On thick maroon cushions, forty of us sit in the meditation hall of the Bhavana Society. The Theravada Buddhist monastery lies deep in the green hills of West Virginia in Hampshire County. It is a Thursday night, a little cool. Perhaps that is why the bullfrogs aren’t croaking amid the lily pads in the temple pond as they usually do during our hour-long evening meditation at Bhavana.
An airplane buzzes across the sky as we sit in strange silence. The monastic retreat center lies in the flight path to the airports of Washington, DC, several hours due east. Usually, planes pass one right after the other. But the planes come only intermittently this night, and the single engine poses a greater challenge to concentration than mere noise.
We have come to a four-day meditation retreat devoted to the Buddha’s teachings on dependent origination. It is a teaching key to understanding how through delusion and ignorance, hatred and greed, we create and keep spinning the wheel of suffering and rebirth, or samsara.
Yet the long-scheduled retreat begins just eight days after the world-shaking events of September 11, 2001. We perch uneasily on our cushions, our minds churning with nightmare images from the horrifying attacks in New York City, DC, and Somerset County, Pennsylvania.
We are guided to direct metta, a loving-kindness meditation, to the tens of thousands of shattered family members. The haunted survivors. The Ground Zero eyewitnesses up and down the land. Not to mention the shocked millions upon millions of us who followed along on TV around the planet.
Talk about suffering. Talk about hatred and delusion.
And we will. We just can’t help having Osama bin Laden and his hijackers sitting alongside us.
As it turns out, we couldn’t have picked a better place to be at such a terrible time.
Or a better subject to contemplate.
“That is not an unkind thing to do.”
It is the next day. We have all unpacked our belongings in dorm rooms or inside the wooden huts known as kutis, sprinkled by the dozens across the monastery’s wooded 60-odd acres. While we have settled in for the retreat, our minds are far from settled, as was soon to be demonstrated.
We again sit for an hour of meditation starting at 7 p.m. on Friday. We face the head monk and Bhavana founder, Bhante Henepola Gunaratana, known worldwide as Bhante G. The Sri Lankan-born monk sits cross-legged on a cushion in front of an altar, which is dominated by a 12-foot-high, muscular golden Buddha, serene in his seated meditation posture. Vases hold fresh hibiscus flowers from the temple gardens.
Bhante G, author of the classic Buddhist meditation primer Mindfulness in Plain English, taps a sonorous chime three times to signal the end of meditation and a younger monk slowly raises the dimmed lights.
Bhante G rearranges himself, rustling his robes into position, as he prepares to take our questions. He is handed a small orange cardboard box full of slips of paper on which we have written out our first questions of the retreat. Right out of the box, so to speak, jumps Osama bin Laden.
“There are two questions related to, uh… terrorism,” says Bhante G, peering through his glasses at the paper slips. “One is: ‘Is there any way or hope that the terrorists will soften their hearts and have less hate?’”
Bhante G continues reading.
“The second is: ‘I have a lot of fear right now—like from the sound of airplanes overhead. Could you talk about working with this?’ ”
Glancing at the slips in his hands, Bhante G finds a third similar one: “Could you talk more about ignorance and volitional formations in relation to the terrorists. What should our country’s response be to this terrible deed?”
Volitional formations is a key concept for the retreat and in Buddhist teachings. The phrase signifies those decisive moments when we first choose wholesome or unwholesome courses of actions. These actions then come alive through our body, speech, and mind. So we instantly create our karma—good, not so good, or very, very bad—depending on our volitional formations. The state of our awareness when we form these intentions affects all that we do in the world.
Bhante G cuts to the chase: “First, I’d like to answer this question: ‘What should we do?’ We should send some kind of force and capture these people. And put them in jail for life—never release them! That is a very compassionate act! Compassionate toward all other beings and for themselves.”
“That is not an unkind thing to do.”
“My simple, naive suggestion…”
Bhante G goes on to talk about a widely discussed article that had run in the online magazine Salon two days after the attacks, a cautionary piece by a self-identified Afghan-American named Tamim Ansary. In it, Ansary counsels that America can’t “bomb Afghanistan back to the Stone Age,” as some enraged Americans may wish. It’s already been done by the Soviets, Ansary writes. They’re already suffering, he says. Their houses are already leveled, their infrastructure already destroyed.
Ansary writes: “When people speak of ‘having the belly to do what needs to be done, they’re thinking in terms of having the belly to kill as many as needed. Having the belly to overcome any moral qualms about killing innocent people.”
Bhante G picks up the theme and adds, “By killing, there’s no end to that. By retaliating, by killing, it’s not going to help at all.”
Instead, imprison the terrorists who can be caught, he continues. Educate those among them and their followers who are still able to be educated in human values, not fanatical ones. “Even while in prison,” says Bhante G. “And give some humanitarian aid and support to those poor people who can become more powerful there. Perhaps through the democratic process, they might overthrow this Taliban government. The poor people are just victims of these terrorists.”
He pauses. Reaches for a ceramic teacup that had been delivered to him by an orange-robed monk moments before he had been handed the question box.
He sips, thoughtfully. Sets the cup to his side.
“This is unfortunately the disadvantage of having faith placed in a wrong way. Faith in God? They have abused it, and become fanatics.”
He sighs, not a sound heard often from the usually forthright, quick-on-the-draw monk.
“I don’t know,” he says, with a light chuckle. “This is my very simple, naive suggestion to this situation.”
It is perhaps asking too much of a Buddhist monk to offer solutions to such political, diplomatic, even sociological scenarios. Bhante G’s real job, it might be said, is to offer guidance and pointers on more fundamental matters.
The problems of the mind, for instance, that create such suffering in the world. And how we deal with suffering once it smacks us down. And smacks us down again.
As for airplane engine anxiety, you should not let paranoid feelings overtake you, Bhante G tells us.
“Life is uncertain anyway. You remain mindful all the time, you meditate. You try to keep your consciousness clear.
“Remain mindful all the time.”
Bomb Them with Medicine, Food, and Shelter
“We should bomb Afghanistan!” Bhante G later announces to us.
Our ears prick up at the mention of bombs out of the mouth of an internationally known and beloved Buddhist monk.
“We should bomb them with medicine! Bomb them with food! Bomb them with shelter!”
Later, he turns his attention to the more familiar Buddhist territory of karma—the wholesome and unwholesome volitions and actions for which we are intimately, ultimately responsible that shapes our destiny. It powers our rebirths. It lashes us tight to the ever-spinning wheel of samsara.
“Our past lives are inconceivable. So many past lives we have had!” Bhante G says.
The life you are now living is the merest fraction of our long wandering through samsara, he says. “In those lives, we have committed so many different kinds of karmas.”
In the Buddhist view, we have lived out an unfathomable number of incarnations in various realms of samsara—not only the human realm, but in the animal realm, the celestial realm, the “hungry ghost” realm, and the hell realm.
Yet if we are finally able to wake from our habitual delusion, if we can let go of our hatred, if we can let go of our desperate clinging to the things of the world, we can finally escape the interminable round of rebirths in samsara.
A Question Mark
It is 4:55 a.m. on Sunday, the retreat’s final day. I am dressed and standing outside the men’s dorm near the edge of the forest. I gaze up. What looks like ten thousand stars hang in the sky above North Mountain, at whose base the monastery is located.
A meteor bolts across my line of sight.
I have slept well. My first night on retreat, I’d had a bad dream—car crashes, bodies of children in the road. (One of the side benefits of intense meditation practice is that you may recall your dreams with greater clarity. Fun when they’re good dreams—not so fun with bad ones.)
I chalk it up to all the intense news. My mind is doing some weird processing.
I hear a plane. Then, I see its blinking red lights.
I track it across the sky.
On the first day, every plane I heard was is a potential bomb.
The second day, every plane was a question mark. How have we—the United States, the people on those planes that crashed and the ones who could have been on them, such as my loved ones and myself—how have we gotten into such a fix?
By the third day, planes were just planes.
Now, on the fourth day, I stroll through the chilly air down the stony path to the meditation hall.
For more on the Bhavana Society, visit BhavanaSociety.org. Douglas John Imbrogno is editor of the book WHAT WHY HOW: Answers to Your Questions About Buddhism, Meditation, and Living Mindfully, by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana (Wisdom Publications, January 2020).
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