The dark days and months since September 11 continue to unfold in grief that circles the world. The harshness of action and retaliation fuels my doubt. A questioning heat rises. Like all people, I long for safety and ease of mind, for coolness. I wish this for people in Afghanistan, for those in New York City, and for myself.
In the Samyutta Nikaya, the brahmin Jata offers this question, which is my own heart’s question:
The inner tangle and the outer tangle—
This generation is entangled in a tangle.
And so I ask of the Buddha this question:
Who succeeds in disentangling this tangle?
The Buddha replies:
When a wise one, trained in virtue,
Develops Heart and Understanding,
Then as a wayseeker, ardent and wise,
He succeeds in disentangling this tangle.
One whose passion, aversion and ignorance
Have faded away,
All views and outflows ended:
For her this tangle is untangled.
The inner tangle and the outer tangle embrace each other. The Buddha explains they can be untangled only in practice. My life and mind are intimately bound up with the world. I cannot work on one without calling up the other. So our practice as followers of the Buddha Way is to be mindful, awake to the arising of mind and world together, aware of how deeply they shape each other for worse or better.
The September 11 attacks are still fresh in mind. Each time I see a jetliner silhouetted in the sky, I recall images of airplanes piercing the metal and glass skin of the World Trade Center towers, exploding a moment later in a bright bloom of fire. In the months that have followed we have seen bombing and commando action in Afghanistan, the Taliban’s fall, nuclear brinkmanship between India and Pakistan, and letters laced with anthrax in the mailrooms of supermarket tabloids, TV networks and government offices. I am sure many more sorrows will have unfolded by the time these words go to press. What a tangled and troubling world we have made.
So we are right in the thick of it. Like most people, I find myself twisting in the coils of these inner and outer tangles. Many deaths, great violence, abiding sorrow—I don’t know what to do about it all, except just to sit down and allow my thoughts and feelings to arise and flow. This is my confession to you. I simply don’t know. Even after years of zazen, my realization is woefully incomplete. I am still vulnerable to passion, aversion and ignorance. I came of age as a secular Jew in New York City, a place I seldom visit but truly love. On September 11 I felt a yearning for vengeance rising out of the hurt, fear and Old Testament righteousness I grew up with. Months later I still must turn to the dharma day by day to deal with these sadly human yearnings. And I ask: Vengeance against whom? Vengeance by whom? And according to what standards?
The hijackers, the immediate perpetrators, are dead. Their dust is mingled with the dust of victims in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. The organizers and mentors of this destruction have been named, but the namers—our political, military and media voices—speak at best an incomplete truth. Can they see themselves as part of this destruction in any way? Osama bin Laden, the Taliban and others may well bear responsibility for these acts. Their intolerance and hatred have been clear for a decade among those who have been paying attention to Central Asia and the Middle East. Surely these people speak from a truth born of deep wounds, but wounds untended can lead to pathology. Videotapes of bin Laden, with those soulful eyes and soft voice, only underscore the frightening violence of his thoughts and words. Hatred and retaliation from any point on the compass can never heal. What we must do is find a way to encourage what is best in people—our adversaries, our leaders and ourselves. In human essence we are not different.
(It is worth noting that Afghan women and activists around the world have been warning us about the fundamentalist nightmare of the Taliban for years. Strangely, the Taliban’s destruction of the large Buddha figures at Bamiyan got more press than its suppression of Afghan women. These women were denied education, medical care and any part in public life, rights they had previous to the Soviet invasion and civil war. In the eyes of the world, stone idols may get more attention than the suffering of half a population.)
I feel compassion and even gratitude for our political leaders, military generals and soldiers. They have been in a tough spot, trying to do their best. They do not have the luxury most of us have of avoiding decisions that put lives at risk. So my prayers go out to them. At the same time I am angry at the bewildered arrogance of their words, the customary violence of their responses, their habitual blindness to the downward-spiraling effects of military violence. Early on, when President Bush and Secretary Rumsfeld warned us that the bombing of Afghanistan was likely to bring further retaliation here, how could they just go on with the bombing anyway? Do policies based on wounded pride and reactivity make good political or human sense?
It is important to remember that the U.S. did not get into all this by itself. There are many other actors stumbling across the world stage: the Russians who ravaged Afghanistan for a decade, Israelis and Palestinians in a dance of mutual destruction, India and Pakistan rattling nuclear sabers, and others seeking political power and religious hegemony in the Middle East. Right and wrong seem hopelessly tangled. And here in America we live in a kind of eyes-wide-shut privilege, in a nation that knowingly or unknowingly expropriates the wealth of the world. We call ourselves free, but at whose expense? In dharmic terms, the meaning of real freedom is freedom from attachment to self and views, which is for the sake of beings, never at their expense.
In America we pride ourselves on the fragile illusion of freedom. Yet it is not completely an illusion. I am able to write these words. You are able to read them and agree or disagree. We can talk openly, even argue. I can practice the faith of my choosing, and pursue ideas and opinions as deeply as I wish. These are rare gifts in today’s world. I would not trade them away. But none of us is free. If our freedom is in fact based on the oppression of others, we are all tangled in delusion. In the sutras, delusion is often depicted as a snake. George Bush and Osama bin Laden used this very metaphor, each referring to the other as the evil “head of the snake.” It seems to me they are both right. Unless we find a way to dwell in clarity—apart from mutually created concepts of good and evil—and risk our very lives for peace, we may find ourselves reborn as a snake biting our own tail. This archetypal image of the self-consuming snake, Uruboros, is also found in Greek, Egyptian and many other ancient cultures. In Norse cosmology, resonant with Buddhadharma, this serpent is destined to devour the world.
So what can we do now?
In the Buddhist Peace Fellowship’s statement following the 9/11 attacks, I quoted the Buddha’s words from Dhammapada 5: “Hatred is never appeased by hatred in this world; by love alone is hatred appeased. This is an Eternal Law.” Speaking with friends who know the original Pali text, I have come to alter the translation. The word “hatred” in Pali is vera, which translates more accurately as “hostility” or “vengeance,” active words. “Love” in Pali is avera, the absence of hostility or the opposite of hate. One could think of this as love, but it also implies something more neutral and open. The open, interdependent nature of being includes our passions but runs deeper and cooler.
Let’s begin with such an understanding. Loving our enemies or opponents may just be more than we can do now. But when we understand that we have the same impulses as they, the practice of non-hostility and non-vengeance is not only possible but necessary for survival. If we wish to accept ourselves, we must also include our enemies in any self-conception. This is hard practice. Thich Nhat Hanh writes, “You have to work for the survival of the other side if you want to survive yourself. It is really very simple. Survival means survival of humankind as a whole, not just part of it.”
For me the essence of avera is practicing the perfection of patience. My good friend Yassir Chadly, imam of a Naqshbandi Sufi mosque in Oakland, tells me that according to the Koran, faith has two roots—patience and gratitude. This seems simple enough to grasp. But over the last months most of us have spent so much time swimming in complexity—reading, talking, listening. How do patience and gratitude apply? Does any one of us know the most effective and humane course or policy in response to the tangle?
The true test of patience is patience under insult and injustice. In the “Angulimala Sutra,” a false teacher convinced Angulimala to become a mass murderer, telling him that a garland of victims’ fingers around his neck would guarantee enlightenment. The Buddha freed him from this terrible delusion, and he became a wandering monk and arahant. When he returned to his home village, relatives of his victims began to stone him. Angulimala cried out to the Buddha to save him. The Buddha replied, “Bear it, brahmin! Bear it, brahmin! You are experiencing here and now the result of deeds because of which you might have been tortured in hell for many years, for many hundreds of years, for many thousands of years.”
Buddhadasa Bhikkhu renders a line of Dhammapada 184: “Patience is the incinerator of defilements.” Patience or forbearance is not resignation but receptivity to the fruit of one’s karma, attending first to oneself, then to others. It applies equally to nations as well as to individuals. And it is not something that many of us, nations or individuals, are very good at. Patience is an active practice that includes investigating the inner and outer tangle. This is why we sit, why we meditate: to cool our thoughts and passions, to look at the clockwork orange inside ourselves, and to become ever more receptive to just what arises in ourselves and in the world. In meditation we can learn to look and listen before we act, and avoid creating more tangled karma.
The short course in paticca samuppada, or the Buddha’s discovery of dependent origination, can be stated:
When this is, that is; this arising, that arises.
When this is not, that is not; this ceasing, that ceases.
This teaching is intimately tied to the natural law of karma, or cause and effect. Because we love our freedom to move around, our cars and our petroleum-based lifestyle, there is strife in the Middle East. Conflict among religion is an issue, but oil and wealth and greed are perhaps larger issues. Sad to say, we all worship at the church of consumerism. And the karmic result of this new religious fervor is envy and hatred. If as a nation the United States flaunts its wealth and power, of course people will resent us.
But we also live by man-made laws. Human law encompasses ideas of justice. Perpetrators of terror are due some kind of legal justice. Nations who coerce other nations militarily or economically deserve justice. A friend asks correctly, “Whose justice?” That is an important and unsettling question. Since justice is never pure, we may have to work it out by trial and error. And there will be errors. Simply bringing all parties to justice will involve dogged negotiation, political wrangling and the likely use or threat of force. This is a moot point since the imposition of force by air and land has been going on for months. It was begun long before nonviolent approaches to international persuasion had been exhausted.
But our first responsibility is to attend to our nation’s actions. National policy and actions are in fact our own individual action. We and our children, along with the children of Afghanistan, will bear the fruits of a misguided policy of violence. We must find ways to stop the so-called “war on terrorism” and urge our leaders to turn to the United Nations, the World Court and other respected international bodies. Every avenue of dialogue must be tried. It is never too late to cease the kinds of massive violence we are experiencing and save lives. Since we have a voice, we should use it.
At the same time, I know that “justice” in this case will not heal deeper wounds at the root of terrorism. Justice is not really about healing but about attempting to establish balance. Justice herself is depicted as a blind woman holding scales. Blindness may suggest evenhandedness, but it certainly is not the precondition of insight. Only non-hatred and non-exploitation can open us to healing. Each day innocent beings suffer and die around the world just for being born in a particular place, or into a particular religion, or with a certain skin color. When we let go of egoistic and self-centered views, we see right away that these beings are ourselves. So we should practice the perfection of generosity. If, as the Koran says, faith is rooted in patience and gratitude, generosity is itself the root of gratitude. We are grateful for whatever freedoms and well-being we have in the United States. We wish this for all beings, even our bitterest opponents. And so we must act out of generosity, which engenders further gratitude.
The billions of dollars we are spending on hostilities now, the billions we have spent (and earned!) arming all sides, if directed to food and education, would transform the world within our lifetime. Today the U.S. government spends just one-tenth of one percent of its gross national product on nonmilitary aid, much less than many poorer nations spend. Foreign aid has been shrinking year by year. We could be showering Afghanistan with food, medicine and humanitarian aid. We could help Africa turn the tidal wave of aids with the drugs that Western corporations hold patents on. We could sign on to international treaties addressing global warming, land mines and other issues that most of the world’s nations agree on. Such action would build real solidarity and friendship in the international community. Generosity is the true policy of kindness. Nothing is lost, and much is gained by enacting generosity instead of war.
Generosity also means responding personally: helping our neighbor who may have lost a loved one on September 11; supporting the women of Afghanistan and those fleeing the bombing; listening to a friend with whom one disagrees; visiting a local mosque. These small acts may never feel sufficient to turn the tide of sorrow, yet they allow each of us to step forward with open hands.
Again and again we must turn to one of many paths of faith. I practice the Buddha Way, which means to me meditating, chanting, dedicating merit and tasting the cool and empty flavor of existence. Every faith tradition I know of is based on wisdom and respect for life. At their core, each upholds the principle of avera, non-hatred. The notion of “my religion” gets us all tangled up. This practice is hard work. The inner tangle is a painful knot in my breast. I can feel it as I write. The outer tangle winds around me like twisted vines. Manjusri’s diamond sword of wisdom can cut through the tangle, but we must wield it with great compassion. So we work from inside out and from outside in. Zen Master Ummon said, “Medicine and sickness cure each other. All the earth is medicine. Where do you find yourself?” Asking ourselves Ummon’s question, we very carefully pick up Manjusri’s sword without a single thought of violence. Our practice, our struggle, is for the happiness of all beings, that each of us may act for the good of all including ourselves, that we may all live in safety, free from fear and distress.
Thanks to Jon Watts, Gil Fronsdal, Santikaro Bhikkhu, Laurie Senauke and Richard Peterson.