I’m hesitant to write this post. Honestly, I don’t think I’m ready. As I sit in front of my tiny wooden statue of the Buddha, flanked by two candles, I cannot help but hear a faint whisper saying…
“Time is now.”
Siddhartha Gautama taught that our existence is conditioned by the past actions and thoughts of the universe both within and outside of us. We are ever-changing, ever evolving (or devolving) beings trapped inside the revolving door of karma (action)…that is, unless we free ourselves of desire, illusion, attachment and the endless cycle of cause and effect. This is the point of Buddhism: liberation from karma–suffereing, to escape the revolving door.
So why is this post difficult for me? Because from September 11th, 2001 and up until this moment, I wanted Osama bin Laden dead. But that wasn’t enough. I didn’t just want him dead, I wanted to place the bullet in his skull.
The attack against the United States on September 11th was an act of karma–bad karma–that not only stained the lives of those who propagated the attack, but everyone on the planet. Karma then is like a stone dropped into a pond. Those ripples fan out and strike other objects within the wake of those ripples and like an echo, eventually come back to the source. This is where cause and effect comes into play. One’s karma returns.
In the case of Osama bin Laden’s karma, the ripples touched millions instantly, including me. Just as the ripples in water cause a reaction (unless you are detached from karma, as the Buddha teaches) in everything it contacts, I was moved into action by these events.
Two weeks later, I surrendered to and embraced the national hatred toward this man and his al-Qaeda network. I joined the United States Marine Corps with the sole intent of going into whatever clime and place required to wipe this man’s existence off the planet.
But something happened. I didn’t make it through Basic Training. 1 1/2 months in (half-way through) my time at Paris Island, South Carolina Marine Corps Training Depot, I started sleep-walking. I was so involved in my training, so ready to be a Marine, that I performed drill movements with my rifle in my sleep. I was immediately discharged and it took years for me to let go of my desire to get back into the Corps.
This is what the Buddha was talking about. My desires became an obsession that mired my very existence. I became a slave to karma. Freedom is only achieved once we release ourselves from desire and master our own minds. My wife insists that I didn’t become a Marine due to some higher purpose. Indeed, had I graduated, I would not have married her, had our children, or maybe even alive to write this post to you. But even thinking about such things pulls us back into karma–into the tar-pit of our own subconscious imaginings. What matters is what is here, now. The reality and realization of constant change.
To overcome one’s own self is indeed better than to conquer others. Neither god nor demigod, nor Mara with Brahma, can undo the victory of him who has subjugated himself and who practices self-restraint.–Dhammapada, canto 8: 104-105
Now that I’ve overcome my desire to become a Marine and kill Osama bin Laden out of revenge, the Buddha asks me to go a step further. So, Great Master, it isn’t enough that I don’t want to personally kill him, but I must refrain from wanting others to kill him as well?
Indeed, the Buddha teaches us that All life is not only sacred, but possesses latent buddha-nature. Because of this possible enlightenment, this possible change (all existence is in flux, remember?), we cannot be attached to what we perceive this man or anyone else as being, because this apparent state of being is only our own projections of that person or thing. Our projections are not reality, only our personal conditioned reality.
But what about justice? Didn’t Osama bin Laden deserve to die? I can’t answer that, but I suspect that the Buddha would ask us why we cling to the cause and effect cycle of retribution (sometimes a fancy word for “justice”) that is karma in the first place. If we release ourselves from this notion that killing bin Laden somehow creates balance in the universe, then the teachings of the Buddha becomes clear. Did killing him or any other terrorist remove our animosity? Some might say, “Well it makes me feel better.” The Buddha would probably reply “That means you were a slave to your desire. Your enslavement to the desire to seek ‘justice’ controlled your actions. You are not free.”
So I return to where I started. What do I do with this news of bin Laden’s death? What do I do with my feelings of satisfaction and joy for this man’s demise?
Nothing. The Buddha tells me to:
Observe your thoughts with detachment as you observe with detachment the distant flight of birds in the peace of the evening. –Cularahulovada Sutta
Wow. No one said this would be easy. Obviously the national reaction to this news is celebration and relief, a sigh from the breath of Justice. But the Buddha calls us to do something higher. To release ourselves of that need, to meet evil with good, the violent with non-violence, hatred with love, the intolerant with tolerance.
A tall order indeed. I can’t say I’m there yet, but I’m trying. Of course there’s also the timeless wisdom of Master Yoda:
“There is no try. Do, or do not.”
All I know is that I want to be like this guy.
And letting go–of everything–is the only way to get there.
What do you think? We’ve all faced injustice large and small in our lives. Maybe you are bullied in school. Perhaps you’re the victim of domestic abuse. Your desire for equanimity could stem from something as small as someone cutting you off in traffic to as large as facing the murderer of a loved one. Given these teachings from the Buddha, do you think you could strive for the peace that is detachment? Could you let go of your need for justice? Could you let go of your emotions?