Why We War: Buddhist Teachings on the Ukraine Conflict

Lodro Rinzler
10 min readMar 4, 2022

Last night I gave a Buddhist talk. It was on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness which is essentially saying it’s a list of four things that falls under a list which falls under another list and each of those four things has lists under them as well. It’s pretty common for Buddhism and, albeit not the sexiest of things to talk about, I would like to think I did a halfway decent job making the topic accessible.

At the end of the hour I asked if anyone had any questions and a hand immediately went up.

“I understand a lot of times in Buddhism we talk about non-attachment. But when a country is being invaded and I’m scared of nuclear warfare, how can I be un-attached to the results here?”

How dumb am I, to think that this question wouldn’t be on the top of just about everyone’s minds right now? We are inundated and often overwhelmed by the news coming from Ukraine.

I began to answer, in a rambling fashion, talking about the idea of being “un-attached” to results of this magnitude. When we talk about being without attachments, or “un-attached” it can sound like we should feel dispassionate or uncaring toward what is happening to our common humans in Ukraine. Quite the opposite.

One of the most powerful things we can do during this time of international strife and warfare is to bear witness, to keep our hearts wide open to those affected and to not look away from the reality of the situation at hand. The more we are present with ourselves, the more we see the world around us clearly and can learn how to help.

Letting Go of Our Fixed Ideas

To begin, let’s look at the Buddhist concepts of attachment and renunciation. When I say the latter word, you may think of giving up all your worldly goods, packing up your clothes and your iProducts and your favorite items and donating them to Good Will. Don’t worry, you don’t have to do that.

The Buddhist master Tilopa once famously said, “The problem is not enjoyment; the problem is attachment.” In other words, we do not need to give up our creature comforts so much as give up our attachment to those things.

Going further, one thing we are highly attached to are our fixed ideas and opinions. There is so much political divisiveness in our world due to the solidified ideas of some people coming into contact with the solidified ideas of other people, leading to conflict and aggression.

On a micro-level, if I were to tell a friend I want to go out to one restaurant uptown and they want to go to another downtown and we both dig our heels in, we inevitably get frustrated with one another. “I want the evening to look like this” or “You never make compromises for me” are fixed ideas we may not even be aware we hold but ultimately can lead us into conflict with people who are clinging to their own fixed ideas.

On a macro-level, much wiser Buddhist teachers than me have spoken about the relationship between how we as individuals relate to conflict and how this plays out on a world stage. The Zen master Thích Nhất Hạnh once said, “The other person has wrong perceptions about himself and about us. And we have wrong perceptions about ourselves and the other person. And that is the foundation for violence and conflict and war.”

In other words, people becoming incredibly attached to how they think things should happen, coming into conflict with other people who hold very different ideas of how things should happen, leads to war. We know that there is a justification being perpetuated within Russia for their act of invading Ukraine. That is their solid story that they are attached to, in order to justify war. If Putin and other Russian leaders renounced attachment to this story, we could return to some semblance of peace.

I’ve been teaching meditation and Buddhism for twenty years now so I knew better than to throw such Pollyanna ideas at this group of seasoned practitioners. Instead of just saying, “Maybe Putin should be less attached to invading a foreign country” we talked more about how we reify conflict in our own lives.

Thích Nhất Hạnh also at one point said, “If we are at war with our parents, our family, our society, or our church, there is probably a war going on inside us also, so the most basic work for peace is to return to ourselves and create harmony among the elements within us — our feelings, our perceptions, and our mental states. That is why the practice of meditation, looking deeply, is so important.”

Learning to See Reality More Clearly

What do we do when we meditate? We practice that key word: understanding. When we practice mindfulness meditation we take an uplifted and relaxed posture, notice the flow of the body breathing and, when we inevitably get distracted, come back to the breath. Through this process we better understand ourselves and the world around us.

While a simple act we are doing a two things at once:

  1. we are cutting through the habitual fixed thoughts and opinions we have, acknowledging them but returning to the reality of the present moment and
  2. having re-entered the present moment, we can see things more clearly

I used the example that, at this point, feels a bit dated: a number of basketball players started getting into meditation under the coach Phil Jackson. The way they would talk about the effects is that they would be playing, get lost in their head for a moment but then upon re-entering the present moment they would see the situation clearly and be able to see their next move. You can watch players do this: they move down the court, pause, see the situation for what it is, then go in a new direction.

We too can emulate this ability to drop our momentum around what we want to see happen, renouncing our fixed ideas, enter the present moment, and see it for what it is. Without so many of our opinions acting as a veil over our eyes, we can understand what is going on and, most importantly, understand what it means to us to help the situation, be it through support of loved ones there, donating money or any number of alternatives.

Assuming that is our goal here — not to wallow in overwhelm but to actually be of benefit in such a difficult situation — one final Thích Nhất Hạnh quote comes to mind: “Understanding is the other name for love. If you cannot understand, you cannot love.”

Seeking to Understand Humanity

Earlier I talked about tapping into our own open and awake hearts to bear witness to the suffering of others. It can be so hard to hold the heart open when we see the pain of other people. A key inroad to opening to this experience of tender love is understanding.

The moment I brought up understanding another hand went up in that room.

“I just don’t see how I can try and understand people who are purposefully bombing civilians.”

Fair enough. But let’s try.

First, we can understand ourselves. We can understand how we perpetuate harm, knowingly or unknowingly. I asked this woman, “Have you ever sent an email or said something to someone, knowing it would hurt them?” She nodded. I have too, I admitted. It doesn’t feel good. That’s our micro-level version — noticing how we cause harm and seeking, month over month, year over year, to do that less. It is an ongoing practice for me and just about every other Buddhist practitioner I know.

Then there is the macro-level, the societal level. Can I seek to understand the people who are being affected? In today’s world we are fortunate enough to be able to hear first-hand accounts of what the Ukrainian people are experiencing. Can we read or listen to these accounts and not shut down our tender hearts? Can we bear witness to their suffering and let our heart break for them? Can we acknowledge that feeling that heartbreak is not a bad thing but is the very essence of being human?

From there, can we consider the humanity of those who are perpetuating the war? Are there perhaps soldiers who have been conscripted into service who did not know what would be asked of them? Do the Russian solders have families they are scared for? What motivates these young people to engage in these acts of war?

The Russian soldiers are human. I made a point to say that we are not, in examining their humanity, forgiving them, letting them off the hook, none of it. But we can be willing to consider who they actually are instead of shutting down and considering them the rough equivalent of cartoon villains.

The Basic Goodness of Vladimir Putin

Now if you guessed the third question I got, congratulations. When it was asked I was zero percent surprised:

“Well, what about Putin?”

I reflected on this one for a moment. I don’t know Putin. I am inundated with news about what an assh*le he is. I don’t like a single act that I have heard he has done. And yet, this reminded me of a question that I have gotten repeatedly over the last twenty years. It used to be “What about Hitler?” and then in the last decade “What about Trump?” and now we have “What about Putin?”

The question often arises when I talk about the Buddhist notion of basic goodness, the understanding in Buddhism that we are all inherently, innately, primordially good, whole, complete as is. That is our true nature.

Furthermore, that is something you don’t have to take my word for. When we do sit down to meditate we might have a moment when we just are fully present, 100% and in that moment we realize we are okay. That is a glimpse of basic goodness.

We might have several of those throughout the day, particularly if we meditate regularly. It might occur when we see gorgeous flowers and pause and there is an experience of our own basic goodness. Our dog yawns real loud, squeaking while he does and our heart melts and we are present and there is basic goodness. This is not a complex concept; it is simple to experience if we are able to slow down and be present enough to recognize it.

You and I both possess basic goodness and (here’s the controversial part) according to Buddhism so does Hitler, Trump and Putin. They once were babies. They did not come into the world with hate and warfare in their hearts.

Years ago, Representative John Lewis was interviewed on a podcast where he reflected on his early days of activism. He said, “We, from time to time, would discuss if you see someone attacking you, beating you, spitting on you, you have to think of that person — years ago, that person was an innocent child, innocent little baby. And so what happened? Something go wrong? Did the environment? Did someone teach that person to hate, to abuse others? So you try to appeal to the goodness of every human being. And you don’t give up. You never give up on anyone.” While not a Buddhist, Representative Lewis perfectly encapsulates this point: we can possess basic goodness and act out of our confusion.

Often you and I are not in touch with our basic goodness. We get confused about it and end up acting from our fixed ideas and opinions, leading to conflict and aggression as mentioned before. If we do that, we have to allow for the fact that these world leaders do that too, with the key difference that when their fixed ideas and opinions lead to conflict it has vast ramifications.

Should we just love and dote on Putin? F*ck no. But can we recognize that he is a human who is totally confused and acting out the worst parts of himself? That he possesses the same ability to wake up beyond his confusion, just like us? That might be a good inroad to understanding such a person.

At this point, having talked about attachment, renunciation, understanding, love, and basic goodness I asked if anyone had a softball question to lob me. And of course, the group laughed and gave me another difficult question about conflict.

And that’s okay. Conflict is a part of life. There is our inner conflict — the ways we negate our basic goodness and perpetuate doubt and aggression toward ourselves. There is inter-personal conflict, when our fixed ideas butt up against someone else’s. Then there is societal conflict, with society being made up of lots of individuals such as you and me.

Yet I believe that we as individuals can contribute to a more peaceful world. The more we meditate, the more we taste peace and this basic goodness that we all possess. The more we develop an experience of basic goodness, the more we are able to recognize it in each other, which leads to a willingness to seek to understand one another and a de-escalation of conflict. The less conflict we have, the more we cultivate peace in the world around us. None of this is easy, but if we are feeling overwhelmed by the state of the world, we can begin by cultivating peace here at home.

Lodro Rinzler is the award-winning author of 7 books including The Buddha Walks into a Bar and Take Back Your Mind: Buddhist Advice for Anxious Times. He has taught meditation for 20 years in the Buddhist tradition, is the co-founder of MNDFL meditation studios and travels frequently for his books, having spoken across the world at conferences, universities, and businesses as diverse as Google, Harvard University and the White House. Named one of 50 Innovators Shaping the Future of Wellness by SONIMA, Rinzler’s work has been featured in The New York Times,The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, FOX, CBS, and NBC. He lives in upstate New York with his wife Adreanna and a menagerie of small animals. lodrorinzler.com

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Lodro Rinzler

Lodro Rinzler is author of “The Buddha Walks into a Bar,” “Love Hurts” and a handful of other fun books on meditation | Co-Founder of MNDFL. lodrorinzler.com