When tragedies strike, such as the recent attacks in Sri Lanka, inevitably a sense of horror and fear arises. Due to our confusion concerning the nature of existence, we then may feel a deep urge to respond, to act – to do something – no matter what. And this urge can arise from a deep anger, a search for someone to blame. Perhaps this urge can even expand and lead to a communal act of rebellion or to create a violent counter attack. But some people, experiencing the shock and distress of these events, will remember the Buddha's wise words that “hatred is never appeased by hatred in this world, but by non-hatred alone” (Dhp 5), and will not want to be part of such an unwholesome reaction. Still, the urge to act will likely remain. So, what to do? We don't know. We don't want to just do nothing, so perhaps the response to “Pray for...” is felt to be the best action. But what does “praying” mean? What does it do for the actual problem? Is it the right attitude?
In the Buddhist scriptures there is nothing about prayer, it’s not even found among other ideologies during the Buddha’s time. It seems that acting for divine intervention was a rare concept in those days. Generally speaking, society understood that there is personal responsibility for one’s actions by body, speech, and mind, and that even if there was something greater than the “little self”, individuals still shared a role in it. “Prayer” for them seems not to have meant asking God to do something solely for themselves as individuals, but was rather the expression of a personal wish for something that is good, wholesome and kind for the welfare of all. Asking for sensual pleasures or for harm to one’s enemies – that would not really be prayer for them.
The problem with “prayer” is that it usually becomes “wanting”. This problem arises from how our intentions are directed. Wanting is usually directed towards some specific object or idea: “I want this, not that”. With such an attitude, no matter how wholesome it might seem, desiring one thing over something else that we don't like is not beneficial. That kind of prayer has an element of hatred in it, and the despising of others. If we understand “prayer” as the specification of personal wishes, it could not be regarded as a wholesome action.
The Buddha taught that a rightly directed mind (samma-saṅkappa) is not involved with sensuality, ill-will or cruelty, but that right thinking is based on renunciation, non ill-will and non-cruelty. Therefore, searching for sensual objects should be replaced by renunciation: we give up, we don't try to gain or get anything. And ill-will and cruelty are replaced simply by non-ill-will and non-cruelty. Note that it doesn't say that they are replaced by love, or anything of the kind. Love is simply a reaction to hatred, and therefore its existence stands on the foundation of hate; it exists as a response to hate. Thus love is not able to extinguish hate, since love depends upon it. We can see this expressed in the verse above, “by non-hatred alone is hatred appeased”, and not “by love is hatred defeated”. Love and hate co-exist, are inter-dependent, and are two “worldly winds” that constantly move our minds.
But what would the Buddha do in a situation such as what has just happened in Sri Lanka, where over 300 people have died in explosions? That hundreds and thousands of people are killed in the world was not unknown to him. Not just recognizing the endless samsara of shedding blood and tears, the Buddha also observed mass killings near his own home. In fact, his own Sakyan nation had been massacred in his lifetime! But the Buddha was at peace. He knew that nobody can win the battle with hatred and violence. He did not act like a vengeful “God” to punish the wicked, but taught his disciples and all who would listen to him that killers will bear the fruits of their evil actions. They will experience painful consequences without our intervention.
Even when it came to others criticizing himself, the Buddha told his followers to not be angry with the offenders. “If, bhikkhus, others speak in dispraise of me, or in dispraise of the Dhamma, or in dispraise of the Sangha, you should not give way to resentment, displeasure, or animosity against them in your heart. For if you were to become angry or upset in such a situation, you would only be creating an obstacle for yourselves.” (DN 1) And in one of his most well know discourses the Buddha said: “Even if low-down bandits were to sever you limb from limb, anyone who had a malevolent thought on that account would not be following my instructions. If that happens, you should train like this: ‘Our minds will remain unaffected. We will blurt out no bad words. We will remain full of compassion, with a heart of kindness and no internal hate. ‘We will meditate spreading a heart of kindness to that person. And with them as a basis, we will meditate spreading a heart full of kindness to everyone in the world—abundant, expansive, limitless, free of enmity and ill will.’ That’s how you should train.”
Such is “prayer” that is not specific to an event, but refers to the nature of the mind as “abundant, expansive, limitless, free of enmity and ill will”, that encompasses a space that manifests nothing but kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity. No matter what enters that space, it is imbued with those limitless qualities.
There is a similar message with reference to heavenly beings. There have always been battles between devas and asuras. Both types of beings actually desire goodness and righteousness, but their methods in response to evil are quite different. Sakka, the Lord of the devas, prefers patience, while Vepacitti, the lord of asuras, desires revenge and punishment. In the texts, Vepacitti warned Sakka that if he didn't immediately punish bad mannered beings they would take advantage (SN 11.5):
“Fools would vent their anger even more
If no one would keep them in check.
Hence with drastic punishment
The wise man should restrain the fool.”
But Sakka responded:
“I myself think this alone
Is the way to check the fool:
When one knows one’s foe is angry
One mindfully maintains one’s peace.”
Vepacitti was not convinced, warning:
“When the fool thinks of you thus,
‘He endures me out of fear,’
The dolt will chase you even more
As a bull does one who flees.”
But Sakka remained unconcerned:
“Let it be whether or not he thinks,
‘He endures me out of fear,’
Of goals that culminate in one’s own good
None is found better than patience.
“When a person endowed with strength
Patiently endures a weakling,
They call that the supreme patience;
The weakling must be patient always.
“They call that strength no strength at all—
The strength that is the strength of folly—
But no one can reproach a person
Who is strong because guarded by Dhamma.
“One who repays an angry man with anger
Thereby makes things worse for himself.
Not repaying an angry man with anger,
One wins a battle hard to win.
“He practises for the welfare of both,
His own and the other’s,
When, knowing that his foe is angry,
He mindfully maintains his peace.
“When he achieves the cure of both—
His own and the other’s—
The people who consider him a fool
Are unskilled in the Dhamma.”
Patience is the greatest “action” that we can take. With this action we will always be the winners since we will not have allowed our minds to be moved by the “worldly winds”, but will thereby have gained and maintained control over ourselves. But if we act against an enemy, we’re not just acting out of weakness, we continue to feed them.
Finally, with respect to this particular tragic situation in Sri Lanka, I recall a story from the well known Mahāparinibbāna Sutta (DN 16). There was a war between King Ajātasattu Vedehiputta of Māgadha and the neighboring Republic of Vajji. The leaders of the Kingdom of Māgadha realized that they could not destroy the Vajjians directly, for Vajji was a republic which followed the Buddha's advice to hold frequent meetings, to carry on their business in harmony, to respect the laws and traditions, to honor their elders and think them worth listening to, to respect and support women and noblemen. And because of that, they remained a strong nation, living in prosperity and peace. So it would not be possible to destroy them, because they were united and would act in unison! The Kingdom of Māgadha realized: “The Vajjians cannot be overcome by the Magadhan King Ajātasattu by war, but only through diplomacy, or by sowing dissension.” They realized that the only way to win was to cause division within the Vajjians! That is, by provoking clashes of views and false accusations, even to the extent of plotting to cause anger against themselves just to stir up emotions and cause division!
This discourse is a really powerful and important warning for Sri Lanka. External forces will try desperately to destroy unity and peace by causing internal divisions, and in that way make the country weak and fragile. When it is weak and fragile it becomes vulnerable to those malicious external forces. Such challenges will probably always exist, but, no matter what happens, it’s important to always follow the advice of the Buddha: to not use anger and cruelty as weapons, to stay united no matter what ideology one’s fellow citizens hold and – as Sakka said – to be patient. In that way, you will help unify people, you will collectively be one, and thereby defeat those who would seek to harm or even destroy you.