Here is an ancient story from India: King Ashoka, the ruler of a vast empire, was surveying a field after his troops won a battle. Amid the carnage, he saw a solitary Buddhist monk.
Clad in saffron-colored robes, the man walked mindfully, posture erect, gate steady and unhurried. His whole countenance radiated peace and calm in the midst of chaos. Ashoka, who had built a vast empire through brutality, was confused. How could this man have so much equanimity in the face of such devastation? How could he walk right through the heart of it, and give off the presence of peace?
Deeply moved, the fierce emperor, it is said, had a profound change of heart. He stopped expansionist wars and built one of the most advanced civilizations of the age. He promoted education, respect for religious diversity, and built an advanced aqueduct system so his citizens could have clean and reliable water. To this day, Ashokan symbols are proudly displayed on the Indian national flag.
What does this have to do with us? We can look to the world around, with our political, cultural and social divides, and see these same forces of greed, power and destruction playing out. As a species, we continue to undermine the fragile balance of life on this earth at the expense of the quality of our own lives, and that of future generations.
In our institutions, families and in how we treat our bodies, minds and hearts, we often plant the seeds of discord without even knowing it. Ashoka did this with his power-hungry lust, until he saw a radically different possibility and stopped.
The great Vietnamese Buddhist meditation master, Thich Nhat Hanh, tells a story of how people caught in the midst of the Vietnam War boarded boats and set out to sea, hoping to make it safely to Thailand. Many of the boats were rickety, overcrowded and sunk in the unpredictable seas of the journey. Many lives were lost due to these tough conditions where people panicked and could not work effectively to keep the boats steady and on course.
Thich Nhat Hanh later learned that many of the boats that had made it to safety had at least one person onboard with a calm presence.
In our individualistic society, and in our everyday lives, we may easily lose sight of the fact of our interdependence. We may forget that in a fundamental way, we are all boat people.
Many years ago while I was in India, I met a man of Asian Indian origin who had taken time off from being a physics professor at Swarthmore College to travel to villages in India and record sacred music that was slowly being lost. He mentioned that his recording device had broken and the replacements he could purchase locally weren't very accurate.
I was traveling with a Walkman Pro, which in the 1980s and 1990s was a state-of-the-art portable music recording and playing device. After our conversation, I went and got the Walkman and gave it to him. Years later, I ran into him again and he told me how much that act of unsolicited generosity had meant to the project, and to his faith in humanity.
You may think that this was simply an act of generosity and did not come from a place of peace. Think of when we truly give freely; we have a sense of self-sufficiency. I liked the music player but could give it up when I got in touch with how it could contribute to something much more important than my pleasure.
I acted on this impulse because I knew that I possessed an inner happiness that was not dependent on that object. How would the world look if we had more inner peace? It may be fruitful to inquire into how we think and act when we are touching inner peace. This peace is nonconceptual, it is a deep experiential presence of being, in ourselves and with others.
The message in these stories is not that we have to try to change others. It is that when we learn to touch and sustain inner calm and clarity, open to the challenges we face, open to others, then a natural ripple effect takes place. A pebble dropped in a pond creates ripples, it is a natural.
Thich Nhat Hanh has published dozens of books in English and was nominated for the Nobel Peace prize by Martin Luther King. One of his books is titled "Peace is Every Step." How present, how mindful are we when we walk, talk or eat? How do we touch peace here and now? When we are deeply present, our hearts can no longer be constricted, our minds no longer petty. There is a simple natural wisdom that often finds expression as wise compassionate action, without our even trying.
The monk’s unspoken message to Ashoka, the calm person’s countenance on the boat, the traveler who gives up something he values for a greater good, in examples great and small, the principle is the same; peace starts from within but doesn’t stop there. It is a skill and can be learned. It has consequences. It is powerful.
Matthew Daniell is a co-founder and guiding teacher of the Insight Meditation Center of Newburyport. He is also a member of the religious services department at Phillips Exeter Academy.