The following remarks by Chan Master Sheng Yen were given at the Young Leaders Peacebuilding Retreat at the Dharma Drum Retreat Center in Pine Bush, New York, held October 25-28, 2006. The occasion was a multi-faith retreat sponsored jointly by the Global Peace Initiative of Women and Dharma Drum Mountain. Attending the retreat were about 80 young leaders from Africa, America, Asia, and Europe; their religious affiliations included Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism and Islam. For three days the group held intensive discussions and reflected on what young people can do to enhance the environment for peace in the world. This gathering was actually a prelude to their attendance at the United Nations Global Youth Leadership Summit, which was held October 29-31st at the United Nations. In the words of the GYLS, the purpose of the summit was to “strengthen the worldwide movement to engage young people in decisions about the future of their communities, regions, and our emerging global society … [and] to share ideas and action plans on ways to reduce poverty and accelerate the achievement of the other Millennium Development Goals and build peace…”.
Master Sheng Yen’s remarks were given at the opening and the closing of the retreat, and were orally translated by Dr. Rebecca Li.
On behalf of Dharma Drum Retreat Center, I welcome you all to this Young Leaders Peacebuilding retreat. I am very happy to see so many old friends here, and also happy to see a lot of new friends. I hope over the next few days of this retreat you will truly live a joyful and peaceful life here at the retreat center.
Now I’d like to begin by asking you this question: How do we achieve peace? What do we need to do in order to attain peace in this world? Do you have any specific ideas in mind already?
Based on my experience of having read many books and heard many lectures, some by famous people, the main point is often that to attain peace we need to change something—either we need to change an existing situation, or we need to change how people, ethnic groups or religions, relate to each other. These methods advocate peace by changing something external to ourselves.
In fact, there are a lot of people and institutions that are dedicated to attaining peace in this world. However, because they are so zealous in advocating peace, they often adopt extreme thinking in their approach. And because their solution is often to use force to attain peace on their terms, we have arrived at a state of perpetual conflict in the world. Now I’d like to ask you: those who advocate this kind of solution, are they the makers or the destroyers of peace?
[Voice from audience: They are destroyers of peace.]
The violent approach to making peace was the mentality up to and through the 19th century. We have gone through the 20th century in which we experienced two great world wars, and now we have entered the 21st century with open conflict in many parts of the world. Since violence and war have not in fact brought us peace, don’t you think that we need a new paradigm, a new approach towards making peace? If you do, that would mean looking for methods of non-violence because if we continue to resort to force, all that will happen is that we will be stuck in violent conflicts around the world.
At the individual level we can think about peacemaking in the same way. If we treat people around us with an angry heart, if we interact with anger in our minds, people will inevitably respond with anger. We then have an environment of violence against violence. However, if we can treat people with kindness and compassion, they will not find it so easy to remain angry at us. So we need to start from within ourselves, from our within our own minds; we need to keep a mind of peace, of kindness, and compassion. Then we will have a standpoint from which to build peace from within ourselves instead of resorting to forceful change. So the important thing to attain peace in the world is to first cultivate an attitude of non-harming and non-violence. If we have peace in our minds, the world we experience will be at peace; even though the objective reality may be one of conflict, our inner experience will be one of peace. That is to say, at least we will not become the source of conflict and violence. When we are at peace in our minds and we do not generate conflict and violence, then we can truly begin to also help others attain peace and eliminate violence and conflict.
So in these few days of this Peacebuilding Retreat you have been preparing for the United Nations Global Youth Leadership Summit, one of whose themes is the problem of global poverty—how to solve and eliminate poverty. However, global poverty is not something that, as very young leaders, you can easily and readily tackle by yourself. That is too large a problem for you.
However, what you can do as young leaders is to start the peacebuilding process from within yourselves. To begin, if you can at least keep yourself from falling into poverty then there is a chance that you will be able to help others out of poverty. What I mean is that if you are poverty-stricken yourself, how can you help others overcome their own poverty? By keeping yourself out of poverty, and I here mean not just material poverty, but also spiritual poverty, you can then cultivate a mind less motivated by greed and desire. You will be able to find contentment with what you already have. When we do not crave so much, when we don’t constantly think that we need this and we want that, we are then ready to contribute and share with everyone else. At that time, we become the wealthiest people in the world.
On the other hand we cannot do that if we constantly feel that we need more for ourselves. Feeling such a lack, it would be difficult for us to share with others and contribute to their welfare. Even though we may be materially wealthy, so long as we feel that we cannot share with others, we are still in poverty, spiritual poverty.
So I’d like to make a suggestion. When, a few days from now, you attend the United Nations summit to discuss the problem of poverty, I urge you to raise the point to the assembly about how we should go about really solving poverty. The answer, as I see it, is to first recognize the main causes of poverty. Yes, there are serious natural disasters that can cause poverty, but among causes that we can learn to control is violent conflict—war. Violent conflict throws a lot of people into enforced poverty out of which it is extremely difficult to climb [due to disruptions to the social fabric, loss of infrastructure, and economic chaos]. So in order to help solve the problem of poverty, we first need to solve the problem of perpetual war; we need to cease giving rise to violence as a solution to social problems, and conflict as a means of settling disputes between people and nations. When we do that we will truly be getting to one of the main sources of poverty.
When there is war, people are thrown into material poverty; when we succeed in stopping conflict we will help to alleviate poverty. Already today, in many parts of the world, there are people in poverty caused by conflict, and while we can bring them material aid, that is not enough. We also need to help people find spiritual contentment as well as alleviate material poverty. When one is no longer spiritually poor there is less greed and when there is less greed, there is more contentment. So we should try to eliminate violence, getting at the problem of conflict and war—which in itself is a kind of poverty—and we should also purify anger from our heart, we should cultivate contentment of the spirit. When we can do that we will be eliminating spiritual poverty and will be truly getting to the heart of the problem of material poverty.
Over the last few days we have been living together here in the quiet environment of the Dharma Drum Retreat Center with no distractions, so that we could all concentrate on the purpose of our being here, which is to share our life experiences as young leaders dedicated to building peace in the world. Especially under the help and guidance of the compassionate teachings of the Buddha, along with the several spiritual mentors here, you have all been able to very generously share your experiences to everyone’s benefit.
There are some people in the world who through most of their lives never really having to undergo any great suffering, any great difficulty. However, when you look at the lives of the truly great leaders in history, had they not experienced great suffering themselves, it would have been very difficult for them to truly understand and empathize with the suffering of others.
I understand that among you here, not all have really needed to endure much difficulty or suffering so far in your young lives. Still, it is inspiring that you are willing to come to the United States, to this retreat center, to experience discomfort for several days, in order to share your life experiences with others like yourselves. After all, this is not a five-star hotel. Being a retreat center, it is not meant to be very comfortable with lots of amenities. So it is good that you’ve been willing to come and suffer a little bit.
In fact, in order to become a leader, one should be willing to undergo and experience difficulties. If one is unwilling to put oneself through some suffering in order to achieve a goal, then it is difficult to give rise to compassion. Without a mind and heart of compassion one would not be even able to perceive that there is anyone out there that needs to be helped. If one always puts oneself only through the most pleasant circumstances, then it becomes easy to think that everything in the world is so wonderful, everything is going smoothly, and there is no one out there suffering, so no one needs our help. Only if we are willing to put ourselves through some difficulty and suffering are we able to truly empathize with the great need, with the great suffering out there, and give rise to compassion.
In the entire world today with 6.5 billion people, at least half are in dire circumstances, experiencing poverty, sickness, homelessness, and other forms of suffering. Therefore, we often are plagued with this erroneous understanding that suffering comes only from material poverty; we think that all suffering is the result of not having enough food, not having housing, healthcare, clothing or possessions, and so on. But I have known of many very wealthy people that have everything that they could possibly want materially, but they don’t have happiness at all and even lack a sense of security. One could say that these people are suffering from spiritual poverty even while being materially wealthy. So from the total perspective of those who suffer materially and those who suffer spiritually, most of the 6.5 billion people on our Planet Earth are suffering in one way or the other. As young leaders, you can therefore recognize that there is a great deal of suffering out there that needs to be alleviated.
For example, I can see that all of you young leaders have adequate shelter, enough food, clothing, and you are all healthy and intelligent. And yet, although you seem to have everything you need, a lot of you have told and shared stories of pain and suffering. Over these past few days you have inspired and moved each other with your own stories. So, ask yourself, why is it that though you have all the material needs, you still have some experiences of suffering to share? If you do that, you will understand that everyone, regardless of circumstances—fortunate or unfortunate—suffers one way or another; everyone has unhappy experiences to tell.
Now, in your upcoming meeting at the United Nations the theme is going to be the elimination of poverty. The promise of the theme is that if we can eliminate poverty most of the problems of the world will be solved. But my opinion is that this is not entirely the right idea because, while curing material poverty is difficult, compared to poverty of the mind and spirit material poverty is relatively solvable. It is the poverty of the mind and spirit that is going to take a lot more work to alleviate. As long as there is great spiritual poverty, even if we solve the problem of material poverty, people will still continue to suffer and be unhappy. We should also help others to cultivate spiritual contentment, to eliminate the poverty of the spirit.
After today you will be leaving, and up to now, aside from the humble amenities here, probably the thing that was most difficult for some of you, that caused some suffering, was that for several days you have had to eat nothing but vegetarian food [prolonged laughter]. A lot of you have never had to be vegetarian over the course of several days and yet here, every meal was vegetarian, vegetarian. Well, to undergo for several days a diet you are not used to, that also entails a little bit of difficulty. So, you have tasted a little bit of suffering and that counts as putting yourself through some difficulty in order to accomplish something. And after all, you survived eating only vegetarian food. Am I correct?
However, if you have fretted over eating vegetarian food up to this very moment, perhaps you can remind yourself that a lot of people in this world cannot even get their hands on anything close to the very basic and simple vegetarian fare that we have been eating here. So when we think that way, perhaps we will give rise to gratitude for what we already have. This is cultivating a mind of contentment.
So, with this in mind, I want to ask you: in the last several days, was the food OK? Were you satisfied with eating only vegetarian meals [Chorus of “yeah’s” and prolonged applause]?
That means we have failed [prolonged laughter].
I had instructed the kitchen crew to cook very bad vegetarian food for you, in order to put you through some suffering [laughter], but they did not follow my instructions. Instead they made very good but simple vegetarian food. However, we know they worked very hard to make you happy, so we will thank them anyway [cheers and applause].
While we are undergoing maybe less than satisfactory circumstances on this retreat, it is very important to give rise to the proper attitude. Instead of thinking of your own suffering, remind yourself that there are lots of people in even worse circumstances. It is very important to give rise to this attitude because if one can do so, then we can also give rise to a mind of compassion to help others in even worse circumstances.
Over the last few days you have been able to share your experiences and you have heard the stories of other young leaders like yourselves. In the process you have experienced in a few days more than what you might experience in possibly two years otherwise. So I want to congratulate you on your patience and kindness.
And while you have heard other peoples’ stories of suffering and difficulty, it is very important not to become disappointed with what you see around in the world. Probably most of the 6.5 billion people in the world have an erroneous, or upside-down view about things, thinking that happiness comes with material comforts. But when you think about it, throughout human history, bringing life and hope to this world has always been accomplished by a small handful of people who have the correct understanding. With this right understanding they have been able to lead the rest of us towards a more enlightened view.
Therefore, we have nearly 80 of you young leaders here, and I encourage every single one of you to make a vow to give rise to compassion in order to help everyone. Everybody here should make this vow saying, “I will give rise to a mind of compassion to help everyone in this world.”
How do we go about doing this? First, we should remember to use the method of non-violence, of not causing harm; second, we should cultivate inner peace, starting with ourselves, in order to bring peace to those around us and then throughout the world. If every one of us makes such a vow then the 21st century will be filled with hope, because you are our future. As young leaders you will bring about the change from erroneous thinking to right understanding in the 21st century.
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