Drawing the Line
To get me started and let you know where I am coming from, this was written at the beginning of the Iraqi war at the request of a friend of mine for his website. It still seems quite relevent with the current troubles in the Middle East.
Drawing the Line
Buddhism has a reputation for compassion and non-violence and it therefore will not come as a surprise to know that violence is almost always considered inappropriate. Without going into lots of theory, Buddhism sees many of our problems rooted in the depths of our being in the form of Greed (wanting things that I do not have or wanting situations to be more favourable for me), Hatred (not wanting things or situations that threaten me; this is strongly related to fear) and Delusion/Ignorance (Not seeing situations as they really are but colouring them with my greed and hatred). This trio has been responsible directly or indirectly for most of the non-natural deaths that have occurred since civilisation began. These are truly the fundamental ‘weapons of mass destruction’ and if we are honest we have to admit that we carry them around by the bucket load. Part of the delusion is that I draw arbitrary lines around things and say that is what is inside is ‘mine’ and what is outside is ‘other’. That which is ‘mine’, inside the line, must be protected and increased (greed) and that which is ‘other’ and outside the line is a threat and must be destroyed or consumed (hatred). Examples of things I draw such lines around are: my car, my house, my family, my partner, my team, my country.
I am writing from the UK where, like many countries, some people have strong allegiances to football (soccer) teams such as Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal, Spurs etc. Much of this is good-natured competition, but sometimes the fans of rival teams have pitched battles in which members of both sides can be seriously hurt. What has happened? I have drawn a line around my team with me inside and the ‘others’ outside. I then have to defend it. Strangely, if there is an international match these rival fans will come together to support the national side. For a while we ignore the smaller line a draw a larger one called England (or whatever your national team is called). Now the threat is the other countries.
I had this thought the other day when a newspaper I read said it was supporting ‘our boys’ (conveniently forgetting that women are also involved) fighting in Iraq. Who are ‘our boys’? We draw our line around the British troops; possibly include others from the coalition. But what if I draw my line to include the Iraqi people as well? Why shouldn’t I? The Iraqis feel pain; have families; would probably rather not be involved, just like the Brits. They are people I would probably get on well with if there were no war. I want to draw my line around humanity. Everyone inside is one of us. Everyone outside should be done away with — oops there isn’t anyone outside! Buddhism goes further than this, it says you just imagined the lines — they are not there at all and that you must make some effort to see this. We draw these lines and use them as channels for our greed and hatred. It happens all the time. If you work in an organisation that is divided into departments then you will immediately know what I mean. ‘Those lazy bastards in Sales don’t they realise how hard we are working …’. Managers and worker, blacks and whites, them and us — it is a familiar disease. The slogan for this disease is ‘You are either with us or against us’ (sound familiar?). Our lines are sharp, distinct barriers — fuzziness is for wimps!
So what should we do? Well, if you have any influence or power I suggest you use it to try and point these things out to those in who drive this current offensive. For the rest of us I suggest we start at home. Let’s do our best to rid ourselves of our own ‘weapons of mass destruction’. For this we need to look at that most intractable line that we all draw - this is the one with just me inside. This is the line that separates me from the rest of creation and thus keeps me in a state of fear and anxiety. How do we deal with this? This is what Buddhism is all about and you can read up the details in one of the many books on the subject.
For now, try this experiment for a few days: Take some simple routine activity that you find mildly irritating - these are usually the ones that you put off for a while until someone or something makes you do them. As an example take the washing-up. For a fixed period do the following. Firstly, do the washing up immediately it is appropriate (even if this means missing your favourite TV programme!). Then, instead of distracting yourself with radio or music just concentrate entirely on the washing up. Treat each cup, plate saucepan etc as if it were some precious object. Treat them with respect. Consider the work that went into making them, the thought that went into their design. Likewise, carefully consider the temperature of the water; the amount of washing up liquid needed. Observe the bubbles and feel the texture of the water and the feel of the plates etc. In other words completely lose yourself in what you are doing. This will feel slightly artificial at first and you may detect a degree of resentment arising; just recognise this and keep going. If you persevere with this practice, the process of washing up will cease to be a chore and become something strangely fulfilling — it takes a while and a certain degree of resolve. What is happening? I am starting to rub out that line between me and the washing up! It is then no longer a chore; no longer a waste of my time; no longer a waste of my effort. This sort of thing happens all the time with things that we enjoy and find fulfilling. If I am watching an exciting programme on TV, watching a beautiful sunset or playing the guitar I do not have to make this effort. I become one with the programme, the view or the playing — the line disappears all by itself! The trick is to confront the rest of my life with this same commitment and slowly rub out that line that separates me from everything else. In truth, this is a gradual, lifelong process. It can feel scary because I am losing myself but it turns out I am gaining everything else — there is no longer an ‘outside’ to be scared of, or hate. My weapons of mass destruction become less destructive and that destructive energy gets recycled into love and compassion.
This doesn’t sound like its got much to do with the Iraq war but in this world you have to change what can - and that is yourself. The ripples this creates can have a much greater influence than you could possibly think. Try it!
For more on Doing the Washing Up see:http://perseus.herts.ac.uk/uhinfo/prospectus/student_support/dos/chaplaincy/buddhism/reflections---on-doing-the-washing-up.cfm
You might like to look at the web site for the Buddhist Peace Fellowship at:
For a different and very deep view of the war and the Buddhist implications see the wonderful article by David R. Loy at: http://www.mkzc.org/nonDual.htm .
In case you do not have time to read the whole thing here is the story with which he finishes the article:
A Native American grandfather was talking to his grandson about how he felt about the tragedy on September 11th.
He said, "I feel as if I have two wolves fighting in my heart. One wolf is vengeful, angry, violent. The other wolf is loving, forgiving, compassionate."
The grandson asked him, "Which wolf will win the fight in your heart?"
The grandfather answered, "The one I feed."