All violence is injustice. The fire of hatred and violence cannot be extinguished by adding more hatred and violence to the fire. The only antidote to violence is compassion. And what is compassion made of? It is made of understanding. — Thick Nhat Hanh*
For people living in America, the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 were a defining moment. You could ask: “Where were you when you heard about the attacks?” And receive a clear and vivid recounting of their day. But the attacks, like so much in our richly interconnected world, affected not only Americans but also people around the planet who were equally shocked and dismayed by the events of that day. And then the reverberations that followed—the war in Afghanistan and the war in Iraq, drone bombings in many countries, secret detentions, widespread surveilance, and more.
In the aftermath of 9/11, many people came together like never before. There were outpourings of communal grief as well as compassion from around the world for the nearly 3,000 people who died and for the nation as a whole. And yet there was also violence—so much violence. In a way, the attacks revealed our true nature as humans—at once caring and filled with love and connection and at the same time capable of unbridled anger and destruction.
One of the first victims of the violence that would follow was Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh American living in Mesa, Arizona. His death became one of many in a wave of hate crimes against South Asians and Muslims in the months and years after 9/11. This exposes yet another aspect of human nature as taught to us by the Buddha: our fundamental ignorance. Sodhi’s killer was ignorant about who a Sikh person is as opposed to a member of Al Qaeda or the Taliban. At a deeper level, however, the killer was ignorant about causes and conditions, believing quite wrongly that this man at a gas station in Arizona was somehow responsible for the attacks in New York and Washington, DC. He also believed that harming this man would be of some sort of benefit to the country that was, in his mind, in danger from foreigners.
One who, while himself seeking happiness, oppresses with violence other beings who also desire happiness, will not attain happiness hereafter.
One who, while himself seeking happiness, does not oppress with violence other beings who also desire happiness, will find happiness hereafter. (Dhp X 130-131)
Love, anger, and ignorance arose in great abundance after the 9/11 attacks. Unfortunately, it appears that the latter two won in the hearts of so many. But what if it had been different? Immediately after the attacks, Buddhist leaders around the world spoke out, offering both compassionate condolences for the immeasurable loss and a cautioning not to repay the violence with yet more violence.
Buddhist leaders, perhaps more than anyone, saw and felt both the suffering and human propensity to react mechanically rather than creatively to the violence. The late John Daido Loori, abbot of the Zen Mountain Monastery in New York, just 160 kilometers north of New York City, offered a poignant reflection and a prediction of what would come:
This is a great tragedy for our country and for the people of the world. And the problems are just beginning. The fall-out from these events is going to reverberate around the world for a long time. For most of us this is something that’s beyond anything we’ve ever experienced before. We’re in a state of shock and don’t know how to deal with it. As spiritual practitioners, this is what we train for. This is what our practice is about.
This is a time for religious tolerance, because the cry is going to go up against Islam and Muslims, and we need to understand that Islam is a world religion, just like Buddhism and Christianity. It doesn’t advocate this kind of violence. But there are fanatics in all religions, and there are fanatics in Islam. It takes a small group of them to create the kind of hell and chaos that’s been created. We need to be tolerant. We need to keep our hearts opened to everyone.
What can we do? We need to do what we always do: create a sanctuary of peace, nourishment and calm. Remember your zazen. Remember the still point in your heart. Do what you need to do when you’re asked to do it in a way that’s peaceful and centered. You can do it. You know how to do it. And we’ll just be ready. I have no idea what we’ll be called on to do, but whatever it is, I want to be able to respond with people that are calm, efficient, and ready to serve. Let zazen be your sanctuary so that when people come here or we hear from people, we can provide sanctuary and nourishment for them. We’ll watch, we’ll wait, we’ll be prepared. We’ll also offer a liturgy to the victims. We’ll do a regular memorial service for the victims, and hope for peaceful resolve of this situation without the world going berserk. Let’s hope that wisdom and compassion will prevail. It’s there in all of us, President Bush included. There’s a Buddha buried in all of us. Let’s hope that this tragedy brings that Buddha to life so that this doesn’t get any worse than it is. (Kenyon)
What lessons can we learn from this, from seeing the wisdom before us and also seeing the world going the other direction? The potential lessons are many. One response might be a renewed and strengthened faith in the basic teachings of the Buddha and his realized students through the centuries. The Buddhist teachings can be characterized as going against the flow of conventional society. Following them requires calm reflection on our circumstances. It requires compassion and understanding. All of these, we know from the experiences of our teachers and—hopefully—some direct insight, lead to great peace in our lives and those around us. The opposite tendencies, we know, lead to continued suffering.
To the extent that we, too, have engaged in or celebrated violence in the last 20 years, that too can be a lesson. There is still work in us to be done to uncover that buried Buddha within us. If the 20-year failed war in Afghanistan teaches us anything, it might be that we cannot force change in others. We ourselves must be the starting point for peace and we must always have peace as our foundation if we wish to see violence in the world come to an end. Perhaps it will. Perhaps it will not. This we do not know. Either way, though, we still benefit from being at peace ourselves.
* Message to Osama bin Laden: interview with Thich Nhat Hanh (Plum Village)
Buddharakkhita, Acharya, trans. 2013. “Dandavagga: Violence” (Dhp X), translated from the Pali by. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition). https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/dhp/dhp.10.budd.html
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