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.
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