War provokes men’s most aggressive energies, but it also brings them together. How do we harness these energies for the better? Sāgaramati reflects
After prowling around under the Mediterranean for a few weeks, we surface to head back to Gibraltar. I’m on lookout duty. The early morning sun tints the sea-mist, transforming it into a canopy of golden light. As we plough through the glass-like sea, dolphins leap over our bow wave, bodies glittering in the light. All is still, and it would be: nuclear submarines don’t make any noise. For a moment I’m expecting Poseidon to emerge from the depths to greet us. Another time I’m look-out in the North Sea in a storm force 10 in the early hours of the morning, strapped in with a safety harness. Out of the blackness a monstrous, glowing, phosphorescent wave appears towering above us. I’ve never experienced this before and my heart’s in my mouth. Being a nuclear submarine we don’t ride the waves as a ship would do – we just burrow straight through them. For a couple of seconds we’re literally under water and we’re drenched. That first wave was terrifying but the next was just exhilarating. I still recall these things: the fresh and rich sea air of those days, the vivid light and colours of nature flooding the senses, such a contrast after weeks below the waves. I used to think to myself, ‘Civilians never get this.’
But later, when I was on a Polaris submarine, an issue arose for me. Okay, we were said to be carrying a nuclear deterrent, but if that deterrence failed, it would follow that we had failed. What’s the point of helping to bring about Armageddon? In a nuclear war there are no winners. So two of us, after quite a few beers, decided that if the ‘launch’ signal came through when we were on watch in the Radio Room, we would shred it. We couldn’t see the point in using our sixteen missiles, each with multi-nuclear war heads, to kill millions of people once the war had already started.
This was one reason I left the Royal Navy after just one patrol on Polaris. I moved on from being a potential agent of death to being a hippie, a peace-and-love ‘pinko’. But when I started to meditate, after a while I realized that I wasn’t at ease with being a pinko. Bits of my psyche were still drawn to the image of war, or – more accurately – men at war. I recently watched a documentary about Tim Hetherington, a leading British photojournalist. Hetherington covered the conflicts in Liberia and Afghanistan, then Libya, where he was killed in 2011. The moment from the documentary that struck me most was when he, together with the American journalist Sebastian Junger, spent a year with an American marine platoon in a remote outpost in the Korengal Valley, eastern Afghanistan – a place he described as a ‘male Eden’. He said the biggest fear the guys out there had was not of being killed, but of letting their buddies down. They were rough with one another, sure, but he’d never seen bonding like it. These guys really cared for each other, loved each other. Junger says, ‘Tim had been in a lot of combat in Liberia, and I think one of the things he was looking for after that experience wasn’t the truth about combat as a form of conflict, but the truth about combat as a form of bonding. What he saw with his camera, in this environment of killing and fear and hardness, was connection.’
young men’s energy ‘needs to explode’, and they don’t care who lights their fuse
Hetherington’s description resonated with my memories of life as a submariner. We knew that if the submarine went down, we’d all go down together. You live and die together. I had never experienced that in civilian life: whether you liked someone or not, that fact that you were dependent on each other made for a different, less petty relationship. One of the main emphases in Buddhism is the ideal of Sangha, or spiritual community. It is a reminder that what brings Buddhists together is not personal likes and dislikes, or a special idea of who we are. It is not some crutch for a sense of identity. What creates a Sangha is the feeling that life has a purpose beyond what society can offer; and that this ‘purpose’ is, in a way, just an aspect of what life itself is. It does not come from ‘above’, some realm of the Absolute that sits outside of life. Sangha also reminds us that following the teachings of the Buddha is not an easy undertaking: we need others to keep our purpose to the fore, and to encourage and support us to that end. The Buddha-to-be may have been on his own under the Bodhi tree, but he got there in dependence on his previous teachers.
Looking back, I’ve realised that this has always been the attractive aspect of the symbol of war for me. Submarines in particular appealed because there you have a small unit of men who have to work as a team. In war every decision can be a matter of life or death, and that takes you to the essentials of living. War is only possible because men do it with others. In a war you feel you’re part of something, and there’s a purpose to what you are doing – even though, as many recent interviews with soldiers in Afghanistan have shown, that purpose is often simply to help one another survive, not serve the country as politicians like to tell to us. Is this not why young men are going to fight for Isis? As Nietzsche says, young men’s energy ‘needs to explode’, and they don’t care who lights their fuse.1 The question is, how do we channel that unregenerate energy into something that enhances life rather than, as in the extreme case of Isis, seeks to destroy it? It’s as if men need something akin to ‘war’ to motivate them and bring them together – normal society does not offer this. I put this to my teacher, Sangharakshita, when I was walking with him in King’s Heath Park back in Birmingham a few years ago. Sangharakshita agreed, saying that it is indeed as if men need something like a war or an inspiring project – something ‘outside’ themselves – to bring them together.
I think a spiritual community, at its best, can offer this. I experienced this to some degree, albeit crudely, when I was on submarines; and I also experienced it in the 1970s when I came across the Triratna Buddhist movement – then known as the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order – in North London. At that time most of us lived in the same street, in squats, with the Buddhist centre at the end of the street. We lived together, ate together, worked together, meditated together, went on retreat together and at times argued quite fiercely together. We felt we were an alternative society in the making. This spirit also continued during the building phase of the LBC in the late 1970s; and I’ve seen it flourish since then in a few other places within the movement. But how to sustain that spirit? The spiritual life can be very difficult, especially if you are not involved in a project with others. Men need a shared goal. In a sense, we need our equivalent of a war.
The psychologist James Hillman has said that war is an ‘archetypal impulse’. So ‘war’ can also be understood as having a mythical dimension that resonates in our psyches. It can also be understood metaphorically as an aspect of the spiritual quest.
So the myth of war can take on spiritual significance: as we make progress on the path we realise sooner or later that, as Nietzsche says, man is a war. But this is not a war with some external enemy. Rather it is ‘a war against oneself’, a war between the natural but crude and unregenerate forces within our own nature and those whose aim is to develop and manifest a more aware, kinder, less self-centered and wiser form of life. Nietzsche calls this ‘Self-Overcoming’.
The Buddha himself used the metaphor of war. He is recording as saying, for instance, ‘Better than the conquest of a thousand men in battle is the conquest of one’s own self.’ And on occasion he used images of battle to illustrate the Buddhist life. In another passage the Buddha is asked,
Having slain what does one sleep soundly?
Having slain what does one not sorrow?
What is the one thing,
Whose killing you approve?
The Buddha replies:
Having slain wrath, one sleeps soundly;
Having slain wrath, one does not sorrow;
The killing of wrath,
With its poisoned root and honeyed tip,
This is the killing the noble ones praise;
For having slain that, one does not sorrow.
Here the enemy is ‘wrath’, but it is also the forces of greed, hatred and delusion, our conceit – our need for status, our dear possessions, our confused views. These are the ‘enemy’. However, although this is a war within oneself, as Herr Nietzsche would have it, here there can be no violence against oneself. The ‘slaying’, for example, consists in not giving expression to certain feelings and emotions rooted in greed, hatred and so on. In a sense there is nothing unethical about feeling like murdering someone; this is just our past conditioning recycling itself. The ethical concern is whether or not you give expression to the feeling. But even this is only half the battle: the other half is about bringing into being and expressing the opposites of greed, hatred and delusion, such as kindness, generosity, independence of mind and self-awareness. This is the real battleground of the spiritual life, the place where we can re-create ourselves as something more fully human, more aware. And we can’t enter into battle without protection. That protection is mindfulness: being attentive to what we are feeling, to what thoughts are arising and why. Back to Nietzsche, who summarizes this task:
Yet let us reflect: where does the animal cease, where does man begin? … As long as anyone desires life as he desires happiness he has not yet raised his eyes above the horizon of the animal, for he only desires more consciously what the animal seeks through blind impulse. But that is what we all do for the greater part of our lives: usually we fail to emerge out of animality, we ourselves are the animals whose suffering seems to be senseless.2
So here we have an idea of who the enemy is in this new kind of war, and how we fight it. But we need to ask ourselves, what is the aim of this battle? We need some goal that is beyond what we are now, but one that is not imposed upon us from the outside. It has to be something we can respond to, something that gives a more far-reaching, higher meaning to our human existence. But this is not a battle we can wage all on our own. To that end we also need connection with others who share our goal; in other words we need a Sangha. And so Hillman’s ‘archetype of war’ finds a higher expression. No one is killed, but many aspects of our undeveloped selves simply die away or are transformed. This in turn gives birth to something new: a new life that embodies the deepest and most positive values, a way of being that in the past was beyond even one’s imagination. This is the real victory – which is why the Buddha is also known as a Jina, or ‘conquerer’. ■
- The Gay Science, originally published in 1872 as Die fröhliche Wissenschaft
- Untimely Meditations, originally published as Unzeitgemässe Betrachtungen in 1876