STOP THE WAR: A Meditation on a Zen Koan

STOP THE WAR: A Meditation on a Zen Koan March 12, 2022




Tom Daimon Wardle

Empty Moon Zen


A Ritual to Read to Each Other

If you don’t know the kind of person I am
and I don’t know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.

For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood
storming out to play through the broken dike.

And as elephants parade holding each elephant’s tail,
but if one wanders the circus won’t find the park,
I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty
to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.

And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,
a remote important region in all who talk:
though we could fool each other, we should consider—
lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.

For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give — yes or no, or maybe —
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.

William E Stafford


“Stop the war raging across the river.”

Miscellaneous koans, Empty Moon Zen


Most of the miscellaneous koan are quite short, and they’re often dismissed as preliminary or trivial. Some schools don’t even use them. When I teach from them, I usually explain to students that this is where you learn how to express yourself and how to play. Even so, each and every one of these koan is a valuable pointer to something important. Each of them is an opportunity to awaken to a profound truth about ourselves and this world, and we shouldn’t just gloss them over.

When I first encountered this koan, it was deep in retreat many years ago at the Boundless Way Worcester temple. I was in the zone by then and passed it fairly readily. It made an impression, but I didn’t linger and didn’t think much more on it. But years later, I was sitting with David Weinstein, a dharma brother of James and an excellent teacher in his own right. And David’s group is a little more experimental than most, so on this particular day, David started doing something I found bizarre. During a zazen period, David introduced this koan, and throughout, he would occasionally whisper “Stop the war.” When I got over my resentment at somebody invading my head and my meditation space, the koan started to work on me, boring into my heart, and it’s haunted me ever since.

Stop the war.

Well, you can probably guess where this talk is headed and I want to get something out of the way right now. I am deeply ambivalent about mixing politics and religion, and it is something I do very cautiously. But politics is a part of life and it affects us all. Like Daniel Buren says, “Every act is political.” Perhaps more to the point, not talking about it is a mark of profound privilege. I’ve actually found that a very useful heuristic for examining privilege in my own life: What are the things that I don’t have to talk about? What are the things it is safe for me to ignore? If our practice is to be worth anything at all, we have to carry it into every facet of our lives. We can’t put it in boxes and we can’t leave anything out. I would go so far as to suggest that what we leave out, we do to our peril.

Stop the war

So we are going to talk about it, this war raging in Ukraine. I’ve cried every single day since it started. Most days, several times. And there are reasons that this war affects me more than the wars raging in Syria, Yemen. Tigray or Myanmar, to name just a few. I ask myself, where were my tears for them? Where were my tears when chemical weapons rained down on innocent civilians in Syria? When famine was wielded as a weapon of war? When people were mowed down in the streets for asserting their basic rights? I’m going to keep asking those questions, and I know some of the reasons why this particular war is getting to me, why the war in Ukraine feels personal.

Stop the war

I’m not Ukrainian, but I am European. Some of you know I have both British and American citizenship, and I’ve lived parts of my life in England. Culturally, I consider myself European, and I believe in Europe. I grew up on the dream of a united Europe. Hell, I even had euros before they were in circulation. Like many of my generation, I grew up listening to stories of World War 2, and both as a student and later a teacher, I dove deeply into this part of history and came to believe in the promise of the European Union. I also vividly remember the last days of the Soviet Union and the suffering of the many oppressed and persecuted peoples in the East. When I was a boy, my family took in another family, Polish refugees. The father was one of the leaders of Solidarity, and he and his family fled after a late night visit from the secret police, knowing that when the second visit came, they would not return.

Stop the War

So this does feel personal. This war in Ukraine, in Europe, really hits home for me. And so I cry. Lately, I’ve started to feel myself hardening, too. I‘ve started to feel other parts wanting to turn away from all of this pain. The longer I live, the more I think the most important thing about being human is how we carry our pain. And, as James titled one of his books, if you’re lucky your heart will break.

Stop the war

The poet Mary Oliver writes in Wild Geese, “Tell me about despair, yours ,and I will tell you mine. Meanwhile, the world goes on.” That is one of the hardest things about all of this. The world does go on, despite everything. Even if we humans obliterate ourselves, this world will continue.

Stop the war

Later, she writes “Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination.” And so I ask you, what do you imagine? Do you see a world populated by people who look differently than you and threaten your way of life? Do you see a world full of people who look the same as you but believe different things, threatening your way of life? Do you have an optimistic view of this world? Do you see a brighter future for humanity? Do you see improvement? Or do you just see us circling the drain of human violence and environmental degradation? Whatever you see, I’m pretty sure it’s what you’ll get because all of those things are out there. Maybe more importantly, all of those things are in here, too. We like to push some of them away and say not me, not us. That’s them. And I think that that’s one of the most dangerous things we do as human beings. I have always objected to the demonising language that is often used to talk about people like Putin or Hitler. It’s dangerous to other someone in any circumstance, and what we cast aside in others, we turn a blind eye to in ourselves.

Stop the war

Make no mistake, I am not condoning. I am not forgiving. But if the world is ever to grow beyond petty revenge, we must learn how to bear witness to suffering, our own and that of others. No exceptions. Many of you know that I trained with Bernie Glassman and the Zen peacemakers for many years. I still wear the peacemaker crest on my robe here. One of the most controversial things that Bernie ever did happened on one of his Bearing Witness Retreats to Aushwitz. Bernie insisted on reading the names of guards as well as those of the murdered. He lost a lot of friends over that. A lot of supporters took issue and I understand why, but ultimately, I think he was right. And he was offering all of us a very important teaching.

Stop the war

So now, confronted with horror and atrocity on a scale not seen in more than half a century in Europe, as if that makes it special, I’m going to challenge you. I’m sure it’s not hard for you to identify with the Ukrainians. Maybe you pray for them. I do. I pray for the Ukrainians but I also pray for the Russians. It’s easy enough to pray for innocent Russians that we might imagine oppressed under Putin’s jackboot, and sure enough I pray for them, but I also pray for the soldiers sent to fight this war. I even pray for Putin himself and let me challenge you all now to identify with the perpetrator of what is beginning to look a lot like genocide can you identify with this hate filled man can you see his pain? Again not condoning not forgiving. Not at all.

Stop the war

Putin is a small man. As a child, he was bullied horribly, an experience I know intimately. On the streets of Saint Petersburg he took so many beatings from other kids that he came to the conclusion that the only chance he had was to show them that he was the most vicious of all, so he learned to hit first, hit fast, and hit hard. Probably not a surprise, then, that military service appealed to him, so he signed up as a career officer in the KGB, where he drank the Kool aid, not so much of communism, but of Russian Empire and glory. Which I think made it hurt all the more when that empire crumbled before his eyes. There was personal degradation too: he went from being a KGB officer living a comfortable life to a cab driver just trying to make ends meet. The humiliations would continue even after he became President of Russia, a position that analysts pretty much universally agree he was handed because those in power thought he could be controlled. That’s pretty insulting. Did you know that he actually once asked Bush when Russia could join NATO? Another humiliation his rejection by the West. Not condoning. Not forgiving. And…

Stop the war

So can you see his pain? Can you acknowledge it? And you know what? I’m not even going to ask you to go that far. Can you see his humanity? Because even as I rage inside against him and struggle not to hate him for what he’s doing. These are the things I remind myself of: Monsters are not born, they’re made. And that capacity is in every one of us. And it’s nice that we can have this conversation 6,000 miles away where it’s safe, living our lives largely unaffected. Because if I didn’t read the news, this war would not be real to me in any way. But horrible things are happening. Right now. That’s very real. And it needs a response.

Stop the war

Eckhart Tolle says that when you complain, you make yourself a victim. Leave the situation, change it, or accept it. All else is madness. Now,I do hope you’ll work to change it, at least in this particular case. And if that’s what you choose, I encourage you to start here. Start now. Start right where you are, because the most powerful act of protest is how we live our lives. So do something radical. Be kind to people, even when they don’t deserve it. Especially when they don’t deserve it. If there’s any hope for this world for the myriad wars raging across this planet and the millions suffering it has to be this. You see, Gandalf was right when he said “It’s the little things that are important! Love or an act of kindness, those are the things that keep darkness at bay.” It’s not the big and mighty who tip the balance. That’s a fantasy, a kind of real politik happily ever after. And it imagines us to be vastly greater than we are as simple human beings, the middle route in Buddhism. Just the right mix of power and powerlessness to invite us onto the path of practice. And on that path that is not but our very live, it’s the small things that open hearts and help us all to wake up. Together.


(Tom Wardle, MBA, has been a student of Zen for over twenty years, training with the Kwan Um School, the Zen Peacemakers, and Boundless Way Zen. In 2009, he completed residential training in the Zen Peacemakers’ Seminary for Socially Engaged Buddhism. He is a senior student of Myoun Roshi. An educator by trade, Tom has worked in the classroom, as a consultant, and in nonprofit leadership.)




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