A Buddhist Understanding of 11 September 2001

Three Minutes’ Silence –


and some deeper grief

This haiku came out of grief for the five thousand innocents slaughtered in New York and Washington. But I also experienced a yet deeper grief to be reminded yet again, and so poignantly, of the fear, rage and folly which so madly drives our global society. I also had the feeling that it was as if the Americans, however unconsciously, were somehow usurping the whole world’s sorrow to mourn and avenge only their own.

The Buddha showed how the pig, the cock and the snake of anger, greed and delusion drive a human life. But what of the driven follies of history, the greater madnesses of human societies which lie behind the 11th September sound bites? Nations, races, cultures, religions, social classes and every imaginable grouping (not excluding Buddhist ones!) are sustained by, and sustain, the personal need for belongingness to reinforce our fragile sense of self. Even the least of its citizens swells with pride to be American, with a sense of being one of the world’s chosen people with a unique global destiny, and a unique political and economic – and military – superiority. Throughout history millions of the most wretched have been willing to die for The Flag (or some other Flag), finding meaning and dignity were all else may have failed.

This bonding is sustained further by a kind of collective delusion called ideology. This is a view of the world more or less distorted to affirm our collective identity, our essential rightness. Many Americans, for example, believe that the less fortunate of the world’s peoples are desperate to destroy America’s democratic institutions – whereas it would be nearer the truth that they are desperate to be allowed to enjoy such social justice themselves.

In fearful times all our rage and frustration can be projected by demonising those others out there – whoever they may be. Low profile police and intelligence action against terrorism will not assuage the vengefulness of the folks back home, so it has to be a “war against terrorism”, with all the trappings of a massive military build-up.

Each side becomes to some extent the mirror image of the other. Each invokes God in its own jihad against Evil. George W Bush and Osama bin Laden have even referred to each other as “the head of the snake”. Each provokes the other to greater violence. Each side plays its own “dirty tricks” on the other, and if the terrorists still lack the means to commit crimes against humanity on a truly American scale it is not for want of trying.

To the extent we are free of this antithetical bonding, as I call it, to that extent can we see with greater objectivity the working of the world in the light of Buddha’s diagnosis of our human condition, with its karmically driven tangle of interactive conditioning.

In the words of one journalist “the world has been laid waste by America’s foreign policy: its gunboat diplomacy, its nuclear arsenal, its vulgarly stated policy of ‘full spectrum dominance’, its chilling disregard for non-American lives, its barbarous military interventions, its support for despotic and dictatorial regimes, its merciless economic agenda that has munched through the economies of poor countries like a cloud of locusts.” A more detailed and dispassionate indictment is readily available on your computer, at Znet.

The global dominance and exploitation by the world’s richest countries of the poorest extends all the way from military might to Coca-Cola culture, provoking anger, frustration and helplessness. It is small wonder that where any kind of militant fundamentalism flourishes there is this desperate resort to the crude countervailing violence of mass terrorism.

A full Buddhist diagnosis would be considerably more complex, but this will serve our purpose. So … what of our response? First of all, there are three projects to which several of us are already lending our support. The short term one is to do everything possible to end the bombing. Already the war is being widely perceived as a war against Islam. Its continuance and escalation will put pressure on moderate Moslems to support the fundamentalists. The terrorists will then be well on their way to achieving their goal, which is a general a war between the West and Islam.

In the mid term efforts should be made to change the prevailing political and economic policies of the rich countries which bear so heavily on the world’s peoples. Recognise a viable Palestinian State with international guarantees (which would also cover the integrity of Israel). Institute another round of Third World debt cancellations. And so on. Stop making enemies. Make more friends, and so isolate the terrorists from their mass support and hence make it more difficult for them to recruit support and to elude capture.

And in the long term there is the anti-globalisation movement to overturn the dominant free market transnational capitalism, which has been progressively making the majority poorer and a tiny minority ever richer.

The bodhisattva vow is “to save all beings” -- from delusion, but also, I believe, from the needless poverty and oppression which ultimately have their origin in delusion. Bodhisattvas have the special job of promoting among activists and other change-agents an inner work which enables them to recognise this process of antithetical bonding and to appreciate how counter-productive it is. This means, in particular, raising awareness of confrontational bloody-mindedness and similar mentalities and exploring more constructive alternatives. The Great Work is too important to be clouded and distorted by personal and collective self-need.

The remarkable anti-globalisation movement is the latest in a long history of movements for radical change. Beginning with high ideals all have eventually foundered in intolerance, crude ideology and disunity. A truly democratic and ecologically sustainable commonwealth can only be achieved and maintained by steady state people who have liberated themselves from psychological dependence on the market and the state. Such unprecedented public spiritedness requires awareness of the ego agendas which have capsized all previous attempts to build the good society. For example, at Genoa the violence and negativity of far more of the demonstrators than is generally realised should be a warning to us.

The events of 11th September have created a new point of departure in our global culture. They can give a new impetus to what I believe is the 21st century bodhisattva task. This is to work with like minded people to build a veritable culture of awakening, where the inner work of awareness cultivation is no less important than the outer work to build a better world, and is an essential support to it.

Buddhist radicals are empowered by three kinds of liberation. First, as we have seen, they are free of the crippling need for ideology and belongingness to sustain their empowerment. Secondly, they are free of a sense of powerlessness in the face of oppressive systems, for they know that these are only sustained by belief – ultimately they are no more than collective mental constructs. And thirdly, because they are not dependent on results or on unrealistic beliefs to sustain their efforts, they just carry on doing their unstoppable best in good heart, beyond either optimism or pessimism.

The Buddha’s remedy for the human condition was a radical and awe-inspiring one. And it can be no less – and no different -- for the remedying of the human social condition. This is truly the bodhisattva path. Now is the time to renew our vows and to be steadfast and of good heart in our fellowship.

I conclude with a fitting text from the Sutta-Nipata. “What is it”, said Ajita to the Buddha, “that smothers the world? What makes the world so hard to see? What would you say pollutes the world and threatens it most ?” “It is ignorance which smothers,” said the Master, “and it is heedlessness and greed which make the world invisible. The hunger of desire pollutes the world, and the great source of fear is the pain of suffering.” “In every direction”, said Ajita, “the rivers of desire are running. How can we dam them, and what will hold them back? What can we use to close the flood-gates?” “Any such river can be halted with the dam of mindful awareness”, said the Buddha. “I call it the flood-stopper. And with wisdom you can close the flood-gates.”