Mettā at War

Maintaining a Buddhist practice while your country is at war is challenging balancing act. It’s easy to fall into patterns of deep negativity, wishing ill on others and bursts of hate, even when you’re safely abroad.

The point of the Buddhist path is to protect the practitioner from future states of psychological suffering and trauma. Far from a moralistic land of absolutes, the ethical system of early Buddhism focused on harm reduction.

Ukraine recently targeted what appears to be munitions stores at a military airfield in Crimea. There have been numerous videos of Russian beachgoers in Crimea frantically fleeing the explosions in the background. The civilians were never in any particular danger, but obviously it makes sense to seek shelter during an active military operation.

Many of my Ukrainian friends are happy with schadenfreude. Let the Russian colonists and collaborators in occupied Crimea feel the same thing they’ve unleashed on us. From a Judeo-Christian sense of justice, this is fair. From the Buddhist perspective, this feeling of schadenfreude is dangerous.

The danger lies in how schadenfreude and hate affect your own mind. You will bear scars from it, scars on top of those inflicted by the trauma of this war.

The less harmful emotion is dispassion or equanimity. I’m not glad these people are suffering, but their suffering is the inevitable result of their own actions. True compassion is calling on people to stop doing actions that will bring long-term harm to themselves. Thus my wish when I see scenes like this, is that Russians wake up and end this war. It’s ultimately in their hands.

The difference is subtle: I try to avoid any pleasure in their misfortune, see their suffering as the inevitable consequence of their own actions and out of genuine compassion hope that Russians stop this war before it’s too late. This isn’t a naïve sense of both sides are wrong or a warped pacifism that sees the aggressor as equal to the victim. This is protecting my own psychological well-being as I witness these events unfold.

Intention plays the key role. I hope that strategic military targets can be hit in Crimea, as that will hasten the day that my friends can live in peace in their own homes. I hope this war is over soon, with a decisive Ukrainian victory; this will also stop the suffering of what is a largely slave army taken from Donbas, Dagestan, Buryatia and other far flung corners of rural Russia. But I don’t actively wish that any Russian suffers as a first order consequence. The fact that many will inevitably suffer is something I look at with a mix of sadness, inevitability and equanimity.

The early Buddhist concepts of mettā and ‌karuṇā are often misunderstood and mistranslated. Many of us in the West filter them through Christian ideals of compassion and love — the patient martyr forgiving his torturers. Later offshoots of Buddhism also started to take this almost cartoonish version of compassion as well.

One of the best examples of the early Buddhist take I’ve heard is to think of mettā as being cordial. If you see a cobra in the jungle, you wish it no harm and give it enough space to go its own way without having to interact with it. It’s not running up to the cobra, giving it a smothering hug and then making some melodramatic forgiveness when it bites you. Non-harm in many cases is non-interaction. Wishing everyone well is letting them get on with their lives, without your interference, without imposing your agenda on them.

The older strands of Buddhist folklore and mythology are filled with tales not of saints senselessly bearing ghoulish violence out of compassion, but trying to convince their torturers not to kill them because of the terrible karmic consequences of cold-blooded murder.1

Mettā and ‌karuṇā are always paired with ‌upekkhā, a sense of equanimity, calmness and dispassion. Going back to the analogy of the cobra, when you see it eat a mouse, the proper response is one of equanimity and understanding. Forcing the cobra to eat a diet of tofu is just going to kill it. Sometimes you have to step back and let the consequences of things work themselves out.

With scenes of the war coming onto our devices daily, it’s worth pausing to evaluate how these images are affecting us and the right way to react to them.

  1. One such example is the story of Aṅgulimāla