Issue No 236 May/June 2006: Ambassadors of Peace

In Ottawa, Canada, a Buddhist community - the Pine Gate Sangha – has created an engaged expression for peace.  They are the nucleus of “Friends for Peace,” a coalition of environmental, peace, meditation and social activist groups, who began meeting in Ottawa, January 2003, in response to the impending war in Iraq and to the pervading feeling of helplessness and fear portrayed by the media. The coalition has since created annual events to celebrate peace, one in early spring called "Peace Song Circle" and the “Peace Prayer Day” held in the fall.  We are working to make these events happen in other countries.  The intent is to create a different form of peaceful expression that appeals to a wide cross section of Canadian citizens who support a major role for Canada as a peacekeeping nation.  The broader intent, however, is to create a global expression for peace and the planet with communities all over the world gathering each spring and fall to build bridges for non-dualistic action in times of peace and times of war.  This coalition recognizes that we must work for peace every day of our lives whether or not it is a time of war.  To create infrastructure in our social and political institutions that value and legitimize peace processes is the goal. The root of peace in the world is the individual choosing to act collectively for peace - in coalition with others.

From these small beginnings we intend to create a global celebration for peace that invites all of civil society to participate.  The coalition held silent peace vigils across the Canadian National Capital Region before the Iraq war, and organized the Peace Song Circle on Parliament Hill, Ottawa, after war had broken out.  The peace vigils drew 4,000 people, growing to 5,000 participants at the Peace Song Circle held on a miserably wet, cold spring day.  A sea of multi- coloured umbrellas on a rain swept morning welcomed all those gathered.  As other peace protests joined us and sang “All Within Me Peaceful,” the crowd covered the grounds of Canada’s seat of government, all meditating at the end in total silence as the rain poured down on our heads.  The explicit support expressed in media interviews for Jean Chretien’s clear opposition to the American war in Iraq proved very effective, as the then Prime Minister of Canada could fend off pressure from within the federal cabinet to co-operate with American militarism in Iraq. 
Choirs, soloists and dancers gave their hearts for peace.  Many participants had never protested before.  It was all in the singing and was totally awesome in the correct use of the term “awe.”  The pouring rain was strangely welcome, for it symbolized the tears of Iraqi children, my tears, your tears – transformed into hope through singing for peace with one another and experiencing deep peace.  There was a transformation of anger, hatred, anguish and violence into a determined clarity to be peace and to oppose war.  From there we know the wise actions to take.  Those who are waging war would do better if they knew better; but they don't know better.  We, however, do know better and must take the steps to communicate our understandings to political decision makers.  It is our developed consciousness, which allows us to know better.  It is the meditative work we do on ourselves every day of our lives to come to terms with the inner struggle, turmoil and trauma - the inner war which we must learn to identify as our own; to find ways to transform our often raging thoughts.

However, on the morning of this event I was overwhelmed by anger and anguish after receiving news of the American “shock and awe” bombing campaign of Iraq.  I knew I had to take care of the strong feelings that were welling up inside me, otherwise I would be of no use to citizens gathering on Parliament Hill for this novel form of protest.  I took refuge in the sangha – represented by my wife Carolyn - and told her I was so angry and so full of grief.  She understood and took care of preparations for the Peace Song Circle while I did walking meditation in the Pine Gate Meditation Hall in order to become steady and lucid.  It took a while, but after forty minutes of conscious breathing to calm down and then walking meditation to release the strong emotions, I was ready to lead this important event with clarity and steadiness.  The Peace Song Circle was a call to strengthen peace, both within and without, so I had to be in the same mental state as this intention.  The event was non-dualistic in design, created around music because of its ability to communicate peace in a positive and uplifting way.  People came from all walks of life, regardless of age, political affiliation, faith or ethnic background.  The Peace Song Circle transported everyone to experience inner peace, as we emphasized the importance of mindful living as an alternative to violent conflict.  We invited the general public to make a conscious choice to join in the continued pursuit and celebration of peace.  Our motto for the event summed up what we asked of those in attendance – Sing for Peace, Stand for Peace, Be Peace.  I believe that the only way to achieve lasting peace is to begin by fostering it within ourselves and then re-evaluating the choices we make in our daily lives.

Our first Peace Prayer Day in the autumn of 2003 was opened by Native American children, drummers and dancers from Maniwaki in full costume lead the entire audience through a circle dance.  Massed choirs, the Sacred Dance Guild, Buddhist, Sikh, Christian, Sufi, Israeli and Arabic expressions for peace and planetary care supported the children’s prayers for change and hope.  This celebration of peace and call for change appealed to many who feel drawn to be peace but who have never before taken part in its group expressions.  Our Peace Prayer Day is affiliated with the UN’s day of peace prayer.  We presented Peace Awards to three outstanding local citizens, whose work for peace stands as an example to all of us gathered there.  They have transformed people and communities with their wisdom, love and compassion.  They are examples of “Being Peace.”  Our thanks to you Grandfather William Commanda, spiritual leader of the Algonquin Nation for creating a Culture of Peace; to Sr. Jean Goulet of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese for establishing inter-faith dialogue where before there was silence and for galvanizing religious leaders to support multi-ethnic housing projects; and to Michael Monner of Tone Magazine for raising Ottawa’s consciousness about these and other issues over the past twenty years. 

On the day of this outdoor event, the elements and nature were responsive in many ways. Two eagles circled above us, the thunder gods threatened, yet the persistent rain let up at the end and allowed the sun to shine forth just as we started to sing together.  A marvellous documentary film has been made, which shows the courage and determination shining through to be nothing other than peace and to make a difference to our world.  The annual Peace Prayer Day brings individuals and groups together for inspiration, communication and creative collaboration through music, dance, prayer and Visions for Peace to share our interconnectedness and then take action on the local, national and international stage.  Both events provided inspiration and example for the following years and it is our intention to continue building bridges in times of peace and times of war.  In 2005 many mayors from the cities, towns and rural municipalities across Canada signed a Peace Proclamation to support our peace day, so this humble event is now a national concern.  Thousands of people are mobilizing to talk about peace issues, to meditate together on peace, to find new and creative ways to structure peace into existing institutions, and to question the legitimacy of war.  There is a great movement afoot as we breathe in a sense of possibility.  A coalition always generates more awareness than the sum of its parts. People are nourished and rejuvenated by the energy of spiritual community.  This is our sustenance and constitutes an antidote for alienation, racism, dwelling on the negative and for the endlessness of  "living in our heads".  What comes to me after my busy mind becomes quiet is that now more than ever we must go deeper into our spiritual processes, become more disciplined in our mindfulness practices, AND be more active in our social and political structures. The tools are everywhere to be found: meditations to balance the hemispheres of the brain, to develop the skills of deep listening, for grounding and centering, for strengthening the nervous system, for coming to terms with what is truest in our heart. 

Non-dualistic approaches emphasize that we are in the twenty-first century.  Old forms of protest created in the previous century no longer work.  The highly ritualized dance of violence between protesters and police is not very intelligent given that non-dualistic forms have the distinct possibility of making allies of the police.  Furthermore, this preference welcomes many citizens who choose not to participate in violent protest rallies.  The inclusiveness of our efforts is to provide the example from within ourselves for what we hope to see replicated on the national and international stage.  Namely: stopping in meditative space; reaching out in non-dualism; followed by wise action based on lucidity and calm.  Non-dualism also perplexes the media who are hoping to find an outbreak of violence to cover, but instead find citizens singing for peace, celebrating peace through prayer, dance and artistry, or standing in silent meditation at peace vigils.  These are political protests as they carry a clear consensus of non-confidence in the violent, warlike alternative.  Reporters are often inexplicably moved as they have rarely encountered this kind of news event before.  I ask all nations to try this – leave your offices and work place during a designated lunch hour, stand in silent meditation for peace and bring towns, cities and nations to a stop.  And ask all political leaders to join you in taking a clear stand for peace.  Dualistic protests on the other hand set “us” against “them,” and contain the same formula of energy that produces war and violent conflict.  This particular basis for action does not allow for transformation.  It only permits cosmetic changes as the same energy is there, fuelling both the protester and that which is being protested.  True, effective transformation and healing of wounds requires a non-dualistic approach, much patience and being grounded in mindfulness as a life style choice.

After the first Peace Prayer Day Ottawa we sat around our fireplaces reading the many letters of thanks received, mostly from the United States.  The letters speak of a great need for more such messages of hope and celebration of all traditions and paths, and of the longing for leadership and clear statements about how to begin in your own community.  We created a website with posters, vision statements, guidelines and press releases freely available to any community wishing to use the material.  www.friendsforpeace.ca   It is hoped that these events in Ottawa will also lead to the development of a broad network of spiritual leaders committed to transforming our country’s current decision making process and to leading with compassion and wisdom.  This is what a Council of Sages is all about for us.  The alternative for peace can be articulated through such a council and provide a training for leaders who aspire to do the same.  As well as raising consciousness, Friends for Peace is also active on the ground.  At the local level the funds generated support low-income housing projects that benefit immigrants plus the campaign to extend the mandate of the Canadian War Museum to include a focus on peacekeeping and creating a culture of peace out of the ashes of war.  Internationally it supports the schools and medical centres established by Child Haven International in South Asia; also the Peace Camp Ottawa, which brings 20 Israeli and Palestinian teens together each summer to enjoy fellowship and reconciliation.  On the first Peace Prayer Day our two activist speakers scratched at the last minute due to illness.  As a back up I did my best to step into their shoes.  This is what I said:

“I want to talk to you about our children and the kind of future we are creating for them.  Do we teach them peace?  Or through neglect do we allow violence to flood their minds, hearts and consciousness so they learn war?  Even worse, do they live out our own personal wars expressed through our violent attitudes, speech and actions towards them?  I ask every adult here, particularly men, and in our country to deal with their internal wars so that only the best in us is passed on to our children, not the worst in terms of violence.  As a noble contrast, we experience peace together at this Peace Prayer Day in the City of Ottawa.  We come together to celebrate peace – First Nations, Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Sikhs, Sufis and Hindus.  Peace, environmental, social activist and meditation groups from all traditions – from all walks of life, all colors, all ages.  Our determination to be peace and courage to stand for it, no matter what, creates the energy and power for change.  The pouring rain has not deterred us as we provide a beginning anew for our city.  It represents the tears of the world that we can take care of by being resolute examples of peace.  We are bridges across the boundaries that separate, a microcosm of the world in harmony and at peace.  This is all very wonderful, but how does it translate into action?

The first step is already clear – we must deal with our internal wars, hatreds and fears.  How do we do this?  We must stop running and hiding behind our addictions and busyness.  We come to a stop, look deeply into the eyes of our children and make a commitment to face our internal demons and transform them by stepping on to the path of compassion, whatever the tradition.  Not by transmitting our wars to the children of the world.  We need community for this, to support us in sacred ceremony, meditation and creative spirituality so that we raise our consciousness and refine our speech, attitudes and actions.  We show our children the way to peace by learning to be it.  By our example we send a very strong message of encouragement to our children.  Let us be clear about the world we have created for our children.  Since 9/11 the level of hate and violence globally has increased dramatically.  America has used excessive violence to suppress violence.  This is not the correct way to proceed and America must wake up to this.  During the Vietnam war, the US search and destroy campaign succeeded only in creating more communists, with the resulting reality that the present regime in Vietnam is a communist one.  In Afghanistan and Iraq, US military force has succeeded in creating more terrorists.  The shock and awe campaign of bombing Iraq has repercussions that reach right back into the heart of America.  There is no “them” and “us.”  We either learn to live peacefully together or we all suffer and die together.

All violence is injustice and we have to teach our children the truth about war.  Not about winners and losers, but about the long term suffering on both sides.  A desperate statistic, however, is that America goes to war every eighteen months, supported by a misguided American public believing in a false sense of patriotism.  The truth is that America has yet to recover from the wounds of the Korean War, and certainly not from the suffering of the Vietnam War.  To hide the fear and insecurity that runs through America, the industrial-military-imperialist complex of America rushes to war.  This must stop and it is only citizens of the world standing together for peace and saying “No to War” that will stop it.  But the hatred grows and the suffering increases.  What can we do as individuals to change this?  First of all we must uproot the violence and war within ourselves.  To prevent war we nurture non-violence.  We practice meditation and prayer in daily life to transform the poisons within ourselves and within our nation.  Doing this in our family, in our community produces positive feedback loops throughout our society and government – which is ultimately accountable to each one of us.  We just have to make it so. 

We enter into true peace negotiations by learning the methods of deep listening, respectful and non-violent communication, by understanding and bringing our selfish agendas to a stop.  The art of deep listening enables us to listen to the suffering within our nation, then to the suffering within nations we are in conflict with.  In this way we create bridges of understanding across the cultural and religious boundaries that separate.  We create peace by knowing that compassion is the antidote to violence and hatred.  This is the remedy for our troubled times.  Compassion, however, has to be generated in our heart by first of all taking care of our internal wars and violence.  Then we are able to touch the depth of compassion, strength and clarity within us and take wise action.  These actions are taken to the political and economic infrastructures that surround and often oppress us.  It also means letting go of our ego, of our individual agendas and finding the middle way to represent the collective, thereby becoming an Ambassador for Peace.

We must also make peace with Mother Earth.  If we injure Mother Earth, we injure ourselves.  Our civilization has caused such deep harm to the earth that we humans may soon become an endangered species, so we must change our ways by renewing the ethics of our spiritual traditions.  George Bush and Tony Blair have been looking for Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq.  They ignore our civilization’s creation of the biggest weapon of mass destruction – Global Warming.  This is created by our collective greed, produced by our industrial processes and consumerist madness.  The result is damage to Mother Earth.  2003’s unprecedented heat wave in Europe killed 10,000 people in France, 6,000 in Italy.  3,000 died in the September 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Centre in New York.  I do not diminish that tragedy but point out that the rising sea levels produced by Global Warming will kill millions, displacing millions more.  This weapon of mass destruction is far more dangerous than terrorism.  It has the capacity to destabilize existing political and economic structures, which are totally out of synch with the earth’s natural capital, which shrinks daily from the mindless environmental stupidity of our industrial civilization.  We have all participated in the creation of this WMD.

What could the 400 billion dollars recently spent on war have done to alleviate Global Warming?  I leave the listener to assess the priorities here – it does not require anyone to be a rocket scientist to realize that military threats to our security and wellbeing are totally eclipsed by environmental collapse.  We must change our ways and make peace with Mother Earth otherwise we will not survive.  Our collective greed, mindless consumerism, industrial pollution and government irresponsibility must change.  James Lovelock recently stated: “Global warming is the response of our outraged planet to the harm we have already done and the consequences for humanity are likely to be far worse than any war.  We are at war with the earth itself.”  This is a war we cannot win and to even come close to winning ensures our extinction.  Such extinction may be much faster than we allow our minds to consider, so it is essential to concentrate our intelligence and insight on the real danger facing us.  The human species and the planet earth are in fact one body – this is the basis of the Buddha’s Diamond Sutra.  Our planet is suffering because we have lived together for so long with only neglect and ignorance about the earth.  The earth is our mother yet we make our mother suffer deeply.  Every faith and spiritual tradition, not just Buddhist ones, must renew their ethics and responsibilities and honour the interconnected nature of our species with mother earth.    The solution is not political or economic – they are secondary.  The primary solution is spiritual and requires an implementation of environmental ethics based on spiritual tradition.  We must also rescue the UN from the devastating effects caused by US and UK indifference towards the one world body that is capable of making a difference.  Our Peace Prayer Day is squarely in support of UN peace processes and not in support of the violent excesses of the US and UK led invasion and occupation of Iraq.

As an Ambassador of Peace we champion the cause of Mother Earth, the cause of non-violent relationships in political and global affairs.  This means our leaders have to be trained in the art of deep listening and stopping before contemplating violent action.  We must make it clear to our political and corporate leaders that business as usual is not an option.  That the violence they commit in our name is no longer acceptable.  Our political leaders are ultimately accountable to us.  We elect them and can therefore influence them.  As an Ambassador of Peace we speak out to corporate and political leaders – but not as individuals but as representatives of groups, coalitions and nations.  We do not neglect the political and economic infrastructures that frame our lives.  We hold them to account and influence them with our clarity, wisdom and courage.  We consume carefully, rejecting the mindlessness of an uncaring consumer society.  As we go deeper spiritually, we can take care of our internal wars as we realize that everything interconnects.  We act as Ambassadors for Peace and make it safe for children not yet born for seven generations into the future.  This is a teaching from Native American wisdom.  The actions we take now are shaping the possibilities for future generations.

So here is our challenge.  Today, in the pouring rain and thunder storms at Alumni Park, Carleton University, in the City of Ottawa – we have experienced peace, a deep peace shared between many traditions, cultures and religions.  As such we represent the diversity of the world – an example of what can be.  This experience, however, evaporates into nothing if we do not translate it into action.  Begin the work on yourselves today, so that your attitudes, speech and actions become an example to your children, friends and communities.  Take the practical steps to make peace with Mother Earth in terms of what you consume and support.  Then represent your community, in coalition with other communities, to political and corporate leaders so they know the general public means business.  But if we want them to change their ways – we first of all have to change our ways.  Show clearly that we are choosing peace and harmony within ourselves, within our communities and with Mother Earth.  Today’s experience asks that of us.  Together we can do it.  We are supported and can overcome.

We are Ambassadors of Peace after all.”

Ian Prattis is a dharmacharya in the Engaged Buddhist tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh and gives talks and retreats all over the world.  He is also the author of “The Essential Spiral: Ecology and Consciousness After 9/11” (UPA 2002) and “Failsafe” (Manor House 2008).