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The Buddha’s Poem of Peace

by Gil Fronsdal

Hatred never ends by hatred
By love alone does it end
This is an ancient truth
  — The Buddha; Dhammapada v.5

From the time of the Buddha to our modern times, the above Poem of Peace has been evoked in times of conflict and war. All too many conflicts arise out of hatred and then reinforce hatred. For conflicts to come to a true end, love and friendship are needed, otherwise the continued divisions fester.

With hatred, others are viewed as obstacles or foes, as wrong or evil. Those who hate are always blind in not seeing the full humanity of those who are hated. Hatred perpetuates itself. To end hatred, one must learn to love wisely and strongly.

Those who love wisely see clearly because they know the full humanity of others, including both the good and the bad. Love heals division as it views others as kin, as fellow companions on our human journey. Many conflicts dissolve in the presence of love; those that don’t are transformed into problems to be resolved, not battles to be won.

It seems the Buddha first spoke the “Poem of Peace” at a time when his monastic disciples were split into hostile, opposing factions over a disagreement about a monk’s supposed infraction of a minor monastic rule. Perhaps understanding that the perspective of our common mortality would convince the monks to put down their hostility, the Buddha added:

Many do not realize that
We here must die.
For those who realize this,
Quarrels end.

But in their blindness, even with the Buddha’s personal intervention, his disciples didn’t give up their conflict; in fact, they pushed the Buddha away. It was only when the laity stopped providing the monks with food that they repented and reconciled.

The “Poem of Peace” appears in a legend about how King Ashoka, one of the first emperors of India, renounced violence. After winning a battle in which tens of thousands of soldiers died, the king walked across the battlefield, viewing the carnage. When a monk walked calmly by, the contrast of death all around the peaceful monk captured the king’s attention. When asked about his calm, the monk said,

Hatred never ends with hatred.
By love alone does it end.
This is an ancient truth.

The monk and this poem were the catalyst for the king to stop his battles.

Jack Kornfield tells the story of witnessing the Cambodian monk Maha Ghosananda reciting the “Poem of Peace” in a refugee camp at the height of the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia. Under the threat of death from the Khmer Rouge, Maha Ghosananda built a large bamboo temple in the midst of the Cambodian refugee camp. When it was built, 20,000 refugees gathered to hear the peaceful and gentle monk. Over and over again, Maha Ghosananda recited in the original language of the Buddha and in Cambodian,

Hatred never ends by hatred
By love alone does it end
This is an ancient truth

As he did so, the refugees cried.

In our modern times, one of the most significant impacts of the Buddha’s “Poem of Peace” is in the signing of the San Francisco Peace Treaty in September, 1951. With the ending of World War II, Japan became a conquered and occupied country. The treaty was the product of a contentious conference where foreign ministers from 48 countries gathered in San Francisco to discuss the future of Japan, including terms of compensation for victims of Japanese war efforts. In discussing versions of a new treaty, many countries did not want Japan to become a sovereign nation. They were afraid the country would rebuild its military and once again go to war. Some of the foreign ministers wanted Japan to remain a subjugated nation in order to break the will of the Japanese to fight again.

As this was being debated, the foreign minister from Sri Lanka (then called Ceylon) gave a speech in which he said his country was entitled to compensation for damage inflicted by the Japanese. However, he then said, “We do not intend to do so for we believe in the words of the Great Teacher whose message has ennobled the lives of countless millions in Asia, that ‘hatred never ends with hatred. By love alone does it end.’”

He ended his speech by stating, “We extend to Japan the hand of friendship and trust that…her people and ours may march together to enjoy the full dignity of human life in peace and prosperity.” His words were received with great applause and the conference ratified the treaty that returned Japan to being a free and independent country.

In Tokyo there is a small monument commemorating the San Francisco Peace Treaty and the Sri Lankan foreign minister’s speech. Written on the plaque are the words,

Hatred never ends by hatred
By love alone does it end
This is an ancient truth

One of the remarkable transformations of the 20th century is how Japan went from a hostile nation to a peaceful nation existing in friendship with those who defeated it. While it would seem natural and justified for the victims of Japanese violence to hate Japan and in that hate punish the country, this would not have led to the amity that followed in the decades after the end of World War II.

In being an ancient truth, it is not surprising that others should speak the same wisdom as the Buddha did in his “Poem of Peace”. One example is Martin Luther King Jr who said,

Hate cannot drive out hate;
only love can do that.
Hate multiplies hate,
violence multiplies violence,
and toughness multiplies toughness
in a descending spiral of destruction…

In addressing the civil rights and racist issues of his time, King also said,

We must meet the forces of hate
with the power of love…
Our aim must never be to defeat
or humiliate the white man,
but to win his friendship
and understanding.

No matter what side of a conflict one is on, without love, friendship, and understanding a division persists that is the seedbed for further conflict and hostility. But with love, not only can hate end, the seedbed for it to reappear disappears.

These three—love, friendship, and understanding—are not always easy to have. It requires intention, persistence, and effort. It also takes wisdom, discernment, and thoughtfulness. The greater the conflict, the greater the need for careful consideration of how to act or what to say.

Perhaps the single most important thing we can do to cultivate greater love and friendship is to be mindful. Mindfulness allows us to see deeply into ourselves and into others. It is the vehicle in which greater understanding and empathy can show us clearly how much better off we are with love than with hatred.