A Buddhist Response

A Buddhist Response

David R. Loy
Faculty of International Studies


Like most other Americans, I have been struggling to digest the events of
the last week. It has taken a while to realize how psychically numbed many
of us are. In the space of a few hours, our world changed. We do not yet
know what those changes will mean, but the most important long-term ones
may well be psychological.

Americans have always understood the United States to be a special and
uniquely privileged place. The Puritans viewed New England as the Promised
Land. According to Melville, "We Americans are the peculiar, chosen
people." In many parts of the globe the twentieth century has been
particularly horrible, but the continental United States has been so
insulated from these tragedies that we have come to think of ourselves as
immune to them - although we have often contributed to them.

That confidence has been abruptly shattered. We have discovered that the
borderless world of globalization allows us no refuge from the hatred and
violence that predominate in many parts of the world.

Every death reminds us of our own, and sudden, unexpected death on such a
large scale makes it harder to repress awareness of our own mortality. Our
obsessions with such things as money, consumerism, and professional sports
have been revealed for what they are: unworthy of all the attention we
devote to them. There is something valuable to learn here, but this
reality nonetheless makes us quite uncomfortable. We do not like to think
about death. We usually prefer to be distracted.

Talk of vengeance and "bomb them back to the stone age" makes many of us
uneasy, but naturally we want to strike back. On Friday September 14
President Bush declared that the United States has been called to a new
worldwide mission "to rid the world of evil," and on the following Sunday
he said that the government is determined to "rid the world of evil-doers."
Our land of freedom now has a responsibility to extirpate the world of its
evil. We may no longer have an "evil empire" to defeat, but we have found
a more sinister evil that will require a long-term, all-out war to destroy.

If anything is evil, those terrorist attacks were evil. I share that
sentiment. It must be emphasized. At the same time, however, I think we
need to take a close look at the rhetoric. When Bush says he wants to rid
the world of evil, alarm bells go off in my mind, because that is what
Hitler and Stalin also wanted to do.

I'm not defending either of those evil-doers, just explaining what they
were trying to do. What was the problem with Jews that required a "final
solution"? The earth could be made pure for the Aryan race only by
exterminating the Jews, the impure vermin who contaminate it. Stalin
needed to exterminate well-to-do Russian peasants to establish his ideal
society of collective farmers. Both were trying to perfect this world by
eliminating its impurities. The world can be made good only by destroying
its evil elements.

Paradoxically, then, one of the main causes of evil in this world has been
human attempts to eradicate evil.

Friday's Washington Post quoted Joshua Teitelbaum, a scholar who has
studied a more contemporary evil-doer: "Osama bin Laden looks at the world
in very stark, black-and-white terms. For him, the U.S. represents the
forces of evil that are bringing corruption and domination into the Islamic

What is the difference between bin Laden's view and Bush's? They are
mirror opposites. What bin Laden sees as good - an Islamic jihad against
an impious and materialistic imperialism - Bush sees as evil. What Bush
sees as good - America the defender of freedom - bin Laden sees as evil.
They are two different versions of the same holy-war-between-good-and-evil.

Do not misunderstand me here. I am not equating them morally, nor in any
way trying to excuse the horrific events of last Tuesday. From a Buddhist
perspective, however, there is something dangerously delusive about the
mirror-image views of both sides. We must understand how this
black-and-white way of thinking deludes not only Islamic terrorists but
also us, and therefore brings more suffering into the world.

This dualism of good-versus-evil is attractive because it is a simple way
of looking at the world. And most of us are quite familiar with it.
Although it is not unique to the Abrahamic religions - Judaism,
Christianity, and Islam - it is especially important for them. It is one
of the reasons why the conflicts among them have been so difficult to
resolve peacefully: adherents tend to identify their own religion as good
and demonize the other as evil.

It is difficult to turn the other cheek when we view the world through
these spectacles, because this rationalizes the opposite principle: an eye
for an eye. If the world is a battleground of good and evil forces, the
evil that is in the world must be fought by any means necessary.

The secularization of the modern West did not eliminate this tendency. In
some ways it has intensified it, because we can no longer rely on a
supernatural resolution. We have to depend upon ourselves to bring about
the final victory of good over evil - as Hitler and Stalin tried to do. It
is unclear how much help bin Laden and Bush expect from God.

Why do I emphasize this dualism? The basic problem with this way of
understanding conflict is that it tends to preclude thought, because it is
so simplistic. It keeps us from looking deeper, from trying to discover
causes. Once something has been identified as evil, there is no more need
to explain it; it is time to focus on fighting against it. This is where
Buddhism has something important to contribute.

Buddhism emphasizes the three roots of evil, also known as the three
poisons: greed, ill will and delusion. The Abrahamic religions emphasize
the struggle between good and evil because for them the basic issue depends
on our will: which side are we on? In contrast, Buddhism emphasizes
ignorance and enlightenment because the basic issue depends on our
self-knowledge: do we really understand what motivates us?

According to Buddhism, every effect has its web of causes and conditions.
This is the law of karma. One way to summarize the essential Buddhist
teaching is that we suffer, and cause others to suffer, because of greed,
ill will and delusion. Karma implies that when our actions are motivated
by these roots of evil, their negative consequences tend to rebound back
upon us. The Buddhist solution to suffering involves transforming our
greed into generosity, our ill will into loving-kindness, and our delusions
into wisdom.

What do these Buddhist teachings imply about the situation we now find
ourselves in?

We cannot focus only on the second root of evil, the hatred and violence
that have just been directed against the United States. The three roots
are intertwined. Ill will cannot be separated from greed and delusion.
This requires us to ask: why do so many people in the Middle East, in
particular, hate us so much? What have we done to encourage that hatred?
Americans think of America as defending freedom and justice, but obviously
that is not the way they perceive us. Are they just misinformed, then, or
is it we who are misinformed?

"Does anybody think that we can send the USS New Jersey to lob
Volkswagen-sized shells into Lebanese villages -- Reagan, 1983 -- or loose
'smart bombs' on civilians seeking shelter in a Baghdad bunker -- Bush,
1991 -- or fire cruise missiles on a Sudanese pharmaceutical factory --
Clinton, 1999 -- and not receive, someday, our share in kind?" (Micah

In particular, how much of our foreign policy in the Middle East has been
motivated by our love of freedom and democracy, and how much has been
motivated by our need - our greed - for its oil? If our main priority has
been securing oil supplies, does it mean that our petroleum-based economy
is one of the causes of last week's attack?

Finally, Buddhist teachings suggest that we look at the role of delusion in
creating this situation. Delusion has a special meaning in Buddhism. The
fundamental delusion is our sense of separation from the world we are "in,"
including other people. Insofar as we feel separate from others, we are
more inclined to manipulate them to get what we want. This naturally
breeds resentment - both from others, who do not like to be used, and
within ourselves, when we do not get what we want. . . . Is this also true

Delusion becomes wisdom when we realize that "no one is an island." We are
interdependent because we are all part of each other, different facets of
the same jewel we call the earth. This world is a not a collection of
objects but a community of subjects. That interdependence means we cannot
avoid responsibility for each other. This is true not only for the
residents of lower Manhattan, as I write uniting together in response to
this catastrophe, but for all the people in the world, however deluded they
may be. Yes, including the terrorists who did these heinous acts and those
who support them.

Do not misunderstand me here. Those responsible for the attacks must be
caught and brought to justice. That is our responsibility to all those who
have suffered, and that is also our responsibility to the deluded and
hate-full terrorists, who must be stopped. Those who intend other
terrorist actions must also be stopped. If, however, we want to stop this
cycle of hatred and violence, we must realize that our responsibility is
much broader than that.

Realizing our interdependence and mutual responsibility for each other
implies something more. When we try to live this interdependence, it is
called love. Love is more than a feeling, it is a mode of being in the
world. In Buddhism we talk mostly about compassion, generosity, and
loving-kindness, but they all reflect this mode of being. Such love is
sometimes mocked as weak and ineffectual, yet it can be very powerful, as
Gandhi showed. And it embodies a deep wisdom about how the cycle of
hatred and violence works and about how that cycle can be ended. An eye
for an eye makes the whole world blind, but there is an alternative.
Twenty-five hundred years ago, the Buddha said:

"He abused me, he beat me, he defeated me, he robbed me" -- for those who
harbour such thoughts hatred will never cease.

"He abused me, he beat me, he defeated me, he robbed me" -- for those who
do not harbour such thoughts hatred will cease.

In this world hatred is never appeased by hatred; hatred is always appeased
by love. This is an ancient law. (Dhammapada, 3-5)

Of course, this transformative insight is not unique to Buddhism. After
all, it was not the Buddha who gave us the image of turning the other
cheek. In all the Abrahamic religions the tradition of a holy war between
good and evil coexists with this "ancient law" about the power of love.
That does not mean all the world's religions have emphasized this law to
the same extent. In fact, I wonder if this is one way to measure the
maturity of a religion, or at least its continuing relevance for us today:
how much the liberative truth of this law is acknowledged and encouraged.
I do not know enough about Islam to compare, but in the cases of Buddhism
and Christianity, for example, it is the times when this truth has not been
emphasized that these two religions have been most subverted by secular
rulers and nationalistic fervor.

So where does that leave us today? We find ourselves at a turning point.
A lust for vengeance and violent retaliation is rising, fanned by a leader
caught up in his own rhetoric of a holy war to purify the world of evil.
Please consider: does the previous sentence describe bin Laden, or
President Bush?

Many people now want retaliation and vengeance - well, that is what the
terrorists wanted. If we pursue the path of large-scale violence, bin
Laden's holy war and Bush's holy war will become two sides of the same war.

No one can foresee all the consequences of such a war. They are likely to
spin out of control and take on a life of their own. However, one sobering
effect is clearly implied by the "ancient law": massive retaliation by the
United States in the Middle East will spawn a new generation of suicidal
terrorists, eager to do their part in this holy war.

But widespread violence is not the only possibility. If this time of
crisis encourages us to see through the rhetoric of a war to exterminate
evil, and if we begin to understand the intertwined roots of this evil,
including our own responsibility, then perhaps something good may yet come
out of this catastrophic tragedy.


David R. Loy
18 September 2001