As Buddhists understand things, the outer world unfolding around us is largely a reflection of inner states. Yes, there might be some “stuff” out there from which the material life support systems are woven, but the rich world of human experience is a virtual world, constructed of mental states, feelings, perceptions and various forms of intention.
First the bad news: the mess we are making of our planet is caused by our own greed, hatred and delusion. Aside from the existential afflictions of aging, death and at least some of the illnesses, every instance we see of human misery, injustice, affliction or pain will, upon sufficient investigation, be shown to be rooted in someone’s attachment, aversion or ignorance.
Now the good news: each of the unwholesome roots of human behavior has an equal and opposite wholesome root. Generosity and renunciation stand as the antithesis of greed, kindness and compassion are at hand as alternatives to hatred, and wisdom is accessible as an antidote to delusion. Despite the headlines, the human realm is suffused with countless daily episodes of goodness, and a great deal of what gets created by people each moment is wonderful.
At the heart of the human condition lies the capability to choose between wholesome and unwholesome attitudes. It might often feel like we have no choice, because of layers of behavioral conditioning or the influence of powerful persuasive forces. And it may also be that many of the choices we make are unexamined, unconscious and thus don’t feel like choices at all. But this ability to decide, to deliberately give energy to either wholesome or unwholesome inclinations, to steer a course, if you will, between one option and another, is something precious that distinguishes us from machines or animals.
Which brings us to the matter of war and peace. Of what mental states is each the projection? While outwardly war is characterized by distrust, violence and a whole lot of killing, these are the manifestations of inner states of turmoil, fear, anger, hatred and cruelty. The “guardians of the world,” the twin pillars of conscience called self-respect (hiri) and respect for the opinion others (ottappa) are absent, which unleashes all sorts of demons from within us.
Peace is characterized by such outward features as harmony, honesty, mutual respect and cooperation. The inner states generating these activities include such factors as tranquility, kindness, compassion and unselfishness. The guardians are alert, and protect us from expressing some of the darker impulses that lie lurking in the shadows of our psyche.
If humans are defined by the ability to choose, why would anyone deliberately choose war over peace? Most people would agree it is preferable to be at peace when there is no threat, and many would acknowledge the need to be at war when absolutely necessary to protect oneself or others. A mind at war is organized around unwholesome qualities and makes room for the wholesome only briefly and reluctantly. A mind at peace, organized around wholesome states of mind, may still evoke the unwholesome qualities needed from time to time to deal with a threat, but otherwise rests easy.
What is at issue between these two postures is the karmic consequences of the intermediary and ancillary states. In war mode, all mental states will be generating unwholesome effects, even those which arise and pass away in between the occasional episodes of necessary unwholesomeness. In peace mode, wholesome effects are produced by default, working wholesome changes upon oneself and the world.
In other words, a peaceful person who must from time to time muster war-like qualities to ensure her survival or to protect the innocent, will generate wholesome karma most of the time—except in those brief moments when harder stuff is called for. By contrast, a person geared-up in war mode is producing unwholesome effects beyond what is minimally required by the duty to safeguard oneself and others. Such a person will also experience episodes of peacefulness from time to time, but these will be rare in the context of an ongoing unwholesome intentional stance.
If a person feels threatened, he may hold himself continually on a war footing—suspicious, aggressive, violent—and feel this is what is needed to protect himself. By doing so, however, he may well be provoking from all those he encounters the very behaviors he is trying to deflect. Showing suspicion, aggression and violence, he invites these very responses from others, and thus he is contributing directly to his lack of real security. What appears an effective short-term strategy, turns out to do considerable long-term and unforeseen damage.
If, on the other hand, a person stays for the most part in a peaceful intentional stance, she will regularly influence people in the direction of the wholesome. Even if she must rear up from time to time to face down the evil intentions of others, she is not distorting her peaceful character in the moments intervening between these incidents. While there might be some greater short-term risk, the long-term prospects of a wholesome outcome are much improved.
A useful analogy for this point of view can be found in the science of stress and its reduction. Humans are designed to generate intense but brief eruptions of fear (for flight) and aggression (for fight) in response to occasional threats from predators. It is natural for attachment (to survival) and aversion (to becoming someone’s lunch) to be evoked in times of danger. But it is equally natural for these to subside when the danger is past and for the mind and body to fall back into the more peaceful default mode of a nurturing, cooperative mammal.
When unskillful decisions interfere with this cycle, such as the decision to place oneself on a sustained war footing, then the mind and body are subjected to significant amounts of long-term, low-grade damage. So if such a stance harms oneself internally by generating an unremitting stream of unhealthy karmic factors, and it harms oneself externally by provoking others into conflict with us, why would anyone with basic human wisdom deliberately choose to set himself (or his nation) at war?