The woman caller to Larry King's show echoed the question haunting many Americans when she asked the panel of religious leaders what sort of afterlife awaited the suicide pilots who killed thousands of innocent people. Rimpoche Nawang Gehlek, a Buddhist lama, watched the television screen, eager to hear what King's guests would say.
"There were a number of Christian ministers on the show and Muslim scholars, and there was Deepak Chopra," says Rimpoche, referring to the popular spiritual author. "Some of them said, 'They're with God.' Deepak said, 'I don't know where they are.'"
Gehlek's round face breaks into an enormous smile. "I was glad to hear that, because if the terrorists went straight to heaven after killing 5,000 people, I am troubled by that. I'd like to see them in hell for a while."
He quickly offers the Buddhist definition of hell.
"There is no such thing as a doomed soul in Buddhism. But there is such a thing as a prolonged period of suffering over many lives brought on by negative karma. Karma truly means 'cause and effect.' The terrorists, by killing so many people, are creating a negative karma that keeps them in hell for a long time through many lifetimes of suffering."
Gehlek nods his head sadly. "I think there is a 99.9 percent chance they are in a not-so-comfortable place right now. ...They've really got a lot of work to do for a long time."
Gehlek, one of the most revered Buddhist teachers in the West, was here last week to discuss his new book, "Good Life, Good Death: Tibetan Wisdom on Reincarnation" (Riverhead Books). Educated by the same masters who taught the Dalai Lama, he is believed by Buddhists to be one of the last living reincarnated lamas who was fully educated in Tibet. He became an American citizen in 1995 and lives in Manhattan and in Ann Arbor, Mich., where he teaches Tibetan history at the University of Michigan.
Gehlek's book is lighthearted and down-to-earth, a primer on the Buddhist perspective for living a good life and preparing for a good death by coming to terms with negative emotions--such as anger, attachment, hatred and jealousy--that "restrict our freedom, block our joy and cause us to experience suffering."
In an interview last week, Gehlek said anger and hatred, in particular, are timely topics. "I'm seeing more anger in people and there is nothing wrong with anger. We're all human beings and anger is a very human thing to feel. Here I am, 60 years in this love-compassion business, but I noticed anger in myself on Sept. 11."
The antidote to hatred is compassion, including compassion toward the terrorists, says Gehlek.
He nods his head vigorously. "Yes, I know what Americans think that means. Compassion doesn't have to be 'love and light.' A lot of Americans feel compassion means you can't even hurt a fly, but if a fly kills human beings, we have to kill the fly. "When you look very carefully at how the terrorists' minds work, you can find a way to feel compassion toward them. It's easy to be educated to become a pilot, but they couldn't educate their minds because they were brainwashed by extremist minds. They are totally confused, controlled by their ignorance and brainwashed beliefs. They lost their human ability to love themselves."
It is an act of compassion to root them out and, if necessary, kill them, says Gehlek. "Sometimes love and light alone won't work. We must protect the terrorists from bad karma. To let them keep killing is to guarantee them many, many lifetimes of suffering. Going after them is not about revenge. It is not even about justice. We are protecting them and us."
Many Americans do not believe in reincarnation. Gehlek says he understands their doubts.
"With reincarnation, the big question is, 'Do we know for sure?' Scientifically? No. I myself had a very hard time accepting the idea that I had a previous life, that I was this important lama before. But I could never ask anyone in Tibet because of my fear of rejection. In Tibet, we accept reincarnation the way you Americans accept hamburger."
He laughs heartily. "I'm still training. I still can't say, 'Yes, it is so.' But I've developed an understanding. I came to a point in my life where I could not deny reincarnation. I do study. I do research. I analyze. I cannot deny it at all."