Terror, Counter-terror and the Dharma
Summary of a talk given by Richard Reoch at the London Shambhala Meditation Centre 4 August 2002
The events of 11 September 2001 raise profound and disturbing questions. What is the cause of such horrors? What will be their result? How should we respond?
The suffering has been immense -- for the victims in the planes and the buildings, and for their families and friends. It affected countless witnesses: the schoolchildren who looked up to see people falling through the flames, the thousands of people who jammed telephone lines desperately trying to locate each other, and the millions affected by the images on TV screens around the world.
What happened was unthinkable. It happened on an unimaginable scale. It was outside the normal logic of wars, disasters and massacres. Those responsible seemed beyond negotiation or restraint.
Many of us went into shock. People stared at the news footage over and over again, obsessed. People were too afraid to travel, some even to go outside. I know of a woman who completely stopped going out and was still in that state months later.
There have been broader social consequences. Social hatred has intensified. Moslems have been attacked, as have Sikhs because of their turbans and beards. Anti-semitic attacks also appear to be on the rise. And a wave of anti-Americanism is evident not only in areas of the Middle East, but within Europe and elsewhere.
Security efforts have been stepped up. Detention without trial has been introduced in various countries, including the UK. Captives are being seized and transported from one place to another without due process. The debate is sharply polarised: either you are with us or you are against us.
Violence has spiralled. First, immense devastation in Afghanistan, then old flashpoints flared up: Israel and Kashmir. But also fresh violence in Northern Ireland, Spain, Italy, Corsica, Russia to name a few. It is as if the collective temperature of humanity has shot up.
On 11 September I was at Heathrow, trying to fly to North America. I was marooned in London for the next 10 days, watching the news and trying to take in all the commentaries and conflicting arguments. I was being asked by people: "How do we make sense of this and what should we do?"
In fact I now realise that I was in shock myself - physically hollow; fearful for the future; grieving not only for the victims, but for the loss of old certainties; listless and low in energy. I could feel myself becoming increasingly aggressive: wanting to apportion blame without any ifs or buts; frustrated by not having a short, sharp theory to fit the unfolding nightmare.
As I sought for a response that might be appropriate within the context of the Shambhala Buddhist path, the image that came constantly to mind, and which I have tried to understand, is the Indian Emperor Ashoka standing on the great battlefield of Kalinga, surrounded by death and destruction.
He is said to have walked among the rotting corpses and dead animals that were being eaten by vultures. As he moved through the dead, he saw a monk in the distance - also walking among the bodies, but radiant and at peace.
According to one account, the Emperor said to himself; "Why is it that I, who have everything, am so wretched, whereas this monk, who has nothing save for his robes and bowl, is so serene in this place of terror?"
It is said that it was this encounter that transformed him from a tyrant to one of history's most just and benevolent rulers.
Who was that monk? In the distance, with shaved head and robe, common to both bhikkus and bhikkunis of the time, it could have been either a male or female follower of the Buddhist Path. Like each of us, it was a practitioner surrounded by the horrors of a world at war.
Significantly it was the energy of this person's being, a quality of radiant presence that, before a single word had been uttered, caused the Emperor to lift his gaze from the bitter remains of battle.
It is a potent symbol of our path. We begin with our own state of being. We attend to our body-its need for food, sleep, exercise and kindness-and to the energy of our mind, which needs to be honed and uplifted in the midst of chaos. Synchronised through meditation, this energy is our innermost protection.
Then comes our view. The practitioner brings understanding to the battlefield, able to discern patterns within apparently senseless suffering and not become overwhelmed.
This is the value of study. Over and over we try to come to terms with samsara, with the three marks of existence – that nothing endures, that suffering is pervasive, that there is no such thing as an identity. As we penetrate the six realms of existence, we see them as embodiments of extraordinary dynamism, worlds of constant motion driven by the forces of ignorance, addiction and aggression. And as we delve deeper, these experiences reveal themselves as mirages unfolding within the limitless embrace of wisdom and compassion.
This understanding constitutes the second circle of our protection. It is based not only on study, but also on the heart practices of bodhicitta, tonglen, the four immeasurables and the other practices that connect us with the power of our lineage.
At the New York Shambhala Center they opened their doors and invited people in to practise tonglen for all the victims, including the men who hijacked the planes.
In the Shambhala understanding of what we call Sacred World, everything is included. The world's killing fields are places of practice, no less than our shrine rooms; indeed they offer us perhaps the sharpest edges on which to hone our practice.
It can be helpful-and shocking-to examine our own experience of ignorance, addiction, and aggression in this light.
It's getting hard not to be ignorant about world affairs. It requires more and more effort to follow the news carefully and critically. And if you're like me, there are subjects or even whole continents on which we simply close down and just don't want to know about.
Nothing shows up our most intractable addiction better than the news. If we really wanted the best for others, rather than being addicted to ourselves, just one news broadcast would probably be enough to drive us, like the Buddha, from our homes to help all beings. I'm embarrassed by how long it took me just to open an account with The Cooperative Bank so that my savings wouldn't be used to back oppressive regimes or the arms trade!
Our thought patterns and speech habits also tell us a lot about our own aggression in times like these - the way we so often use hackneyed generalizations to label and judge entire nations and races.
Working with these issues is a path both to protecting ourselves in the world, and bringing protection to the world itself.
At the same time, it's important not to get swept away by all the terrible statistics and the latest horrors. We need to hold our minds in balance: many forces are at work at any one time-the aftermath of 9/11 has given birth to renewed efforts by countless groups working for peace around the world.
Still, we hear it said that there are people beyond the reach of our humanity, and that violence is the only answer.
Noble Ashoka seems to have started out like that, a monster who ordered the death of 10,000 in a slaughter house known as "Ashoka's Hell." Yet even he and his chief executioner were transformed. The text says, "the seeds of enlightenment germinated within them." Not "the seeds were planted" or "were born," but were already present and "germinated."
What more poignant a reminder could there be to us, his dharma heirs in these dark times, not to give up on ourselves or others?