What happens when our country faces questions of peace and war – as the UK has this week? What influences our thinking and how can Buddhist teachings help us to make wiser decisions?

Thought for the Day 31/8/2013

When the country faces issues of peace and war, as it has this week, I notice a little voice whispering to me that, being a Buddhist, I should have a definitive response. It quotes the Buddha’s words, ‘Hatred is not overcome by hatred, but only by love’, and promises that this fiery wisdom will burn through all the confusion to the adamantine moral core. War is always wrong, it says, because it can only perpetuate the cycle of violence. Peace is always the answer.

Convincing though that voice seems, I’ve learned to question it. I recognise a profound truth in the Buddha’s words and greatly respect my friends who refuse to be drawn into the conundrums posed by violence. Instead, they devote themselves to working for peace in themselves and the world. But I doubt the promise of a shortcut to moral certainty, Buddhist or otherwise. I also sense its irrelevance to those making far-reaching decisions in the midst of the world’s troubling complexity. Speakers in the Commons this week acknowledged the risks of both intervening and not intervening in Syria: making the situation worse by participating in violence, or acquiescing in violence by failing to counter it.

But there’s another voice, which, I think, expresses the Buddhist perspective more fully. This voice counsels against the desire for a false certainty and points out my reluctance to face life as it really is. That leads me to reflect on two moral imperatives. In Buddhism, an action’s ethical character depends on the intention or state of mind it expresses. That suggests the importance of considering, as honesty as we can, the emotions that shape our thinking: the frustration that leads us to think, ‘We must do something’, without having a clear idea what we’re trying to achieve; the vanity of wishing to remain above the fray, secure in one’s moral purity, but avoiding the real difficulties that confront us.

The second imperative starts with acknowledging that sometimes there’s no cost-free course of action. Whatever we do may cause suffering. As the Buddhist teaching of karma suggests, we will inevitably experience the effects of our actions, whether directly or indirectly. The only mature response as we watch those consequences unfold is to accept our share of responsibility for them and do what we can to alleviate their effects.

Wise decisions, I believe, are only possible when we bring this sort of sensitive, intelligent and mature awareness. And perhaps that’s the best we can do.