A Buddhist Perspective on Terrorism:
Why It Is Happening and What to Do About It
by Don Brown, Prayer Flag co-editor
In the aftermath of the September 11th terrorist attacks on America, which left
thousands of people dead, we have more questions than answers. Why do they hate
us and why the senseless killing of innocent citizens? How do we stop terrorism?
Without satisfactory answers, what has followed for many has been a roller coaster
of painful emotions: fear, anger, hatred, despair and apprehension, even depression.
Some people have turned (for refuge) to drugs, sex, food, TV, or isolation to
help cope. Our Buddhist Refuge can be like our best friend when we face big problems,
but for reasons that are unfathomable, we often don't put the Dharma into practice
when we need it. As Geshe Gelek has said repeatedly, "If a skilled physician
(Buddha) gives you a prescription (Dharma) to cure your ailments and you don't
take it, it's not the fault of the doctor or the medicine."
One aspect of the Dharma that quickly becomes apparent to most Buddhists is the
notion of cause and effect or karma: I am the creator/the source of my own reality.
This is not just referring to my reactions to situations but to the situations
as well. Karma refers to my past actions which plant potencies in my mind stream
that ripen into my present and future experience. Karmic law is likened to the
laws of nature: it is impossible to experience a result without creating the cause;
wholesome actions always lead to happiness and destructive actions always lead
to suffering; karmic potentials expand exponentially; and the effects of karma
are never lost. In essence, I am 100% responsible for my life, my reality (like
it or not).
To add, karma is an impersonal process, which operates the same for groups of
people/living beings as it does for individuals. This is the Buddhist concept
of "collective karma." In the same way that an individual's past actions
result in particular outcomes, so do the actions of an entire nation (to use one
example of group) result in particular outcomes.
It is because of the karmic principle that I study and practice Dharma. This principle-that
I create my own experience and contribute to the collective experience-makes it
possible for me to mold and shape my mind into the state of enlightenment for
the benefit of others. Karma simply means that I am responsible for everything;
therefore, I can learn from every situation what works and what doesn't work.
With a strong conviction in karma I can avoid the victim mentality that paralyzes
me and blames others. (e.g. "I don't have to examine my behavior or change
because it's his/her fault.")
If I had been injured in one of these terrorist attacks you might say, "Don
was an innocent victim." This word "victim" is tricky, and deserves
a close examination. It is formally defined as, "One who is harmed or killed,...
tricked, swindled, or injured." Socially, we use the term to describe a person
who suffers, and that in itself is not incorrect usage. It is the subtler implication
that someone else is responsible for the victim's suffering that is questionable.
On a deeper karmic level, I would say that I am responsible for my life; all of
it. There is great hope and possibility in living life from the, "I am the
source and not the hapless victim" perspective. Innocent victim mentality
breeds anger and resentment and is experienced as dark, heavy, hopeless, trapped,
Which brings us to the point. As a Buddhist I can ask, "If I am responsible
for my own experience, then how am I responsible for this tragedy that literally
threatens our way of life and possibly our civilization?" The answer to the
"why me, why us?" question starts with examining the mentality of our
terrorist brothers. The events of September 11th are the product of minds pervaded
by confusion, anger, fear, hatred, disconnection, jealousy, narrow-mindedness,
and unconsciousness. Instead of pointing my finger at others (the victim response),
as a Buddhist, I examine my own mind. I can see that I, too, have planted these
same seeds, these same poisons in my mind stream by my past actions. More directly,
my delusions are the same delusions that enabled the terrorists' actions. What
I have put out has come back to me, and if I don't want to meet it again in the
future I need to deal with my own anger, fear, hatred, etc.
Further, collective Karma explains why we as a group, Americans and world citizens,
are experiencing these particular problems now. We must have, collectively, harmed
other beings in our past and now, like a boomerang, we are experiencing the results.
Note that what is being said is that my delusions are the cause, which is far
different from saying I am bad or evil because I have delusions. The distinction
between the karmic notion of being responsible, the source, the creator of my
reality, and being "to blame" (used in the pejorative sense) is important.
I am not to blame; I am responsible for my reality. Responsibility means not blaming
anyone, not even myself. The fact that nearly 4000 people died as a result of
recent terrorist actions does not mean that those who died are to blame or are
being judged and then punished. This would imply that there is some force or being
that is judging and punishing. That is not karma.
Again, Karma is described as a law of nature. If I accidentally drink poison and
get sick, this is chemical law in action. It is not personal. While my basic nature-everyone's
basic nature-is pure Buddhanature, it is our delusions that make it possible for
us to generate negative karma. Fortunately, delusions are like pollution that
can be cleaned up to let the clear pure Buddhanature emerge.
Now, having an understanding of karma, it is clear that retaliating in response
to the harm done to us, with the motivation of revenge/hatred/punishment, is self-destructive.
A strong response, even a wrathful one, to stop terrorist actions may be appropriate
if and only if it is done with a wise and compassionate motivation. Vengeful retaliation
only perpetuates the cycle of suffering. Think about ways that strong, even forceful,
action can be taken to stop harmful people whilst being motivated by wisdom and
compassion. In this light, asking our leaders to practice restraint before initiating
a military response motivated by revenge is a very patriotic thing to do. Violence
should always be the last resort.
Furthermore, from a karmic perspective, if someone kills another being and I rejoice
in that action, I generate the same karma as if I had done the killing myself.
It is important not to get caught up in a saber-rattling, "us vs. them"
mentality; we are all human beings trying to find happiness and avoid suffering.
In this way, we are all the same. The most accurate and skillful way to view the
terrorists is as brothers/ sisters who are seriously deluded, suffering, and deserving
of our compassion, not with hatred. In this way, compassion protects our minds.
In essence, my individual delusions and ours collectively have created this mess.
Buddha taught that our real enemy resides in our minds' delusions-the principle
one being selfishness/ego-grasping. If I really want to stop terrorism in the
world, I can start right now in my home and work place. If we all did our part
and cleaned up our minds, then terrorism would cease to exist. From this perspective,
I am/we are not helpless, there is plenty of work to do to help heal the ultimate
cause of these tragedies, and contribute to world peace. As Venerable Robina Courtin
commented in recent email, "After last Tuesday (9/11), it seems to me that
all I can do is renew my efforts to practice morality, purify my mind and attempt
to be useful in this crazy world of ours."