issue 17 winter 01
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Comment: Hearts Shocked Open

On September 11, 2001 the rule of six degrees of separation, a contemporary echo of the Buddha's teaching on interconnectedness, is clearly evident. My brother tells me that he was flying out of Newark, New Jersey at 8:45am that day. The pilot, unaware of the hijackings, announced, 'If you look out the window to your left you will see the World Trade Center on fire'. My parents were on United 93 six days earlier. A Buddhist friend's niece was a flight attendant and died on one of the hijacked planes. Another friend's friend should have been in the towers but thought she'd left her iron on and went back to check. The iron wasn't on.

Countless stories like these rippled across 3,000 miles of our country, jamming phone lines for hours after the attacks. E-mails came at rapid pace bringing messages from friends and family - expressions of compassion and sympathy. Across the nation, people have sat glued to their televisions in disbelief.

Americans are in shock, struggling to grasp the enormity of life lost and the radical change in our consciousness. A feeling of uncertainty and imminent danger has pervaded our borders. This country has not experienced such acts so close to home since Pearl Harbor, which resulted in the death of 2,500 people - only 48 of whom were civilians. The count of September 11 casualties at the time of writing was close to 6,000 dead or missing. The numbers are so large, and the destructive scenes so reminiscent of Hollywood blockbusters, that the whole event can seem remote and surreal. Yet, the country also participated in a strangely intimate manner. In our living rooms we saw haunting television images of people jumping from the upper floors of the skyscrapers in real time. We were privy to personal cell phone conversations made by those about to die to friends and families, saying they loved them.

In some places around the world civilian deaths due to war and conflict are a daily occurrence. Those living and working in the economically and socially distressed communities in the US might say this is true in our own backyard, though invisible to most. Even so, the snuffing out of life on this scale and in a single incident is sobering and shocking the world over. Sixty-two countries lost people in the World Trade Center.

Now the world is experiencing even more killing in a dreaded reaction to the hijackings of September 11. In an address to Congress nine days following the attack, President Bush declared that the US was embarking on a 'crusade' against terrorism. An image emerges of jihads and crusades in an unholy dance mounting to a frenzy of death and violence. Thankfully the tone of government and civilian responses has since become more considered.

What light can Buddhism shed on these unfolding dark events? I hesitate to answer because the situation is complex and changing. As I write the United States and its allies are waging war on the Taliban in Afghanistan. The Dharmic reflections offered here are but a meditative pause in the white water of global events.

The central Buddhist precept of non-violence consists in undertaking to abstain from taking life. It is not possible to follow this precept absolutely, nor is that its intent. The Buddha acknowledged that sustaining our bodies requires killing plants or animals for food. So abstaining from harm means minimising the destructive impact we have on the world, while acknowledging that we are bound up in nature's cycles of death and life.

The ultimate intent of this precept is the development of unconditional compassion that arises from awareness of the preciousness and interconnectedness of life. Just as we cherish our lives and don't want to die, so do others. Imaginatively exchanging self for other deepens this awareness. What is it like to be a starving Afghani mother hearing American bombing? What is it like to be a Jew in Israel terrified of going to the market with your family for fear of suicide bombers? What if you were a Palestinian in the Occupied Territories fearing that your children might be caught in the crossfire of a clash with police forces or Israeli soldiers? Perhaps most difficult of all, you can try to imagine being one of the hijackers. Closer to home we can practise tolerance of those with different views about what should be done in the current conflict.

Stepping beyond our habitual preoccupations challenges the dualistic way of seeing things that is the source of the exploitation and strife in the world and our own lives. The precept of non-violence implies a commitment to realising the possibility of a world where life is respected, tolerance is observed and peace exists. Realising this vision requires perseverance and imagination. Yet the very existence of this precept also speaks to a human propensity to take life. The calculated killing of September 11 is testimony to this undeniable fact.

Exploitation and coercion will exist as long as there is hatred and greed in human hearts. Vaclav Havel, founder of the Czech human rights movement, said, 'Without a global revolution in human consciousness, a more human society will not be possible.' Buddhist practice gives us the direct experience to know that such a revolution is possible.

While the instinct for separation is strong we also have the potential to feel human solidarity and to transcend self-interest. Friends of the Western Buddhist Order centres teach a meditation called the Metta Bhavana (cultivation of loving-kindness) to make such peacemaking a regular practice. We can also engage in compassionate activity and create a momentum of positive action. It's not just what we think and feel but what we do that creates our world.

The need to cultivate compassion is evident around us. Without it, anger festers and lashes out without reason. Already people have been killed in hate crimes against Arab and Muslim Americans, who have been swept up in a category of 'them'.

Compassion is a formidable basis for action, and awareness of our interconnectedness compels a response to suffering and injustice. The violence that Americans woke up to on September 11 shows us that we are affected by our government's foreign economic and military policies. Those on the receiving end of those policies are affected so much more. We are intricately connected to events, conditions and people in countries that most Americans could not find on a map.

The challenge is how to create a peaceful and non-exploitative world in the face of violence and hatred. In Osama bin Laden's February 1998 fatwa (religious edict) he states, 'The killing of Americans and their civilian and military allies is a religious duty for each and every Muslim to be carried out in whichever country they are found.' Being Buddhists and practising non-violence cannot shield us or others from such violence as that promised by bin Laden, nor seen in Kosovo and Rwanda. If no action is taken we can expect more loss of life. By the same token, any action taken by western countries will also have negative consequences.

The Buddhist teaching of non-violence asks us to consider the taking of life as extremely grave and encourages creative non-violent actions. We have diplomatic, humanitarian, economic and legal approaches at our disposal and they should be used. But even these can have violent effects: economic sanctions can cause poverty and starvation, for example. And what is the place of military action given the likelihood that bin Laden, al Qaeda and others are poised for more killing? How much 'collateral damage' equates to the senseless loss of civilian lives that we ourselves decry in outrage? We have no neat formula into which we can plug the variables. Will attacking or not attacking result in greater loss of life? In greater injustice? In greater suffering?

The Buddha said that samsara (conditioned existence) - driven by greed, hatred and the model of 'us' versus 'them' - inherently involves suffering. All our options in response to the September hijackings are unsatisfactory: the stain of suffering cannot be washed out. Perhaps all we can do is abstain from taking life ourselves and undertake compassionate activity. Even so, short of a global revolution in consciousness, we will still be confronted with injustice and human greed, hatred and ignorance.

But acknowledging this does not make us helpless. Two and a half thousand years ago the Buddha advised his followers to meditate in cremation grounds, surrounded by burning bodies. There they were forced to let go of wilful delusion and fantasy, and to face the human situation. The very process of honestly grappling with the grist of being human in this world gives rise to wisdom and compassion. Buddhism is a path of fearless wakefulness. Ground Zero with its charred steel and human carnage is literally a cremation ground. What can we learn here?

The meaning of our lives is found in the midst of this adversity. People who emerge from brushes with death seem to live with an increased appreciation of life, and stronger connections to other people. Each day brings an implausible combination of suffering and beauty, side by side. America's illusion of security has been shattered; it is also an opportunity to reach out to others with whom we share the desire to live meaningful lives, free from suffering and fear. The shattering is potentially a flash of insight into the Truth.

Viveka is chair of San Francisco Buddhist Center