many of these teachers give similar instructions on world peace, namely: There cannot be peace in the world until we are at peace with ourselves. That is, unless you and I are at peace with our own selves, we cannot attain world peace.

It’s a simple instruction, but like many other Buddhist instructions, it is at its surface beneficial, but also has much depth and insight within what appear to be very simple words. So what does peace with ourselves mean? We talk about it all the time. Our TVs, our churches, our temples, our sanghas are all full of talk about “inner peace”, “peace of mind”. We often think that this means a sense of comfort, almost dare I say, a lull. Is this what we mean by peace with ourselves? A sense of comfort about our finances, our homes, our relationship situation? Let me make a simple observation: it seems that when we talk about peace of mind, we are really talking about peace about the status of something outside ourselves. But this is not what Buddhist teachers are talking about when they talk about “peace with one’s self”.

Buddha himself taught us what this meant without words. We know it through the incredible story of his enlightenment. The Buddha tried to gain transcendence, enlightenment, through bringing his body to the brink of death in what I interpret as an act of ultimate self-hatred. The Buddha was said to have eaten one grain of rice a day at one point, his skin was said to have turned black, and it was related that when he touched his belly he could feel his spine, and when he touched his back he could feel his belly. On the brink of death, he found that he was no closer to enlightenment than when he began. He then met a young woman who offered him rice pudding. He ate the nourishing meal, which then proved to be the fuel that propelled him to that fateful day under the Bodhi Tree when he became enlightened.

The Buddha made peace with himself. What the Buddha realized was that he had a faulty understanding of himself and his own body. The traditions of his day told him that he had to mortify the body, that the body was evil, sinful, and that it was the barrier to attaining enlightenment (sound familiar?). Buddhism teach us precisely the opposite. Buddha did not attain enlightenment, he merely re-discovered it. He found that he could not find enlightenment outside his body.

In our culture, we are taught to hate our bodies and ourselves. Maybe not in such direct terms, but it permeates our culture. Our collective religious and spiritual history as Westerners is built on the proverbial myth of the Garden of Eden and the concept of Original Sin. Our idea of the self is that there is nothing inherently good. We are inherently sinful, bad, evil. As we know this creates a massive anxiety in our being. We are always searching for ways to “be in the right place”, to live “the right way”, to eat “the right things”, all in a quest to “be good”. Although there is nothing wrong with self-improvement or spiritual growth, doing so out of guilt and hatred of self creates false growth, and hatred of self, naturally manifests as hatred of other.

Buddha teaches us that we have the keys to our own enlightenment. Everyone already has an “enlightened nature” (skt. tathagatagarbha). It is merely a matter of discovering it. The Buddhist teachings on emptiness and impermanence amount to basically a radical humanism. This humanism is not based on false pride, self-righteousness, or any idea of supremacy. It is a notion that basically teaches us that every being is a valuable part of our existence, and in turn that we are a valuable, good part of existence.  The humanism that the Buddha teaches is not iconoclastic or reactionary. Instead it is a humanism that is deeply rooted in compassion.

When we can acknowledge that our situation is workable, that we are where we need to be, and that we are in a sense already “good”, we become remarkably gentler with ourselves, in the truest sense, compassionate. We are also more prone to grow. A natural outgrowth of this understanding is that we begin to understand that other people are also workable, and that they are where they need to be. As the great teacher, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche once taught, we learn to never give up on anyone, ever.

Genuine compassion is motivated by compassion, not ambition or condescension. When we say “we never give up on anyone”, that does not mean we dote, or we enable others to engage in negative behavior (such addiction, etc.), it also doesn’t mean we become jellyfish. Genuine compassion is about being truly present to others by being truly present to one’s self. That can only happen if we learn to like ourselves and to acknowledge and understand that we are worth it and that our situation is workable.

The humanism of the Buddha is, again, not an iconoclastic or reactionary humanism. The Buddha, after all, taught that his teachings were the Middle Way. This humanism is not atheism or pure theism. It lives somewhere in between. It is also an openness that arises not from logical reasoning or philosophical allegiance. It is an openness and a peace that arises from experience. It is also a humanism that upholds and values human life, and human dignity while appreciating the realities of human suffering.

You don’t need to be a philosopher or a scholar, a Buddhist or a Christian to practice this humanism, you just need to be you, and celebrate that.

Peace to all,

Sarva Mangalam
(May all beings benefit)


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