It was a war to end all wars. It did not. It would make the world safe for democracy. It failed. It was to end quickly. It lasted four horrific years with millions of casualties. It was a war which should not have happened. Yet it did. It changed the world forever. It solved nothing. It planted the seeds for war 21 years later and for the conflicts of today. It was called the Great War, the World War, World War I. It ended 100 years ago this month on November 11, 1918. It is a day known as Armistice Day, Remembrance Day. In the United States, we call it Veterans Day.
This year, Veterans Day falls on Sunday. It is the same day as our temple service. It behooves us to contemplate the great issues of war and peace. One hundred twenty three million people died from war in the Twentieth Century. I fear for the days ahead.
We must consider the matter of peace.
Do we even know what peace means?
In the past 3,400 years of recorded history, only 268 of them were peaceful, which is merely eight percent of world history. It is dispiriting to realize our own country has been at war for 225 out of 242 years since 1776, which totals only 17 years of peace. That is only a year less than the legal minimum age of sending our young men and women to fight and die for us.
Is peace nothing more than the absence of war, just a pause before the next one?
We have no idea what peace really is.
The only one who would know is a Buddha. A Buddha is one who becomes peace. A Buddha is one who is peace.
In a forest under a tree, Gautama Siddhartha came to an understanding why he had no peace. In doing so, he discovered the path to it. As he was leaving the forest, a Brahmin priest encountered him and saw something was different about this person and asked, “Are you a god, a deva, some great saint?” To which he replied, “I am none of these. I am awake.” From that point he was called the Buddha, “Awakened One.” Peace is not an absence. Its content is clear in the countenance of a person who has wakened. He began to show the way to peace so that others might have what he had.
Many sutras convey many ways to a life of peace. In our tradition turn now your attention to the sutra that Shinran loved best, The Larger Sutra on the Buddha of Infinite Light and Life. Listen!
“Wherever the Buddha is present, there is no state, town or village which is not blessed by Buddha’s virtues. The whole country reposes in peace and harmony. …Its people enjoy peace. Soldiers and weapons become useless as people esteem virtue, practice benevolence, and diligently cultivate courteous modesty.”
The condition for peace is the presence of a Buddha. I need to be where a Buddha is present.
Buddha taught that where there is Dharma, there is the Buddha. If I cannot be where a Buddha is physically, I can be where the teachings are proclaimed. Be there as a listener. Be there with people who strive to live it. Strive to live it myself. Perhaps even help others listen and live the Dharma.
There are Three Treasures: the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. You cannot have one without the other two. Of the three, the Sangha is central. The Sangha carries forward the teachings of the Dharma, which is the light and life of the Buddha. Come to the Sangha and you come to the Buddha and come to the Dharma.
If this is so, then our temples must be places of peace. They must be places that show forth peace, where one may find peace, live peace and be peace.
That is a tall order for anyone. Is it even possible? Our fellow-traveler on this path, Shinran Shonin, once spoke that our world is fleeting and burning. He also spoke of the Nenbutsu as alone being true and real. It is our lifeline to peace. Shinran later wrote a letter about this. We would do well to take this letter as being written to us. Shinran speaks heart to heart about his wish for each of us.
“Those who feel uncertain of birth should say the Nenbutsu aspiring first for their own birth. Those who feel that their own birth is completely settled should, mindful of the Buddha’s benevolence, with the wish, “May there be peace in the world, and may the Buddha’s teaching spread!”
Shinran sees us as fellow travelers who may find peace within through a life of Nenbutsu, a life brought to us through vows of peace expressed through the symbol of buddhahood, Amida Nyori. Shinran sees us as people who, through this symbol, may express words of peace and live a life of peace.
The message of peace has been slow to unfurl within our Jodo Shinshu. A month before the start of the ‘War to end all wars,’ a lonely and broken man died in a prison cell in Japan. Rejected, his priesthood revoked, and scorned, his name was Kenmyo Takagi. He was an activist priest. May I have courage like his. He pleaded for peace as the hallmark of our Nenbutsu faith. From his heart he wrote:
“We have never heard that beings in the land of Bliss have attacked other lands. Nor have we ever heard that they started a great war for the sake of justice. Hence, I am against war. I do not feel that a person of the Land of Bliss should take part in warfare.”
Those are strong words. When we walk with Shinran, when we walk with the Buddha, we find strength. When we walk with each other as Sangha, we are strong. Our Nenbutsu is strongest of all. Have no doubt.
A century ago a terrible war ended and more followed. Today we still face wars. Unthinkable wars may still lie ahead. Peace is not a space between wars. Peace is the life opened to us by our Buddha, shown to us by our Shonin and lived by us through our Sangha and by people such as Takagi Kenmyo. We can live it today, right now.
On this anniversary, let us remember our fallen dead and honor those who now serve. Even more, let us remember our Nenbutsu and remember Shinran’s wish for you and me:
“May there be peace in the world, and may the Buddha’s teaching spread!”
Rev. Brenion is a Higashi Honganji minister in Southern California.