September 11 was supposed to be an auspicious day for Franz Metcalf and me: It was the day of our first author event for our new book, What Would Buddha Do at Work? The book had just been published and we were excited to help people find freedom from suffering in the workplace using the Buddha’s teachings. Our author event was scheduled at a Barnes and Noble in the Bay Area. Franz had gone up to San Francisco a few days earlier to visit his folks, and I started driving up from LA before dawn on that fateful Tuesday.
An hour or so into my trip, once I got over the mountains and into the central valley, I turned on the car radio to check the news. Within a few seconds, I was listening to the horrific drama unfolding 3000 miles away. I could scarcely believe what I was hearing. I grabbed my cell phone and called my boyfriend, even though I didn’t think he’d be awake yet. But he was. I started to cry.
Next, I called our publicist. “What should I do?” I asked her. She was crying, too. “Should I turn around and go home or should I keep driving north?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “Let me call the bookstore when they open. I’ll talk to the manager and call you back.”
I kept driving; I kept crying; and I kept calling people. I didn’t want to be alone.
I called Franz in San Francisco. “What should I do?” I asked him. “Should I keep coming north or should I turn around and go home?” In the face of what was happening, a book signing seemed like the stupidest thing in the world.
“I don’t have a clue.” Franz replied.
I called my son. I didn’t have anything to say; I just wanted to hear his voice.
And that’s the way the morning went: driving, crying, calling the publicist, calling the bookstore, calling Franz, calling family, and more crying.
When we finally got hold of the bookstore manager, he said, “There are half a dozen people in the store, so let’s go ahead as planned.”
But of course, it wasn’t anything like we had planned. Franz and I gathered with the handful of people who had come to hear us. We held up our book and told them, “We wrote this book about Buddha’s teachings at work.” Then we set the book aside and spent the next two hours discussing Buddha’s teachings about violence, suffering, loss, and death. We wondered: What advice would Buddha give President George Bush? What words of wisdom would Buddha share with world leaders in a situation like this?
That first author event turned out to be auspicious, just not in the way we had planned. The tragedy of the day gave us an opportunity to live what we had been writing about: bringing Buddha’s teachings to bear on our own work of teaching and helping people alleviate their own suffering.
A few days later, Franz and I wrote a letter to President Bush, urging him to refrain from the lust for revenge that had our nation in its grip. We were as eloquent and persuasive as we knew how to be, hoping against hope that he might ask himself, “What would Jesus do?” since we knew he would never ask, “What would Buddha do?”
For all who place their ultimate focus in the invisible world, it may be true that there is no slayer and no slain, no birth, no death, and no pain because no separate persons to feel pain. But since the attacks of September 11th, for many of us all these things feel real—too real—this is where we live, this reality of death and people who want to cause it. And we will continue to live in this reality, so the question for us is: What kind of country and world do we want to live in?
No responsible and compassionate person condones the actions of the terrorists who brought death from the sky to our country. But death from the sky is a common event in many countries around the world. And we as Americans must acknowledge that we have brought death from the sky ourselves to many of those lands. We have now been brought within the sphere of a worldwide disease from which we have previously been immune. It may be we cannot now choose to live without a touch of terror; this is now our lot, just as it is for the rest of the world. But we truly cannot choose to live without freedom.
This choice, for freedom or for war, will create the world we will live in.The plague of violence and retribution we have seen for so long in the Middle East is now ours to accept or reject in our own lives. We must reject it. We have borne the blast of terror, but the terrorists have not truly achieved their goals unless they draw us into their sphere, down to their level. The devil always gives us a choice, doesn’t he? Well, this is our choice. If we choose retribution, we enter a cycle of revenge that will outlive us. On this bitter path we will first lose our peace of mind, then our safety, next our tolerance of others, and finally our freedom, the very essence of what we must preserve. From the moment we enter this war, we have already lost it.
We beg you, Mr. President, do not make this terrible error. What will be the legacy of George W. Bush? What will be our legacy to the world? Let it be this: not taking the wide road, but the narrow path. Following, as our greatest Republican president did, “the better angels of our nature.” It is your choice to command the powers of peace to defeat a foe that the powers of war can never overcome. We all want you to stand strong but for God’s sake and humanity’s, stand for peace. We are the authors of a recent book applying Buddhist wisdom to our lives at work. Your work is now the central work of the world. Please take Buddha’s advice:
“He insulted me, he beat me, robbed me!” Think this way and hatred never ends.
“He insulted me, he beat me, robbed me!” Give this up and in you hatred ends.
Not by hate is hate defeated; hate is quenched by love. This is eternal law.
~ Dhammapada 3-5
Walk the path of wisdom and compassion with Buddha; walk the path of non-violence with Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.; walk the path of love with Jesus. Then let the world follow you. We will.
Franz Metcalf and BJ Gallagher
Coauthors of What Would Buddha do at Work? (Berrett-Koehler; 2001)
We sent our letter to the White House and we submitted it to The Los Angeles Times, who declined to publish it. Later, a Times editor told me, “It’s probably just as well we didn’t publish it. You and Franz would have gotten hate mail—maybe even death threats.” No one wanted to hear a message of love conquering hate – everyone was blinded by their pain and rage.
We don’t know if President Bush ever read our letter since we didn’t receive a reply. So we thought we’d share it with you now, in the hope that ten years of hating Muslims, two bloody wars, and over a million lives lost have changed public perspective on how to respond to terrorism. Whether you are Buddhist, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Sikh, Shinto, or spiritual but not religious – for the love of all that is holy – choose peace, not war; choose love, not hate.