All People Are Chosen, All Lands Are Holy: from an Interfaith Dialogue on Peace & Sustainability

 This is the text of a talk given on 1 November 2013 at the Institut Kefahaman Islam Malaysia (IKIM) in Kuala Lumpur, at the start of the 2013 conference of the International Network of Engaged Buddhists.  At IKIM there were presentations on interfaith relations by Dr. Azizan Baharuddin, Ajahn Sulak Sivaraksa, Dr. Chandra Muzaffar, and myself.  I began, briefly, by acknowledging my appreciation for the other presenters, then leading a practice of breathing together for a few moments.  Key parts of this talk were developed from an essay I wrote in 2002, “Through a Glass Darkly: A Buddhist View of Israel & Palestine.”      

Petronas Tower, Kuala Lumpur

Petronas Tower, Kuala Lumpur


Lets begin by taking a few minutes to breathe silently together.  Please close your eyes and sit upright.  Take a long breath in and let it out slowly.  Take a few breaths like this.  When you are ready, just settle into a natural rhythm of breath.  In your mind you may reflect on my words, offer a simple prayer, or simply enjoy a feeling of peace, of being alive together.

The air we breathe is a fabric that weaves together all life on the planet. Everywhere, every moment every sentient being is breathing.  The air – clean or smoggy, steamy or cool – connects us and allows us to be together in a common physical activity, the motion of breath.  We breathe and we are breathed by forces that are beyond our understanding. Please just enjoy this common act of life.


Thank you for taking these few minutes to reflect and act together.  It is common, human activity that we need.


The essence of my talk today is a simple and challenging principle: All people are chosen; all lands are holy. Let me say that again: All people are chosen; all lands are holy.

I should say that I was born into a secular Jewish family in the United States. My grandparents and great grandparents fled religious repression, violence, and military conscription in eastern Europe one hundred years ago.  Over more than five thousand years going back to the earliest Hebrew scriptures, Jews carry with us the myth of the chosen people.  And then there is the myth of the holy land, a story that continues to bring great suffering to peoples of the Middle East.

I have never been able to accept these myths. Visions of chosen people and holy lands seduce us.  The obsessive nature of religious, ethnic, and national identity is not sustainable, nor does it lead to peace.

At an early age I set aside my religion of birth and began a search for spiritual teachings that fit with how I saw the world.  By the time I reached college, I had come to admire Buddhism.  In the simplest terms the Buddha explained: “I teach about suffering and the end of suffering.”  This teaching continues to inspire me.

Still, I carry two powerful models in mind.  In Judaism, Christianity, and Islam we hear the voice of the prophets, preaching justice and righteousness in society, speaking truth to power.  In Buddhism we admire the Bodhisattva, who selflessly places the wellbeing of others before him or herself.  Two streams of faith from two sides of the world — Jewish elders and Buddha ancestors — converge in my heart.  They speak to each other and I try to listen.

When I consider that all lands are holy, two Zen Buddhist sayings come to mind. The first is: “There is no place in the world to spit.”  Every place is precious to those who live there.  Every place is the center of the world.  So, of course, there is no room for thoughtless actions that defile the land and poison the air and waters.  The path of peace is to take equal care of every place.

The second Zen saying that comes to mind is this: “If you create an understanding of holiness, you will succumb to all errors.” Just as all lands are holy, we can see that elevating one people splits the world in two. An exclusive holiness — my people, my religion, my nation — plants poisonous seeds of “us and them.” From such seeds war and hatred grow. In the name of what is holy, the soil of countless nations has absorbed the blood of crusaders, soldiers, defenders, martyrs, and other innocent people.

From a Buddhist perspective, our limited view, our self-centered attachment to these views is the source of suffering. Self-centeredness causes us to live at the expense of others. From this root we readily grow a kind of cultural or national self-centeredness, with individual suffering manifesting as policies of religious and ethnic intolerance, generation to generation, forging chains of suffering out of fear and anger. And we use violence to enforce this identity.

Verses 3-5 of the Dhammapada speak to this.

He insulted me, hit me, beat me, robbed me

— for those who brood on this, violence isn’t stilled.

Violence is never stilled through violence, regardless.

Violence only ceases are stilled through love.

This is an unending truth.


With Buddhism and Islam prevalent in Southeast Asia, we have seen the rise of inter-communal tensions between Buddhists and Muslims in Thailand, Indonesia, the Maldives, Myanmar, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka over the last decade. Our effort in this forum, at this conference, and in the mission of the International Network of Engaged Buddhists is to recognize our common humanity and our common right to life. The United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights begins with recognition that “…the inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world…”

The enlightened center of Buddhism and the peaceful heart of Islam, along with the essence of many other religious traditions, are often lost in a world that is governed by global politics and multinational corporations. Where religion, the state, and economics join forces narrowness and prejudice readily arise.  This unholy alliance is more about power than faith.  In a religious state the religious community in power has the preponderance of power, resources, and weapons.  At this forum we begin with words, but peace and sustainability in Southeast Asia or anywhere across the globe depend on much more than words. We can talk about equality, generosity, and all kind of high-minded principles. But until we recognize that all people are chosen, that we are our brother’s brother and our sister’s sister, nothing fundamental will change.

Article 1o f the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says:  All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Article 25 puts this in concrete terms:  Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services…”

We also recognize that sustainability is a global issue. Southeast Asia suffers from overpopulation and from global warming.  Agricultural output is threatened and fresh water is at a premium even as oceans rise and overrun low-lying coastal areas. The exponential rise of co2 from factories, energy production, and fossil-fuel-powered vehicles has destabilized weather patterns; unseasonable and cyclones, hurricanes, tornados, and floods rake across our continents.

These man-made crises will not just go away.  Nor will they be resolved by the actions or technology of any one nation.  If all beings are chosen in the sense that our deepest nature is enlightened being, we are also chosen together to face all the self-created

In one of his last books, my late teacher Robert Aitken Roshi wrote a Zen fable with talking animals.  The wise Owl and Brown Bear discuss the Buddha’s Eightfold Path Owl asks, “…where does Right Realization come in?”

Brown Bear said, “Right Views! Right Views!”

Owl said, “What are Right Views?”

Brown Bear said, “We’re in it together, and we don’t have much time.”

—   from Zen Master Raven: Sayings and Doings of a Wise Bird

We are all in this world together and we don’t have much time.  Even in the United States — a nation whose lands were stolen from indigenous people and tribes, and whose wealth was built on the backs of slaves shipped like cattle from Africa and worked to death on farms and in the fields — there are many of us from all religious and political traditions who know that our privilege and empire are not sustainable.

Today, we have begun with words, but words are not enough.  I hope that our efforts at this forum and in our meetings over the next few days will lead to dedicated and cooperative action.  Buddhist and Muslims, living in the same cities, farming the same lands, fishing the same rivers and seas, must work hand in hand.  As all people on this planet must.

If there are differences between us we must learn to respect and even treasure those differences, even those that seem to contradict our beliefs. This is the true variety of human creativity.  We have to do this carefully and kindly.  That will not be easy, but it is necessary if the world itself is to survive. Let us dedicate the next few days and the work that flows from these days to this common purpose.  Warm hand to warm hand.


 In our Buddhist traditions we end our meditation, prayers, and devotional services with what is called a dedication of merit. The particular form of this dedication varies, but it calls on us to offer our efforts and our abundance to all beings, not to hold these benefits for ourselves.  I’d like to close by sharing a dedication that we use at Berkeley Zen Center for our weekly peace service.  I hope this will find a resonance in your hearts here today.


Peace Dedication    (revised 10.2013)

With a deep desire for peace we have offered light, flowers, and incense, our words and prayers.  May the merit of these offerings reach everywhere  — to save all sentient beings in worlds of suffering and confusion; to encourage us to nourish compassion and selflessness; to end all wars; to avert the calamities of epidemic and famine, and the destructive forces of fire, water, wind, and earth; to rejoice in our different ways and faiths while recognizing the intimate connection of all life on this fragile planet.  May we together with all beings realize the path of peace and harmony.

— Hozan Alan Senauke

About asenauke

Zen Buddhist priest, activist, writer, father, musician
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