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10 Steps to a More Peaceful Life

Eastern Spiritual Teachings as Pathways to Peace

by Kate Lawrence

[Note: this article originally appeared in the March/April 2005 issue of VegNews magazine.]

Link to Recent Resources on Eastern Spiritual Practice and Vegetarianism

In a time when our country is at war, and politics both worldwide and domestic seem to be driven by religious fundamentalism, many of us look for something better. How can we live in ways that lead to peace?

Traditionally, people have turned to their religious beliefs for guidance. In the West, most people are brought up in one of the religions of Middle Eastern origin: Judaism, Christianity, or Islam. These religions all incorporate teachings of kindness, peace and justice, but through the centuries have become distorted. The overwhelming majority of U.S. citizens profess Christianity, originally a pacifist and vegetarian religion, yet this country makes more weapons, spends more money on wars of questionable justification, and kills more animals for food than any other country on the planet. Large numbers of American Christians, taught to love their neighbors as themselves, would deny basic rights to others of differing sexual orientation. Conflict between Jews and Muslims is every day news, and we see a few followers turning into suicide bombers, believing they serve God by killing as many people as possible.

What can we learn from considering Asian teachings? Eastern religions--in this context Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism--of course have had misguided followers as well, but because these religions are older and because individualism and domination have been downplayed, there are teachings and practices that the West is wisely beginning to take seriously. Some of these are simplicity, humility, considering the intention behind each action, more integrated views of death and the personal self, alternative ways to resolve conflicts, less blame for mistakes, more emphasis on generosity, the practice of yoga, and of course, vegetarianism.

1. Simplicity

Living simply in an affluent society is often far from simple, and our efforts are discouraged by one of the most pervasive and destructive influences in our society: advertising. The purpose of nearly all advertising is to stimulate our cravings, to get us to buy more and more, and it often does so by making us feel insecure and by creating artificial "needs" where none exist. Manufacturing all the things that advertising urges us to buy is causing serious environmental degradation. Advertising works so well in America because innate human greed has been reinforced by our Calvinist heritage that being materially successful in this life is a sign of being God’s elect. Contrast this with the Eastern approach that craving is the source of suffering. This principle is so central to Buddhism that it is included in the most basic teachings accepted by all Buddhist traditions: the Four Noble Truths. Thus one’s work is to weaken, not strengthen, one’s cravings. If we could look at commercials from this perspective--that eating all that junk food will make us sick, that buying all that stuff will require most of us to live beyond our means and the earth’s--advertising would lose much of its power over us.

What if, instead of trying to accumulate more and more and envying the wealthy, Americans tried to live with only what we need? In a famous photo of the possessions owned by Mahatma Gandhi at the time of his death there are his glasses, sandals, food bowls, watch--about a dozen items in total. What if we held up this kind of simplicity as the ideal? Instead, even when we participate in a charity event, we are given yet another T-shirt, which, according to the fascinating book Stuff: the Secret Lives of Everyday Things, comes with oil refinery pollution (the polyester), highly toxic pesticides (the cotton), hazardous dyes, and the expenditure of fossil fuel to ship it from apparel factories overseas. Our huge amounts of stuff have necessitated that we pay for--and heat and cool--houses over twice as big as what was the norm a few decades ago.

2. Humility

Along with simplicity, humility is also valued. A story is told about the late Roshi Philip Kapleau, vegetarian author, founder and then-director of the Rochester Zen Center. A visitor, seeing an older man taking care of things, mistook Kapleau for a janitor. On hearing this, Kapleau said that it was the highest compliment he could have received.

In Buddhist countries, monastics go into a village with their begging bowls, which laypeople cheerfully fill with food, considering it meritorious to support those who have devoted their lives to meditation and teaching. How different a Western attitude would be when confronted with able-bodied men begging! Youths are, in fact, encouraged to take a few years out of their lives to be monastics, to ordain just for a period of time, then return to worldly life. In Hindu countries, it is normal and acceptable for older men, whose children are grown, to give up their worldly lives and become sannyasins, renunciates. Contrast that with our Western stereotype of how retired men spend their time--traveling, golfing, and perhaps gambling.

Humility relates to work as well. In our society, workers whose jobs are considered menial are not honored, even when those jobs, like garbage collection, are vital to our happiness. Similarly, the services of homemakers are not given monetary value even though without this work we would live in chaotic surroundings, wear dirty clothes, and our children would run wild in the streets. Undervaluing essential but unglamorous work sets the stage for poverty and injustice.

Another reason to value seemingly uncreative work is that it allows the time for reflection that can lead to greater creativity. An American scholar, hearing that Zen master and poet Thich Nhat Hanh spends time gardening, asked him why he didn’t spend more time writing poetry and leave the gardening to others. "My dear friend," Nhat Hanh replied , "if I did not grow lettuce, I could not write the poems I write."

3. Intention

In Eastern teaching, practitioners are taught to be aware of the intention behind each action. Through meditation, one becomes more alert to noticing intentions and being able to pause before acting on them. Taking care of an intention before it is expressed as action, we are less likely to act in angry, confused, or thoughtless ways.

In Tibet I visited a monastery on a river island in a sparsely populated area. The interior walls we passed were covered with paintings, but I was astounded when the guide pointed out areas on the ceilings of tall hallways and high on walls, covered with the most intricate artwork. As the monastery had no windows in that area and was only dimly lit by yak butter lamps, it was virtually impossible to see any of these. The long-ago artists, however, believed that their intent to depict visually the teachings of the Buddha, and the content of those teachings, would be a blessing to the monastery and the community even though no one could see them!

4. Death and the Personal Self

In the West, we have an exaggerated identification with the personal self. We think of our personality as a unique, carefully cultivated entity that must be gratified and protected. This strengthens the urge to consume, mentioned earlier, and inculcates an extreme fear of death.

If we could see death as a part of life, and be encouraged by our religious teachings to understand that it can come at any time, we would not be so irrationally paranoid about terrorism. In his book Dude, Where’s My Country, Michael Moore puts our risks in perspective: in the years 2000, 2002, and 2003, the odds of any American dying in a terrorist action in the United States was exactly zero. Even in 2001, the year of the September 11 attacks, those odds were one in 100,000. In comparison, each of us had a far greater chance that year of dying from the flu, from being a homicide victim, or from riding in a car. Nearly three thousand people died in the terrorism of September 11, a great loss for all of us and especially for those whose loved ones were victims, but is it rational that the loss of lives in retaliation for that day has already exceeded 100,000? This makes "an eye for an eye" seem positively benign. The billions of dollars spent on this violence has made our economy another casualty; Osama bin Laden said in his pre-election videotape last fall that his intent is to bankrupt this country.

In contrast to the belief that one has only this life, and therefore an early death is unjust and requires retaliation far beyond what was inflicted, mainstream Hindus believe in reincarnation: there have been and will be many varied opportunities for individuals to live, love and learn. Buddhists have another view of reincarnation, involving a less fixed and solid "self." Their view is that the self is empty of an independent existence, that around our memories, feelings and sensations we create an impression of solidity. In this view, the components, or aggregates, of what we call the self will disintegrate at the moment of death. Belief in karma, present in both of these traditions, encourages the view that because we can’t understand the big picture of action and reaction throughout the ages and universes, an early death may be a powerful gift that resolves something or changes things ultimately for the better--who can know? This kind of openness and humility in the face of death is more likely to lead to peaceful conflict resolution.

5. Conflict Resolution

When we do experience conflict, how does our culture and/or religion teach us to respond? With a desire for vengeance, with avoidance through addiction, or by begging a capricious God to change it? The Eastern approach is to sit with our problem in meditation, and watch the thoughts that arise in the mind about it. Practitioners learn not to attach to these thoughts as being "my" thoughts, but to let them arise and fade away without attachment. Then in the calmness that follows, and arising from an intention to express compassion for all beings, a more peaceful course of action can gradually come clear.

6. Less Blame for Mistakes

In Judaism and Christianity, the Ten Commandments are presented as absolutes: "Thou shalt not" do whatever is prohibited, or one risks the wrath of an angry God. A Catholic who has broken a commandment may seek forgiveness through confession, and do penance. In contrast, the Five Precepts—basic ethical teachings given by the Buddha in his first sermon--are presented as suggestions for training, to be voluntarily undertaken in order to end suffering for oneself and others. Therefore if a Buddhist violates one of the precepts, there is not the burden of guilt or sin that a Christian or Jew might feel upon breaking a commandment. Instead, there is merely the opportunity to recognize what happened and to begin again with renewed intention to choose differently next time.

7. Generosity

Of Buddhism’s Ten Perfections—foundational practices for mindful living--generosity is listed first and considered the most important. Thich Nhat Hanh teaches that when you want to reconcile with someone you’ve been angry with, try taking him/her a gift. The Buddha taught his followers that if you put a spoonful of salt into a cup of water, it will surely make the water taste salty, but if you put that same spoonful of salt into a mighty river, it makes no change in the taste of the water. This is what a person with a spacious heart/mind is like when an insult or unkind action is received. A Tibetan lama imprisoned for 16 years by the Chinese said that he had some "dangerous times." Asked to explain what he meant, he replied, "I nearly lost compassion for the Chinese guards." Practitioners are encouraged to open their hearts wider and wider by means of practices that engender generosity toward all beings.

8. Yoga

Among several Hindu paths of yoga, or union with God, the one usually referred to when Westerners speak of yoga is hatha yoga, the path to God through discipline of the body. Discipline of the body facilitates the stillness of mind necessary for meditation. Hatha yoga is perhaps the most accepted Eastern practice in our society, now that its health and stress-reduction benefits have become well known. The first live vegetarian I ever met, many years ago, was my first yoga teacher. She impressed upon us that paying attention to one’s breathing and maintaining a flexible spine were the keys to lifelong well-being. She also suggested giving up red meat for a month as a beginning step to a better diet. I recall this seemed drastic at the time, but I tried it. After two weeks, I felt so much better that I was convinced, and thus began my path to eventual veganism.

9. Vegetarianism

VegNews readers know well the importance of diet in living a life of peace. The first of the Five Buddhist Precepts--to refrain from taking the life of sentient beings--is one that clearly implies support for vegetarianism. Unfortunately, many Buddhists do not interpret it that way, and rationalizations that permit meat-eating have come down through the centuries. Yet there have always been those who have kept the vegetarian aspect of that precept alive. Shabkar Tsogdruk Rangdrol, a Buddhist teacher living in a time and place that made vegetarianism extremely difficult--19th century Tibet--is nonetheless one of the tradition’s most outspoken vegetarian advocates. A new translation of his writings, Food of Bodhisattvas, was just published last year and makes inspiring reading. Shabkar, among many Buddhists down through the centuries, also participated in the long-standing practice of purchasing animals destined for slaughter and setting them free.

In his excellent new book The Great Compassion: Buddhism and Animal Rights, Norm Phelps reminds us that in Buddhist teaching, humans and animals are all considered to be sentient beings. He writes, "At the most profound and important level, Buddhism recognizes no hierarchy of sentient beings; all are equal and all are equally capable, over the course of many lifetimes, of gaining enlightenment . . .There is never a hint in Buddhist teachings that intellectual ability, a sophisticated sense of self, or any characteristic beyond the ability to suffer is relevant to moral standing."

Hindus and Jains have provided strong leadership among world religions in making vegetarianism not just an ideal but an essential part of daily living. In Hindu countries, cows are allowed to roam the streets and rest in the midst of traffic; cars and other vehicles drive around them. A co-worker of mine from a Hindu family in India grew up in a city that was about half Hindu, half Muslim. As a child, whenever she returned from playing at friends’ houses, my friend’s mother would always ask her what she had eaten, wanting to be sure that the children were not consuming meat.

Jains extend their observance to exclude root vegetables, foods which can only be obtained by killing the whole plant. They also extend compassion to insects and microorganisms too small to be seen; for example, eating only food that has been freshly prepared, because leftovers may contain microorganisms. Jains are also mindful not to derive their livelihood from an occupation that harms animals, and are known for operating many animal sanctuaries.

10. Peaceful Practice As a Lifestyle

Both Western and Eastern religions offer pathways to peace. The Eastern pathways we have discussed are most effective when they are integrated into a holistic lifestyle of compassion. For example, vegetarianism ideally should not be seen in isolation, but as part of a larger set of spiritual practices that lead to peace. Choosing one or two practices in isolation may lead to such imbalances as meat-eating bicycle commuters, humble persons filled with guilt, militant vegans, and the like. Complementing each other, however, these practices can do much toward establishing peace within oneself, toward other beings, and the earth.

Kate Lawrence may possibly be the only female vegan Buddhist old-time banjo player in the world.