by Venerable Thubten Chonyi
The idea was compelling: claim September 11 as a commemoration and commitment to peace, then practice peaceful means for the next 10 days.
Unity Church in Spokane invited the Abbey and other faith traditions to join them in a citywide peace movement that culminated with an Interfaith Peace Celebration on September 21, the United Nations International Day of Peace. We were happy to say yes.
Exactly one year earlier, Spokane Unity had been the site of the Heart Shrine Relic Tour and interfaith dialogue, which the Abbey co-hosted. This peace event only strengthened our bond with the Spokane interfaith community.
Venerable Semkye and I arrived early to rehearse our parts in the celebration. A quiet excitement grew as the sanctuary filled with people of all ages, faiths, races, and ethnicities. Everyone seemed delighted to meet and share our common commitment to practicing ethical discipline, love, and compassion and to bring peace to other beings.
David Browneagle gave the opening song and a prayer from the American Indian tradition. Joined on-stage by his wife, young niece, and baby granddaughter, he challenged the audience to look at the violence in our own homes. “We must address the hate inside,” he said, “before we can talk about peace in the world.”
The keynote speaker, Reverend Bill Ellis from the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, continued that theme. “I speak as a religious person and as a Christian,” he said. “To have peace, we need to remember two points. One: never, ever give up your empathy. And two: if your God tells you to kill, get yourself another God.”
With quiet passion he asked, “Have ever heard a news report that said, ‘Today in Iraq we killed 17 parents of 54 children’?” It is necessary to dehumanize the enemy, to label him terrorist or insurgent, before we can kill him, Rev. Ellis said. “Yet he is just like you and me, with the same dreams, the same sadness.” Empathy, he said, helps us remember that our enemy is a human being just like us, to recall that inside, we are all alike.
Rev. Ellis’ second point was equally emphatic. “If your God tells you to kill, get yourself another God.” He acknowledged that people can cite scripture to justify war, but from his own biblical study, Rev. Ellis concludes that love for all, even your enemy, is the essential message.
Between the strong speeches, the ceremony exploded with music. The Spokane Community gospel choir especially rocked the house with their joyful noise. As Buddhist nuns, Ven. Semkye and I restrained our responses, foregoing the clapping and stomping in rhythm, but we definitely had big grins on our faces.
The celebration culminated with a beautiful candle-lighting ceremony. As a child from each faith tradition lit a candle, someone read a prayer for peace from that tradition. One of the Abbey”s young friends, Brea McDonald from Coeur d’Alene, lit the Buddhist candle, while Ven. Semkye recited a few lines from Shantideva’s dedication in Guide to a Bodhisattva’s Way of Life.
We closed the ceremony by teaching the congregation to chant om mani padme hum. Everyone joined in sending light from our own hearts out into the world, sending the positive potential created by such a sincere and joyous gathering to bring an end to suffering for all beings.
So many people came to us afterwards to thank us for the Buddhist presence in the community.
We drove the hour home to the Abbey with our hearts full. The night was bright with the light of a beautiful interfaith commitment to persevere in our spiritual practice to bring peace to the hearts of all beings.