Peace Experiments

The sermon below was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, California, at the 9:30 a.m. and 11:00 a.m. services. The sermon text below is a reading text; the actual sermon contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Sermon copyright (c) 2012 Daniel Harper.


Ever since Easter in the Sunday school, we have been doing a program called “Peace Experiments.” The notion behind “Peace Experiments” is quite simple: Rather than tell each other about the horrors of war and violence, maybe we could make more progress towards establishing a peaceful world if we experimented with peace.

I can explain this better with a story that we heard during the Peace Experiments program. The story comes from 101 Zen Stories, a small book compiled by Nyogen Senzaki in 1919, and reprinted in 1957 in the book Zen Flesh, Zen Bones. (I hope those of you who are fluent in Japanese will forgive my poor pronunciation of Japanese names.) The story is called “The Gates of Paradise,” and the main character is a Zen master named Hakuin Ekaku, an influential teacher in the Rinzai tradition.


A soldier named Nobu-Shige came to Haku-In and asked, “Is there really a paradise and a hell?”

“Who are you?” inquired Haku-In.

“I am a Samurai,” the warrior replied.

“You, a soldier!” Haku-In replied. “What kind of ruler would have you as his guard? Your face looks like that of a beggar.”

Nobu-Shige became so angry that he began draw his sword when Haku-In continued, “So you have a sword! Your weapon is probably much too dull to cut off my head.”

As Nobu-Shige drew his sword Haku-In remarked, “Here open the gates of hell!”

At these words the Samurai perceiving the master’s discipline sheathed his sword and bowed.

“Here open the gates of paradise,” said Haku-In. (pp. 79-80.)


The story tells us about two different ways of being in the world. The first way of being in the world, which Hakuin calls “The Gates of Hell,” makes you feel angry, makes you want to do battle, makes you want to get your own way no matter what. That’s the way people feel when they go to war. That’s the way many Americans feel these days about politics. Sometimes, that’s the way people feel who are working for good causes and social justice, as when we say something like, “People who won’t install compact fluorescent lights are stupid!” or something like, “I just hate people who are racists!” Sometimes, that’s the way we feel about our own families, as when we say something like, “What’s the matter with you? Why can’t you pick up your clothes?” or something like “I hate you, mom!” (And by the way, adults say that to their moms, too!)

Hakuin calls this state of being “The Gates of Hell.” If you pass through those gates, your soul will be in torment: you will be angry, you will want others to do your bidding regardless of their humanity, you may want to hurt someone else. This is not a pleasant place to be.

And after fearless Hakuin shows “The Gates of Hell” to the samurai, he then shows what he calls “The Gates of Paradise.” If you pass through “The Gates of Paradise,” your soul will be at peace. And as the story shows us, if your soul is at peace, like the samurai you are not going to cut Hakuin’s head off with your sword — if your soul is at peace, you too will be at peace in all your dealings with others.

It is no accident that Hakuin called these two states of being “paradise” or “heaven,” and “hell.” There are some people who try to tell us that heaven and hell are where you go after you die, but that is not true. Heaven and hell happen while we are alive, right now, right here. When we, like the Samurai, are ready to draw our swords in anger, we are headed into hell. But when we, like the Samurai, find internal peace, then we are headed into paradise.


This is what we were trying to do with Peace Experiments: we offered activities to children and middle schoolers that we felt would open Hakuin’s “Gates of Paradise.” Those of us who were planning this program — Heather Chen, Carmela Abraham, Beth Nord, Edie Keating, and Shannon Casey — sat around and brainstormed a list of fun activities that we thought would help children experience peace. Here are some of the activities we chose:

We decided we would play non-competitive games. What could be more fun than playing games? And the best non-competitive games can transcend simple fun and take us into higher realms of deeper connection with other human beings. In his book The Ultimate Athlete, George Leonard describes the phenomenon like this: “Spirit in flesh, flesh in spirit. Abstractions in the muscles, visions in the bones…. The body opens us to wonders in this and other worlds. Its movements through space and time launch us on a timeless voyage to a place beyond place.” We can call this: “playing for peace.”

We decided to bake cookies with the kids. Part of the reason we wanted to bake cookies is because — they’re cookies! — you can’t go wrong with cookies. At a deeper level, the process of baking cookies brings your soul to Hakuin’s “Gates of Paradise”: it is difficult to be angry or hateful when you are baking cookies. And at a still deeper level, we know we cannot have a peaceful family if people are hungry; we cannot have a peaceful nation if people are hungry; we cannot have a peaceful world if people are hungry. Obviously, we can’t bake cookies for the whole world — the children distributed the cookies they made at social hour — nevertheless, the act of baking reminds us of the importance of alleviating hunger.

We decided we would sing peace songs, songs like “May I Be an Instrument of Peace,” “This Little Light of Mine,” and “Peace Like a River.” When you sing peace songs, at the most literal level, you’re singing about peace. Beyond the subject of the songs, singing also has physiological effects on your body: your blood gets more fully oxygenated and the vibrations in your body created when you sing seem to have beneficial effects; the end result is that you feel better, more at peace with the world. At the metaphorical level, singing is about creating harmony with other people; and being in harmony is one of our primary ways of understanding peace.

And we decided to make a quilt made up of peace symbols. Partly this would be a way to introduce everyone to a variety symbols for peace. But at a deeper level, quilting is a process in which the individual efforts — the making of the individual quilt squares — combine into a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. And an amazing thing happened as the children worked on the quilt: some of them began to spontaneously work together on the same quilt square, and they found they had even more fun working together than working side by side.


By now, I suspect you will have noticed something. All these peace activities had a physical element to them. One of my grounding assumptions is that we are not going to learn how to be peaceful simply by talking in abstractions. This is not to say that we shouldn’t talk abstractly — I’m a preacher, I fully support the value of abstract talk. But think about the story of Hakuin and the samurai. When the samurai asked Hakuin whether there really is a paradise and a hell, Hakuin could have engaged the samurai in an abstract philosophical discussion, which may or may not have proved satisfying to the Samurai. Instead, Hakuin brilliantly demonstrated paradise and hell to the samurai, in a very physical manner, and through this embodied demonstration, the samurai comes to a clear understanding of heaven and hell.

I believe this is the best way to teach peace: not abstractly; but in the real, embodied world in which we live. One of the greatest teachers of peace was Jesus of Nazareth — I say this in spite of the fact that after his death, not all his followers were able to continue to teach peace. Jesus taught peace partly by talking, but more by doing: he walked through the countryside; he fed the hungry; he helped heal those who were ill; he assisted those who were poor. Confucius was another great teacher of peace, and he did this by visiting kings to help them understand how to make their kingdoms “tranquil and happy.” “From the Son of Heaven down to the mass of the people,” Confucius taught, “all must consider the cultivation of the person the root of everything….” [Great Learning, ch. 6]

Earlier, during the congregational prayer for peace, we heard a poem by Denise Levertov, which said in part: “Peace, like a poem, … can’t be imagined before it is made.” If we are going to teach peace, it is not enough to imagine it abstractly: we must experience peace physically, we must experiment with peace, we must make peace in our own selves so that there can be peace in the world. May we all find peace within, and spread peace through our lives.