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Zen Peacemakers' Three Tenets and Ukraine

Updated: Jul 12, 2022

I'd like to talk about the three tenets of the Zen Peacemaker tradition, specifically in relation to the current situation in Ukraine. The courageous struggle of the Ukrainian people in the face of the Russian Armed Forces’ invasion has captured the world's attention and is on all of our hearts and minds.

It is very easy to take sides and revert to blame. The Ukrainian people are being victimized by the aggression from Vladimir Putin, the Russian government and the Russian armed forces under his control. There's a tremendous call for NATO allies in Europe and the United States to come in and rescue the Ukrainian people. It’s the classic triangulation of Stephen Karpman’s Drama Triangle, which I defined in my book Radical Responsibility as “a dysfunctional dynamic, perpetuating negative and destructive drama…with these three roles: the villain (persecutor), the hero (rescuer), and the victim.”

I do not wish to make light of the Ukrainian people being victimized by Russia’s horrific aggression. It's, however, helpful to be aware of the dynamics, so we do not unconsciously fall into that triangulation and perpetuate violence and war.

It appears clear to me, as I'm sure it does to most of you, that the aggressor is the Russian armed forces under the control of Vladimir Putin, and that Vladimir Putin is manifesting as a classic schoolyard bully, as he has done for many years. He is a dangerous bully.

My heart goes out to the people of Ukraine and the suffering they're undergoing right now. Like many of us, I am inspired by their courage, strength, and determination. I am personally donating to Ukrainian relief. At our upcoming Global Resilience Summit, we always dedicate 10% of our net proceeds to charitable causes. This year we are going to dedicate that amount to Ukrainian relief.

If there was a viable way to support Russian soldiers in the recovery from their trauma following this conflict, I would support them, as well as the protesters in Moscow, St. Petersburg and Leningrad. I would also support the call for a free Russia. At the same time, I want to be careful not to get into a Drama Triangle mindset or to ignore the larger context in which this war is happening.


I have found the three tenets of the Zen Peacemaker tradition helpful in approaching all human conflict and issues of social justice and the need for social transformation. The three tenets are not knowing, bearing witness, and loving action. The co-founder of the Zen Peacemaker tradition, Roshi Bernie Glassman, preferred to describe the third tenet as the actions that arise from the practice of bearing witness from a place of not knowing.

We describe not knowing as letting go of fixed ideas about ourselves, about others, and about the world. The goal of all contemplative traditions is how to step out of conditioned mind. How do we release ourselves from our conditioning and experience reality as it is?

Cognitive science today points to the same fact as the great contemplative tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, that we are hardwired to be experiencing a virtual reality created by the way in which our human brains have been conditioned. We want to step out of our cultural, psychological conditioning to experience reality directly.

If we're able to relax all of our fixed ideas and opinions, and simply be with any situation as it is, then the next step is to bear witness, which essentially means to not run away, to not turn away, to allow ourselves to be touched by the suffering of life, as well as the joys of life without the filter of our fixed ideas, our cultural, political and family conditioning.

The way I perceive any situation, like the current situation in Ukraine, is determined by conditioning that has impacted my brain and nervous system and way of perception since birth. It’s easy to go along with the perception that there is a clear victim here, the Ukrainian people, a clear aggressor, Vladimir Putin and the Russian Armed Forces, and the need for others to show up as heroes.

It's not to say that there aren't situations where there are genuine prosecutors and victims and a need to rescue people. But it will be very helpful not to obscure what may be a genuine situation of persecutor, victim, and the need for rescuing, with the overlay of the psychological drama triangle.

We are currently perceiving the situation in Ukraine through many different filters of our conditioning, as well as the current collective conditioning. How can I relax into not knowing and be really curious about what is actually going on? It's also important to bear witness to both the current situation and the history of the current situation.

Fortunately, we're developing a lot more awareness these days about trauma, how it impacts us individually, as well as collective trauma, and how trauma is passed on genetically. We now know from the science of epigenetics that trauma can affect gene expression, and that it can be passed on from parent to child and grandchild. Experiments have shown that trauma is actually passed on. We have other science showing how our genetic code changes based on the impact of trauma.


There's a lot of history underlying the current war in Ukraine. This war has reopened many wounds from World War II and even World War I, collective wounds, wounds in the collective unconscious, and even the collective consciousness.

Vladimir Putin is a creature of the experience of the Soviet Union rising to become a world power in World War II, and then dominating Eastern Europe following World War II, and then the Soviet Union dissolving. This invasion is driven by Putin's desire to reestablish the Russian Empire. The fear in Europe is that if he manages to take Ukraine back, then he's also going to want to take back the Baltics, Lithuania, Estonia, maybe even Poland and the Czech Republic.

We don't want to simply repeat history. How can we relate to this current war? How can we support Ukraine? How can we support freedom in Russia? How can we relate to this whole situation in a way that doesn't just perpetuate the past?

The whole of Europe, Eastern Europe and the Asian part of Russia has been deeply traumatized throughout the 20th century. Was any kind of reasonable healing work done in Russia following World War II? The Russians came out of World War II as victors and then suppressed their population and continued as a totalitarian socialist state, a communist state. Because of the Iron Curtain, the West was not able to do the kind of work that was done to stabilize Western Germany. In the East, there was totalitarian control, oppression, suppression, poverty and scarcity.


Eastern Europe and Russia did not benefit from the revitalization that was brought to Western Europe and western Germany, in particular, following World War II. You could say that Russia bears the responsibility for not having done the healing work, and, instead, increasing the trauma by furthering oppression, starvation, and totalitarian control. But it's important to understand this history of collective trauma because it is our collective trauma. We need to come together as humanity and share the understanding of our history and our collective trauma. And if we don't heal that trauma, it will continue to erupt or become frozen.

My friend and colleague, Thomas Hübl, talks about the permafrost of frozen trauma. On top of that layer, new traumas build and build. The process of healing requires a kind of liquefaction that feels very dangerous when things erupt. Sometimes, when we're not consciously allowing the wounds to open so that we can heal them, they erupt anyway. We could see this conflict in Ukraine as an eruption of unhealed trauma.

Whose responsibility is that? You could say, that's not the West's responsibility. The West did everything that could be done, following World War II, to heal Western Europe. It's got to be the East. It's got to be Russia's responsibility. I would invite us to consider that it is our human responsibility. We need to take collective responsibility for healing trauma and finding our way into peace together.

Deepening our understanding of the nature of collective trauma and our collective need to heal that trauma, we can use the three tenets of not knowing, bearing witness, and the actions that arise out of not knowing, out of bearing witness from a place of not knowing, in wisdom-based or compassionate action.

I have a strong experiential belief in the basic goodness, the innate basic goodness of my own and others, and all human beings, all beings, all life. My teacher, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, called it basic goodness, innate basic goodness. I have developed a strong experiential belief by finding that even in the worst circumstances, humanity reveals its basic goodness, and individuals reveal their basic goodness.

We may not be seeing Vladimir Putin's basic goodness at this moment, but it's there. He's likely a damaged human being with a lot of pain and suffering out of which his actions are arising. My hope is that this aggression can be stopped and that the process of accountability would release him from his leadership position, eventually. But he's still a human being, the Russians are human beings. The Russian soldiers are going to be deeply traumatized by their involvement in this war.


My theory about how the three tenets work is that we're able to experience reality as it is without the filters of our knowing. What happens in this actual reality is contacting basic goodness, our own innate basic goodness. When reality meets basic goodness, what arises is wisdom, and you get wisdom-based actions.

Photo by Max Kukurudziak on Unsplash

My invitation is for us to not invalidate how we feel about this situation. We may feel inspired by the President of Ukraine and by the courageous struggle of the Ukrainian people to protect their land. We may want to support them. We may be very angry at what Vladimir Putin is doing. At the same time, the invitation here is to take a deeper look, explore our own hearts and mind, make our own decisions and engage, by providing relief or getting involved in supporting refugees or doing whatever we want to do. We can even do that without getting trapped in the psychology of the Drama Triangle, which inevitably perpetuates trauma, confusion, and conflict endlessly.

Drama triangles, once they're started, go on endlessly until we step out of that psychology. We've seen the conflict in the Middle East perpetuated, war after war. I invite us all to consider how we can follow through on our hearts' intentions, without getting trapped in the psychology of the Drama Triangle, and to consider working with these three tenets-- with this framework of not knowing, bearing witness, and loving action.

I hope you find this helpful. It's certainly what I'm working with now. I'm trying to think of ways that we can support the Ukrainian people. I have friends and business associates in Ukraine. The Shambala community that I'm part of has many students in Ukraine, as well as in Russia. I was on a day-long meditation retreat this past Sunday, where we had six or seven Ukrainian participants who had to leave halfway through to go to a shelter, which had a strong impact on everyone on the retreat. I encourage you to take good care of your hearts and to reach out and offer assistance in any way you can. Keep in mind that we're in a long-term process of humanity finding its way beyond the fear and survival-based conditioning that can trap us in endless conflict.

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