Peace in Our Time

Sermon: Peace in Our Time

In last week’s sermon I gave you a heavy dose of the Bible, but this week is going to be completely different. If you’d like to follow along, you can find this sermon online: go to danielharper.org and click on “Sermons.”

Today is the fifteenth anniversary of September 11, 2001, the day when four jetliners were hijacked; two of those jetliners were then flown into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in Manhattan, the third jetliner was crash-landed into the Pentagon in Washington D.C., and the fourth jetliner, after being retaken from the hijackers by passengers and crew, crashed in a field in Pennsylvania. In less than a month after those attacks, the United States and a coalition of other countries decided to invade Afghanistan, where the group coordinating the attacks was based. And the United States has been at war in Afghanistan ever since, so that most people under that age of 18 cannot remember a time when the United States was not at war.

You may remember, if you’re old enough, that in the months immediately following the terrorist attacks, it was not a good time to be an Arab. The popular perception of “Arab” was somewhat unclear, and we saw a number of assaults against persons who were perceived to look like Arabs. Which meant that in least a couple of cases, Sikhs who had roots in India were attacked because they wore turbans. I think we could safely say that these assaults were not entirely rational.

With all this in mind, here’s a question to consider: Is it possible to have peace in our time? Given that we’re still at war overseas, is it possible to have peace in our time? Given that we see plenty of irrational violence here at home, is it possible to have peace in our time? Or maybe we should really be asking: How is it possible to attain peace in our time?

To begin our consideration of these questions, I’d like to begin by telling you the story of Ox Mountain, traditionally attributed to the Chinese religious philosopher known in the West as Mencius. [1]

[The Wise Sage Mencius told this story:] Once upon a time, there was a mountain covered with beautiful trees; it was called Ox Mountain.

Now Ox Mountain stood on the borders of a large and prosperous nation. The people of this nation, needing wood to build houses, and wood for fires, went onto the mountain with axes and saws to cut wood. Before long, many trees were cut down, others were mangled, and the forest was no longer beautiful.

The tree roots and stumps remained vigorous, the rain and dew nourished the earth, and the trees and put forth new buds and shoots. But the people of that great nation let their cattle and goats graze on Ox Mountain, and soon all the green buds and shoots were gone.

So today the mountain is bare and stripped, and when people look at it, they can’t believe it was ever covered with a lush and beautiful forest.

[Having told this parable, the Wise Sage then asked:] Now, what is the true nature of Ox Mountain? Is it in its true nature to be covered with a lush and beautiful forest? Or is it in its true nature to be stripped bare of vegetation?

[The Wise Sage continued:] We might ask the same question of human beings. Think about your mind-heart, that metaphorical place where you both think and feel. Some would say that benevolence and righteousness make up the true nature of the mind-heart. But you can lose the “proper goodness” of your mind-heart in much the same way that Ox Mountain was stripped of trees by axes and saws. If the “proper goodness” is cut down, day after day after day, how can your mind-heart stay beautiful?

But an interesting thing sometimes happens with your mind-heart [the Wise Sage continued] “in the calm air of the morning, just between night and day.” In those quiet hours, no matter how badly your mind-heart has been cut down by axes and saws, you can still feel your proper desires and dislikes; you recover a faint feeling of what it is to be fully human. (This is like when the rain and dew fell on Ox Mountain, and the trees could recover a little bit.) Unfortunately, that feeling isn’t strong. You wake up, your kids are screaming, you get into a fight with your spouse, the boss yells at you at work, and before you know it you’ve lost the sense of being fully human.

Well [said the Wise Sage], this happens again and again, day after day. In your waking hours, things happen that hack away at the proper goodness of your mind-heart. You go to sleep, and some of that goodness comes back. But often it may be that not enough comes back to fully restore you. That happens to a great many people, and when it does, slowly you become like an irrational animal. And then when others see you, and see how you behave, they think that the your mind-heart never had any benevolence and righteousness. “But does this condition represent the feelings proper to humanity?” Of course not!

And so [concluded the Wise Sage], if your mind-heart receives its proper nourishment, then benevolence and righteousness will grow like a lush and beautiful forest. But if it loses its proper nourishment, then your mind-heart will be filled with decay. And the Wise Sage ended the story with a quotation from Confucius: “Hold it fast, and it remains with you. Let it go, and you lose it.”

So ends the parable of Ox Mountain.

According to tradition, Mencius, the Wise Sage of the story, lived during the Warring States era of Chinese history. This was an era of constant warfare. The parable of Ox Mountain is (in part) a cautionary tale for political leaders: the Wise Sage is telling political leaders that in order to rule with true humanity, they must cultivate their mind-heart; if they do not cultivate their mind-heart, then they will lose their benevolence and righteousness, and they will sink to the level of irrational animals.

I don’t know about you, but I see this happening in the current presidential election cycle. I am not impressed with the mind-heart of either of the major presidential candidates. I’ll pick on Donald Trump first: his pronouncement that he will vastly increase the United States military makes him sound pretty much like the ancient Chinese warlords of the Warring States era. It appears that his mind-heart is mostly bare of benevolence and righteousness, which means he acts like an irrational animal that must either fight or flee; and he categorically refuses to flee.

Nor do I find Hillary Clinton’s stance on the use of military power to be much better. On September 1, she gave a speech in which she said, in part, that “we cannot impose arbitrary [spending] limits on something as important as our military.” [2] Clinton’s statement may be more nuanced than Trump’s, but I do not get a sense of benevolence and righteousness from her words. She, too, is acting irrationally.

You may reply that this is not problem that lies within Clinton and Trump themselves. The two of them are only saying what voters want to hear: Trump needed to regain momentum in the polls so he played the military-might card; Clinton was speaking to the American Legion so she said she’d strengthen the military. If you say that, I agree with you, and that makes this an even more troubling prospect. Because this implies that a great many potential voters lack benevolence and righteousness. Or, as the Wise Sage put it, a great many voters are behaving like irrational animals. The mind-heart of the candidates matches the mind-heart of the majority of the electorate.

And I daresay most of us in this room have fallen prey, to a greater or lesser degree, to the same violent emotions. We too sometimes behave like irrational animals. If you have ever reviled either of the major presidential candidates, you have behaved in a manner lacking benevolence and righteousness. If you have ever read with pleasure one of those social media diatribes against either major presidential candidate, again you have behaved in a manner lacking in benevolence and righteousness. Let us not, therefore, be smug!

What would the Wise Sage tell us to do? The Wise Sage might quote “The Great Learning,” another ancient Chinese wisdom text, where it says: “From the [rulers] down to the mass of the people, all must consider the cultivation of the person the root of everything.” And why should we cultivate our persons, why should we cultivate the benevolence and righteousness of our mind-hearts? “It cannot be, when the root is neglected, that what should spring from it will be well ordered.” [3]

When the root is neglected, what springs from it will not be well ordered. The rough-and-tumble of day-to-day life hacks away like axes and saws at the beautiful forests of our mind-hearts. We need to cultivate the roots that are left behind so that benevolence and righteousness can grow once more within our mind-hearts. We do this by recalling ourselves to that which is best within us; we do this by striving always to become more fully human.

Which sounds very abstract and maybe even impossible, doesn’t it? I’m a pragmatic guy, I want to know the specifics of what I can do. Well, hundreds of years after Mencius and Confucius lived, their followers developed a spiritual practice called “quiet-sitting.” You sit in a chair with your back straight and your hands on your knees. As you sit there quietly, you examine your mind-heart. Now, there’s an ancient Chinese metaphor that equates the mind-heart with a lively monkey which likes to run around and never sits still. When you do quiet-sitting, though, your goal is to get the lively monkey of the mind-heart to sit quietly, so you can reflect on “ren” or humaneness. You reflect on how human you are.

This quiet-sitting technique may sound a lot like Buddhist meditation, but the followers of Mencius and Confucius believed it was quite different. The goal of quiet-sitting is not to achieve a kind “quasi-independent mental state” as the Buddhists do. The goal of quiet-sitting is to cultivate your mind-heart so that you better understand yourself, and the goal of better understanding yourself is to be able to act ethically. [4]

I see a parallel between quiet-sitting and what we do in Unitarian Universalist worship services. When you watch children learning how to behave in our worship services, you will see that the first skill they have to learn is how to sit quietly. Because sitting quietly requires stilling the mind-heart, the next thing children learn is how to still their mind. And then as you get older, once you have learned how to sit quietly, once you have learned how to still your mind-heart, you next learn how to reflect on yourself, and understand yourself.

When I was in my twenties, I was in sales, and I used to attend Unitarian Universalist worship services nearly every week. I felt as though it was a time when I was restored to my best self. Selling building materials for fifty-five or sixty hours a week would take its toll, then I’d go sit quietly in a Unitarian Universalist worship service — and my mind and heart would revive again. Interestingly, this didn’t have much to do with the sermons; it was more a function of sitting quietly and reflecting on what is most important in life.

Something happens when you spend an hour sitting quietly here. If you can sit quietly — which is not something that I can manage in every worship service — if you can sit quietly, this can help your mind and heart to revive, then you may find yourself feeling more fully human. You can recover from a week at work, or a week of unemployment, or a week of mourning the death of someone you love, or any week that leaves you feeling less than whole. You can leave behind your irrational animal self, leave behind your fight-or-flee instinct. You may then find that you have the energy to cook dinner for Hotel de Zink, the homeless shelter that houses guests here on our campus every September. You may find that you are motivated to take part in the multifaith Peace Walk this afternoon, joining Muslims, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, and other faith communities in a public demonstration that we can all get along. You may find yourself acting more humanely to family and friends and co-workers.

Now let’s circle back and consider the question of whether peace is possible in our time. In many ways, I am not at all hopeful that we can achieve peace. We have two major presidential candidates who are acting like what Mencius calls “irrational animals,” less-than-human beings that only know how to fight or flee. What makes it more worrisome is that these two presidential candidates are simply reflecting the mental state of the electorate.

From the presidential candidates down to the mass of the electorate, the root of the problem is the cultivation of our essential humanity. Cultivating our humanity takes effort — constant effort. There axes and saws everywhere, ready to hack away at our benevolence, our humaneness; ready to make us a little less human. And so again and again we must take the time to sit quietly and nourish our best selves.

If we can do this, our thoughts become sincere, and our hearts are restored. As our hearts are restored, we become more fully human. As we ourselves become more fully human, so too do our families become more human, more humane. When our families are well-regulated, we have time to reach out to others; and when we reach out to others, we will find that our leaders at the county and state level govern rightly. And when that happens, then we may have hope that the nation, and indeed the whole world, will be “made tranquil and happy.” [5]

This is how we may achieve peace in our time. Peace begins with the cultivation of our inner selves. From there, peace grows outwards, into our immediate families, out into wider communities. So you see, peace requires of us active participation “in a spiritual joint venture.” [6]

You may think that such a spiritual joint venture is going to take a long time. Even if everyone in this room manages to cultivate their own persons, thus stabilizing their families, it’s going to take a while for that influence to spread out into the wider world.

There is an old story about the king who wanted a line of majestic oak trees growing along the road leading to his castle. Upon hearing this, the gardener said, “But king, it will take a hundred years for the trees to grow big enough to be majestic!” To which the king replied, “Then perhaps you had better start planting them today.”

If we are going to have peace in our time — if we are going to replant Ox Mountain with a lush and beautiful forest — then we had better start planting today.

NOTES:

[1] I retold the story of Ox Mountain from James Legge’s English translation of Mencius (Mencius 6A.8). Here is Legge’s translation:

“Mencius said, ‘The trees of the Niu mountain were once beautiful. Being situated, however, in the borders of a large State, they were hewn down with axes and bills — and could they retain their beauty? Still through the activity of the vegetative life day and night, and the nourishing influence of the rain and dew, they were not without buds and sprouts springing forth, but then came the cattle and goats and browsed upon them. To these things is owing the bare and stripped appearance of the mountain, and when people now see it, they think it was never finely wooded. But is this the nature of the mountain? And so also of what properly belongs to man; shall it be said that the mind of any man was without benevolence and righteousness? The way in which a man loses his proper goodness of mind is like the way in which the trees are denuded by axes and bills. Hewn down day after day, can it — the mind — retain its beauty? But there is a development of its life day and night, and in the calm air of the morning, just between night and day, the mind feels in a degree those desires and aversions which are proper to humanity, but the feeling is not strong, and it is fettered and destroyed by what takes place during the day. This fettering taking place again and again, the restorative influence of the night is not sufficient to preserve the proper goodness of the mind; and when this proves insufficient for that purpose, the nature becomes not much different from that of the irrational animals, and when people now see it, they think that it never had those powers which I assert. But does this condition represent the feelings proper to humanity? Therefore, if it receive its proper nourishment, there is nothing which will not grow. If it lose its proper nourishment, there is nothing which will not decay away. Confucius said, “Hold it fast, and it remains with you. Let it go, and you lose it. Its outgoing and incoming cannot be defined as to time or place.” It is the mind of which this is said!'”

Not everyone likes Legge’s translation, e.g., some have translated the key word “mind” as “mind-heart” — and later in the sermon, I’ll use “mind-heart.” So for those who do speak Chinese, here is the parable in the original:

孟子曰:「牛山之木嘗美矣,以其郊於大國也,斧斤伐之,可以為美乎?是其日夜之所息,雨露之所潤,非無萌櫱之生焉,牛羊又從而牧之,是以若彼濯濯也。人見 其濯濯也,以為未嘗有材焉,此豈山之性也哉?雖存乎人者,豈無仁義之心哉?其所以放其良心者,亦猶斧斤之於木也,旦旦而伐之,可以為美乎?其日夜之所息, 平旦之氣,其好惡與人相近也者幾希,則其旦晝之所為,有梏亡之矣。梏之反覆,則其夜氣不足以存;夜氣不足以存,則其違禽獸不遠矣。人見其禽獸也,而以為未 嘗有才焉者,是豈人之情也哉?故苟得其養,無物不長;苟失其養,無物不消。孔子曰:『操則存,舍則亡;出入無時,莫知其鄉。』惟心之謂與?」

[2] The text of this speech to the American Legion was reported by the Time Magazine Web site, http://time.com/4474619/read-hillary-clinton-american-legion-speech/

[3] The quotation from The Great Learning is from the translation by James Legge; where Legge has “the Son of Heaven,” i.e., the king, I substituted “the rulers.” Here is the full quotation in English and Chinese:

“From the [rulers] down to the mass of the people, all must consider the cultivation of the person the root of everything besides.

“It cannot be, when the root is neglected, that what should spring from it will be well ordered. It never has been the case that what was of great importance has been slightly cared for, and, at the same time, that what was of slight importance has been greatly cared for.”

自天子以至於庶人、壹是皆以脩身爲本。
其本亂而末治者、否矣。其所厚者薄、而其所薄者厚、未之有也。此謂知本、此謂知之至也。

[4] The description of quiet-sitting is adapted from John H. and Evelyn Nagai Berthrong, “Confucianism: A Short Introduction” (Oxford: Oneworld, 2000), p. 34.

[5] This paragraph adapted from “The Great Learning,” trans. and notes by James Legge, in “Confucius: Confucian Analects, The Great learning, and the Doctrine of the Mean” (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1893; rpt. 1971), pp. 357-359. I am indebted to Legge’s interpretation of this passage in the note on par. 4, pp. 357-358.

[6] This phrase comes from Tu Wei-ming, “Beyond the Enlightenment Mentality,” in Mary Evelyn Tucker and john Berthrong, eds., “Confucianism and Ecology: The Interrelation of Heaven, Earth, and Humans” (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Center for the Study of World Religions, 1998), p. 4. In this passage, Tu is specifically addressing how the West might deal with ecological crisis, but the same principle applies to how we might achieve world peace.