The Terror Koan: American Buddhists contemplate violence

Sept. 2001

The image is seared into our collective consciousness: Buddhist monks setting  themselves on fire to protest the war in Vietnam.

But as they counsel the nation not to act out of a desire for revenge, many  leading Buddhist teachers are reluctantly conceding that even a religion devoted  to peace recognizes that there are certain situations in which action is  unavoidable.

"We cannot just be a doormat," argues Gelek Rinpoche, a Tibetan lama based in  the U.S. "As Buddhists, we cannot hurt a fly, but if the fly is hurting sentient  beings, we have to stop it."

America's Buddhist teachers are calling on the country to eschew anger, to  feel compassion for both the victims and the perpetrators of the violence, and  to urge politicians to find and remedy the causes that give birth to hatred, but  they are also struggling to reconcile a teaching devoted to ending suffering  with a terrorist threat devoted to imposing just that.

"You are entering the koan of 'Stop Harm'," observes Myotai Treace Sensei,  abbot of the Zen Center of New York, referring to the insoluble meditation riddles Zen masters give their students. "'Don't  do harm, but stop harm."

Zen Samurai. Dharma warriors of Tibet. Wrathful Buddhas. These represent  powerful Buddhist traditions that acknowledge violence as a tool of the Dharma.  Followers of these paths take a series of bodhisattva vows, voluntary oaths to relieve the suffering of all beings.

"One of those vows is that, basically, you have to kill if it will be of  benefit to others," explains Nicholas Ribush, a former monk who heads the Lama  Yeshe Archive. "If you don't, you are breaking your vows."

But to be justified, the teachers agree, the violence must be highly targeted  and taken to prevent further violence, not to exact revenge. "When necessary,  kill, but only out of wisdom and compassion," counsels John Daido Loori Roshi,  Abbot of Zen Mountain Monastery. "We need to see each situation in terms of  time, place and position of the individual. What's okay at one place may not be  acceptable in another."

"Don't do harm, but stop harm."
Myotai Treace Sensei, Abbot of the Zen  Center of New York

Robert Thurman of Columbia University believes that the action of a commando  team that "got rid" of the terrorists without hurting others could even be  "heroic." "The person to do that is a bodhisattva who is very wise and skillful and will not lose his cool to hatred and  anger," says America's best-known spokesman for Tibetan Buddhism.

Khandro Rinpoche, a leading female Tibetan teacher, says it is extremely  difficult for "ordinary beings" to commit violence without slipping into anger.  Still, she advises, "if we are certain Osama bin Laden is truly responsible for  this hatred and aggression, then it doesn't really require a bodhisattva commando force. Any person who has in their heart the larger welfare of all  people would be justified on some level."

I don't feel like I have any transcendental understanding, just my own  fumbling through it," says Joseph Goldstein, co-founder of the Insight  Meditation Society (IMS), one of the country's largest Buddhist organizations.  "But it seems to me we must respond, that they present a real danger to people  and so some act of protection is totally appropriate. How to balance that  without creating more violence, that's the real koan," he adds.

The Dalai Lama is Buddhism's living symbol of non-violence. Yet  even he has indicated that if it had been practical for the Tibetan army to stop  the Chinese, he would have ordered it to do so to prevent the resulting  suffering.

"When necessary, kill, but only out of wisdom and compassion."
John Daido Loori Roshi, Abbot of Zen  Mountain Monastery

"If one's motivation is sincere and positive but the circumstances require  harsh behavior, essentially one is practicing nonviolence," the Dalai Lama said  in a comment made long before the current crisis. "No matter what the case may  be, I feel that a compassionate concern for the benefit of others--not simply  for oneself--is the sole justification for the use of force."

Thurman, a close friend and student of the Dalai Lama, says the Tibetan  leader's more recent statements have focused on non-violence to send a message. "His Holiness is setting a baseline. He's not getting into the exception about  surgical violence to prevent greater violence because there are enough people  talking about killing," says Thurman. "He doesn't want to give [the  administration] an excuse to do their saturation bombing."

Like every teacher interviewed for this article, John Daido Loori emphasizes  the need to look for alternatives to violence. He talks of Jesse Jackson's  proposed mediation mission, bombing Afghanistan with food, and long-term methods  of getting to the root of the suffering. But when asked whether the country  should act against the terrorists, he is unequivocal: "Most certainly, but the  degree of response and motivation will count very, very highly in what kind of  karma we're going to create."

Scholar Andrew Olendzki, Ph.D., of the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies  cites numerous stories to illustrate the point. In one past life, the Buddha is  said to have killed a man who was about to murder 500 others. In another, the  Buddha said that if, in order to save a choking boy, he had to cause injury he  would do so.

"My sense is the Buddha accepted that a certain amount of violence is built  into the world situations," Olendzki says.

New York's Village Zendo is located just a few blocks from Ground Zero.  Its  abbot, Rev. Pat O'Hara Sensei, says it is not the proximity of the attack, but  its nature, that has led her to conclude that, in this case, compassion requires  action.

"I've considered myself to be a pacifist since the '60s, and yet we have to  take care of what's in front of us. I've also been a gardener and had to get rid  of pests. It's just reality," she says.

Several teachers, even those still struggling for clarity, point to the  actions of the passengers on board the hijacked plane that crashed in  Pennsylvania as the ultimate reflection of the terror koan.

"I think about those people with a kind of admiration," says Sharon Salzberg,  Goldstein's IMS colleague. "I wonder what that extrapolates to in terms of  taking life to ease suffering, but I think that it is the motivation, the  conditions leading up to the act, that are so important."

Genpo Merzel Roshi, abbot of the Zen Center of Utah, flew home from Europe a  few days after the bombings. He has no doubts about the wisdom of the  passengers' action. "I've had martial arts training and I was prepared to do  whatever was necessary to defend the aircraft I was on. There is a very small  percentage of the time when we have to break the precept 'do not kill,' but if  it was the right action at the time, the wisest, most intelligent action for the  greater whole, then I'm prepared to do that."

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