Insight and Compassion

A Buddhist View of the September 11 Terrorist Attacks
Transcribed from a Dharma Talk given by Rev. Patti Nakai, September 16, 2001 at the Buddhist Temple of Chicago

I was planning to talk today about the Six Paramitas (Sanskrit: virtuous practices), the usual topic for the O-higan Service (Japanese: equinox observance). However, because of what happened on September 11, I realized this cannot be just another O-higan talk. I need to, and we all need to, talk about what happened and how we can look to the Buddha-Dharma to help us deal with our thoughts and feelings about such a violent tragedy.

On Wednesday, I received a call from a Mr. Ali of the Council of Islamic Organizations asking for a Buddhist representative for the inter-faith vigil they were sponsoring downtown at the Buckingham Fountain the next evening. I gave him some names and numbers to call, but said if he really couldn’t find anyone, I could do it. When I called Mr. Ali back the next morning, he said that with the short notice, people already had other plans. So I agreed to be the representative since I felt it was important for the Buddhists to show their support for those of Islamic faith who were being targeted as scapegoats. (Just the night before, the police had to break up a crowd threatening to attack a mosque in Bridgeview.)

When I arrived I was glad I came, not just as a representative of the Buddhist community, but also to stand as an Asian American among the non-Muslim clergy who were all Caucasians. Then much to the surprise of the vigil organizers, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and some Rainbow Coalition members showed up and so did people from the news media. Rev. Jackson gave an eloquent and moving speech. He spoke out against scapegoating, citing the terrible tragedies of the Nazi persecution of the Jews and the incarceration of Japanese Americans after the Pearl Harbor attack. Following Rev. Jackson, there were speeches by the dozen clergymen and women--two of the Jewish faith, two Muslims and the rest were Christian. Each of the Christian ministers led the audience in prayer, but when it was my turn near the end (the media people had long departed along with Rev. Jackson), I led a brief meditation and gave a reading and comments on a passage from the Dhammapada, the earliest collection of Shakyamuni Buddha’s sayings. I would like to elaborate on some of what I said because, as many of you have already felt this past week, there is an outlook in Buddhism that puts us out of step with most of our country’s spokesmen and politicians.

In leading the meditation, I asked the gathering not only to include the victims and their loved ones in their thoughts, but to also remember that the hijackers also died in the jet crashes and they all had parents, brothers, sisters and friends who are now in mourning. In his awakening to the oneness of all life, Shakyamuni Buddha could no longer allow himself to think of any living creature as less deserving of life than himself or anyone else. Each life is precious and unique in the eyes of a Buddha. In his talks, Shakyamuni uses phrases like "Buddha’s child" to describe the bond he feels towards each living being. So, each of the hijackers and their collaborators is a child of Buddha. We have no right to talk about them as non-human creatures, lower than insects. In flesh and blood, heart and mind, they were no different from any of us.

Of course, this is not to condone the awful killing and destruction they brought about. But we should realize these acts didn’t occur just because those people were suddenly possessed by the devil or some mysterious force. One of the Muslim speakers pointed out the conditions which produce terrorists--the economic and political oppression of whole societies of people who feel they are the victims of the rich, powerful countries awash in luxuries. In the Buddhist teachings, there is the basic principle called "dependent origination"--or simply, the "law of karma." Each thing that happens in this world becomes a cause and condition for other things to happen. We recite this law all the time in the "Golden Chain" [recited at every Sunday service], that what I think, say and do now will lead to the misery or happiness of myself and others in the future.

Although violent acts occur due to the causes and conditions of the past, the law of karma also points out the potential in each of us, from this moment on, to think, say and do things that can lessen the violence in the world. One way to get started on the path of peace is to learn from Shakyamuni Buddha. Shakyamuni had looked deep into himself and saw the seeds of violence in his own mind. In the Dhammapada, we can hear the insights coming from his thorough self-examination. The passage I read at Thursday’s vigil was from the first chapter of the Dhammapada:

"He insulted me, hit me, beat me, robbed me," for those who brood on this, hostility isn’t stilled.
"He insulted me, hit me, beat me, robbed me," for those who don’t brood on this, hostility is stilled.
Hostilities aren’t stilled through hostility, regardless. Hostilities are stilled through non-hostility: This is an unending truth.
Unlike those who don’t realize that we’re here on the verge of perishing, Those who do: their quarrels are stilled.*

I then explained that the early English translations of the passage used the phrasing "Hate is overcome by love" (as in our temple’s service book). Maybe in the Victorian age it was considered awkward to write "hostility" and "non-hostility" in the same sentence. But I feel that early attempt at translation misses an important point. "We can be full of love," I said at the vigil, "Love for our friends and family, love of our country--but if there is one tiny seed of hostility in us, all that love cannot overcome the hate." In the original Pali language text, Shakyamuni clearly states that hostility (verena) is ended only by non-hostility (a-verena). He is not glibly preaching, "Love thy neighbor," but is confessing his struggle to confront the hate in himself. What this Dhammapada passage illustrates is the paramita of kshanti. Called nin-niku in Japanese, it means (nin = shinobu ) to bear, endure (niku = joku) abuse and insult. Although kshanti is commonly translated as "patience," many Buddhist texts use the word "insight." This is because when you have the insight to realize that abuse and injury are brought about by myriad causes and conditions, you no longer take it personally and there is no reason to hate anyone for the way they treat you. This is what kshanti really is, not an easy paramita to practice, but one for us to keep in mind now more than ever.

For us to talk about "Oneness" at our temple, we must acknowledge that the four jet crashes--at the two towers of the World Trade Center, at the Pentagon and into the ground in rural Pennsylvania--are all part of one bright, shining reality, the world of enlightenment, the Pure Land. Terrorism is not just something way over there that suddenly came to inflict misery on our country. In the minds of each of us is the same hostility that drove the hijackers to their desperate actions. Just as the Rev. Billy Graham and other Christian ministers say this is the time to turn to God, for Buddhists, this is the time to listen earnestly to the Dharma--to become aware of the working of karma in all events and to cultivate a sense of fellowship with all living beings. This is the time to learn the real meanings of the words "insight" and "compassion."

*From a translation by Thanissaro Bhikkhu (Geoffrey DeGraff) available at accesstoinsight.org; a superb translation of the Dhammapada, using very up-to-date Engli expressions yet soundly based on Ajahn-Geoff's extensive study of the Pali language.

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