I wrote this some time ago, but it still seems particularly relevant in today’s climate.
At 11.30pm last night I had just brought some friends home from the airport when we heard the news from President Obama that Osama Bin Laden had been killed. Rejoicing broke out in streets all over the US.
I found myself starting to do a high five with one of my friends, but caught myself with hand in mid-air, wondering: “What am I actually high-fiving about?” Am I rejoicing here because a living being has been violently killed, and is that ever ok, even if a person is very deluded and has engaged in evil actions? Or am I relieved because I think the world is now a safer place? Or am I feeling satisfied because I think justice has been done? And are any of these points of view valid or not, and, if they are, are they still perhaps missing the point a bit? (Amazing what can go through your mind in just the few seconds it takes for an aborted high five!)
The brother of a 9.11 victim epressed this dilemma quite well when he thoughtfully said:
“Scenes of jubilation across the US should not be seen as people celebrating someone’s death but as a recognition that everyone feels that capturing or killing Bin Laden was something that needed to be done.”
Do you think killing is ever “needed to be done”? In Buddhism, if we take another’s life out of a deluded motivation such as anger, pride or attachment, then we create very bad karma. But there are times when killing can be done with a skillful motivation. For example, a story is told of Buddha Shakyamuni in one of his previous lifetimes as a Bodhisattva when he was the captain of a ship with 500 people onboard. With his clairvoyance he saw that one of the passengers planned on killing everyone, and to prevent this happening Buddha killed that terrorist – thus preventing the death of 499 people and saving the terrorist from creating some very terrible karma.
So, I hope that this is people’s motivation, to avert a threat to others and not to seek vengeance out of anger. Because, truthfully, the only real enemy of living beings is their delusions, especially their anger, of which vengeance is a part. At times like this it becomes clear to me whether I actually believe this or not. What happened on 9.11 was despicable and evil, and the suffering people experienced upon losing their loved ones all too terrible. Since then, others also have suffered grievously due to acts of terror and other violence. It is very easy to feel very angry about all of this. I can’t even imagine how hard it has been for those who have been directly affected and I will not pretend to speak for them. They have all my respect and deep sympathy. But from a Buddhist point of view, I want to know what is the best way to view all this, to deal with all this, so as to restore sanity and peace of mind?
Bin Laden’s body has been shot through the head, but have we killed his delusions, or ours? Have we destroyed his negative karma, or ours? If we have not, any respite will be temporary.
So what about the feeling of justice or closure, is that real? Also, what is the line here between justice and vengeance? Some people are saying they are experiencing some closure and healing today, and I am glad that they are experiencing any degree of relief from a painful ten years, they deserve it. But do the causes of complete and lasting closure and freedom lie deeper?
If the closure is based on vengeance, is that really closure? If it works, fine… but if it doesn’t? After people have been put to death in the electric chair, for example, you often read reports of the victims’ families saying it didn’t help as much as they thought it would and that they are still disappointed and angry. This is perhaps not surprising if we understand how anger functions — vengeance is part of anger and therefore can never bring peace of mind. Those who report having found peace and genuine closure, who are able to move on with their lives, are usually those who have managed to find forgiveness in their hearts for the killer of their loved ones, thinking for example “they know not what they do”. (This Christian teaching seems similar to me to Buddha’s teaching that people being victimized by their inner enemies of delusions and we cannot blame the victim for the fault of their enemy.) Forgiveness is part of love, and love is always a peaceful mind.
Buddhas never lose their love for anyone as they understand a very important thing about us: we are not our delusions. Geshe Kelsang says in Eight Steps to Happiness:
“Buddhas see that delusions have many faults but they never see people as faulty, because they distinguish between people and their delusions. If someone is angry we think, ‘He is a bad and angry person’, whereas Buddhas think, ‘He is a suffering being afflicted with the inner disease of anger.’….
It is because they distinguish between delusions and persons that Buddhas are able to see the faults of delusions without ever seeing a single fault in any sentient being. Consequently their love and compassion for sentient beings never diminish. Failing to make this distinction, we, on the other hand, are constantly finding fault with other people but do not recognize the faults of delusions, even those within our own mind.”
If I am ever in the incredibly difficult situation of having lost my loved ones to random, evil violence, I hope I will be able to remember this and forgive. I guess you don’t know until you experience it yourself.
As for “justice”, leaving aside the fact that hundreds of thousands of people have died since 9.11 in this pursuit of “justice”, how is justice actually served here, what is justice in fact? Is it eye for an eye, or turn the other cheek and love thy neighbor? The President of the Federal Law Enforcement, understandably upset, has drawn a line in the sand: “I would say ‘May God have mercy on his hideous soul’, but I don’t think he has one.” And, judging by news reports, even church leaders are conflicted about their reactions. One justified the killing:
“He who sheds man’s blood, by man his blood be shed.” (Genesis 9.6).
I have a question about this though: could this not be just as much talking about the law of karma rather than an injunction to kill?
Another said, “‘Turn the other cheek’ doesn’t apply here as it is to do with insult rather than self-defense.’ But isn’t there rather a blurry line between insult and self-defense when you’re being slapped on the cheek?!
Another said “terror attacks are not even in the category of forgiveness”; in which case what is?
To me, Buddha’s teachings on the delusions and karma make all this so much clearer. It doesn’t mean that choosing the right course of action is not agonizing (and who would want to be a politician in times like this?), but it seems to give some signposts such that we at least make sure we are motivated in the best possible way while we eliminate threats, and try not to be angrily blaming others for all our suffering.
I suppose what I’m thinking is that while it is of course a good idea to eliminate the threat of Bin Laden out of a desire to protect, we still should not be deceived into thinking that Bin Laden is the source of all our suffering and problems. Our actual enemies are the delusions. They are what I really want to capture dead or alive. Dead, ideally, but even if I capture them alive by recognizing them for what they are, I am also quarantining them.
As the famous Buddhist teacher Shantideva (AD 687-763) says in Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life:
No other type of enemy
Can remain for as long a time
As can the enduring foes of my delusions,
For they have no beginning and no apparent end.”
I think its worth remembering that Osama Bin Laden may be temporarily incapacitated, but his mental continuum still exists and in future lives his negative karma and ours will continue to play out.
And in the meantime, while we all have uncontrolled minds and negative karma, how can we ever confidently say that we are safe from the horrors of terrorism? Al Qaeda may be weakened for now (though Bin Laden’s deputy Al-Zawahiri is ready to take over), but news reports say that “retaliation is expected” (wait for sad reports of more devastated families) and this is an “opportunity for other Islamic organizations to step up.”
I’m not trying to rain on everyone’s parade! But I have to say that I would prefer a more cosmic parade. Imagine if those scenes of rejoicing were celebrating the death of the real enemy of living beings, our delusions?! And the sense of the country coming together – imagine if we understood that our real collective enemy was anger, attachment and ignorance, and we cheered every time someone somewhere succeeded in destroying these enemies?!
One 9.11 widow said: “My 12-year-old daughter will wake tomorrow to a safer world, hopefully a more peaceful world.” I hear her. This is what we all want for her child, for everyone’s children. How wonderful it would be if we were moving faster in that direction by making effort to destroy the actual causes of danger and terror? As my teacher Geshe Kelsang says, anger is the real cause of the wars in which so many people have died.
If we don’t recognize the real enemies of living beings — the unpeaceful, uncontrolled states of mind that we call “delusions” — then we will make no effort to eliminate them. So by all means we should protect each other in practical ways as much as we can, with a good motivation, as Buddha did when he killed that terrorist; but not at the expense of ignoring the real enemies of all living beings. That is, if we are interested in a genuine or lasting peace and freedom, which we are.
“Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that”
Martin Luther King, Jr.
The death of Osama Bin Laden has actually increased my resolve to help everyone, including all the victims of violence, by overcoming my delusions and becoming a powerful Bodhisattva ASAP. Shantideva can have the last word:
“Out of anger, worldly people who are filled with pride will not sleep
Until they have destroyed those who cause them even the slightest temporary harm.
In the same way, I will not abandon my efforts
Until this inner foe of mine is directly and definitely destroyed.”