Buddhism and Terrorism
by Wayne Codling, Time Colonist (Blog), September 11, 2011
What if President Bush were a fundamentalist Buddhist instead of a born-again Christian? How might he approach the problem of terrorism from the pratityasamutpada (Sanskrit term for "dependent origination") point of view?
Victoria, BC (Canada) -- In deference to the ambiguity of the term “terrorist,” (Nelson Mandela, for example, was condemned as a terrorist), this post entry attempts to look at terrorism as a tactic with some moral basis.
Though logic and common sense mitigated against any thought that the waves of gratuitous violence visited upon Europe and the Middle East was likely to pass us by, North Americans have only recently become terrorist conscious. Despite several examples of domestic violence, it is the 9/11 events that have forced a direct confrontation with militant Islamic fundamentalists.
What causes terrorism? President Bush (43) explained this very simply, “they hate us for our freedom”; it’s “good versus evil.” Although George W. is correct in identifying religion as having a causative relationship with the problem of terrorism, the limited, triumphal moral sensibility which he exemplifies is not up to the task of guiding us to a solution.
A “Good vs. Evil” sort of dualism sounds plausible within a context which has long accepted as axiomatic that “we” are hated, feared and oppressed because of our proximity to the true God. This analytical mode finds purchase within both Christianity and Islam; both tolerate a certain militancy with respect to devotion married to a deep belief that Destiny lies completely beyond time itself. Both valorize martyrdom and holy war; both espouse a morality that justifies inflicting harm and nurturing a harmful intent as long as “we” are in the right. Each of our religious histories is replete with examples.
To say this in another way, morality within the Abrahamic religions is tethered somehow to a notion that, ultimately, “It is better to be right than to be kind.” It is fundamental that what is at stake in these traditions is eternity, an unchanging heaven or hell. The gate to heaven opens in response to certainty and righteousness. Doubt and sinfulness open the gate of hell: simple, straightforward and devastating. The morality that flows from such a notion is distinguished as a “meticulous” morality because it has at its base such a high component of fearfulness (/metus/ = Latin for fear). We fear fear, as an earlier American president observed.
Many Muslims assume that Western society today is defined and led by immoral, or at best, amoral people. Believing that a moral deficit is a weakened basis for effective response terrorists are encouraged. Morality is an environmental necessity to human society. Where a meticulous morality prevails we find a very militant protective reflex. So it’s not a trivial question for us. In order to protect our “freedom” we must become ever more repressive, ungenerous and adversarial; the very conditions which foster internal instability and external hostility. Fear is the vehicle that can deliver the triumph of the Hobbesian vision of human life and society. The “war of all against all” assumes the inevitability and thus the rightness of brutality. From a Buddhist point of view, it is remarkably foolish and shortsighted to create or permit situations of alienation to the point where individuals and collectives have no stake in the status quo and no reason to sacrifice for the common good. Nothing to lose and nothing to gain—ironically an almost sacred state in Zen lore. Yet, here it is a form of insanity that spawns new fears, such as terror in the workplace (“going postal,” Columbine). We have allowed ourselves to be led to this weakened state primarily through being unaware that the source of our vulnerability is not simply the conflict with evil others but is equally the logical result of the meticulous ethic. If we are to survive this attack we need to find a voice that can impel a cohesion equivalent to that experienced amongst those who have responded to a call; a voice that can renew a feeling of being a part of, or an heir to, something worthy. Such a voice will have to come from other than the current religious, social, intellectual or politically empowered elites. The voice of our religious traditions can scarcely be heard over the clamor raised by widespread abuse scandals. The voice of our political traditions is less and less concerned or able to exert authority without coercion and division. The exemplars of capitalism steal everything in sight the moment government regulations are weakened. That is why the spiritual response to this must be renewal, and we must resist the impulse to indulge in moral judgment. The whole clamor to claim the “right” is the problem, not the solution. The spiritual value of renewal eschews any notion of a non-inclusive human destiny.
Buddhist morality is tethered to the maxim, “It is better to be kind than to be right”—a reflection of the essential importance of ahimsa (Sanskrit, meaning ‘harmless’) and a reversal of the meticulous assumptions regarding the kindness/rightness dyad of morality. Since it is axiomatic that no act of terrorism is without harm, the scrupulous morality of Buddhism can provide no sustenance for the impulse to inflict fear and retaliation no matter how alienated, frustrated and hopeless a situation might have become. There would be sympathy and understanding perhaps, but always with that poised awareness of cause and effect that sees ill will (hatred) as a spiritual poison. The morality that develops from this divergent ideation is a “scrupulous” morality, denoting a moral code that is generated mostly from within; a weighed, measured, internally empowered sense of propriety. In Buddhist history, although the contending visions represented by the Arhat vow and the Bodhisattva vow have occasionally fueled some acrimony, there are few, if any, incidences of warfare or destruction that result from these two interpretations of the path. Why? Because the scrupulous morality of ahimsa has no concept of “holy war.”
Can a so-called scrupulous morality support or allow behavior equivalent to what is implied by “holy war”? I would argue that it can, and the equivalent moral action is very significant. Early in 1963 a Buddhist monk named Thich Quang Duc, set himself on fire on a busy Saigon street. He sat in meditation posture and remained silent and composed while his body burned. In the days following Quang Duc’s suicide, several other Buddhist monks did the same thing. In each case, witnesses were horrified at this sight. The impact of the self-immolations was worldwide and very nearly changed the course of history. Indeed this act has been admired as the only effective response to the terrorist tactics employed by the US-supported Diem regime. Quang Duc and the others rallied the cowed population by strengthening a more liberal, generous and accommodating view of governance. It was precisely because these monks were known to have so assiduously practiced “ahimsa” that this act of harmful intent was so powerful. Even while their bodies burned these monks did everything they could to minimize the terrible effects of such an act.
Buddhism is above all something that one does: it is a path, a way. It is called the Middle Way. The middle way is to construct an inclusive way of thinking about and reacting to the exigencies of life and living. The middle way uses meditation to intentionally bring composure into our everyday mind.
Today’s terrorist threat from without is a major test of our basic civilization. We undertake this test as an increasingly factionalized society; the factions set to squabbling over nuggets like seagulls on a tourist beach. But we can, if we want to, find a voice that speaks from our better natures. That collective voice starts with each individual and can best be found in the stillness of Buddhist meditation. The theory is that, since “our” better natures are the same as “their” better natures, we need only act from our better natures to give ourselves a chance for survival.
Wayne Codling is a former Zen monastic and a lineage holder in the Soto Zen tradition as taught by the Japanese Zen master, Shunryu Suzuki-roshi (Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind). He teaches Zen style meditation in various venues around Victoria, including regular, drop-in, no charge sessions each Sunday at the Vic West Community Centre and regular classes with young offenders at a correction centre. Wayne’s talks and some writings can be found on his blog (http://sotozenvictoria.wordpress.com), and practice questions are responded to at: http://zendog.ca.