In July 1972, I climbed a narrow passageway in a sandstone cliffside and emerged to stand on the head of a 180-foot-tall Buddha in Bamiyan, Afghanistan. Twenty-nine years later, in July 2001, I stayed on the fourteenth floor of the Marriott Hotel between the twin towers of Manhattan’s World Trade Center as a participant in Tricycle’s tenth-anniversary conference, “Buddhism: Does It Make a Difference?” In March Taliban forces had shelled the Bamiyan statue and reduced it to rubble; in September, suicide bombers brought down the twin towers and in so doing reduced the Marriott to rubble. Places where I and others had once stood, whether admiring the gentle Afghan countryside or the urban grandeur of New York, were now just spaces in the sky.

Long before the Taliban came to power, the Bamiyan statue had already been defaced by Muslim armies. As justification for his widespread destruction of Buddhist shrines and monasteries in India in the eleventh century, Sultan Mahmud declared: “That in proportion as the tenets of the Prophet are diffused, and his followers exert themselves in the subversion of idolatry, so shall be their reward in heaven.” Whether such a belief is a legitimate interpretation of Islamic teachings, it may have given the terrorists who steered Boeing jets into the twin towers the strength of will to commit their acts of murder.

The Buddhist response, both in eleventh-century India and in twenty-first-century America, has been a consistent refusal to resort to violence. “Hatred will not cease by hatred,” said Buddha in the Dhammapada, “but by love alone. This is the ancient law.” One can imagine this verse being intoned by Indian Buddhist monks while their monasteries burned, just as now devout e-mail messages are dispatched to the White House urging restraint and compassion. And just as its sentiments were ineffective in turning back the tide of Muslim aggression in India, so they may be equally ineffective in halting the course of violent retaliation against latter-day Islamic terrorism.

That “hatred will not cease by hatred but by love alone” is true because the statement is a tautology. If an old lady were being driven to distraction by noisy neighbors, how would she benefit from being solemnly told: “Noise will not cease by noise but by silence alone”? The Dhammapada verse, like this hypothetical advice to the woman, is true at such a level of generality that it offers little help in dealing with specific situations. It merely states the conditions under which a long-term solution to hatred would be possible. It may reinforce one’s faith that human beings can relinquish hatred and inspire one to seek to love others unconditionally, but it doesn’t answer the question of how to respond to an act of violence that threatens one’s way of life here and now.

The challenge for Buddhists is not to let a commitment to the principle of nonviolence blunt one’s critical acumen or deflect one’s gaze from looking steadily into the nature and origins of violence. It is far too simplistic to think of violence as originating solely in the psychology of hatred and anger. Violence is intrinsic to the function of the nation-state. Our freedoms and privileges in a liberal democracy are ultimately guaranteed by the willingness of the state to use violence to protect them. It is conceivable that a president or general could launch a devastating military attack on an enemy who threatened their country’s way of life without any anger or hatred at all. When everything else fails, a nation-state will resort to violence to protect the interests of its citizens. One needs to acknowledge that there may be a contradiction between one’s heartfelt commitment to nonviolence and one’s enjoyment of the wealth and freedoms of a modern democratic power.

Historically, Buddhist states have struggled with the dilemma of protecting the rights and lives of their citizens while upholding the principle of nonviolence. Three times Buddha managed to dissuade King Virudhaka of Kosala from taking vengeance against Shakya (Buddha’s homeland), but in the end Virudhaka invaded. To uphold the Buddhist precept of not killing, the inhabitants let themselves be massacred, and Shakya was destroyed. In the more recent case of Tibet, the Buddhist state put itself under the military protection of either its Mongolian or Chinese patrons. Whether or not this compromise was strictly in keeping with the principle of nonviolence, it succeeded in securing the integrity of Tibet until the rules of the geopolitical game suddenly changed in the twentieth century. Tibet was caught unawares and found itself defenseless against a “protector” that violently turned against it.

Buddhists have traditionally justified nonviolence even at the cost of their own lives and the destruction of their countries, because in the greater scheme of future lifetimes they would ultimately gain from having acted with impeccable morality. This is the same kind of otherworldly logic (albeit premised on very different beliefs) that could justify the violent acts of a Muslim suicide bomber. As long as this life is seen either as a brief moment in an infinite succession of lives or a mere prelude to eternal heaven or hell, in the end the fate of this world can become a matter of relative indifference. If Buddhism is to make a difference in this world today (as is the avowed aim of at least the “Engaged Buddhist” movement), then it will need consciously to switch its ultimate priorities from the hereafter to the now.

In other historical situations, however, Buddhists have at times resorted to violence to resolve social and political conflicts. China was freed from Mongol rule in 1368 by an uprising spearheaded by Buddhist “freedom fighters” of the White Lotus Society, headed by a former monk who became first emperor of the Ming Dynasty. Brian Victoria has shown in his book Zen at War the extent to which Zen masters justified the imperial Japanese war effort in the name of Buddhist teachings. Although no harm was caused to others, the self-immolation of Buddhist monks to protest the Vietnam war was an act of violence against themselves. Yet given the 2,500-year history of Buddhism, such episodes have been mainly regional and fairly sporadic. The counter-rhetoric of nonviolence in the tradition is so pronounced that it is difficult to envisage a full-scale war or military crusade ever being launched in the Buddha’s name.

This has not been the case with the monotheistic faiths. Christianity’s crusades against Islam, inquisitions against heretics, and missions to convert heathens were all carried out in the belief that these acts were fulfilling God’s will. Although state- and church-sponsored Christian aggression has largely faded away, the legitimization of violence by appeal to the authority of God is a key element in today’s crisis in the Middle East. Many orthodox Jews believe that they have a God-given right to the biblical lands of Israel that allows them to settle irrespective of other claims of ownership. If they are attacked, the state will enforce their “rights” by violence. Their Muslim opponents then justify their violent response by appealing to the authority of the Qur’an.

Although moderate Muslims would argue that the bellicose language of the Qur’an applies only to the time of Muhammad and should now be understood symbolically as a war against evil within one’s own heart, a member of an Islamic terrorist movement would find ample vindication in this text for killing perceived opponents of Islam. We read, for example, that “God does not love the unbelievers” (3:29), who are “the vilest of all creatures” (98:1). One should not befriend them, since “they will spare no pains to corrupt you” (3:118). “Let not the unbelievers think they will ever get away,” says another passage. “They have not the power to do so. Muster against them all the men and cavalry at your command, so that you may strike terror into the enemy of God and your enemy” (8:59). “Strike off their heads, strike off the tips of their fingers!” (8:12).

As a Buddhist unbeliever, reading the Qur’an is a sobering experience. Despite the deeply human and peaceful sentiments of other passages, the text keeps returning to the divisive and warlike language of “us” versus “them.” For Muslims this text is not merely sanctioned by God but dictated by Him word for word to the Prophet as His final testament to humankind. It is unsettling to read passages composed by a just and merciful deity that include such explicit incitements to violence. The nonviolent and inclusive tone that runs through the Buddhist sutras could not be in starker contrast. By no stretch of the imagination could a hypothetical Buddhist terrorist find comparable justification for killing people by reading the Pali canon.

Yet if a Buddhist regards all sentient beings as “us,” then he or she cannot treat even those who hijack civilian aircraft and turn them into guided missiles as “them.” However difficult, we have to be able to empathize not only with their victims but also with the terrorists themselves. Condemning acts as evil does not entail condemning the people who committed them as evil. One has to try to understand the origins of their suffering and the reasons that led them to commit appalling acts of violence. It is probable that the men who flew the planes into the twin towers and the Pentagon believed that they were doing good, possibly out of sincere religious motives. For nineteen apparently intelligent and educated men to conceive and carry out an act that they knew would end in their deaths implies a faith and dedication that, under other circumstances, one might find admirable. And although we may deplore their course of action, we might nonetheless find ourselves in agreement with aspects of their analysis of the problems they were seeking to resolve.

To defuse the impulse of violent retribution, one needs to try to understand how one or one’s society is perceived by others. If you were a young Palestinian teenager in a refugee camp or the Iraqi mother of a starving child, how might you perceive America and other affluent Western societies? You would see that their economy is dependent on oil from Muslim countries; that they are willing to ensure access to that oil by the use of military force; that they support and arm undemocratic and often repressive regimes in order to maintain “stability” in the region; that they control television and other media that bombard one with images of a materialistic lifestyle that offend one’s religious sensibilities. It is understandable that one’s frustration and rage at these perceived injustices might lead one to contemplate or condone extreme acts, especially when coupled with grinding poverty and little if any access to democratic avenues of political expression.

Understanding why people would be led to commit an extreme act, however, does not absolve them of moral responsibility for that act. The very fabric of our moral language begins to break apart as soon as we try to explain individual human behavior as the quasi-inevitable results of impersonal historical, economic, and political forces. American government policy in the Middle East can no more be held morally responsible for some people’s violent responses to it than it can for others’ quiescent acceptance of it. Moral responsibility belongs only to those who intentionally commit an act in order to achieve a desired result. Until the very last minute, the terrorists could have changed their minds, averting the death and destruction they wrought. They and those who supported them alone are morally culpable. But each of us is to some extent implicated in contributing to the conditions from which these acts of violence arose. By tolerating the way our governments behave abroad, by making investments in the corporations that sustain the global economy, by consuming fossil fuels, we are complicit in the intricate web of relationships that sustains the world as it is. The sheer complexity, scale and speed of these interactions can make one feel utterly confused and powerless. The challenge is to respond to that confusion without lapsing into the oppositional rhetoric of “us” versus “them” or retreating to a mystical equanimity that trusts that everything is part of a divine plan or the working out of karmic consequences beyond our individual comprehension. The attacks in New York and Washington burst my complacent Buddhist bubble. I found myself facing urgent and overwhelming questions for which the broad truths of Buddhism did not seem to provide an adequate response. Is an open society that tolerates dissent even possible without its being underwritten by violence? For if dissent were to take the form of violently seizing others’ lives and property, with what resources would a nonviolent society respond? Is a sustainable human society therefore inescapably dependent on the threat of violence? And if so, is the Buddhist commitment to nonviolence but a noble aspiration whose goal can never be reached on this earth? Despite all their talk of love and compassion, do Buddhists have the capacity and resolve to imagine and realize a truly nonviolent world? Or is nirvana, after all, the only peace we can hope for?

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