A friend of mine who begins each morning on the cushion used to get on my nerves carrying on about oceanic oneness. Not long after September 11, though, he was hopping mad and pinning his hopes on a “daisycutter,” the most devastating conventional weapon in our military’s arsenal. Espousing absurdly reductionist views about the “clash of civilizations”—courtesy of Harvard’s Samuel P. Huntington—he quoted the eminent professor with dramatic flair: “The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future.” Such big ideas! Where, I wondered, had he hidden his cushion?
It seems my friend was in sync with the flag-flapping hysteria that had gripped the nation. Not long afterward, the New York Times imperiously declared the results of its painstaking electoral recount “irrelevant” and refused to print them; a CNN memo urged its staff to go easy on the president; and hundreds of foreign nationals were detained without charge or legal representation. Reputations and careers were ruined in what amounted to guilt by association—or name. Barely a word of dissent was heard. Huntington’s civilizational fault lines had been drawn.
At the same time, our newfound role as patriots unquestionably gelled around a very real fear for our physical safety. The absolute oneness so easily invoked in times of peace gave way to a painful recognition of our relative differences; the enemy, we guessed, was everywhere around us. Yet it is one thing to experience fear; it is another to leave it unexamined. Where in the teachings of the Buddha might we learn to live with fear and at the same time keep our minds clear enough to refrain from unskillful acts? In a special practice section, five Buddhist teachers, by uncovering fear’s roots and revealing its nature, steer us away from the potentially dangerous reactivity of our frightened state.
And my friend who abandoned his cushion? I can only say that the challenge Buddhism presents with its precept of nonkilling is not an easy one to accept or understand when we feel our very lives are on the line. Perhaps this is the test of our Buddhist mettle. In “War or Peace? Thinking Outside the Box”, three teachers and a Buddhist academic discuss their differing interpretations of the sutras and precepts. In the light of the Buddha’s teachings, they’re asked, is violence ever justified? Is killing one to save five hundred acceptable? Or is it more sensible, as Thanissaro Bhikkhu asserts, to choose your virtue over your life?
Perhaps poet and activist Anne Waldman (“Radical Presence”) best exposes the fallacy of fault lines. The liberating chaos of her language presents us with a succession of elusive truths, defying the pat categories of dualistic mind. Waldman invokes the power of “the delicate and fierce nuances of language” in helping to articulate right view. In a message ever more relevant to our times, she speaks of the danger of language’s “debasement, its doublespeak, its cruelty,” the power it has to subvert the truth. Waldman points the way to holding the absolute and relative in careful balance, succumbing to neither simplistic notions of oneness nor the reductionist absurdities of careless judgment.
Before the anger and fear that followed the attacks of September 11 arose, there was a short period in which our hearts were open to the suffering of those around us. Everywhere people gathered, erecting makeshift shrines in public squares in a moving expression of collective grief. Maybe it was inevitable that our hearts would once again close, but the memory of those days remains inspiring. In a recent interview, Dzogchen master Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche sums it up best by bringing us back to our truer, more immediate nature. When asked if he had any closing remarks, he responded without missing a beat, “Yes. . . At all times and in all situations, try to keep a good heart.”
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