Not long after 9/11, actor Richard Gere stood before a crowd at Madison Square Garden and spoke of compassion and understanding. When I read about it, I remember thinking that it was far too early for forgiveness. Who was ready to hear it? The crowd didn’t take it well; they booed.

At the time it seemed to me that forgiveness was the culmination of a process—it followed grief, anger, and any attempt to negotiate reality—a surrender to things as they are and a willingness to let go of an anger that ultimately turns on the aggrieved. That would take time. Forgiveness and compassion could hardly be felt when feelings were still so raw, and certainly not in the face of a grave threat. Yet to feel compassion and understanding at the very moment we’re faced with ill will finds clear (and graphic) expression in the earliest Buddhist texts, as in this exhortation from the Buddha in the Majjhima Nikaya:

Monks, even if bandits were to carve you up savagely, limb by limb, with a two-handled saw, he among you who let his heart get angered even at that would not be doing my bid- ding. Even then you should train yourselves: “Our minds will be unaffected and we will say no evil words. We will remain sympathetic, with a mind of good will, and with no inner hate. We will keep pervading these people with an awareness imbued with good will and, beginning with them, we will keep pervading the all-encompassing world with an awareness imbued with good will—abundant, expansive, immeasurable, free from hostility, free from ill will.” That’s how you should train yourselves. (MN 21)

The Buddha seems to ask us to imagine a frame of mind in which compassion and understanding are the natural and spontaneous response to aggression; reactive anger is merely an afflictive state rooted in delusion. In fact, new research suggests that, neurologically speaking, empathy comes more naturally to us than I ever would have guessed (see “I Feel Your Brain,” page 66). But it’s easy to read the passage the way I read biblical stories in my Catholic childhood. Jesus forgave the Roman soldiers as they beat and crucified him, never speaking a vengeful word. Fine for Jesus, I thought, he was the son of God, after all. While the ultimate goal may be a mind of forgiveness, one could hardly be held to the same standard.

Yet we need look no further than our own backyard for an example of such behavior. The schoolhouse shooting in Pennsylvania last month, in which five young girls were murdered, shocked the nation. What was perhaps even more astonishing was the response of the Amish community, which had suffered the loss of five of their own children. Its members did not hesitate to comfort the family of the gunman, who had taken his own life afterward. Their attendance at the gunman’s funeral couldn’t have painted a starker contrast to those who booed at Madison Square Garden.

A few right-wing websites had a field day with Gere after 9/11, one citing the following quote as naive lunacy: “The horrendous energy that we’re all feeling, and the possibility of turning it into more violence and revenge, we can stop that. We can take that energy and turn it into something else. We can turn it into compassion, and . . . love, and . . . understanding.”

I wonder, though, what might have happened had our nation considered a course of action other than the one we took. While reasonable people may argue for self-defense, few can reasonably argue now that our actions have been skillful. What initially sounded so naive sounds wise in retrospect.

George W. Bush may have taken flak for suggesting that the war in Iraq would amount to no more than a historical “comma,” but ultimately, all is rendered even less than that. As Frances Richard suggests in “Tribute in Light” (page 22), human affairs that are so important to us now are in time shrugged off by nature’s indifference. But still, that does nothing to diminish the suffering here and now. If we are tempted to dismiss anyone who reminds us of the teachings in times of great suffering, we might do well to consider the alternative. The time it takes us to come around to compassion may turn out to be a luxury we don’t have.