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Issue 235
March/April 2006
From Ownership to Relationship

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AMBASSADORS OF PEACE
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Cover: Gold disc, painting by Noel Betowski

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AMBASSADORS OF PEACE

A determination to be peace, and courage to stand for it, no matter what, create the energy and power for change.

IN OTTAWA, CANADA, a Buddhist community - the Pine Gate Sangha - has created an engaged expression for peace. The community is the nucleus of Friends for Peace, a coalition of environmental, peace, meditation and social activist groups, who began meeting in Ottawa in January 2003 in response to the impending war in Iraq and to the pervading feeling of helplessness and fear portrayed by the media. The coalition has since created annual events to celebrate peace: one, in early spring, called Peace Song Circle, and the Peace Prayer Day held in the autumn. We are working to make these events happen in other countries.

Our purpose is to create a different form of peaceful expression that appeals to a wide cross-section of Canadian citizens who support a major role for Canada as a peacekeeping nation. The broader intent, however, is to create a global expression for peace and the planet, with communities all over the world gathering each spring and autumn to build bridges for non-dualistic action in times of peace as well as in times of war.

Friends for Peace held silent vigils in Canada before the Iraq war, and organised the Peace Song Circle on Parliament Hill, Ottawa after war had broken out. The peace vigils drew 4,000 people, growing to 5,000 participants at the Peace Song Circle, which was held on a cold, wet spring day. A sea of multicoloured umbrellas on a rain-swept morning welcomed all those gathered. As other peace protests joined us and sang 'All Within Me Peaceful', the crowd covered the grounds of Canada's seat of government, all meditating at the end in total silence as the rain poured down on our heads. The explicit support expressed in media interviews for Prime Minister Jean Chrétien's clear opposition to the US war in Iraq proved very effective, as it enabled him to fend off pressure from within the federal cabinet to co-operate with US militarism in Iraq.

At the Peace Song Circle, choirs, soloists and dancers gave their hearts for peace. Many participants had never protested before. It was all in the singing, and it was totally awesome. The pouring rain was strangely welcome, for it symbolised the tears of Iraqi children, my tears, your tears - transformed into hope through singing for peace with one another and experiencing deep peace. There was a transformation of anger, hatred, anguish and violence into a determined clarity to be peace and to oppose war. From there we know the wise actions to take.

However, on the morning of that first Peace Song Circle I was overwhelmed by anger and anguish after receiving news of the US "shock and awe" bombing campaign of Iraq. I knew I had to take care of the strong feelings that were welling up inside me, or I would be of no use to the people who were gathering on Parliament Hill. I took refuge in the sangha - represented by my wife Carolyn - and told her I was so angry and so full of grief. She understood and continued with the preparations for the Peace Song Circle while I did walking meditation in the Pine Gate Meditation Hall in order to become steady and lucid. It took a while, but after forty minutes of conscious breathing to calm down and then walking meditation to release the strong emotions, I was ready to lead this important event with clarity and steadiness.

The gathering was created around music because of its ability to communicate peace in a positive and uplifting way. People came from all walks of life, regardless of age, political affiliation, faith or ethnic background. The Peace Song Circle transported everyone to experience inner peace, as we emphasised the importance of mindful living as an alternative to violent conflict. We invited the general public to make a conscious choice to join in the continued pursuit and celebration of peace. Our motto for the event summed up what we asked of those in attendance - "Sing for Peace, Stand for Peace, Be Peace".

IN THE AUTUMN of 2003 we held our first Peace Prayer Day. It was opened by Native American children, drummers and dancers from Maniwaki in full costume, who led the entire audience through a circle dance. Massed choirs, the Sacred Dance Guild, and Buddhist, Sikh, Christian, Sufi, Israeli and Arabic expressions for peace and planetary care supported the children's prayers for change and hope. This celebration of peace and call for change appealed to many who felt drawn to be peace but who had never before taken part in its group expressions.

Our Peace Prayer Day is affiliated with the United Nations Day of Peace. On that first occasion we presented awards to three outstanding local citizens whose work for peace stands as an example to all of us gathered there. They have transformed people and communities with their wisdom, love and compassion; they are examples of 'Being Peace'. We gave our thanks to Grandfather William Commanda, spiritual leader of the Algonquin Nation, for creating a Culture of Peace; to Sr. Jean Goulet of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese, for establishing inter-faith dialogue where before there was silence and for galvanising religious leaders to support multi-ethnic housing projects; and to Michael Monner of Tone Magazine, for raising Ottawa's consciousness about these and other issues over the past twenty years.

On the day of this outdoor event, the elements and nature were responsive in many ways. Two eagles circled above us, and the thunder gods threatened, yet the persistent rain let up at the end and allowed the sun to shine forth just as we started to sing together. A marvellous documentary film has been made which shows the courage and determination shining through to be nothing other than peace and to make a difference to our world.

AFTER THE FIRST Peace Prayer Day Ottawa we sat around our fireplaces reading the many letters of thanks we had received, mostly from the United States. The writers spoke of a great need for more such messages of hope and celebration of all traditions and paths, and of the longing for leadership and clear statements about how to begin in their own communities. We created a website, www.friendsforpeace.ca, with posters, vision statements, guidelines and press releases freely available to any community wishing to use the material. It is hoped that these events in Ottawa will also lead to the development of a broad network of spiritual leaders committed to transforming our country's current decision-making process and to leading with compassion and wisdom.

In 2005 many mayors from cities, towns and rural municipalities across Canada signed a Peace Proclamation in support of our Peace Day. Thousands of people are now mobilising to talk about peace issues, to meditate together on peace, to find new and creative ways to structure peace into existing institutions, and to question the legitimacy of war. There is a great movement afoot as we breathe in a sense of possibility.

Old forms of protest created in the previous century no longer work. The highly ritualised dance of violence between protesters and police is not very intelligent given that non-dualistic forms have the distinct possibility of making allies of the police. Furthermore, this preference welcomes many citizens who choose not to participate in violent protest rallies. Non-dualism perplexes the media who are hoping to find an outbreak of violence to cover, but instead find citizens singing for peace, celebrating peace through prayer, dance and artistry, or standing in silent meditation at peace vigils. These are nevertheless political protests as they carry a clear consensus of non-confidence in the violent, warlike alternative. Reporters are often inexplicably moved, as they have rarely encountered this kind of news event before.

As well as raising consciousness, Friends for Peace is also active on the ground. At the local level the funds generated support low-income housing projects that benefit immigrants. In addition, there is a campaign to extend the mandate of the Canadian War Museum to include a focus on peacekeeping and creating a culture of peace out of the ashes of war. Internationally Friends for Peace supports the schools and medical centres established by Child Haven International in South Asia, and in Canada it supports Peace Camp Ottawa, which brings 20 Israeli and Palestinian teens together each summer to enjoy fellowship and reconciliation.

ON THAT FIRST Peace Prayer Day our two activist speakers were unable to take part at the last minute due to illness. As a backup I did my best to step into their shoes. I said:

"I want to talk to you about our children and the kind of future we are creating for them. Do we teach them peace? Or through neglect do we allow violence to flood their minds, hearts and consciousness so they learn war? Even worse, do they live out our own personal wars expressed through our violent attitudes, speech and actions towards them? I ask every adult here to deal with their internal wars so that only the best in us is passed on to our children, not the worst in terms of violence.

"How do we do deal with our internal wars, hatreds and fears? We must stop running and hiding behind our addictions and busyness. We must come to a stop, look deeply into the eyes of our children and make a commitment to face our internal demons and transform them by stepping onto the path of compassion. We show our children the way to peace by learning to be it.

"Since 9/11 the level of hate and violence globally has increased dramatically. Violence has been used to suppress violence. This is not the way to proceed. There is no 'them' and 'us'. We either learn to live peacefully together or we all suffer and die together.

"All violence is injustice, and we have to teach our children the truth about war. Not about winners and losers, but about the long-term suffering on both sides. It is only citizens of the world standing together for peace and saying 'No to War' that will stop it.

"But the hatred grows and the suffering increases. What can we do as individuals to change this? First of all we must uproot the violence and war within ourselves. To prevent war we nurture nonviolence. We practise meditation and prayer in daily life to transform the poisons within ourselves and within our nation.

"We enter into true peace negotiations by learning the methods of deep listening and respectful and nonviolent communication; by understanding and bringing our selfish agendas to a stop. We create peace by knowing that compassion is the antidote to violence and hatred.

"We must also make peace with Mother Earth. If we injure Mother Earth, we injure ourselves. Our civilisation has caused such deep harm to the Earth that we humans may soon become an endangered species. Our planet is suffering because we have lived together for so long with only neglect and ignorance about the Earth. The solution is not political or economic - those are secondary. The primary solution is spiritual. Every faith and spiritual tradition must renew its ethics and responsibilities and honour the interconnected nature of our species with Mother Earth.

"We must make it clear to our political and corporate leaders that the violence they commit in our name is no longer acceptable. We must hold them to account and influence them with our clarity, wisdom and courage. The actions we take now are shaping the possibilities for future generations.

"So here is our challenge. Today, in the pouring rain and thunder-storms we have experienced peace, a deep peace shared between many traditions, cultures and religions. This experience, however, evaporates into nothing if we do not translate it into action. Begin the work on yourselves today, so that your attitudes, speech and actions become an example to your children, friends and communities. Take the practical steps to make peace with Mother Earth in terms of what you consume and support. Then represent your community, in coalition with other communities, to political and corporate leaders. Show clearly that we are choosing peace and harmony within ourselves, within our communities and with Mother Earth. Together we can do it.

"We are Ambassadors of Peace, after all."

Ian Prattis is a dharmacharya in the Engaged Buddhist tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh and gives talks and retreats all over the world. He is also the author of The Buddha at the Gate (Parallax, 2006) and The Essential Spiral: Ecology and Consciousness After 9/11 (UPA, 2002). He is the founder of the Pine Gate Sangha in Ottawa, Canada.

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