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A Response to:

"Living Buddha, Living Christ"
by Thich Nhat Hanh

Copyright 1999-2002 by John WorldPeace

All  rights reserved


A.  Continuation

Recent polls show that nearly one-fourth of all Europeans and North Americans believe in some form of reincarnation.  We seem to feel there must be a next life so that those who have acted improperly in this life will pay for their misdeeds.  Or we feel that this earthly life is just too brief to be decisive for all of eternity.  Or we are afraid that when we die we might be reduced to nothingness.  So, revolting against the fact that we have to die, we prefer the idea of continuing with a new body, like changing our clothes.  Will we continue or not after death?  How?  Where?  When?

Reincarnation implies a re-entrance of the soul into the body.  The third-century Christian theologian Origen taught about the pre-existence of the soul from all eternity before its incorporation into a body, a kind of  "pre-incarnation."  This idea is actually close to reincarnation, because if you are incarnated once, you might be incarnated twice, or more.  The sixth-century Council of Constantinople condemned Origen for this teaching.  Even today, most Christian leaders say the idea of reincarnation does not fit with Christianity.  But resurrection does have to do with reincarnation.  An immortal soul does not need to be resurrected.  It is the body that does.  According to the teaching of the Last Judgment, everyone will have his or her body resurrected.  Elements of reincarnation are certainly present in the teachings of Christianity.

B.  Manifestation and Remanifestation

At first, we might think of reincarnation as a soul entering a body.  The body is seen as impermanent and the soul as permanent, and when we get rid of one body, we re-enter another.  You may be surprised to know that people in Buddhist Asia are not fond of reincarnation.  They want the circle of birth and death to end because they know it represents suffering without end.  In popular Buddhism, reincarnation is accepted literally, without much examination, but as we continue to study and practice, the idea of an immortal soul gives way to another idea that is closer to reality.  If we study the teachings of the Buddha and if we observe our own mind, we will find there is nothing permanent within the constituents of what we call our "self:."  The Buddha taught that a so-called "person" is really just five elements (skandhas) that come together for a limited period of time: our body, feelings, perceptions, mental states, and consciousness.  These five elements are, in fact, changing all the time.  Not a single element remains the same for two consecutive moments.

Not only is our body impermanent, but our so-called soul is also impermanent.  It, too, is comprised only of elements like feelings, perceptions, mental states, and consciousness.  When the idea of an immortal soul is replaced, our understanding of reincarnation gets closer to the truth.  The idea of reincarnation is somehow still there, but our understanding is different.  We see that there are only rapidly changing constituents.

In Buddhism, we do not actually use the word "reincarnation."  We say "rebirth."  But even rebirth is problematic.  According to the teachings of the Buddha, "birth" does not exist either.  Birth generally means from nothing you become something, and death generally means from something you become nothing.  But if we observe the things around us, we find that nothing comes from nothing.  Before its so-called birth, this flower already existed in other forms -- clouds, sunshine, seeds, soil, and many other elements.  Rather than birth and rebirth, it is more accurate to say "manifestation" (vij˝apti) and "remanifestation."  The so-called birthday of the flower is really a day of its remanifestation.  It has already been here in other forms, and now it has made an effort to remanifest.  Manifestation means its constituents have always been here in some form, and now, since conditions are sufficient, it is capable of manifesting itself as a flower.  When things have manifested, we commonly say that they are born, but in fact, they are not.  When conditions are no longer sufficient and the flower ceases to manifest, we say the flower has died, but that is not correct either.  Its constituents have merely transformed themselves into other elements, like compost and soil.  We have to transcend notions like birth, death, being, and non-being.  Reality is free from all notions.

C.  True Faith is Alive

In the beginning, we might have embarked upon the path of Buddhism thanks to a belief in reincarnation, but as we continue to practice and touch reality, our beliefs change.  We needn't be afraid of this.  In the course of our study and practice, as we touch reality more and more deeply, our beliefs naturally evolve and become more solid.  When our beliefs are based on our own direct experience of reality and not on notions offered by others, no one can remove these beliefs from us.  Making a long-term commitment to a concept is much more dangerous.  If ten years pass without the growth of our belief, one day we will wake up and discover that we can no longer believe in what we did.  The notion of ten years ago is no longer sound or adequate, and we are plunged into the darkness of disbelief.

Our faith must be alive.  It cannot be just a set of rigid beliefs an notions.  Our faith must evolve every day and bring us joy, peace, freedom, and love.  Faith implies practice, living our daily life in mindfulness.  Some people think that prayer or meditation involves only our minds or our hearts.  But we also have to pray with our bodies, with our actions in the world.  And our actions must be modelled after those of the living Buddha or the living Christ.  If we live as they did, we will have deep understanding and pure actions, and we will do our share to help create a more peaceful world for our children and all of the children of God.

D.  Each moment is a Moment of Renewal

All of us possess the energy of mindfulness, the energy of the Holy Spirit, only its intensity and strength vary in each person.  Our daily practice is to increase, to strengthen that power.  There is no need to wait until Easter to celebrate.  When the Holy Spirit is present, Jesus is already here.  He does not have to be resurrected.  We can feel Him right now.  It is not a matter of reincarnation, rebirth, or even resurrection.  Dwelling mindfully, we know that each moment is a moment of renewal.  I wish I could be like Asita and Simeon, the holy men who came to see the Buddha and Jesus, and tell you how important your birth is.

E.  Enlightenment Grows

Several years ago, after practicing walking meditation with three children in Switzerland, I asked them, "Do you think the enlightenment of the Buddha can grow?"  They answered, "Yes," and I was very happy.  The children affirmed something I also believe, that enlightenment is alive, like a tree.  If it does not continue to grow, it will die.  The enlightenment of the Buddha, the compassion and loving-kindness of Jesus, grow every day.  We ourselves are responsible for their growth.  Our bodies are the continuation of the Buddha's body.  Our compassion and understanding are the compassion and understanding of Jesus.  Awareness is the Buddha in person.  If we live mindfully, we encounter the Buddha and Jesus Christ all the time.

F.  Nirvana is Available Now

Some waves on the ocean are high and some are low.  Waves appear to be born and to die.  But if we look more deeply, we see that the waves, although coming and going, are also water, which is always there.  Notions like high and low, birth and death can be applied to waves, but water is free of such distinctions.  Enlightenment for a wave is the moment the wave realizes that it is water.  At that moment, all fear of death disappears.  If you practice deeply, one day you will realize that you are free from birth and death, free from many of the dangers that have been assaulting you.  When you see that, you will have no trouble building a boat that can carry you across the waves of birth and death.  Smiling, you will understand that you do not have to abandon this world in order to be free.  You will know that nirvana, the Kingdom of Heaven, is available here and now.

The Buddha seldom talked about this because he knew that if he talked about nirvana, we would spend too much time talking about it and not practicing.  But he did make a few rare statements, such as this one from Udana vii, 3: "Verily, there is an unborn, unoriginated, uncreated, unformed.  If there were not this unborn, unoriginated, uncreated, unformed, then an escape from the world of the born, the originated, the created, and the formed would not be possible."  Early Buddhism did not have the ontological flavor we find in later Buddhism.  The Buddha dealt more with the phenomenal world.  His teaching was very practical.  Theologians spend a lot of time, ink, and breath talking about God.  This is exactly what the Buddha did not want his disciples to do, because he wanted them to have time to practice samatha (stopping, calming), vipasyana (looking deeply), taking refuge in the Three Jewels, the Five Precepts, and so on.

G.  The Extinction of Notions

The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein said, "Concerning that which cannot be talked about, we should not say anything."  We cannot talk about it, but we can experience it.  We can experience the non-born, non-dying, non-beginning, non-ending because it is reality itself.  The way to experience it is to abandon our habit of perceiving everything through concepts and representations.  Theologians have spent thousands of years talking about God as one representation.  This is called onto-theology, and it is talking about what we should not talk about.

Protestant theologian Paul Tillich said that God is not a person, but also not less than a person.  Whether we speak of God as not a person, as a non-person, as not less than a person, or as more than a person, these attributes do not mean very much.  One flower is made of the whole cosmos.  We cannot say that the flower is less than this or more than that.  When we extinguish our ideas of more and less, is and is not, we attain the extinction of ideas and notions, which in Buddhism is called nirvana.  The ultimate dimension of reality has nothing to do with concepts.  It is not just absolute reality that cannot be talked about.  Nothing can be conceived or talked about.  Take, for instance, a glass of apple juice.  You cannot talk about apple juice to someone who has never tasted it.  No matter what you say, the other person will not have the true experience of apple juice.  The only way is to drink it.  It is like a turtle telling a fish about life on dry land.  You cannot describe dry land to a fish.  He could never understand how one might be able to breathe without water.  Things cannot be described by concepts and words.  They can only be encountered by direct experience.

H.  More Time for Your Tea

Wittgenstein's statement, "Concerning that which cannot be talked about, we should not say anything," might lead you to think there are things we can talk about and things we cannot.  But, in fact, nothing can be talked about, perceived, or described by representation.  If you talk about things you have not experienced, you are wasting your and other people's time.  As you continue the practice of looking deeply, you will see this more and more clearly, and you will save a lot of paper and publishing enterprises and have more time to enjoy your tea and live your daily life in mindfulness.

Rohitassa asked the Buddha whether it is possible to get out of this world of birth and death by traveling, and the Buddha said no, not even if you were to travel at the speed of light.  But he did not say it is impossible to transcend the world of birth and death.  He said that we only need to look deeply into our body to touch the world of no-birth and no-death.  But we cannot just talk about it.  We have to practice, to experience it in our own being.  The world of no-birth and no-death is not something apart from the world of birth and death.  In fact, they are identical.

I.  The Other Shore is this Shore

When the Buddha spoke of salvation or emancipation, he used the word parayana, "the other shore."  The other shore represents the realm of no-birth, no-death, and no suffering.  Sometimes the concept "other shore" is not clear enough, so the Buddha also used the word tathata, which means "reality as it is."  We cannot talk about it, we cannot conceive it.  Sometimes we call it nirvana, the extinction of all words, ideas, and concepts.  When the concept "other shore" is misunderstood, nirvana comes to the rescue.  When we think of another shore, we may think that it is completely different from this shore, that to reach it we have to abandon this shore completely.  The true teaching is that the other shore is this very shore.  In all schools of Buddhism, the teaching of no-coming, no-going, no-being, no-nonbeing, no-birth, and no-death exists.  Mahayana Buddhists remind us that this teaching is only a finger pointing to the moon.  It is not the moon itself.

J.  Everything Can be Spiritual

Jesus pointed to that same reality of no-birth, no-death.  He called it the Kingdom of God.  The Kingdom of God is not something distinct from God, whom he called Abba, "Father."  Just as the concept "other shore" can create the misunderstanding that the other shore is not this shore, the concept "Father" can also be misleading.  For instance, feminists in our time ask why "Father" and not "Mother"?  Eternal life is the kind of life that includes death.  In fact, eternal life without death is not possible.  It is like two sides of a coin.  Eternal life is the whole coin.  Noneternal life is just one side of the coin.  Once you choose eternal life, you choose death as well, and both are life.  But if you want to take only one side of the coin, you have no coin.

Theology has gone a long way trying to describe "God" or the "Kingdom of God," that wonderful reality that, in fact, cannot be talked about.  Over many centuries, theology has thus become metaphysical theology or onto-theology to such an extent that we neglect the true teaching of Jesus concerning the way to live that reality.  Since German philosopher Martin Heidegger, theologians have been trying to go back to the beginning and have been more careful in making statements about God.

Many people in our time want to go back to Jesus and His teaching.  Sometimes terms like "secular Christianity" or "atheistic Christianity" are used to describe this movement.  There are those who worry that secular or atheistic Christianity is no longer real Christianity.  To me, if you live deeply the teaching of Jesus, everything you say and do in your daily life will be deeply spiritual.  I would not call it secular or atheistic at all.  Suppose we do not celebrate a Eucharist in a church, but sit together in the open air to share our bread, eating it mindfully and gratefully, aware of the marvelous nature of the bread.  Such an act cannot be described as secular or atheistic.

K.  Touching the Living Buddha

God as the ground of being cannot be conceived of Nirvana also cannot be conceived of.  If we are aware when we use the word "nirvana" or the word "God" that we are talking about the ground of being, there is no danger in using these words.  But if we say, "According to Buddhism, this exists," or, "This does not exist," it is not Buddhism, because the ideas of being and non-being are extremes that the Buddha transcended.  When we share the Dharma, we must speak carefully so that we and our listeners do not get stuck in words or concepts.  It is our duty to transcend words and concepts to be able to encounter reality.  To be in touch with the source of our own wisdom is the most eloquent way to show that Buddhism is alive.  We can touch the living Buddha.  We can also touch the living Christ.  When we see someone overflowing with love and understanding, someone who is keenly aware of what is going on, we know that they are very close to the Buddha and to Jesus Christ.

L.  Trees and Birds Preaching the Dharma

The Buddha is often described as having "three bodies": Dharmakaya, Sambhogakaya, and Nirmanakaya.  Dharmakaya is the embodiment of the Dharma, always shining, always enlightening trees, grass, birds, human beings, and so on, always emitting light.  It is this Buddha who is preaching now and not just 2,500 years ago.  Sometimes we call this Buddha Vairochana, the ontological Buddha, the Buddha at the center of the universe.

The Sambhogakaya is the body of bliss.  Because the Buddha practices mindfulness, he has immeasurable peace, joy, and happiness, and that is why we can touch his body of bliss, sometimes called the body of enjoyment or body of rewards.  The Sambhogakaya represents the peace and happiness of the Buddha, the fruit of his practice.  When you practice mindfulness, you enjoy within you the fruit of the practice.  You are happy and peaceful, and your happiness and peace radiate around you for others to enjoy.  When you do this, you are sending many Sambhogakayas into the world to help relieve the suffering of living beings.  Each of us has the capacity of transforming many living beings if we know how to cultivate the seed of enlightenment within ourselves.

Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha, is the Nirmanakaya, the transformation body, a light ray sent by the sun of the Dharmakaya.  Those in touch with Vairochana are also in touch with Shakyamuni.  But if that ray is not apparent to us, we do not need to worry.  The Sun is still there.  If we cannot listen directly to Shakyamuni, if we are open enough we can listen to Vairochana.  In addition, many other transformation Buddhas are also expounding the same Dharama -- the trees, the birds, the violet bamboo, and the yellow chrysanthemums are all preaching the Dharma that Shakyamuni taught 2,500 years ago.  We can be in touch with him through any of these.  He is a living Buddha, always available.

In Christianity, mystery is often described as darkness.  When Victor Hugo lost his daughter, he complained, "Man sees only one side of things, the other side is plunged into the night of frightening mystery."  In many Buddhist sutras, everyone in the assembly experiences bliss when they are touched by the beams of light emanating from the Buddha.  In Buddhism, the word "avidya," ignorance, means literally "the lack of light."  Vidya, understanding, is made of light.

M.  Rinsing the Mouth, Washing the Ears

In the Greek Orthodox church, theologians talk about "apophatic theology," or "negative theology."  "Apophatic" is from the Greek apophasis, which means "denying."  You say that God is not this, God is not that, until you get rid of all your concepts of God.  The second-century Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna developed a similar dialectic to remove our ideas concerning reality.  He did not describe reality, because reality is what it is and cannot be described.  Buddhism teaches us that reality is quite different from our concepts.  The reality of a table is quite different from the concept "table."  Every word we use has a concept behind it.  The word "God" is based on a concept of "God."  According to Buddhism, meditation on a rabbit's horns or on a hortoise's hair, things we do not believe exist, can also lead to enlightenment.  These concepts are comprised of real elements that we can merge in our imagination.  We have an image of horns and an image of rabbit, so why not have a rabbit with horns?  The concept "rabbit's horn" is a true concept, as real as any other concept.

One Buddhist teacher said that every time he pronounced the word "Buddhism," he had to rinse his mouth out three times.  Even the word "Buddhism" can cause misunderstanding.  People may think of Buddhism as something that can exist by itself, independent of Christianity, Judaism, or anything else.  Rinsing his mouth was a kind of preventive medicine to remind himself (and his students) not to cling to the concept "Buddhism" as something that can exist all by itself.  One day someone in the congregation stood up and said, "Teacher, every time I hear you pronounce the word 'Buddhism,' I have to go to the river and wash my ears three times!"  The teacher approved that statement.  In Buddhist circles, we are careful to avoid getting stuck in concepts, even the concepts "Buddhism" and "Buddha."  If you think of the Buddha as someone separate form the rest of the world, you will never recognize a Buddha even if you see him on the street.  That is why one Zen Master said to his student, "When you met the Buddha, kill him!"  He meant that the student should kill the Buddha-concept in order for him to experience the real Buddha directly.

Another Zen teacher said, "To end suffering, you must touch the world of no-birth and no-death."  His student asked, "Where is the world of no-birth and no-death?"  The master replied, "It is right here in the world of birth and death."  The world of impermanence and non-self is the world of birth and death.  Salvation is possible.  It is possible to enter the world of no-birth and no-death through the practice of living each moment of your life in awareness.  Jewish teologian Abraham Heschel said that to live by the Torah, the Jewish law, is to live the life of eternity within time.  We live in the historical dimension and yet touch the ultimate dimension.  But if we talk too much about it, we move far from the ultimate dimension.  That is why in Zen Buddhist circles people are urged to experience and not to talk a lot.

N.  The Holy Spirit can be Identified

In every school of Christianity, we see people who follow the same spirit, who do not want to speculate on what cannot be speculated about.  "Negative theology" is an effort and practice to prevent Christians from being caught by notions and concepts that prevent them from touching the living spirit of Christianity.  When we speak of negative theology, the theology of the Death of God, we are talking about the death of every concept we may have of God in order to experience God as a living reality directly.

A good theologian is one who says almost nothing about God, even though the word "theology" means "discourse about God."  It is risky to talk about God.  The notion of God might be an obstacle for us to touch God as love, wisdom, and mindfulness.  The Buddha was very clear about this.  He said, "You tell me that you are in love with a beautiful woman, but when I ask you, 'What is the color of her eyes?  What is her name?  What is the name of her town?' you cannot tell me.  I don't believe you are really in love with something real."  Your notion of God may be vague like that, not having to do with reality.  The Buddha was not against God.  He was only against notions of God that are mere mental constructions that do not correspond to reality, notions that prevent us from developing ourselves and touching ultimate reality.  That is why I believe it is safer to approach God through the Holy Spirit than through the door of theology.  We can identify the Holy Spirit whenever it makes its presence felt.  Whenever we see someone who is loving, compassionate, mindful, caring, and understanding, we know that the Holy Spirit is there.

O.  Touching the Ultimate Dimension

One day as I was about to step on a dry leaf, I saw the leaf in the ultimate dimension.  I saw that it was not really dead, but that it was merging with the moist soil in order to appear on the tree the following spring in another form.  I smiled at the leaf and said, "You are pretending."  Everything is pretending to be born and pretending to die, including that leaf.  The Buddha said, "When conditions are sufficient, the body reveals itself, and we say the body exists.  When conditions are not sufficient, the body cannot be perceived by us, and we say the body does not exist."  The day of our "death" is a day of our continuation in many other forms.  If you know how to touch your ancestors in the ultimate dimension, they will always be there with you.  If you touch your own hand, face, or hair and look very deeply, you can see that they are there in you, smiling.  This is a deep practice.  The ultimate dimension is a state of coolness, peace, and joy.  It is not a state to be attained after you "die."  You can touch the ultimate dimension right now by breathing, walking, and drinking your tea in mindfulness.  Everything and everyone is dwelling in nirvana, in the Kingdom of God.  A farmer looking at his land in winter can already see his crop, because he knows that all of the conditions are there -- land, seeds, water, fertilizer, farm equipment, and so on -- except one, warm weather, and that will come in a matter of months.  So it would be inaccurate to say his crop does not exist.  It is already there.  It needs only one more condition to manifest.  When St. Francis asked the almond tree to tell him about God, in just a few seconds the tree was covered with beautiful flowers.  St Francis was standing on the side of the ultimate dimension.  It was winter.  There were no leaves, flowers, or fruits, but he saw the flowers.

We are entirely capable of touching the ultimate dimension.  When we touch one thing with deep awareness, we touch everything.  Touching the present moment, we realize that the present is made of the past and is creating the future.  When we drink a cup of tea very deeply, we touch the whole of time.  To meditate, to live a life of prayer, is to live each moment of life deeply.  Through meditation and prayer, we see that waves are made only of water, that the historical and the ultimate dimensions are one.  Even while living in the world of waves, we touch the water, knowing that a wave is nothing but water.  We suffer if we touch only the waves, but if we learn how to stay in touch with the water, we feel the greatest relief.  Touching nirvana, touching the Kingdom of God, liberates us from many worries.  We enter a spiritual practice seeking relief in the historical dimension.  We calm our body and mind and establish our stillness, our freshness, and our solidity.  We practice loving-kindness, concentration, and transforming our anger, and we feel some relief.  But when we touch the ultimate dimension of reality, we get the deepest kind of relief.  Each of us has the capacity to touch nirvana and be free from birth and death, one and many, coming and going.

Christian contemplation includes the practice of resting in God, which, I believe is the equivalent of touching nirvana.  Although God cannot be described by using concepts and notions, that does not mean you cannot experience God the Father.  If the wave does not have to die to become water, then we do not have to die to enter the Kingdom of God.  The Kingdom of God is available here and now.  The energy of the Holy Spirit is the energy that helps us touch the Kingdom of God.  Tillich has said that speaking of God as a person is just a figure of speech.  He said that God is the ground of being.  This makes me think of the water that is the ground of being for the wave.  He also said that God is the ultimate reality, and that makes me remember nirvana.  I do not think there is that much difference between Christians and Buddhists.  Most of the boundaries we have created between our two traditions are artificial.  Truth has no boundaries.  Our differences may be mostly differences in emphasis.

You are born in your tradition, and naturally you become a Buddhist or a Christian.  Buddhism or Christianity is part of your culture and civilization.  You are familiar with your culture and appreciate the good things in it.  You may not be aware that in other cultures and civilizations there are values that people are attached to.  If you are open enough, you will understand that your tradition does not contain all truths and values.  It is easy to get caught in the idea that salvation is not possible outside of your tradition.  A deep and correct practice of your tradition may release you from that dangerous belief.

In the Gospel according to Matthew, the Kingdom of God is described as a mustard seed.  "The Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed.  "The Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in the field.  It is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches."  What is the seed?  Where is the soil?  What is it if not our own consciousness?  We hear repeatedly that God is within our consciousness.  Buddha nature, the seed of mindfulness, is in the soil of our consciousness.  It may be small, but if we know how to care for it, how to touch it, how to water it moment after moment, it becomes an important refuge for all the birds of the air.  It has the power of transforming everything.  In Buddhist practice, we learn how to touch that seed in every moment, how to help it grow, how to make it into the light that can guide us.

In the Gospel according to Matthew, the Kingdom of Heaven is also described as yeast: "The Kingdom of Heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened."  A little yeast has the power to leaven a lot of flour.  The flour is our consciousness.  Inside that consciousness are negative seeds: seeds of fear, hatred, and confusion.  But if you have the seed of the Kingdom of God inside and know how to touch it, it will have the power to leaven, to transform everything.

P.  Touching the Water Within the Waves

The Kingdom of God is also said to be like a treasure that someone finds and hides in a field.  Then, in his joy, he sells all he has and buys that field.  If you are capable of touching that treasure, you know that nothing can be compared to it.  It is the source of true joy, true peace, and true happiness.  Once you have touched it, you realize that all the things you have considered to be conditions for your happiness and nothing.  They may even be obstacles for your own happiness, and you can get rid of them without regret.  We are all looking for the conditions for our own happiness, and we know what things have made us suffer.  But we have not yet seen or touched the treasure of happiness.  When we touch it, even once, we know that we have the capacity of letting go of everything else.

That treasure of happiness, the Kingdom of Heaven, may be called the ultimate dimension of reality.  When you see only waves, you might miss the water.  But if you are mindful, you will be able to touch the water within the waves as well.  Once you are capable of touching the water, you will not mind the coming and going of the waves.  You are no longer concerned about the birth and the death of the wave.  You are no longer afraid.  You are no longer upset about the beginning or the end of the wave, or that the wave is higher or lower, more or less beautiful.  You are capable of letting these ideas go because you have already touched the water.

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How can we manifest peace on earth if we do not include everyone (all races, all nations, all religions, both sexes) in our vision of Peace?


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