Like most other Americans, I have been struggling to digest the
events of the last week. It has taken a while to realize how psychically
numbed many of us are. In the space of a few hours, our world changed.
We do not yet know what those changes will mean, but the most important
long-term ones may well be psychological. Americans have always
understood the United States to be a special and uniquely privileged
The Puritans viewed New England as the Promised Land. According
to Melville, we Americans are the peculiar, chosen people. In many
parts of the globe the twentieth century has been particularly horrible,
but the continental United States has been so insulated from these
tragedies that we have come to think of ourselves as immune to them
although we have often contributed to them. That confidence has
been abruptly shattered. We have discovered that the borderless
world of globalization allows us no refuge from the hatred and violence
that predominate in many parts of the world. Every death reminds
us of our own, and sudden, unexpected death on such a large scale
makes it harder to repress awareness of our own mortality.
Our obsessions with such things as money, consumerism, and professional
sports have been revealed for what they are: unworthy of all the
attention we devote to them. There is something valuable to learn
here, but this reality nonetheless makes us quite uncomfortable.
We do not like to think about death. We usually prefer to be distracted.
Talk of vengeance and bomb them back to the stone age makes many
of us uneasy, but naturally we want to strike back.
On Friday President Bush declared that the United States has been
called to a new worldwide mission to rid the world of evil, and
on Sunday he said that the government is determined to rid the world
of evil-doers. Our land of freedom now has a responsibility to extirpate
the world of its evil. We may no longer have an evil empire to defeat,
but we have found a more sinister evil that will require a long-term,
all-out war to destroy.
If anything is evil, those terrorist attacks were evil. I share
that sentiment, but I think we need to take a close look at the
vocabulary. When Bush says he wants to rid the world of evil, alarm
bells go off in my mind, because that is what Hitler and Stalin
also wanted to do. I'm not defending either of those evil-doers,
just explaining what they were trying to do. What was the problem
with Jews that required a final solution? The earth could be made
pure for the Aryan race only by exterminating the Jews, the impure
vermin who contaminate it. Stalin needed to exterminate well-to-do
Russian peasants to establish his ideal society of collective farmers.
Both were trying to perfect this world by eliminating its impurities.
The world can be made good only by destroying its evil elements.
Paradoxically, then, one of the main causes of evil in this world
has been human attempts to eradicate evil. Friday's Washington Post
quoted Joshua Teitelbaum, a scholar who has studied a more contemporary
evil-doer: Osama bin Laden looks at the world in very stark, black-and-white
terms. For him, the U.S. represents the forces of evil that are
bringing corruption and domination into the Islamic world. What
is the difference between bin Laden's view and Bush's? They are
mirror opposites. What bin Laden sees as good an Islamic jihad against
an impious and materialistic imperialism Bush sees as evil. What
Bush sees as good America the defender of freedom bin Laden sees
as evil. They are two different versions of the same holy-war-between-good-and-evil.
Do not misunderstand me here. I am not equating them morally,
nor in anyway trying to excuse the horrific events of last Tuesday.
From a Buddhist perspective, however, there is something dangerously
delusive about the mirror-image views of both sides. We must understand
how this black-and-white way of thinking deludes not only Islamic
terrorists but also us, and therefore brings more suffering into
the world. This dualism of good-versus-evil is attractive because
it is a simple way of looking at the world. And most of us are quite
familiar with it. Although it is not unique to the Abrahamic religions
Judaism, Christianity, and Islam it is especially important for
them. It is one of the reasons why the conflicts among them have
been so difficult to resolve peacefully: adherents tend to identify
their own religion as good and demonize the other as evil. (Historically,
the dualism seems to have originated with the Persian religion of
Zoroastrianism, which saw this world as the battleground of a cosmic
war between good and evil, and anticipated an apocalyptic victory
for the forces of good at the end of time.
The Jews probably absorbed this idea during their Babylonian captivity,
and both Christianity and Islam got this dualism from them.) It
is difficult to turn the other cheek when we view the world through
these spectacles, because this rationalizes the opposite principle:
an eye for an eye. If the world is a battleground of good and evil
forces, the evil that is in the world must be fought by any means
necessary. The secularization of the modern West did not eliminate
this tendency. In some ways it has intensified it, because we can
no longer rely on a supernatural resolution. We have to depend upon
ourselves to bring about the final victory of good over evil as
Hitler and Stalin tried to do. It is unclear how much help bin Laden
and Bush expect from God. Why do I emphasize this dualism?
The basic problem with this way of understanding conflict is that
it tends to preclude thought, because it is so simplistic. It keeps
us from looking deeper, from trying to discover causes. Once something
has been identified as evil, there is no more need to explain it;
it is time to focus on fighting against it. This is where Buddhism
has something important to contribute. Buddhism emphasizes the three
roots of evil, also known as the three poisons: greed, ill will
The Abrahamic religions emphasize the struggle between good and
evil because for them the basic issue depends on our will: which
side are we on? In contrast, Buddhism emphasizes ignorance and enlightenment
because the basic issue depends on our self-knowledge: do we really
understand what motivates us? According to Buddhism, every effect
has its web of causes and conditions. This is the law of karma.
One way to summarize the essential Buddhist teaching is that we
suffer, and cause others to suffer, because of greed, ill will and
delusion. Karma implies that when our actions are motivated by these
roots of evil, their negative consequences tend to rebound back
The Buddhist solution to suffering involves transforming our greed
into generosity, our ill will into loving-kindness, and our delusions
into wisdom. What do these Buddhist teachings imply about the situation
we now find ourselves in? The following is from today's statement
by the Buddhist Peace Fellowship: Nations deny causality by ascribing
blame to others' terrorists, rogue nations, and so on. Singling
out an enemy, we short-circuit the introspection necessary to see
our own karmic responsibility for the terrible acts that have befallen
us. . . . Until we own causes we bear responsibility for, in this
case in the Middle East, last week's violence will make no more
sense than an earthquake or cyclone, except that in its human origin
it turns us toward rage and revenge. We cannot focus only on the
second root of evil, the hatred and violence that have just been
directed against the United States. The three roots are intertwined.
Ill will cannot be separated from greed and delusion.
This requires us to ask: why do so many people in the Middle East,
in particular, hate us so much? What have we done to encourage that
hatred? Americans think of America as defending freedom and justice,
but obviously that is not the way they perceive us. Are they just
misinformed, then, or is it we who are misinformed?" Does anybody
think that we can send the USS New Jersey to lob Volkswagen-sized
shells into Lebanese villages -- Reagan, 1983 -- or loose smart
bombs' on civilians seeking shelter in a Baghdad bunker – Bush,1991
-- or fire cruise missiles on a Sudanese pharmaceutical factory
--Clinton, 1999 -- and not receive, someday, our share in kind?"
(Micah Sifry) In particular, how much of our foreign policy in the
Middle East has been motivated by our love of freedom and democracy,
and how much has been motivated by our need or greed for its oil?
If our main priority has been securing oil supplies, does it mean
that our petroleum-based economy is one of the causes of last week's
Finally, Buddhist teachings suggest that we look at the role of
delusion in creating this situation. Delusion has a special meaning
in Buddhism. The fundamental delusion is our sense of separation
from the world we are in, including other people. Insofar as we
feel separate from others, we are more inclined to manipulate them
to get what we want. This naturally breeds resentment both from
others, who do not like to be used, and within ourselves, when we
do not get what we want. . . . Is this also true collectively?
Delusion becomes wisdom when we realize that no one is an island.
We are interdependent because we are all part of each other, different
facets of the same jewel we call the earth. This world is a not
a collection of objects but a community of subjects. That interdependence
means we cannot avoid responsibility for each other. This is true
not only for the residents of lower Manhattan, now uniting in response
to this catastrophe, but for all the people in the world, however
deluded they may be. Yes, including the terrorists who did these
heinous acts and those who support them. Do not misunderstand me
here. Those responsible for the attacks must be caught and brought
to justice. That is our responsibility to all those who have suffered,
and that is also our responsibility to the deluded and hate-full
terrorists, who must be stopped. If, however, we want to stop this
cycle of hatred and violence, we must realize that our responsibility
is much broader than that. Realizing our interdependence and mutual
responsibility for each other implies something more. When we try
to live this interdependence, it is called love. Love is more than
a feeling, it is a mode of being in the world.
In Buddhism we talk mostly about compassion, generosity, and loving-kindness,
but they all reflect this mode of being. Such love is sometimes
mocked as weak and ineffectual, yet it can be very powerful, as
Gandhi showed. And it embodies a deep wisdom about how the cycle
of hatred and violence works and about how that cycle can be ended.
An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind, but there is an alternative.
Twenty-five hundred years ago, the Buddha said:"He abused me, he
beat me, he defeated me, he robbed me" -- for those who harbor such
thoughts hatred will never cease."He abused me, he beat me, he defeated
me, he robbed me" -- for those who do not harbor such thoughts hatred
will cease. In this world hatred is never appeased by hatred; hatred
is always appeased by love. This is an ancient law. (Dhammapada,
3-5) Of course, this transformative insight is not unique to Buddhism.
After all, it was not the Buddha who gave us the image of turning
the other cheek. In all the Abrahamic religions the tradition of
a holy war between good and evil coexists with this ancient law
about the power of love. That does not mean all the world's religions
have emphasized this law to the same extent. In fact, I wonder if
this is one way to measure the maturity of a religion, or at least
its continuing relevance for us today: how much the liberative truth
of this law is acknowledged and encouraged. I do not know enough
about Islam to compare, but in the cases of Buddhism and Christianity,
for example, it is the times when this truth has not been emphasized
that these two religions have been most subverted by secular rulers
and nationalistic fervor.
So where does that leave us today? We find ourselves at a turning
point. A lust for vengeance and violent retaliation is rising, fanned
by a leader caught up in his own rhetoric of a holy war to purify
the world of evil. Please consider: does the previous sentence describe
bin Laden, or president Bush? If we pursue the path of large-scale
violence, bin Laden's holy war and Bush's holy war will become two
sides of the same war. No one can foresee all the consequences of
such a war. They are likely to spin out of control and take on a
life of their own. However, one sobering effect is clearly implied
by the ancient law: massive retaliation by the United States in
the Middle East will spawn a new generation of suicidal terrorists,
eager to do their part in this holy war. But widespread violence
is not the only possibility. If this time of crisis encourages us
to see through the rhetoric of a war to exterminate evil, and if
we begin to understand the intertwined roots of this evil, including
our own responsibility, then perhaps something good may yet come
out of this catastrophic tragedy.
David R. Loyloy@shonan.bunkyo.ac.jp18 September