The Buddha: “If one should conquer thousands in battle, and if another should conquer only himself, his indeed is the greatest victory.”
Life as a battle is a common metaphor — even in Buddhist teachings. Bodhipaksa shows how the Buddha subverted the language of violence so that true heroism was to practice love.
If you look closely at life you’ll probably see that in at least some respects you see it as a battle.
Sometimes we say we “struggle” to keep up with our responsibilities. At times it seems we’re in “competition” with others for approval, status, or power. We talk about “fighting off” a cold. We say that “forewarned is forearmed.” We say that we made a suggestion, only to have it “shot down.” Doctors are constantly searching for new “weapons” to fight disease. Law enforcement workers “fight crime.” Advertisers “target” us with ad “campaigns.” The language of battle is a part of everyday life, as are the emotional attitudes that come with competition.
And we often see success in terms of how many victories we have, how well we’ve protected or expanded our turf, and how successful we’ve been in fighting our way to the top. Power, and its trappings — money, possessions, and the deference of others — are our society’s measure of success.
This verse from the Dhammapada —
If one should conquer thousands in battle,
and if another should conquer only himself,
his indeed is the greatest victory.
— is a reminder that there are other kinds of attainment.
These words are also powerful example of an instructive device that the Buddha often employed, where he takes an externally-performed action that is highly valued and shows that it gains even greater value when turned inwards.
Power and its trappings are our society’s measure of success
The Buddha lived in a world that to us would seem superstitious and even barbaric. Society was in the grip of a rigid social system where people were judged not on their intelligence, capability, or attainments but on their birth origins. The way to happiness involved fulfilling without question the duties of one’s caste. One of the main religious practices was to slaughter animals in order to propitiate the gods. In order to purify oneself from ethical lapses it was believed that all one had to do was to bathe in rivers — even if the rivers were literally polluted. And war was not only common but brutal, and warriors believed that if killed in the heat of battle they would be lifted directly to heaven.
And in the midst of this madness was the supreme sanity of the Buddha.
According to the Buddha:
- The true “Brahmin” (religious person) is not someone born into a certain family but someone who acts in an ethical manner. Anyone can become a holy person, irrespective of birth.
- The true outcast is not someone born into a lowly family but someone who neglects his or her human potential and acts ignobly, by speaking or acting in a selfish or violent manner.
- The way to happiness does not consist of following externally-imposed duties, but of following an inner path of cultivating wisdom and compassion.
- True sacrifice doesn’t involve slaughtering animals but practicing generosity and renouncing our addiction to violence.
- Purification comes not through external rituals but through living ethically and by observing the mind in meditation.
Over and over again the Buddha attempted to subvert the common understandings of his time. This was a subtle and intelligent approach to take. Rather than directly oppose those who saw things in a deluded way, and thus giving rise to resistance, he tapped into their concerns. He suggested, for example, not just that battle was cruel and destructive, but that you could become a greater warrior by seeing that there is a higher form of battle — an inner struggle against destructiveness, selfishness, and delusion.
There are dangers in all forms of literalism
And sometimes, just as the outer world can seen as combative, so too the inner world can seem like a battleground. There are times when we are involved in a struggle with ourselves, when our thoughts seem to be assailing us and when we are trying to fend them off.
Martial metaphors are in fact common in Buddhist teachings on meditation, with Shantideva encouraging us to pick up our mindfulness as swiftly as we would pick up a sword dropped in battle, the meditator being compared to a fletcher straightening an arrow, and the Buddha’s monks being compared to warriors battling sensual distraction.
Ultimately we need to love the thoughts and feelings that assault us in meditation.
But we have to be careful with these martial metaphors, perhaps even more so than with other figures of speech, although there are dangers in all forms of literalism. We do have to do inner work, and sometimes that work will seem to be hard and unrewarding — or to be a “struggle.” We do need qualities that are traditionally associated with the warrior spirit, qualities such as courage, clarity, steadfastness, loyalty to a cause, and the ability to handle discomfort.
But we need to be careful not to bring attitudes of ill will into our meditation practice. In meditation it’s ourselves we are struggling with, and in a battle where we regard ourselves as the enemy we can’t win. Elsewhere in the Dhammapada the Buddha says:
Hatred is never overcome by hatred.
It is overcome by love – this is eternally true.
Ultimately we need to love the thoughts and feelings that assault us in meditation. We do need to overcome our selfishness, our ill-will, and our delusion, but we can’t meet them on their own level. We need to meet them with love and compassion. And when we experience victory over ourselves in this way, we have a happiness greater and more lasting than any external victory can bring.