February 2003 Founder's Letter

by Norman Fischer | February 08, 2003 at 8:00 PM

A Message on War, Peace: Iraq, February 2003

Dear friends,

Today - as our nation seems to be sliding inevitably toward another war with Iraq - it seems that there is no choice but to speak about war and peace.

I am reluctant to take up this topic for two reasons. First, I feel under-informed and under-qualified to speak. I know that any situation - even a personal one - is very complicated, involving many known and unknown factors and many conflicting and yet valid points of view. Certainly in the case of an international political situation this is true. Still, one can be as well-informed as possible. While there are some Dharma teachers who are well informed (Sojun Weitsman, my own teacher for instance) I cannot say I am one of them. I am interested and concerned but not informed enough.

The second reason I am reluctant to speak out on political topics is that I know how all consuming political concern can be. It is easy to be so overcome by it that you lose sight entirely of compassion and mindfulness and soon become just another shouting voice in a whirlwind of shouting voices. It is good for all of us if some of us can keep enough distance from the turmoil to provide calmness for the others.

Nevertheless, as a spiritual teacher, an ordinary citizen, and a human being, I feel a responsibility to do my best to speak out on political affairs when the situation calls for it.

As I suppose anyone would and should expect from a spiritual practitioner, I am for peace and against war. In general, I cannot see any reason why anyone would ever choose war over peace, knowing how much suffering war brings to ordinary innocent people. If you start from a commitment to reducing suffering for all, rather then a commitment to right and wrong or to national interest, then you always look in any situation for a peaceful solution. It is is hard for me to imagine any religious perspective other than this. When I hear religious people advocating war in the name of some higher good I cannot help but think that there is some serious distortion in their religious perspective.

Perhaps there was a time when war was not such a harmful thing to ordinary people. I remember years ago attending a poetry reading against the Vietnam War. Ted Berrigan, a poet who I was very close to and admired, stood up to read and said something like, "I feel strange reading poetry under an anti-war banner. Traditionally poets celebrate war, singing of the heroic exploits of victors, and the tragedy of the vanquished. After all, what is the Oddessy, what is the Bible, if not a song of triumph and tragedy." It may be that at one time in human history war expressed something necessary. But if there ever were such a time it is long gone, though I wonder whether some of our world leaders realize this. War is no longer an opportunity for young men to express their valor. Instead war has become the cold, precise, technological destruction of innocent people. Since the Twentieth Century, and probably for some centuries before that, by far the majority of the victims of war have been not warrior-heroes but ordinary people, masses of citizen soldiers, and, more recently, civilians. War has become obsolete and obscene. Some of the European nations, having seen modern warfare close up, seem to understand this.

But the obsolescence and obscenity of war presents the world with a serious challenge: what to do when confronted with an aggressive enemy who seems not to be a rational actor, who will not respond to pressure or argument, who seems not even to be motivated by rational self interest let alone common decency. Apparently there are such enemies. Conditions have made them so. We have seen Hitlers and Stalins. We have also seen suicide bombers and airplane terrorists. When I saw the movie "The Pianist" rec ently (about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising during the Holocaust) I was viscerally moved. Seeing depictions of the horrific and gratuitous brutality of the Nazis, my body clenched up in my comfortable seat. I felt like fighting. It seemed impossible in such an extreme case to passively accept what was going on. I could easily understand why the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto took up arms. I think they did so not out of hatred, revenge, or even self defense but simply to express that a human being cannot stand by while such brutality is being perpetrated. There has to be an answer, no matter how much it costs. If in holding fast to the principle of peace we ignore the reality of such brutality we are open to the charge of naivety or wishful thinking. Perhaps. But if being peace loving is naive, this might not be so bad, as long as we know that we are naive. Being naive is preferable to being realistic when being realistic means seeing human beings as essentially violent self-centered creatures who can always be manipulated to do the bidding of the powerful. Right now, there is in the foreign policy establishment of our country, a group of intelligent people who hold such a "realistic" view. They have written publicly about their theory that in the present world situation, with the U.S. as the only superpower, it behooves us to exercise our power independently and vigorously to insure our world domination far into the future. This theory is a major factor in our government's Iraq policy. Our fears of future attacks on ourselves notwithstanding, the whole world seems to understand that the effort to dominate the world stage is as much a motivation for our actions as anything else.

The controversy over whether or not Iraq has so-called weapons of mass destruction seems moot to me. It seems rational to assume that they do have such weapons, (though probably far less than they had before their defeat in the Gulf War and the subsequent inspections regime) and that they are willing to use them if they have the chance, as they have in the past. It is also a fact that Iraq has broken international treaties and agreements in relation to such weapons. Given all this, and our understandable post-September 11 hyper-vigilance, it is easy to see why our government sees Iraq as a serious problem. It is a serious problem.

But all problems are opportunities. The problem of Iraq is an opportunity for the world community to discover how, in the age of the obsolescence of war, to deal carefully yet firmly with a nation who breaks crucial international agreements. The U.N. has always been a shaky organization and its theory, purpose, and mode of operation have always been doubtful. In a world in which war is no longer a useful foreign policy device, there is an important role for an organization like the U.N., and that role must be developed. When I was a boy, idealists hoped that the U.N. would eventually become a world government. This is probably not possible or even desirable. But the U.N. can be an effective repository for the world's best ideals. Like a good parent who watches over and advises grown up and fully independent children, it can be a serious force for good. Iraq is an adolescent child acting out, daring the grown ups to apply firm discipline. Our president, in his unwise and ill considered rhetoric and policies, behaves like an immature parent who rants, threatens, bullies, and asserts authority. Those of us who have raised adolescents know how well this works. Such behavior only plays into the hands of the adolescent, who loves nothing more than to see the grown-ups lash out in a blind fury. Once this happens the adolescent receives sympathy from others, and the adult is m ade to look like a fool. If things get heated enough, the adolescent will be able to accuse the adult of abuse.

If the U.S. goes to war against Iraq the results will probably not be good, even assuming the victory the U.S. assumes it will swiftly achieve. At the very least a precious opportunity will have been lost, and at the worst the war will create deeper divisions among the peoples of the world, making the world a still more dangerous place - not to mention the taking of many many lives. Real wisdom would see that the challenge of Iraq requires patience, firmness, and skillful diplomatic work. Iraq would probably disarm if it saw itself completely surrounded by a united world community that insisted on its disarmament. If it did not disarm it could be isolated and pressured until it did so. And even if it never did so war would still not be justified. Difficult as it may be to take, the fact is that the mere possession of a weapon, even if illegally, and even if by a crazed actor, does not justify killing to take the weapon away. Only when a weapon is actually used is the application of a violent counter force justified (and pacifists would disagree even with this). The principle of preemption assumes clairvoyance: since I know that you are going to kill me later, I will kill you now out of self defense. This is a disastrous and absurd principle. It goes against all religious and ethical conceptions of human decency, which always require us to risk harm rather than to harm another needlessly. And the idea that the non assertion of the principle of preemption in this case is weakness is simply insulting. It is no wonder the rest of the world stands aghast at the political and moral stance of our government.

But all this, I am afraid, is just talk. The overwhelming likelihood is that soon our government will be waging war in Iraq, and the question is, what will you and I do then? Paul Haller, Zen Center's new abbot, who is well connected in the Buddhist activist community, tells me that a call has gone out asking us all too stop what we are doing at precisely noon on that the day after the war begins, and take five minutes of silence to grieve the war and hope for its swift ending. During those five minutes know that you are joined by spiritual practitioners all over the Bay Area and the world who share this view. After that there will be vigils in many places. The peace marches that take place on February 15 and 16 will go on, and they, and the many marches to follow them, will be more important than ever. Our response should be to keep the pressure up for peace but not to fall into despair. Our practice is to work with suffering, so when there is strong suffering we have to work even harder to find a way to make use of the suffering, since it is there. Humanity is on a long journey to try to find out how to live together in harmony, which requires us to find out how to settle disputes without war. Sometimes we take two steps forward and three steps back, but even the backward steps can have their purpose. Vietnam, for instance, has taught us that protracted wars abroad are no longer possible. If we have a horrible disaster in Iraq perhaps it will teach us what not to do in the future. Maybe we will even be fortunate enough to see positive consequences flow from negative actions, which sometimes happens. This is the theory of our government; it seems dubious to me that the people in charge really know what they are doing, but sometimes history fools you.

A Dalai lama teaching about working with suffering: Regarding the transformation of suffering, our Buddhist texts on logic explain that every single phenomenon has countless aspects, so much depends on what angle you view something from. For example, when you encounter suffering, if you dwell only on its painful aspects, it is intolerable. But if you forget that aspect you may be able to see if from another angle. The nature of suffering changes, depending on your mental attitude and the way you look at it. If you are able to transform the adverse situations into factors of the spiritual path, hindrances will become favorable conditions for spiritual practice. Through accustoming your mind to such a practice, you will meet with success and nothing will hinder your spiritual progress. It is said that being able to transmute adverse situations in this way is a sign that you are really undergoing spiritual training.

Taking adverse situation onto the path can be done in various ways. In good times or bad times, whether we are rich or poor, happy or unhappy. Whether we are staying in our own or a foreign country, in a village, a city, a monastery, or an isolated place. Whoever is accompanying us. Whatever kinds of suffering we encounter, we can reflect that there are many other sentient beings encountering similar sufferings. And we can go on to think: ‘May the suffering I am undergoing serve to counter the sufferings experienced by other sentient beings. May they be parted from suffering.'

The primary aim of the meditational practice of taking on others' suffering is to eliminate our self-centered attitude. If you apply it with dedication, you will find it effective. The practice of taking on suffering is one of the most forceful techniques for controlling self-centeredness. To motivate ourselves, we can think about the plight of suffering beings on the one hand and the benefits of compassion on the other. Like us, other beings are under the influence of disturbing emotions such as ignorance, desire, animosity, and jealousy. Consequently they cannot enjoy the happiness they wish for, but constantly suffer varieties of pain.

Compassion, on the other hand, is crucial to our survival as human beings wherever we live. We human beings are social animals, we need companions to survive. If we develop concern for other people's welfare, share other people's suffering, and help them, ultimately we will benefit. If we think only of ourselves and forget about others, ultimately we will lose. The more we care for the happiness of others the greater our own sense of well being becomes. Cultivating a close warm hearted feeling for others automatically puts the mind at ease. This helps remove whatever fears or insecurities we may have and gives us the strength to cope with any obstacles we may encounter. It is the ultimate source of success in life.

On a personal level, when the war comes we will all have the challenge of practicing in the midst of it. We will all need to figure out what our view should be and what form our political involvement should take, what actions are right for us a participants in our society and the world. And also, following His Holiness' teaching, perhaps we will all want to work to see the difference between our own entangled emotions - our despair or anger, our feelings of powerlessness or self identification with the world - and our genuine compassion for those who are being harmed by war. To try our best to cultivate the latter and purify ourselves of the former.

Yours, Zoketsu Norman Fischer


Norman Fischer