The Sunday TimesPlus

18th May 1997



Spreading universal love the Buddhist way

Excerpts from the keynote address by J.B. Disanayaka, Professor of Sinhala, University of Colombo, at The Asian Buddhist Congress

Quietly flowed the Rohini, the small river that divided the two Himalayan kingdoms of the Sakyans and Koliyas, until one summer’s day there arose a dispute between the two kingdoms over the distribution of its waters. Some time ago, a dam was built across this river to harness its waters to irrigate their fields. As the month of Jetthamula, which marks the beginning of the period of drought dawned, there arose a dispute between the two clans over the distribution of water. A battle was imminent and the Buddha himself had to intervene to save innumerable lives that could have been lost in the battle.

The two clans involved were the closest kinsmen of the Buddha: his father, Suddhodana was the king of the Sakyans, and his mother, Maya, was the daughter of the king of the Koliyas. The Buddha addressed the two contending parties and made them realise that they were about to sacrifice innumerable lives for the sake of some water. The question was raised whether water was more valuable than human life. This question made them realise the futility of their actions and thus the Buddha was able to bring about peace to the Himalyan kingdoms again.

At this meeting the Buddha narrated a Jataka tale to illustrate the point that in war, there are no real winners. The tale was the Phandana Jataka (No. 475 in the Jataka collection) which may be summed up as follows:

Once upon a time there was, in the outskirts of the city of Varanasi, a village of carpenters. In this village lived a carpenter who brought wood from the forest and made carts. In the forest was a plassey tree (Phandana) which provided shade for man and beast. A black lion had the habit of resting under this tree when he went in search of food.

One day, when the lion was resting in the shade of the tree, a branch fell on his shoulder due to the wind. It gave him pain and he ran away cursing the tree. He thought that this was a wicked act done by the deity who lives on the tree, and he planned to take revenge from the tree-deity. He met the carpenter and told him that the best wood for making cart wheels comes from the plassey tree, and showed him the tree. When the carpenter began to fell the tree the lion felt very happy but the tree deity was very sad because he lost his abode. The deity himself thought of taking revenge from the lion. He assumed the shape of a woodman and told the carpenter that the cart wheel would be much stronger and durable if it were to be wrapped in a black lions’ skin. The carpenter liked the idea but he asked "Where can I get the skin of a black lion?" The tree deity showed him the lion. The carpenter cut down the tree, killed the lion and was very happy to be able to make a better cart wheel.

By using this parable, the Buddha was able to convey a message that is universally true: that in war, there are no real winners, and it is a message that is relevant even today, when the world is torn asunder with wars, conflicts and disputes of all kinds. What contribution can Buddhists make towards the establishment of universal peace in the modern world?

The answer depends on what is meant by ‘universal peace’ and on a careful study of Buddhism, in theory and practice.

Universal peace, as I understand the term, is the ultimate culmination of three different yet interrelated conditions of existence: intra-personal peace, inter-personal peace and public peace.

Intra-personal peace refers to that state of mind of the individual - a state of mind which is free from anxiety, fear, guilt and so on. It is, what we call, in everyday parlance, ‘peace of mind’.

Inter-personal peace refers to a condition of goodwill that exists between and among the members of small social units such as family, the kinship group, the neighbourhood, or the working place.

Universal peace is thus the logical culmination of the above mentioned conditions and to understand the contribution of Buddhism towards the establishment of universal peace, it is necessary to understand two main factors:

(a) The Buddhist attitude towards ‘war’ and

(b) The Buddhist Path leading to the establishment of ‘peace’.

The Buddhist attitude towards war

The Buddhist attitude towards ‘war’ is best illustrated by the parable cited by the Buddha when he visited the site of the battle on the banks of the Rohini. In war, or in any other struggle or dispute between parties, there are no real winners. In the parable, the tree deity and the lion were both losers: The former losing his tree and the latter losing his life itself. If there was a winner at all, it was the third party, the carpenter. He had the wood of the tree and the skin of the lion to make his cart wheel stronger and more durable.

The Buddhist Path Towards the establishment of Peace

In order to bring an end to war and bring about peace, the Buddhist sets about by studying the causes that lead to such calamities, for Buddhism has taught him that, on the basis of the Buddhist doctrine of causality, there is a relationship between cause and effect.

The establishment of intra-personal peace

Like charity, peace must begin at home - with oneself. Unless one is at peace with oneself it may not be possible to extend it to others, - individuals, groups or nations. Thus let us first examine the possible causes that create tension and unrest in one’s mind and then suggest the path that leads to their elimination. The causes that disturb the peace of mind of the individual are the following:

a) The existence of physical pain or discomfort

The Buddhist knows that all beings are subjected to decay and ill-health, and this the Buddha expounded in the first of his Four Noble Truths - the truth of suffering (dukkha)

(b) the inability to cope with reality

The Buddhist knows that life is, in reality, marked by three main characteristics - impermanence (anicca), suffering (dukkha) and selflessness (anattha). One’s inability to comprehend this reality may lead to tension in one’s mind.

(c) the failure to satisfy desires that arise in the mind

The Buddhist knows that the human mind is full of desires (tanha): the desire to acquire something, the desire to become someone, the desire to please the senses, and so on and so forth. Unless the individual succeeds in understanding the nature of desires they will continue to disturb his peace of mind.

(d) the arising of negative emotions

The Buddhist knows that there are certain emotions such as hatred, anger, ill-will that may be called ‘negative’ in the sense that they destroy the purity of the mind. The Buddhist calls these emotions ‘defilements’ (kilesa). I

(e) The arising of personal guilt

The Buddhist knows that guilt, one’s failure to conform oneself to some moral principle, also leads to a disturbance in one’s mind. It is said that every human being has an inner sense that tells him or her of the moral rightness or wrongness of his or her behavior, in word, thought or deed.

If these are some of the factors that cause disturbance in one’s mind, then, their elimination ensures intra-personal peace. The Buddhist path that leads to the creation of intra-personal peace is one that recommends the discipline of one’s body and mind. The specific codes of ethics recommended for the Buddhist laity for the enhancement of personal discipline are included in the precepts (sikkha pada) generally known as ‘the Eight Precepts’ (Atthanga Sila) and ‘the Ten Precepts’ (Dasa Sila). These two codes of ethics are translated into action by the Buddhist on ‘uposatha’ days - days of religious significance.

The aim of the precepts that constitute the Atthanga sila and Dasa sila is to discipline one’s mind. The mind gets disturbed in the way it responds or reacts to its environment, and this response or reaction reaches the mind by way of the sense organs: the eye, the ear, the nose, the tongue and the body. Each of these five organs has its own object: the eye is concerned with sight (rupa), the ear is concerned with sound (sadda), the nose is concerned with odour (gandha), the tongue is concerned with taste (rasa) and the body is concerned with touch (photthabba). In order to discipline each of these sense organs, the code of ethics includes the following precepts:

(a) the control of the eye,

In order to discipline the eye, the Buddhist is made to undertake the precept which makes him abstain from watching dancing (nacca) and visiting shows meant to provide fun and frolic (visuka dassana), and using things that tend to beautify and adorn the body (dharana manadana vibhusanastthana).

(b) the control of the ear,

In order to discipline the ear, the Buddhist is made to undertake the precept which makes him abstain from listening to vocal music (gita), and instrumental music (vadita).

(c) the control of the nose,

In order to discipline the nose, the Buddhist is made to undertake the precept which makes him abstain from the use of garlands (mala), perfumes (gandha), and unguents (vilepana).

(d) the control of the tongue,

In order to control the tongue, the Buddhist is made to undertake the precept which makes him abstain from taking food at unseasonable time (vikala bhojana) and in Buddhism, ‘unseasonable time’ is interpreted as ‘the time between the midday meal and the breakfast of the following day.

(e) the control of the body,

In order to control the body, the Buddhist is made to undertake two precepts; the one to make him abstain from using high and luxurious beds (uccasayana mahasayana) and the other to make him abstain from all unchastity (abrahma cariya). By the term ‘brahma cariya’ is meant the avoidance of sexual relations with all, including one’s husband or wife.

(ii) The establishment of inter-personal peace

By ‘inter-personal peace’ is meant the goodwill that exists between and among members of social units, such as the family, the neighbourhood, the place of work and so on. In order to generate such goodwill, the Buddhist is given a code of ethics, known as ‘the Five Precepts’ (Pancha Sila), to be observed every day. The Five Precepts deal with five aspects of social behaviour.

(a) the appreciation of the value of life of others

In order to make the Buddhist appreciate the value of life - human and animal - he is made to observe the precept that makes him abstain from taking the life of beings (panatipata).

(b) the appreciation of the right of others to own property

In order to make the Buddhist aware of the right of others to their property, he is made to undertake the precept that makes him abstain from taking things that are not properly given to him (adinnadana).

(c) the appreciation of the value of socially-accepted sexual relations.

In order to make the Buddhist appreciate the value of the relationship between husband and wife, he is made to undertake the precept that makes him abstain from extra-marital sexual relationships.

(d) the appreciation of positive inter-personal communication.

In order to make the Buddhist a desirable member of his family, his neighbourhood or working place, he is made to undertake the precept that makes him abstain from false speech (musavada). The individual who carries tales, slanders others, makes false accusations against others, and so on, destroys goodwill and creates conflict.

(e) the appreciation of the value of mental awareness.

In order to make the Buddhist an individual who is fully conscious of his thoughts, words and deeds, he is made to undertake the precept that makes him abstain from taking intoxicants (sura meraya) the foundation of heedlessness (pamada).

(iii) The establishment of public peace.

By ‘Public Peace’ is meant the absence of war and conflict between groups, clans, nations and so on. The modern world, in spite of advances in other areas of knowledge and technology, is a world confronted with political confusion, conflict and struggle. The parties that are engaged in armed struggle today are mainly ethnic groups and religious groups. Such ethnic struggles can be witnessed in Africa, in the Indian subcontinent and in our own land, Sri Lanka. Religious animosities have given rise to armed struggle in Northern Ireland, and in the new nations of Eastern Europe. Nations, such as Israel and Palestine, India and Pakistan, continue resorting to armed struggle in their efforts to redraw their national boundaries

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