Planting Seeds of Peace in Liberia

The story I want to share with you is a story of determination, courage, and collective action begun by the women of Liberia that has catalyzed the transformation of a country in seemingly unimaginable ways. In a culture whose fabric was all but destroyed by war, this story is about ending violence and building peace, guided by heartfelt prayers and intentions that manifest in action. The story reveals how a former Army soldier who became a combatant in the rebel forces during the war is helping ignite a grassroots effort to renew traditional Peace Huts and collectively strengthen a nation’s commitment to healing and reconciliation.

In 2003, the women of Liberia showed the world that collective action works. Overcoming religious differences, they joined together and took to the streets, praying, fasting, and standing loudly for the end of a brutal 14-year civil war. Although prayer was their mainstay, these women were in no way passive. Through their powerful non-violent actions and sheer determination, they found the strength to step up and change Liberia.

After the war ended, Liberia’s women united again and elected the first woman president in Africa, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who, along with the founder of the women’s peace movement, Leymah Gbowee, shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011.

In 2009, I went to Liberia. A group called the everyday gandhis had heard about my organization, Alliance for the Earth, and the work we were doing to bring Earth Treasure Vases that I’d received from a 106-year-old Buddhist lama in Nepal to places where healing and protection were called for. They suggested Liberia as a candidate for one of the little clay vessels filled with prayers and offerings for peace as a complement to their efforts in building peace and healing the land. Visiting Lofa County, Liberia—the worst fought area during the war—opened a door for this practice in Africa.

A Practice to Heal the Earth

Back in 1990, I found myself walking up a trail in the high Himalayas. With each step, I contemplated the opportunity before me—to meet Charok Rinpoche, an old wise man living in a cave, and ask him a question. When we met, my mind was clear and my heart was set on one burning question: “What can we do to bring healing and protection to the Earth?”

As he sat, his old red robes falling onto the ground around him, he looked into me and said: “Even just one person practicing deeply can bring benefit to the whole area where they live. But you… you need to get Earth Treasure Vases and put them in the ground. They will do that work.”

In the moment, I could not comprehend how a little clay pot filled with prayers and symbolic offerings, however sacred they might be, could bring real protection to the Earth—especially radioactive waste from the production of nuclear weapons assembled at Los Alamos National Lab, the birthplace of the atomic bomb, just across the Rio Grande River valley from Santa Fe, New Mexico, where I live.

But because I didn’t know what else to do to end war or environmental destruction, I asked where I could get these vases. He pointed me in the direction of an even more remote monastery in the region and told me to ask the lamas there to make them for me. My journey as steward of 30 Earth Treasure Vases (ETVs) had begun.

In most lineages of this practice, the vases would be filled by the lamas with specific sacred offerings and prayers, then consecrated, sealed, and taken to be buried in places of need. But in a highly unusual gesture, the lamas decided to mix the sacred substances directly into the clay that formed the pots. These were then blessed and consecrated and given to us to fill, seal, and bury. They told me, “Just put them in the ground. They’ll do the work.”

Over the last 24 years, 30 ETVs have been taken all over the world. I have sat with Aboriginal elders in Australia and San Bushmen in South Africa, the Pygmy people in DR Congo, and the Dogon in Mali. ETVs have gone to sacred sites in Egypt, England, Kosovo, Israel-Palestine, the South Pacific, and the Arctic Circle. They have gone to the Kogi in Colombia, to New York City after 9/11, and to the MLK Freedom Center in East Oakland. There is a vase at the source of the Amazon and one at the source of the Ganges. The center of this global mandala of healing and protection for the Earth is a cave above Los Alamos National Laboratory.

But it is our ongoing experience in Liberia that reminds me without a doubt how a humble little clay pot filled with prayers and offerings can inspire creative resolutions to some of the world’s most overwhelming problems. In spite of its origins in Tibetan Buddhism, the ETV ceremony easily translates into every culture and tradition because wherever we go everyone recognizes that the Earth is in danger, that the world is suffering. The vase provides a vehicle for all of our prayers.

Christian Bethelson at Plum Village, France, a Buddhist Monastery founded by Thich Nhat Hanh February 2014
Christian Bethelson at Plum Village, France, a Buddhist Monastery founded by Thich Nhat Hanh February 2014

Prayers for Peace Take Root

When we arrived in Liberia, the women welcomed us and asked to hear our story. In order to determine if the ETV was to be accepted in the land, they called upon the ancestors to open the way. Permission was granted, sacrifices were made, and elder representatives of the three countries in the bioregion—Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone—were present. Each one blessed the vase. Ex-combatants, former child soldiers, and other young people got involved and decorated a box we had gotten made in the local market for the vase’s burial.

Dressed in their finest, hundreds of people came to the final ceremony and prayed for peace. Each made their offering into the pot. The elders selected a location for the burial and everyone agreed that something extraordinary had happened. A seed was planted and the ETV became an anchor for peace in this volatile region.

As the vase went into the ground, the elders turned to me and said, “Now what? This is important. What can we do to remember our prayers?”

It was Christian Wolo Bethelson—the former rebel, “General Leopard”—who suggested we build a Peace Hut in Telowoyan Village where the ETV was buried.

When I met Bethelson, I noticed he watched me sitting in meditation, curious about what I was doing. I knew he wanted to taste that calm equipoise for himself. When I returned home, he began to call, requesting that I teach him to meditate. I could hardly believe he was serious, but knowing how his life had already begun to transform, I realized I must work with him. Bethelson, like so many other former fighters when the war ended, was out of work, ashamed, disgraced, and alienated. He suffered from PTSD and had nowhere to turn and no way to put rice on the table. So he had decided to offer his mercenary services to the rebels operating in neighboring Ivory Coast.

He was on his way there when his car got stuck in the mud, where he happened to meet the peacebuilding group, everyday gandhis, whose vehicle was stuck too. After introducing himself, they began to talk and soon they invited him to join their team. Instead of proceeding to Ivory Coast, he turned completely around and began a whole new life.

It was several years after this that I began to work with Bethelson. Slowly over the last five years, Bethelson learned the practice of mindfulness—listening to the sound of the bell inviting him to stop, to return to the present moment, and to simply breathe. From this basic act of conscious breathing repeated over and over, he has been able to touch the seeds of peace and calm within himself and begin the work of transformation and healing for which he has desperately yearned.

“When people I work with—former child soldiers and ex-combatants—hear the bell, it gives them a moment of mercy, a moment of freedom from the mental and emotional anguish they are living with.”
~ Christian Wolo Bethelson, former rebel General

From an insight born from his practice of mindfulness, Bethelson understood that building a traditional Palava Peace Hut in the same village where the ETV was buried would be a skillful way to engage the elders in keeping their prayers for peace alive. Today in the heart of that community, there now stands a Peace Hut where the community gathers for trainings in conflict resolution, mindfulness practice, and women’s empowerment.

Left: Celebrating the dedication of the Peace Hut in Telowoyan Village. Right: Bethelson and Greene embrace after their reconciliation
Left: Celebrating the dedication of the Peace Hut in Telowoyan Village. Right: Bethelson and Greene embrace after their reconciliation

Since 2009, Alliance for the Earth has not only worked with Bethelson but also with Harper Karmon, a specialist in trauma healing and conflict resolution, and Annie Nushen, a powerful leader and County Coordinator for the Women in Peace Building Network—to support their efforts to rebuild the traditional system of peacekeeping. Thanks to their work and the engagement of many others, Palava Peace Huts now stand in three counties, and their vision is to build 15 more, one for each county.

Little did we know when we began that President Sirleaf ’s government would recommend the “Palava Hut peace-building mechanism” as the way forward for “fostering peace and dialogue and rebuilding broken relationships for national reconciliation and healing, beginning at the grassroots.”

“We will create a space where the truth is sacred and renew our peace-building efforts to heal fractured communities. I am prepared to be the first to appear before the Peace Hut, to say what I have done and what I have not done and to demonstrate that no one is above this process of healing and truth-telling.”
~ President of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

Mindfulness, Reconciliation, and Forgiveness

This past winter, Bethelson was invited to Thích Nhất Hạnh’s retreat center in Plum Village, France, for three months. The peace and quiet he found there, along with the support of the large monastic and lay community, catalyzed yet another level of transformation in him. Listening to Thay’s teachings and practicing deeply every day, many memories he had held inside began to surface and he had a powerful awakening. Bethelson realized he must forgive the man who killed five members of his family during the war and whom he had vowed to kill in revenge.

He knew he must reconcile with this man, Greene. He called Greene’s wife to let her know that her husband, who had lived in self-imposed exile to escape Bethelson’s vow of revenge, was free to return home. He invited Greene to meet with him inside one of the Peace Huts to let go of the past and move on. Greene met this invitation with a combination of disbelief—convinced that it could be an ambush—and relief that his long years of suffering might be over.

Returning to Liberia from Plum Village, Bethelson anticipated meeting his old enemy. But when he landed in Monrovia, he was arrested for questioning and put in jail. His travels to the US and France had alerted the authorities; the government wanted to know where he had gotten his funding and why he was meeting with other ex-combatants around the country. Drawing even more strongly on his mindfulness practice, he calmed his reactive emotions as he explained that he was a reformed man training in meditation in the US and France. He was now working for peace and stability in the country he loves with other former combatants like himself. Bethelson wrote,

“I told them that I am a different person now and that there is no need to be afraid; there is no need for Christian Wolo Bethelson (the Black Monk of Liberia) to think of anything that will cause suffering again for anyone. I also said to them that the energy of mindfulness helps us to recognize our pain and embrace it tenderly like a mother whose baby is crying.”

After four days, his captors released him with an apology. He reintroduced himself to the public by going on the radio:

“I went to the local radio station to clear some doubts about me that were raised by the State Security. I said it is time that we forget about dualistic ways of thinking and practice deep listening and loving speech to restore communication because once communication is restored anything is possible—including peace and reconciliation. I told people that it is about time we calm our fearful minds and embrace reconciliation.”

Bethelson assured Liberia that he had retired his role as General and was working with other former fighters to do the same. Calls of gratitude poured in. It was shortly after this that Bethelson was finally able to reconcile with Greene. Harper Karmon, who facilitated the session, wrote,

“Bethelson began by teaching everyone gathered to ring the bell. He described the bell as a friend whose sound can calm your body and mind, bringing a smile, happiness, and relief. Then Bethelson acknowledged the chain binding him to Greene, depriving them both of so many opportunities, and his realization that he needed to initiate this process so as to be free to live a joyous life without fear, feeling threatened, and without anger or thought of revenge.

Greene explained how he was forced by his commander to kill anyone found in the area where Bethelson’s relatives were. Knowing that Bethelson was in search of him to have him killed, he fled to exile for safety, leaving his family vulnerable and without support for a very long time. When he received the call for reconciliation initiated by Bethelson, he decided to return, although he was still suspicious. Bethelson visited Greene’s home to reassure him before the formal meeting. The most important thing Greene heard him say was, “We need to move forward.” Greene admitted he had malice against Bethelson because he had suffered in exile for so long. He had planned to retaliate, but because of Bethelson’s decision to forgive him, he also decided to forgive Bethelson to make this reconciliation genuine and for them both to be free of all loads.

Greene thanked Bethelson and asked for his forgiveness and for them to move forward. Bethelson considered this an historic event in his life and thanked Greene, giving him a huge hug. Greene felt very happy and appreciative of Bethelson for taking this step of forgiveness and releasing him out of bondage. Because of this liberation, Greene decided to join Alliance for the Earth to help reach other ex-combatants and change their minds so they can become productive persons.

One of the other ex-combatants who witnessed this event was a man who had been brutally beaten during the war and paralyzed. He came forward to express his own wish to forgive his perpetrator. Many tears were shed and it is expected that others will also give their stories now and ask forgiveness from those they have offended.

Annie shared these words at the end: “War is something that brings a lot of problems. We fought war for 14 years and there were many things that people did unconsciously. Today, the example of Bethelson and Greene is something we want to take around the world. I don’t care what happened between people—it is time to reconcile.”

Facing Ebola With Equanimity

On June 20th, Bethelson’s community suffered a terrible flood from unseasonal rains that completely destroyed everything in his home and that of many of his neighbors. They were lucky to be alive.

Now, less than two months later, the worst Ebola outbreak in world history has shut down Liberia, creating chaos and igniting new deadly fears in the population. The same women who stopped the war are taking to the streets again to pray for a peaceful resolution to this latest crisis.

With military-imposed curfews and quarantines in place, Bethelson and Harper are less able to travel upcountry to meet with Annie and their friends inside the Peace Huts. Instead, they are starting a national radio program to share their knowledge and invite listeners to join them for “Conversations Under the Peace Hut”—ringing the bell of mindfulness and sharing ways to respond with clarity and calmness to the crisis they now face.

In spite of all these critical situations, Bethelson says he is more stable and better able to maintain his equanimity and not get caught in reacting violently or blindly. He can take a breath and return to his own internal source of peace and clarity first so that his actions come from the heart of his understanding.

He admits that he used to think only of himself and was clouded by selfishness and anger. But now he realizes these things are much larger than he is. Even in the face of a crisis like Ebola, he knows that he and his family and community—the whole world—are all in this together. And we must help each other like he and Greene have done. “General Leopard” is no longer calling the shots in Bethelson; the seeds of his true nature, which were there all along, are ripening.

Being Vessels of Peace

It is a miracle to witness the Liberians return to their traditional ways of peacekeeping inside the huts and adopting the practice of mindfulness. Holding an earthen vessel to their hearts, filling it with their most sacred offerings for healing and protection, and asking the Earth to help hold their intentions as they are planted in the soil and watered with mindful awareness… From this, the flowering naturally comes, the fruit ripens.

Collectively, we are all remembering how to take care of the Earth, each other, and our communities. Like the women of Liberia who prayed to end the war and succeeded, the Peace Huts are a tangible manifestation of the power of prayer. And if the women of Liberia can end a war and bring peace, so can we. If a former militant can become a vessel of peace, so can we. We are all holy vessels filled with treasures for this Earth. We are all vessels of peace, healing, and courage.

May what the Liberians have done be a model for every corner of the world where violence is destroying life. Conflict and disease can cross the borders. So too can peace and reconciliation.