This Is What War Looks Like
The abuse at Abu Ghraib prison is what happens when we abandon compassion and allow our animal nature to take over.
BY: Interview by Lisa Schneider
There is no `good cause' for torture. As a torturer, you are the first to be a victim because you lose all your humanity. You do harm to yourself in the act of harming another. If you had a good cause to begin with, it is lost when you torture another human being. When we imagine situations when torture could be justified, we jump to conclusions too quickly and too easily. Torturing someone will not always give us the result we wish for. If the prisoner in custody does not tell us the information we want it is because they don't want their people, their fellow soldiers to be killed. They withhold information out of compassion, out of faithfulness to their cause. Sometimes they give out wrong information. And there are those who prefer to die rather than give in to the torture.
I am absolutely against torture. It is very easy to create a pretext for why it is necessary to torture a prisoner when we have fear and anger in us. When we have compassion, we can always find another way. When you torture a living being, you die as a human being because the other person's suffering is your own suffering. When you perform surgery on someone, you know the surgery will help him and that is why you can cut into his body. But when you cut into someone's body and mind to get information from them, you cut into your own life, you kill yourself as a person.
If military action is incompatible with mindfulness and compassion, how should people/nations defend themselves? (You have said that when we are mindful, "compassion becomes possible." Is a lack of mindfulness what our moral failings boil down to?)
There are many ways to defend ourselves: through diplomatic foreign policy, forming alliances with other countries, humanitarian assistance. These are all approaches motivated by the wisdom of inter-being, not just by political gain. In these kinds of approaches to resolving conflict, the army doesn't have to do much. They can serve the people, build bridges, roads, etc. This is not idealistic thinking, armies have worked this way in the past. With good foreign policy, the army will not have to fight.
The only really necessary and appropriate circumstance under which an army should resort to violence is to defend itself or an ally from invasion. And even in this case, much suffering will result.
What is upsetting to me is that former generations have committed the same mistakes and we don't learn from them. We haven't learned enough from the war in Vietnam. There were so many atrocities committed there. So many innocent people were tortured and killed by both sides because they were perceived to be `communist', or `anti-communist.'
Mindfulness has so many layers. When we kill because we think that the other person is evil, that we are killing for the sake of peace, that we are doing a good thing, this is not right mindfulness. If we are mindful, we will see not only the present situation, but also the root and the consequence of our act in that moment. Other insights should arise if we are truly mindful: "This person I want to kill is a living being. Is there any chance for him to behave better and change his present, harmful state of mind? Maybe I have a wrong perception and one day I will see that he is just a victim of misunderstanding, and not really the evil person I think he is." Mindfulness also helps a soldier to see that he or she may just be an instrument for killing used by his or her government.
A general who is mindful of his actions is capable of looking deeply. He may not need to use weapons. He will see that there are many ways to deter the opposite side and he will exhaust all other means before resorting to violence. And when nothing else works, he may use violence, but out of compassion, not out of anger.
There is a collective sense of shame among many Americans about the activities depicted in these photos. Buddhists believe individuals are responsible for their actions through karma, but is there any such thing as collective karma? At a national level?
An act of cruelty is born of many conditions coming together, without any separate, individual actor. When we hold retreats for war veterans I tell them they are the flame at the tip of the candle, they are the ones who feel the heat, but the whole candle is burning, not only the flame. All of us are responsible.
The very ideas of terrorism and imagined weapons of mass destruction are already collective karma in terms of thinking and speaking. The media helped the war happen by supporting these ideas through speech and writing. Thought, speech and action are all collective karma.
No one can say they are not responsible for this current situation even if we oppose our country's actions. We are still a member of our community, a citizen of our country. Maybe we have not done enough. We must ally ourselves with bodhisattvas, great, awakened beings, around us to transform our way of thinking and that of our society. Because wrong thinking is at the base of our present situation, thinking that has no wisdom or compassion. And we can do things every day, in every moment of our daily life to nourish the seeds of peace, compassion and understanding in us and in those around us. We can live in such a way that can heal our collective karma and ensure that these atrocities will not happen again in the future.
What is the chief lesson for us to learn from these terrible events?
Don't be tempted to use the army to solve conflicts. The only situation in which we use the army is to defend our country during an invasion. In the past, the U.S. was loved by many of us in the world because the U.S. represented freedom, democracy, peace, and care for other countries. The U.S. has lost this image and must rebuild it.
In the past, when I would go to the U.S. embassy for a visa, it was not heavily guarded. But now, all over the world, U.S. embassies are surrounded by heavily armed guards. Fear has overtaken the U.S. It is the primary motivation for many of the U.S. government's actions because we do not know how to protect ourselves with compassion. Students of political science must learn this in university so that they can bring real wisdom into politics. Compassion can go together with intelligence. Compassion is not stupid. Love is the same, real love is born from understanding.