Peace in Oneself, Peace in the World
During the vigil, the sound of a bell periodically punctuated the air, inviting the attendees to enter into silence and to contemplate the prayers that were being read by leaders of many different faith communities. "You may not understand the words," Munawari Laghari said as he read a poem in his native Pakistani, "but you can listen to its spirit." In Hebrew Rabbi Bider invited us to pray and to sing, "Lo yisa goy el goy cherev, lo yilmedu od milchama" (May everyone beneath their vine and fig tree live in peace and unafraid"). The words of the Buddha were delivered through Ven. Bhante Kondanna: "May all beings be happy, may all beings be relieved of their suffering." Sharifa Alkhateeb, from the North American Council for Muslim Women, reminded us why war is not the answer. Peace was invited in the name of Allah, God and Buddha, in English, Pakistani, Hebrew, Sanskrit and English.
When the prayers ended, in the dusk of a setting sun, the group stood up. Illuminated by the dome of the US capitol building, accompanied only by the sound of the large park fountain, they began a silent peace walk. In contrast to the large anti-war rally that would take place the next day, the silent walk in Upper Senate Park was void of strident rhetoric and angry chanting. It was a demonstration of how individuals can collectively cultivate inner peace, so that world peace can begin. Those walking profoundly embodied the words of Thich Nhat Hahn, found on a banner at the back of the stage and on stickers handed out to participants, "Peace in ourselves, peace in the world." As one walker from New York put it, "We were happy to travel from [afar] to be at this important event, to be a part of what is truly important in the world."
The prayer vigil and peace walk were part of a greater movement inspired by people, organizations and coalitions at the grassroots level that are advocating for lasting peace through forums of skilled, compassionate listening, called the Listening for Peace project. It is the conviction of this organization that listening and action can heal and redirect the course of human affairs. The Listening for Peace project states: "In light of the intensifying conflicts around the planet, and before another war is declared, we call upon the United States and the world community to pause. As one community, we cannot survive the continuing cycle of violence in response to violence."
World peace seems overwhelmingly impossible in the face of imminent war. The effect of one prayer vigil seems so small. But in the face of all that is unseen and out of our control, when brought down to scale this one act can make a tremendous difference. This is something interfaith Minister Julia Jarvis reminded the participants, at the conclusion of the vigil, when she quoted the words of Marriane Williamson: "As we’re liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others."
On October 25, I participated in an interfaith vigil and peace walk organized by the Washington Mindfulness Community (WMC), with the help of monks and nuns from Green Mountain Dharma Center, a monastery in Vermont founded by Thich Nhat Hanh. The vigil was very well-planned, well-scripted, everything running on time, according to a well-designed agenda. There was a small stage on the grass, surrounded by large box speakers. We were all sitting on the slightly wet grass, and it was chilly and threatening to drizzle. On our left was a fountain beyond which were steps leading down to E street. Further beyond was North Capitol St. and Union Station. Behind the podium was an asphalt footpath on which people going home from work, many of them from the Capitol, walked by.
Anh-Huong Nguyen of the Mindfulness practice center of Fairfax began the vigil by conducting a guided meditation. She told us to feel the earth, the air, and everything around us. My mind was still restless and irritable from the bus trip to the Capitol. My eyes were still wandering around, sizing up the place, soaking up the sights. Her words passed through me like the words from a loudspeaker in a distant temple, floating through the air. At my home in India one could always hear such sounds. While it might have filled the subconscious with some sacred vibrations, I wouldn’t even be aware of it as I went about my business. I struggled to pay attention to her words.
The next speaker was a little more emotional and caught the attention of my wayward mind. George Taylor, Pastor of Hyattsville Presbyterian Church, spoke strongly against the proposed war on Iraq, lamenting the arrogance and callousness of those in power in the most powerful nation on earth. When he was finished, a gentleman from the World Sindhi Institute recited a poem in Sindhi. After him, Bhante Kondanna, a Buddhist monk from Sri Lanka, recited a sutta. The combination of the message of the Buddha, simple yet profound, and the gentle voice of the monk melodiously reverberating in an inspiring lyrical harmony melted my heart. I could feel the stiffness, the irrational irritability in my body and mind all dissolving in the clear stream of love. It was quite obvious and indisputable that this man was a pure and loving being all the way to his core.
The next thing was a beautiful piece on a Native American flute by Sarah O’Brien, after which Rabbi Ben Biber sang a song in Hebrew and many in the audience joined in. He was immediately followed by Dr. Karim Ahmed, President of the Global Children’s Health and Environment fund, who recited two suras from the Qur’an, and was followed by Sharifa Alkhateeb of the Council of Muslim Women in North America, who made an impassioned plea to stop the war. She spoke about how Muslims are being oppressed, and how several Muslim countries are suffering because of the various wars. It really struck a chord in me. I had been rather biased against Muslims because of all that has happened in India’s history, with all the invasions and domination. But lately the rise of Hindu fanaticism has worried me even more and impressed on me the need to forget the past and treat Muslims like our brothers and sisters.
After a closing song, we all were happy to get up and stretch our bodies in preparation for the peace walk. We were handed battery-powered candles and then, after giving some instructions about mindful walking, one of the monks began the peace walk, and we followed in single file. As the procession wound around the grassy area with the trees in the middle, the candles created a circle of bright points in the park, like a diamond necklace in a dark room. The lights amplified our silence and spread an aura of peace. I tried to follow the instructions of the monk, to only feel my footsteps on the earth.
At last we came back to where we had started, and the vigil and peace walk had come to a close. At the end, I was reminded of the following lines from a hymnal of John Henry Newman (1833) that I was very fond of while in high school:
Lead, kindly Light, amid th'encircling gloom, lead thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home; lead thou me on!
Keep thou my feet; I do not ask to see
the distant scene; one step enough for me.