A Statement of Conscience
By Bhikkhu Bodhi
"All beings tremble at the rod" says the Buddha, yet today the ominous
rod of terrorism has become one of the gravest problems that we face. No longer
is the terrorist threat reserved for the vulnerable public figure or the outspoken
adversary. With their lightning speed and global reach, our modern media of communication
have given the terrorist cadres a tremendous new power to intimidate whole populations.
Far too often the victims of their hits are the helpless and innocent, struck
down in a symbolic show of hate.
This appalling increase in terrorist violence pierces the moral consciousness
at its core, leaving behind painful and persisting wounds. For those of us who
reside in Sri Lanka the problem becomes ever more acute as we witness the tide
of terrorism sweep across this traditional homeland of the Dhamma. It is no longer
possible for us to immerse ourselves in the comfortable routines of our familiar
world. Instead we must struggle in anguish and hope to deal with this frightful
menace in our midst -- to understand it and to confront it in a manner worthy
of our Buddhist heritage.
It cannot be disputed that the worldwide rise of terrorism springs from complex
causes of a political, economic and social character, which must be tackled by
any adequate solution to the problem. At the same time, however, we have to insist
that terrorism also has a deeper underlying human dimension that can only be ignored
at our peril. If we probe beneath the burning issues of political ideology and
ethnic grievances around which the terrorist forces rally, we will discover at
its epicenter those same malignant drives that, in less virulent form, motivate
so much ordinary human conduct.
As the vital dynamism from which terrorism springs we will find greed, a rapacious
lust for power and domination. We will find hate, smoldering within as cold resentment
or whipped up into a frenzy of destruction. And we will find delusion, a collective
paranoia instilled by inflammatory ideologies or the blind submergence of the
individual in the group. These are the hidden human roots of terrorism; fed by
personal frustration and social discontent, they yield as their fruits the violence
that surrounds us.
As we grapple with the problem of terrorism, asking ourselves what we can contribute
to stem its rising tide, we may find an answer closer to home than we imagine.
Let us first note that the spread of terrorism is not so much a macabre deviation
from prevailing norms as an extreme manifestation of a wholesale decline in human
fellow feeling. This lack of empathy and sensitivity to others can already be
discerned in the everyday functioning of society -- in the spreading disease of
corruption, apathy and selfishness infecting the social organism. Add to this
a frantic search for a sense of belonging through the rediscovery of ethnic roots,
and the result is a potentially very explosive mixture.
If this much is recognized, we may then see that one of the most effective counter-measures
we can apply in our individual capacity against the growth of terrorism lies very
much within our reach. Simply put, it consists in reaffirming to ourselves --
and teaching by precept and example -- those fundamental ethical values upon which
a harmonious and peaceful society is founded. This reaffirmation of genuine moral
values -- of compassion, honesty, truthfulness, tolerance and respect for others
-- will sound a thunderous statement of conscience. Whether made audibly or privately
to oneself, it will raise a note of protest against the moral negligence from
which terrorism draws its sustenance, acclaiming our confidence in the power of
While we should not cherish unrealistic expectations about our ability to reshape
the world, we also should not lose sight of our responsibility to counter prevalent
trends. Nor should we discount our ability to make an impact. The clear and decisive
commitment to ethical values has a quiet potency that can effect important changes
both outwardly and inwardly. While subtly altering the interpersonal aspects of
our lives, within our hearts it will fortify those two mental factors that the
Buddha called the guardians of the world -- shame and moral dread -- the former
the innate repugnance towards evil, the latter the fear of its consequences.
Above all, we must reaffirm the need to rise above the limiting perspectives of
the self-centered point of view in which so many today have become entrenched.
Recognizing that every community, and the world as a whole, is ultimately harmed
by the struggle of each faction to secure its individual ends, we must stand up
for the development of a sense of humane responsibility that will transcend divisive
loyalties. The lesson that we must learn and teach is that embedded in the ancient
maxim taught by the Buddha: "Considering others as oneself, do not hurt them
or cause them harm." To recognize others as being essentially the same as
oneself and to feel their wish for happiness as one's own, this is the only effective
means we can propose to build the peaceful society for which we yearn.