This article was originally published by the International Network on Personal Meaning in the USA and Canada.
Chen, Yu-Hsi, Ph.D.
Department of Religious Studies
Fo Guang University, Taiwan
When the Western media talks about “peace,” it most likely refers to the opposite of war. In all spiritual literatures, however, “peace” points inwardly to mean peace in mind. Few people think that the two are interrelated, but renowned meditation teacher S.N. Goenka made a good point when he remarked at a conference of the world’s religious leaders held at the United Nations a couple of years ago, that world peace could not be sustained unless people in general and political and military leaders in particular had “inner peace.”
When people fight, both sides are filled with anger and animosity against each other, without which the flames of war cannot be ignited. Inner peace as Goenka spoke of is a peaceful state of mind that cannot be disturbed by anger, hatred and other mental defilements. In Buddhism, this is referred to as “equanimity”, which along with love, compassion and sympathetic joy constitutes the “four noble states of mind” (Brahma Vihara in Sanskrit).
Thus, while world peace is a concept loaded with ethical value, inner peace goes beyond all ethics to reach a deep spiritual-psychological dimension accessible to the detached minds of well accomplished practitioners. World peace can be easily jeopardized by political storms, but inner peace is free from all emotional turbulences, and on the basis of it peace on earth can prevail.
A practitioner experiences peace on different levels. The first is a state of tranquility that temporarily relieves the mind of mundane vexations, but can be shattered by external disturbances, including noise. The second level is reached when a practitioner is not disturbed by outside turmoil, noise or physical discomforts. His/Her mind remains calm and serene in the face of everyday hustle and bustle. Being peaceful in this way also means that he/she is tolerant and forgiving in inter-personal relations. He/She befriends people but is not afraid of being alone. A person with inner peace has no impulse to commit violence, crime or aggression.
In the Hindu and Buddhist traditions, such mental cultivation is derived from meditation combined with other spiritual practices that help purify the mind, with observing moral precepts as the very first step. Abstention from greed and excessive mundane desires is a necessary condition to develop inner peace and equanimity.
Buddhism goes a step further to explore the possibilities of perfect peace, or “nirvana” in Sanskrit, which means the ultimate liberation from the cycle of life and death, from the dualities of pleasure and suffering, of fortune and misfortune, etc. The human consciousness conditioned by such a dualistic mode of thinking and feeling can be transformed into a higher non-dualistic mode of consciousness by continuing the process of mental purification, and by developing intuitive insights into the true nature of Being, which is said to be above all dualities.
Buddhist scholar/practitioner Christmas Humphreys refers to this transcendental state of consciousness as “union with Ultimate Reality” and “the unfolding of the infinite possibilities of the innate Buddha-nature.”1 It enables the practitioner to remain in touch with the vicissitudes of life and endure the severest of adversity without losing his/her inner peace and inner freedom. Such a practitioner, being selfless and experiencing oneness with all people, is spontaneously committed to the well-being of all with his/her boundless love and compassion.
Of course, this ideal type of perfect peace is not attainable to most of us, but the implications of the Buddhist teaching for modern people are clear. First of all, a degree of freedom from our habitual pattern of emotive reactions, i.e., our basic defense mechanism of grasping (craving/ greed, etc.) and rejecting (aversion, hatred, etc.) , is necessary to maintain peace in mind. This can be demonstrated existentially: If you practice meditation, you will notice that real peace and tranquility cannot be achieved if your mind is obsessed with one desire or another, even on a subconscious level. Greed and lust have a stronger agitating effect on the mind, so much so that peace is replaced by tension, anxiety and even mental suffering.
Second, the habitual pattern of emotive reactions, which is always reinforced by the dualistic mode of thinking, throws our minds off balance easily, giving rise to conflicts in human relations. It is also a strong factor contributing to such neurotic disorders as anxiety, depression, narcissism (excessive ego-centeredness), hatred complex, inferiority complex, etc. In this sense, it can be said that the loss of peace in mind is causally related to our social problems of violence, crime, sexual abuse and increasing neuroses that in many cases lead to suicide.
The causal relationships between peace in mind and peace on earth can be further explained in material terms. In his famous article entitled “Buddhist Economics,” British economist E. F. Schumacher argues that the Buddhist approach of obtaining the maximum of well-being with the minimum of consumption can bring about greater peace in mind — and therefore greater peace on earth — than the capitalist approach of maximizing production and consumption. “As physical resources are limited everywhere,” Schumacher writes, “people satisfying their needs by means of a modest use of resources are obviously less likely to be at each other’s throat than people depending upon a high rate of use.” He also warns that the heedless exploitation of natural resources at an ever increasing rate is “an act of violence against nature which must almost inevitably lead to violence between men.”2
Using Burma in the 1960s as an example, Schumacher argues that a life style of fewer wants can relieve people of mental pressure and strain, thereby contributing to peace and nonviolence. Although Burma’s socialist-Buddhist model of economic development has failed, that argument should remain a noble truth, especially in a world where increasing wants are threatening, on an ever increasing scale, not only peace in mind, but also peace on earth.
1 Quoted from Christmas Humphreys, A Popular Dictionary of Buddhism, London: Curzon Press, 1992, p.138.
2 Quoted from E. F. Schumacher, “Buddhist Economics,” in Resurgence, Vol.1, No.11, January-February 1968; reprinted in Herman Daly, ed., Toward a Steady State Economy, U.S.A.: Freeman and Co.,1973, pp.231-239.