Dateline Dharma
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, and painful.
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."