Peace is every step,
The shining red sun is my heart,
Each flower smiles with me.
How green, how fresh all that grows.
How cool the wind blows.
Peace is every step.
It turns the endless path to joy.
– Thich Nhat Hanh
As with so many virtuous concepts, peace is really not very well understood by most of us. We mostly think of peace through its opposite – as the absence of conflict – rather than as a profound state of its own, possible even in the midst of conflict. We have very little understanding of the nature and depth of peace itself. If we think of it at all, we think it belongs to the world of the spiritual, not our everyday existence.
This is where Buddhism is particularly unique amongst world religions; it emphasizes inner peace for the everyday lay-person, as Thich Nhat Hanh poetically expresses, in “every step,” turning “the endless path to joy.” But how? Buddhism, also unique among world religions, does not preach virtues without showing us the path to their realization. So it is with peace. Buddhism practices what it preaches – quite literally. It has a practice that it teaches, in a sense, complete with a how-to manual.
What then really is peace? And what is the practice that leads to the realization of peace? Thich Nhat Hanh is telling us. It is in the shining sun, in the beauty of a flower, in the green, freshness of all that grows, and the cool of the breeze. But wait, we say, these things are there every day, and we see them, but we still don’t know what this mystical state of peace is. Ah, but do we really see them? Another of Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings is that we must learn to look deeply. Now, we are coming to the practice. Without looking deeply we do not have the eyes to see. Looking deeply is what Buddhism calls “mindfulness,” and mindfulness is the every-day fruit of Buddhist meditation.
We must not just casually look at the flower or the green of the world, not just casually feel the radiance of the sun and the wind blowing coolly as we go about our everyday business, we must experience them in full presence. We must experience the space of the moment in which they and we occur, realizing we are connected with the flower, the trees, the sun, the breeze, and with each other, in that space.
In that space, we encounter the moment shimmering in dynamic stillness. It is the fabric of life itself. Buddhism tells us to realize that what we are is life, and life-as-who-we-are can be experienced in the movement of our breathing, in the sensation of life-energy that pervades our bodies, in the awareness that is the essence of mind before thought and emotion. We are that awareness, that shimmering dynamic stillness that has a body and a mind. This is very important.
From a Buddhist perspective, we are not a person who has awareness. We are awareness that has a person, with a mind, body and circumstances. First, we are awareness. To realize true peace is to realize that the dynamic stillness that connects the entire world, and that we experience as awareness, is peace. It is within us and all around us – even if there is conflict going on around us. We must realize and see it is who we are in order to not be carried away by the turmoil of the world, and this realization happens in the deeper levels of Buddhist meditation.
Without the ability to experience the stillness that is the underlying fabric of the world, we cannot know peace. Within us is constant anxious movement of mind that leads to nervousness and tension of the body, and this is what psychology calls neurosis. It is being caught in the thoughts and emotions of a mind that mistakenly believes it is separate in the world, and therefore in an endless competitive relationship with the world. And neurosis requires constant mental movement to hold together this idea of itself in separateness. It could be said that constant mental movement is the very definition of neurosis; it just takes on different flavors, such as anxiety, depression, anger, compulsivity and impulsivity, but it always robs us of peace within, and leads to conflict without.
We are all some combination of all these neurotic traits, and because of them swirling through our mental-scape, we are unable to experience the underlying stillness of the world. We are unable to tolerate the underlying stillness. We have to keep moving, and so our every step is blind and conflicted. We cannot see the fabric of life that we are within, along with the flowers, the trees, the sun and the wind. Nor can we truly see our fellow humans and creatures of the world.
Having seen deeply our interconnectedness with the world around us, a natural morality emerges, a morality that sustains our peace. In Buddhist teaching it is noted that to obtain the peace that eliminates suffering, we must realize eight practices known as The Eightfold Path. These practices are: Right View, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration.
While I won’t go into a discussion of the details of this instruction, it is important to realize that the “Right” in these practices is not some morality in the conventional sense, meaning instruction that is imposed. There is a reason why the teaching begins with “Right View” for here we return to Thich Nhat Hanh’s teaching of “looking deeply.” The purpose of Buddhist teaching is always to lead a person to see things as they truly are, not to tell you how things ought to be. In the case of our discussion on peace, to have peace, the right view is to not see yourself as separate and opposed to anyone or anything, but rather, connected in the human condition and connected in the natural world.
To have peace, to put it simply, you must not be trying to get away with anything that is harmful to anyone or anything, but rather practice a simple ethics stated best in what is called “The Golden Rule.” Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. If you meditate on this, it will become clear: To experience what in Biblical terms is referred to as “The peace that surpasseth all understanding,” your view, intention, action, livelihood, effort, mind and concentration must be peaceful, that is, you must treat others and the world with the same respect, honesty, and care that you would want for yourself, for in truth, others and the world are yourself. In Buddhism, this is not moral instruction, but rather smart living, with yourself as the principle beneficiary – experiencing a profound peace in every step of your life. “It turns the endless path to joy.”
As for the seasonal wish: “Peace on Earth, Goodwill to all,” it would be good to realize this can only begin at home, with ourselves. As the Dalai Lama has expressed it, “Although attempting to bring about world peace through the internal transformation of individuals is difficult, it is the only way.” Peace. Shalom. Namaste.