The Zen Peacemakers’ Three Tenets: Reflections on the War in Ukraine

I gave this talk at the Greater Boston Zen Center on Saturday, March 19, 2022.  

I turn 60 in July. The world has changed a lot in my lifetime.

One change I have been very grateful for, in some ways at least, is the end of the Cold War. I grew up in an era when the possibility of nuclear annihilation was ever present. We were reminded of it constantly, with tests of the civil defense system that would interrupt the cartoons we watched on Saturday morning. With bomb attack drills at school in which we would crowd into the basement or take cover under our desks, as if that really would protect us from a nuclear blast or its fallout.

I was in Jerusalem and Ramallah last week doing the conflict and peacebuilding work I’ve been involved in there and elsewhere for many years. While I was away, my 13-year old daughter had a nightmare about being someplace that was bombed.

To the extent I even thought about it these days, I thought those days were gone. The days of kids having nightmares about nuclear bomb blasts. That was just something my generation had to endure, right?

Not so much, it sadly seems. Of course, that view—that near-certainty that this era had passed—was conditioned by my location in a rich, powerful country with a vast stockpile of nuclear and conventional weapons. Much as I thought I could relate more than some to people living in war zones—I have been to a several—I really don’t know what it’s like to go to sleep every night not knowing whether a bullet, or a missile launched from a drone or a plane (perhaps even one with a U.S. emblem on it) might disrupt my sleep, or even take my life or those of loved ones.

I imagine some of you, or your loved ones, are feeling as anxious as my daughter these days. Like her, all of us see the images of what’s happening in Ukraine, and the stern rhetoric coming from all directions.

I thought I’d talk about this a bit today, tentatively, through the lens of the Zen Peacemaker Order’s Three Tenets.

Not Knowing

The first tenet is not knowing, a theme—and, I hope, an experience—we encounter frequently in Zen practice.

We sometimes talk of our certainties in terms of delusions—delusions which are inexhaustible, and which we vow to transform.

Why are our certainties a type of delusion and ignorance, and a potential source of conflict and other forms of suffering?

The more certain we become about our own views and convictions, the more we close ourselves to new information, perspectives, and experiences. Our capacity to perceive and know is always limited, but the less curious we become, the greater the risk we’ll descend down a rabbit hole, missing things that are important and behaving in ways that cause harm to ourselves and others whose needs and interests lie outside our present field of vision or comfort zone.

I suspect this is how most big blunders happen—in whatever domain, from our personal lives to wars within and among nations. Many so-called “mistakes” and other calamities likely occur because someone is invested in a partial story with a foregone conclusion. These stories are partial in two senses: they serve our own perceived (or misperceived) interests, and they omit important information and perspectives, including others’ perspectives. We also tend to be too confident about how these stories will end if we don’t buy into them, as if we alone had a crystal ball.

Zen encourages a very different orientation, or default setting. Time and again, Zen teachings emphasize not knowing. This is not an abstract principle or aspirational ideal or virtue. It is, in fact, the only sensible orientation self-aware people of good judgment and goodwill could embrace: acknowledging we actually don’t know what we do not, and perhaps cannot, know. There are many things we simply don’t know, and likely never can know, despite our evident discomfort with this seeming predicament and our strong desire to know.

Sometimes we must act in the face of uncertainty, and at these times our core values, like those expressed in the Bodhisattva Precepts and the Zen Peacemaker Order’s Three Precepts, can help guide us. But we shouldn’t cling to them blindly or apply them on auto-pilot. We must do our best to remain curious and open in difficult situations; to acknowledge the limitations of our vision even as we act.

Bearing Witness

One of the most remarkable examples of bearing that I have encountered personally is the Katsuzo Sawada.

My family lived a stone’s throw away from Boulder, Colorado, in the late 1960s and the first half of the 1970s, and I was in college in nearby Denver from 1976 to 1980. I lived in Boulder off and on between 1985 and 1995, first as a grad student, then working as a young lawyer. Throughout most of this time, spanning nearly three decades, plutonium parts for nuclear bombs were being manufactured at Rocky Flats, a massive, underground, top secret facility just outside Boulder.

I can’t remember precisely when I first heard Sawada’s steady drumbeat come and go, but it was definitely during the time I was a student in Boulder. I was in the little cabin in Chautauqua Park where I lived, in a coffee shop, out on a run. The first couple of times I heard Sawada’s drum, it was a sonic apparition. I turned to see the source of this unusual sound, but couldn’t locate it. The next time I heard it, I turned quickly and caught sight of Sawada, taking broad, swift strides, in full monk garb, beating his hand drum.

This was Sawada’s practice. Morning to night. For decades.

Sawada is part of a Buddhist sect that emphasizes walking meditation and work for peace. Much to his parents’ dismay, he became a monk as a young man and ultimately moved to Boulder, alone, to bear witness to the madness of the nuclear arms race. Many years later, a couple of other monks from his order eventually joined him in Boulder, perhaps, in part, to lessen the physical toll this form of protest must have taken on Sawada.

Sawada’s presence in Boulder–the sound and sight of him at random times during the week–made a deep impression on me. I really appreciate his example of bearing witness. It has stayed with me. He must have been deeply moved to move to Boulder from Japan and spend long days in motion, circumambulating a nuclear weapons plant. His incredible patience and presence and commitment and determination and calmness and spirit of ahimsa (not harming) are among the qualities of his bearing witness that have made the deepest impressions on me.

Taking Action

Yes, we must act. But if our actions are not grounded in the practice of the first two tentets, beware.

There is a war in Ukraine. What will we do? What can people like you and me possibly do?

Rent apartments in Kiev on Airbnb.

Hug our frightened children.

How will we respond?