The contrast could not have been more striking. On Sept. 11, General David Petraeus reported to the Senate Armed Services Committee on how his 168,000 troops were doing in their effort to change the situation in Iraq. Three days earlier two Buddhist nuns and one monk along with 17 members and friends of the Vajrayana Buddhist Center in Oak Park set out on a two-mile Walk for World Peace.
The mood at the Center on that Saturday morning felt much like what you experience in many churches and synagogues as people gather for a fundraiser or advocacy walk. There were hugs, laughter and one in-depth analysis of the Cubs. A scurry of activity included registering names, handing out Walk for World Peace T-shirts and posing for pictures. Armed with water bottles and granola bars, the group began its two-mile amble with two goals in mind:
1) raising awareness about world peace and
2) raising money for the Vajrayana Center
“Our mission is world peace,” declared Rafael Valadez, the walk’s coordinator. Initially that goal might seem unrealistic, grandiose and futile-that is, unless you understand how the Buddhist approach to peace works.
Under the surface, beneath the laughter and admiring of pet dogs and babies in strollers, a more serious and counter-cultural process is being played out. In an interview preceding the walk and again at a “teaching” following the event two days later, Kelsang Lektso, the resident teacher at the Vajrayana Center, explained how she as a Kadampa Buddhist goes about peacemaking.
She quoted the spiritual leader and founder of Kadampa Centers in the West, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, who said, “Without inner peace, outer peace is impossible.” That’s more than a spin on the lyrics of the old peace song, “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.”
“The causes of unhappiness and suffering are not from the outside,” Lektso instructs. “Rather they are states of mind. The cause of our suffering is within our mind.” What causes us to remain stuck in the cycle of suffering and rebirth, she said, are negative states of mind, which they try to replace through meditation with “virtuous states of mind.” For example, in meditation the work of replacing anger with compassion goes on until there is no room left for the negative feeling. States of mind lead to action.
In one of the books for sale at the Center, Joyful Path of Good Fortune, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso writes, “To attain [actual liberation or nirvana] we need to abandon all delusions and contaminated actions which are the source of samsaric rebirths. … The definition of delusion is a mental factor that arises from inappropriate attention and functions to make the mind unpeaceful and uncontrolled.” (p. 310)
Lektso likened the process of abandoning delusions to the pulling of weeds in a garden. Over time and with great effort a gardener can have a weed-free garden in which wonderful vegetables are free to ripen. By pulling the weeds in your mind, i.e. abandoning delusions, you let the Buddha seed in you flower. In the 21 basic meditations, the Buddha, according to Lektso, has given us the practical tools to do this.
“The more we practice,” she said, “the more we rid the mind of bad habits. The spiritual path is about changing the heart and mind. You can eventually feel peaceful all the time.”
Lektso said there are two paths open to every person:
1) try to find peace and happiness by changing the world or
2) find peace and happiness by changing your own mind.
She laughed as she listed examples of how people-and herself at times-have tried to find peace through externals: TV, food, the latest technology. She admitted to being intrigued by iPhones for awhile. The problem, she concluded, is that lasting peace is not possible through externals.
In Buddhism, peacemaking always begins internally and all of the work has to be done by the individual. Kelsang Lamden, the administrator of the center, was a Christian for 50 years before being ordained a Buddhist nun. “Some of the pieces were always missing,” she said. “The trouble with some Christians is the attitude they can do anything they want and then be forgiven in the end. In Buddhism the responsibility lies with each individual and that responsibility is huge.”
Lektso repeatedly emphasized that the methods taught in Buddhism are practical and can be applied by everyone whether they are Buddhist or not. Some, she noted, have called Buddhism a philosophy rather than a religion because God really doesn’t come into the picture at all.
What matters, said the resident teacher at the Vajrayana Center, is that each individual can use the meditation techniques taught here to become more relaxed and peaceful in their everyday life.
In fact, that became the life mission of the spiritual director of all Kadampa Buddhist Centers, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso. Geshe-la, as he is affectionately called by his students, who was ordained at the age of eight and then spent almost 40 years in intensive studies.
When he came to the West, he learned English and devoted his life to bringing the teachings of Buddhism to everyday people. The brand of Buddhist meditation taught at the Vajrayana Center is likewise very down to earth. Perhaps this practical approach is facilitated by the fact that most Kadampa Buddhist monks and nuns have regular jobs in addition to their service to the “sangha” or community.
Kelsang Lektso didn’t mention the names Crocker or Petraeus once during her hour-long teaching on the eve of their testimony before the Senate committees. Instead she led a 10-minute meditation which focused on replacing anger with compassion in each of the 12 people in attendance.
She coached the people meditating to replace the “unbridled pursuit of happiness through trying to change externals” with a changed state of mind, one that gradually substitutes compassion for anger until there’s no room left for negative feelings.
Can 20 people walking two miles do more to create peace in the world than 168,000 military personnel in Iraq? None of the participants even raised the question. Those, however, who were really into the kinds of meditation taught at the Vajrayana Center would if pushed probably quote Kelsang Lektso who said, “I know from my own experience that it works.”