It comes from the New Testament, a scene known as “The Annunciation to the shepherds,” where angels come to a group of shepherds to tell them of the birth of Jesus. After their announcement, the angels proclaim glory to God “in the highest” and on earth peace and goodwill. The phrase we are familiar with differs slightly from the various Biblical translations, and was first popularized for Christmas in carols written during the 18th century, and then on about a billion greeting cards.
For most of us, peace on earth means “world peace,” a state of international friendliness, the end of war. World peace is not yet at hand, and with each act of violence, whether on the streets of Berlin or in Chicago, this lofty goal seems to slip further and further from our grasp. Some people reasonably question if peace on earth is even possible.
However, in another sense, peace on earth is already here. If you are able to achieve a degree of inner peace then this is peace on earth. In Peace is Every Step, the Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh says,
“Peace is present right here and now, in ourselves and in everything we do and see. The question is whether or not we are in touch with it. We don’t have to travel far away to enjoy the blue sky. We don’t have to leave our city or even our neighborhood to enjoy the eyes of a beautiful child. Even the air we breathe can be a source of joy.”
We don’t have to wait until Christmas, or any other time, to unwrap peace on earth. To paraphrase John and Yoko’s anti-war mantra, peace is here . . . if you want it.
“Good will toward men” means compassion. Buddhism teaches that inner peace is the root of compassion, and if we experience inner peace, we should naturally want to share it with others.
For example, the Dharma-sangiti Sutra reads,
“When one has grasped the fact, that this ‘great essence of inward peace’ for oneself as for one’s neighbors, has as its real meaning the avoidance of pain (such as infinite suffering) and the full attainment of joy in this world, one must cherish enthusiasm through a eagerness for it; even as a man shut up in a burning house longs for cool water.”
So then, I do not wish you peace on earth. Instead, may you, and me, all of us, have a real eagerness for peace.
“The development of a kind heart (a feeling of closeness for all human beings) does not involve the religiosity we normally associate with conventional religious practice. It is not only for people who believe in religion, but is for everyone regardless of race, religion, or political affiliation. It is for anyone who considers himself or herself, above all, a member of the human family and who sees things from this larger and longer perspective. This is a powerful feeling that we should develop and apply; instead, we often neglect it . . .”
– Tenzin Gyatsu, 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet, A Human Approach to World Peace