One wonders how people can commit genocide! How can one group slaughter another group of people? When one gets into cultural habits and ethnic biases, then those things can easily take over the mind. If one is not reflective and has no understanding of the way things are, one is easily pulled into the prejudices of one’s particular ethnic background. Identifying as an American and growing up during the Second World War, my childhood was influenced by propaganda against the Germans and Japanese. They were the enemy! The Russians were allies until 1945, so they were the good guys. Propaganda is instilled in the mind so that you hate the enemy. After all, if you are going to kill somebody, you first have to hate them. You cannot think of them as nice people; they are monsters and demons. We used to have lurid posters in Seattle of barbed wire and swastikas and Nazi-like figures dragging women down dark alleyways. I remember looking at those posters as a child and thinking that if they came to America, they were going to do that to my mother. There was, therefore, a sense of horror, fear, and dread of the enemy. Propaganda demonises; it is a conditioning process. Propaganda is not the way things are; it is encouraging people to attach to certain views.
One of the ways that monks address a group of people in Thailand is by saying: ‘Brothers and sisters in old age, sickness, and death.’ It is interesting to think we are all brothers and sisters because we all share the same—old age, sickness, and death. Suffering, loss of the loved, being irritated by being with the unloved, and wanting something we don’t have—everybody shares these things whether they are African, South American, Australian, or anything else. Now, that is a reflection. You are not being asked to grasp a grand view of humankind as some great fellowship; that could be an inspiring perception, admittedly, but it is not a reflection on the way it is. ‘Brothers and sisters in old age, sickness and death’—that is a realisation that we all suffer from the same things. My suffering and your suffering are really the same. Queen Elizabeth’s suffering is the same as my suffering. It is different in quality or particular circumstances, but old age, sickness, death, loss of the loved, having to be with the unloved, wanting something one doesn’t have—we all experience these things. It is the same with the homeless or whatever social position one is in, or whatever race or religion. The bond is in the common human experience. We are all in the same boat.
In 1955, when I was in the Navy, I went to Japan. It was ten years after the war and I was twenty-one. We were on a supply ship going from San Francisco to Hawaii and then on to American bases in Japan. I didn’t believe the propaganda that much because I wasn’t that stupid, but it still had its effect on the mind. One thing I saw in Japan, however, was that they were incredibly honest. Some American GIs were quite willing to exploit the Japanese, but I didn’t detect that so much amongst them. Even though Japan was a very poor country then, and people were trying to get things the Americans were discarding, they had a tremendous sense of integrity and didn’t steal. In terms of the good qualities of humanity, it is not a matter of race; it’s a matter of morality and personal integrity.
Buddhism is not a brainwashing or conditioning type of teaching. One is not being asked to adopt Buddhist ideas, or say all the right Buddhist things, or wear Buddhist clothes (even though I do). It is not a reconditioning process; it is mindfulness, awareness, letting go of conditioning. For me, Buddhism is reminding myself of the great gift I have every moment of that pure presence, the ability to be fully present.
February 2002 Buddhism Now.
Click here to read more articles by Ajahn Sumedho
[The above is from a talk given during a retreat at Amaravati in May 1999. Courtesy of Amaravati Buddhist Monastery.]