The Terror Koan
American Buddhists contemplate violence.
BY: Lawrence Pintak
The image is seared into our collective consciousness: Buddhist monks setting themselves on fire to protest the war in Vietnam.
But as they counsel the nation not to act out of a desire for revenge, many leading Buddhist teachers are reluctantly conceding that even a religion devoted to peace recognizes that there are certain situations in which action is unavoidable.
"We cannot just be a doormat," argues Gelek Rinpoche, a Tibetan lama based in the U.S. "As Buddhists, we cannot hurt a fly, but if the fly is hurting sentient beings, we have to stop it."
America's Buddhist teachers are calling on the country to eschew anger, to feel compassion for both the victims and the perpetrators of the violence, and to urge politicians to find and remedy the causes that give birth to hatred, but they are also struggling to reconcile a teaching devoted to ending suffering with a terrorist threat devoted to imposing just that.
"You are entering the koan of 'Stop Harm'," observes Myotai Treace Sensei, abbot of the Zen Center of New York, referring to the insoluble meditation riddles Zen masters give their students. "'Don't do harm, but stop harm."
Zen Samurai. Dharma warriors of Tibet. Wrathful Buddhas. These represent powerful Buddhist traditions that acknowledge violence as a tool of the Dharma. Followers of these paths take a series ofbodhisattva
vows, voluntary oaths to relieve the suffering of all beings.
"One of those vows is that, basically, you have to kill if it will be of benefit to others," explains Nicholas Ribush, a former monk who heads the Lama Yeshe Archive. "If you don't, you are breaking your vows."
But to be justified, the teachers agree, the violence must be highly targeted and taken to prevent further violence, not to exact revenge. "When necessary, kill, but only out of wisdom and compassion," counsels John Daido Loori Roshi, Abbot of Zen Mountain Monastery. "We need to see each situation in terms of time, place and position of the individual. What's okay at one place may not be acceptable in another."
"Don't do harm, but stop harm."
Myotai Treace Sensei,
Abbot of the Zen Center of New York
Robert Thurman of Columbia University believes that the action of a commando team that "got rid" of the terrorists without hurting others could even be "heroic." "The person to do that is abodhisattva
who is very wise and skillful and will not lose his cool to hatred and anger," says America's best-known spokesman for Tibetan Buddhism.