Although this book mainly considers large social structures at the level of the nation-state, personal peace is also very important. All power structures in the end are composed of people, and serene leaders are more likely to make peaceful decisions. Similarly, peace is an upward and downward phenomenon: the system influences people and people influence the system. There is also a spiritual dimension to peace, which is expressed in all of the major religions.
One of the greatest writers on peace was Leo Tolstoy, the author of War and Peace. He was a truly extraordinary character. Born a serf-owning aristocrat who joined the army as a young man to escape his gambling debts, he transformed and became a committed pacifist. Thousands of peasants lined his funeral procession after he died of pneumonia at a train station trying to escape the last vestiges of his aristocratic inheritance. He came to fame through writing the first novel that viewed the world through the eyes of a child. Until then books had been written about children, but never from a child’s perspective. It was a clear demonstration of his ability to perceive phenomena in an original way.
Tolstoy realised that peace had a spiritual dimension that could only be expressed through the individual. History, he said, had been about finding evil and attempting to destroy it, but in the process of destroying evil we become the very thing we are seeking to destroy. He said we have been doing this for thousands of years and without success; therefore, we need to find a new approach: we need to find peace within. His perspective was that only when one has become personally peaceful can one truly create peace in the world. In his own words, ‘The kingdom of God is within’, and that, in its fullest form, is peace.
“His perspective was that only when one has become personally peaceful can one truly create peace in the world. In his own words, ‘The kingdom of God is within’, and that, in its fullest form, is peace.”
— Steve Killelea, ‘Peace in the Age of Chaos’
This is a profound insight and one that reverberates down through history to the present day. It is paraphrased in simple ways such as ‘Peace starts within one’s self.’ One of the most compelling images from my study of Buddhism is of bodhisattva: individuals so moved by compassion and spiritual realisation that their lives are fully transformed and dedicated to alleviating others’ suffering, with little to no thought about themselves. Mahatma Gandhi was one such person. Tolstoy’s A Letter to a Hindu, written in 1908, highlighted love – expressed as passive nonviolent resistance – as the only way the Indian people could throw off colonial rule. In 1909, Gandhi and Tolstoy began a correspondence regarding practical and theological applications of non-violence. Gandhi saw himself as a disciple of Tolstoy, with both men sharing a strong opposition to state authority and colonialism. They preached non-aggressive resistance and abhorred violence. They did, however, differ on politics: Gandhi called for political involvement, while Tolstoy did not believe in politics.
Very few of us are Tolstoys or Gandhis, let alone bodhisattvas. We are just ordinary human beings caught in the groove of working or bringing up families, or for too many, merely surviving. Our lives offer only limited choices. However, peace does start with the individual, and even in the most mundane of lives it can be expressed in vivid and compelling ways. We all know people who have an uplifting effect on those around them. We have all felt happier because of some little kindness or sweet words given to us. Simply smiling at people who seem despondent, for example, can be of some benefit. When buying goods, make a friendly comment at the sales counter. Such simple acts of kindness can go a long way towards making other people’s lives happier, as well as enriching our own. We can all do little acts of peace.
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