9. Peace

During the Buddha’s lifetime, northern India was divided into several states with established warrior castes. Accounts of the Buddha’s life include an episode in which he intervened to stop a war between the Shakyan and Kolyan states. Arriving at the river separating the states, the Buddha found the opposing forces drawn up and ready to fight. When he asked why, none could say, but the two sides had exchanged insults, and all agreed that honor demanded a battle. The Buddha learned from local farmers that the cause of the conflict was a shortage of water for irrigation. He convinced the warriors that blood was more precious than water. The opposing armies listened as the Buddha told stories and gave teachings. At last, they made peace. Not only was a bloody battle averted, but 250 men from each side joined the Buddha’s community of monks.[i]

In war and other forms of violence, we see the suffering caused by the three poisons, attachment, aversion, and ignorance. The Buddha tells us:

Better than a thousand hollow verses                                                                                                                           Is one verse that brings peace.[ii]


Alas for the man                                                                                                                                                   Who raises his hand against another                                                                                                       And even more for him who returns the blow.[iii]

Without violent conflicts brought on by the three poisons, Shakespeare would have had less subject matter. Most of his plays involve violence and sixteen feature battles. Thomas Hardy wrote, “War makes rattling good history, but peace is poor reading.”[iv]Shakespeare was in the business of writing rattling good histories with scenes of bloody combat. But in his plays, we often find that peace gets stronger arguments.

Of all Shakespeare’s plays, Henry Vis best known for the patriotic glorification of war, especially in Henry’s stirring St. Crispin’s Day speech. But a common soldier named Williams delivers the play’s truest insights about war:

But if the cause be not good, the King
himself hath a heavy reckoning to make, when all
those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in a
battle, shall join together at the latter day, and cry
all “We died at such a place,” some swearing, some
crying for a surgeon, some upon their wives left
poor behind them, some upon the debts they owe,
some upon their children rawly left. I am afeard
there are few die well that die in a battle, for how
can they charitably dispose of anything when blood
is their argument? Now, if these men do not die
well, it will be a black matter for the king that led
them to it, who to disobey were against all proportion
of subjection. (IV.i.138-151)

King Henry, who is visiting his men in disguise on the eve of battle, dismisses these words. He says the King is no more responsible for a soldier killed in action than a father for a son who miscarries on an errand. But this is a weak argument. Sending someone on an errand and sending them into combat are different matters. Shakespeare allows Henry to appear to win the argument because he can’t very well do otherwise, but he gives Williams the better case.

In Troilus and Cressida, Shakespeare’s play about the Trojan war, the Trojan leaders consider whether to end many years of fighting by returning Helen to the Greeks. Hector makes a compelling case for peace:

If Helen then be wife to Sparta’s king,
As it is known she is, these moral laws
Of nature and of nations speak aloud
To have her back return’d: thus to persist
In doing wrong extenuates not wrong,
But makes it much more heavy. (II.ii.192-197)

Hector’s argument fails to carry the day, and he dies in battle. In the end, the Greeks sack troy, slaughter the men, and enslave the women.

Shakespeare’s plays contain many descriptions of the consequences of war. The following passage from Henry Vis among the most graphic:

                                 in a moment look to see
The blind and bloody soldier with foul hand
Desire the locks of your shrill-shrieking daughters,
Your fathers taken by the silver beards
And their most reverend heads dashed to the walls,
Your naked infants spitted upon pikes
Whiles the mad mothers with their howls confused
Do break the clouds, as did the wives of Jewry
At Herod’s bloody-hunting slaughtermen. (III.iii.33-40)

The case for peace takes a lighter turn in Henry IV Part 1. Sir John Falstaff enlists to aid the King in putting down a rebellion, though he is more interested in profiting from the war and has no stomach for fighting. When reminded by Prince Hal that he “owes God a death,” he responds with this soliloquy:

‘Tis not due yet; I would be loath to pay him before
his day. What need I be so forward with him that
calls not on me? Well, ’tis no matter; honour pricks
me on. Yea, but how if honour prick me off when I
come on? how then? Can honour set to a leg? no: or
an arm? no: or take away the grief of a wound? no.
Honour hath no skill in surgery, then? no. What is
honour? a word. What is in that word honour? what
is that honour? air. A trim reckoning! Who hath it?
he that died o’ Wednesday. Doth he feel it? no.
Doth he hear it? no. ‘Tis insensible, then. Yea,
to the dead. But will it not live with the living?
no. Why? detraction will not suffer it. Therefore
I’ll none of it. Honour is a mere scutcheon: and so
ends my catechism. (V.ii.128-142)

Depending on your point of view, Falstaff is a shameless coward or the only sane person on the battlefield, or a mixture. In any case, Falstaff memorably derides the hollowness of popular notions of honor and offers a human counterpoint to the scenes of deadly combat.

Shakespeare celebrates the military virtues, but for all the calls to valor and displays of courage, he makes a strong case for peace. Shakespeare comes closest to expressing the Buddhist principle of ahimsaor non-harming in these lines from Sonnet 94:

They that have power to hurt and will do none . . .
They rightly do inherit heaven’s graces.

In these examples, we have considered the outer peace of non-harming. Such outer peace depends on inner peace. In earlier chapters we have considered some of the qualities that contribute to inner peace. They include loving-kindness, compassion, joy, equanimity, renunciation, and contentment. These qualities provide a basis for positive actions that bring good consequences. The connection between actions and consequences will be our next subject.



[i]Sherab Chodzon Kohn, The Awakened One:A Life of the Buddha(Boston, Shambhala Publications, inc.) 78.

[ii]Byrom, Thomas, The Dhammapada: The Sayings of the Buddha(Boston: Shambhala, 1993), 30.

[iii]Ibid. 105.

[iv]Hardy, Thomas, The Dynasts, (Part II, Scene V) 01 Sep 2013 (26 May 2016) http://www.gutenberg.org/files/4043/4043-h/4043-h.html


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