Joseph had been scheduled to speak with a group of people at CIMC the day after the tragic events of September 11th. Here are some excerpts from that talk.
I’m glad we are able to come together this evening and share some reflections about the events of September eleventh. More than ever, it is timely and necessary to connect more deeply with ourselves, with each other and with the many suffering beings in the world. The question looming large for most of us is how to understand what happened in some meaningful and compassionate way.
In the crash of the planes into the Twin Towers, the Pentagon and the fields of Pennsylvania, we see the enormous power of hatred and delusion in the mind. The Buddha used very strong words to describe these states. In his discourse called The Fire Sermon, he said “the mind is on fire, burning with greed, burning with hatred, burning with delusion.” Normally, we don’t see these forces to be the dangers that they are—until they are acted out in such clear and undeniable ways. The magnitude of the destruction that occurred highlights the urgency of training our hearts and minds.
Often, in contemporary spiritual or new age circles, we hear the phrase, “follow your heart.” But we can see in both ourselves and others that not everything in the heart is always wise and kind and generous. We all have tendencies to anger and selfishness as well. Ajahn Sumedho, one of the most senior American monks in the Thai forest tradition, suggested a more useful understanding: “It’s not a question of following your heart, but training your heart. ”
Observing the range of our own feelings, reactions and responses to what happened illuminates the vast potential for both good and harm that is in the mind. People across the world expressed a wide range of feelings: tremendous sadness, grief, helplessness and outrage along with compassion, love and understanding. There are calls for war and for peace, for cruise missiles and for airdrops of food. If we want to understand these events, we need to understand our own minds.
When something happens on a scale that can no longer be overlooked—whether in an individual life or in a society—it becomes a great wake-up call. It is a call to open our eyes and see clearly on many levels. “Buddha” means awakened, and throughout his teachings he demonstrates that resolute willingness and ability to see what is true. This is our practice.
Although we construct seemingly solid and secure worlds of places and relationships and things, we all share in a great vulnerability. The Buddha expressed it so clearly: whatever has the nature to arise will also pass away. Sometimes things pass in orderly, peaceful ways, sometimes in violently destructive ways. But the falling apart of conditioned, constructed things is inherent in their very nature. We see this in the normal changes in our lives. We see it in the inevitable illness and decay of our bodies. We see it in conditions of social or economic turmoil. We see it in the fall of civilizations. We see it in the explosion or collapse of stars. Although we know intellectually it is the nature of all things to change, we don’t always know it in our bones.
The Buddha pointed to the inherent instability of changing conditions and the suffering of relying on these conditions staying a certain way. The first noble truth of his teachings is not an abstract philosophical principle. It reflects the openness, honesty and courage necessary to face the suffering that is there. It is not always easy to open in this way. In watching the images of the disaster, it was often hard to let them in. There was a sense of disbelief that this could really happen, and sometimes a sense that we were watching another Hollywood movie.
Dharma practice is so much more than simply living with greater ease or peace in our lives—although these are of great value. The dharma reveals the deepest and most profound aspects of life and death, of suffering and freedom. The Buddha was urging us to awaken from our ignorance out of great compassion for the magnitude of suffering in the world.
The events in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania are also a call to see the basic ungovernability of experience. This means that things occur when the appropriate conditions are present, not because we want or will them to be a certain way. Our bodies age and become ill, according to causes, whether we wish them to or not. We might wish for there not to be war, or famine, or violence, but these situations will continue to arise as long as the necessary conditions are there. Events are not in our control in the way that we think they are.
There is a great cost to this pretense of control. When things don’t happen the way we want them to, our minds can easily be filled with anger, frustration, rage, jealousy, or hatred. This happens on an individual level, and as we have seen, on a collective level as well. If we want a desired end—the stopping of violence, for example—we need to understand the causes that bring violence about and the conditions necessary to bring it to an end. It is not enough to simply wish or demand that it happen. Somewhat surprisingly, the more we let go of the illusion of being in control, the greater clarity we have in seeing the conditions necessary to accomplish our aims.
The difficult and complex question remains: what is the appropriate response to mass violence? We know from many years of direct experience that hatred never ceases by hatred. The Buddha expressed this 2500 years ago, and we see the truth of this for ourselves in the conflicts of Northern Ireland, Sri Lanka, Israel and the West Bank, and many other places around the world. Hatred and violence only breed more of the same. It becomes a cycle of destruction from which it is hard to emerge.
But does this mean that we don’t respond at all to protect the lives and safety of people threatened by these forces? In the week before the attacks, I was listening to the biography of Winston Churchill on audiotapes. His role before and during the Second World War is well known. Would more lives have been saved if the policy of appeasement had not been pursued? The Buddha himself spoke to laypeople of the appropriateness of self-defense.
In trying to sort out these issues, we come to a subtle and often overlooked point. Both as individuals and as a nation, we need to investigate the motivations behind any response in order to determine its moral value. It is our motives that will determine the long-range outcome. Is it possible to confine the perpetrators of violence without causing massive suffering to innocent people? Can we take action from a motivation of wisdom and compassion rather than from hatred and revenge? It is not enough to wrap ourselves in words of virtue; we need to look deeply to see what our motives really are.
The present situation is a wake-up call to see the conditions underlying the events, to act wisely and decisively in response, and to look into our own minds to see what wholesome and unwholesome qualities arise within us. The forces for good and for harm that play out in the world are manifesting in our own minds and lives as well.
It is very difficult to illuminate unskillful mind states. We don’t usually like to contemplate our own shadow side and often feel more comfortable in the illusion that our lives and actions are completely pure and well-intentioned. Although much of it is, there are also parts that are not. One of the turning points in dharma practice happens when we would rather see the defilements in our minds than not see them. This openness is the only way to be honest about our motivations and to thereby assess what is a wise response to situations.
Unskillful states are rooted in attachment, aversion or delusion. On the side of attachment, we see how much harm in the world occurs because of greed—greed for resources, wealth or power. Tremendous suffering also comes from attachment to views and opinions. “This is right; all else is wrong” becomes the calling cry of zealots. When beliefs are held to be absolute truths, conflict is inevitable, because people invariably have different perspectives. When we loosen our grip on our own points of view, it then becomes possible to listen to and learn from one another.
Defilements also arise in the form of aversion, anger and hatred. The devastating power of these mind states revealed itself so clearly on September eleventh. Yet, these forces in the mind are tremendously seductive. The Buddha pointed this out when he talked of “anger, with its poisoned source, fevered climax, murderously sweet.” Anger and hatred arise in response to painful and unpleasant situations, either real or imagined. Small unpleasant circumstances cause irritation and annoyance. Powerful painful circumstances can lead to hatred and violence.
It’s vital that we learn to recognize these feelings within ourselves, so that we neither deny or suppress them, nor habitually act them out. It is so easy to get caught up in the powerful vortex of these emotions, which are often fed by underground streams of self-righteousness, hurt and fear. When we feel really caught by our own reactivity, it is helpful to see what is fueling it. In difficult, insecure and uncertain times, feelings of vulnerability often give rise to fear. It might be fear of loss, fear of the unknown, or fear of death. If we don’t recognize these strong emotions, they often propel us into either withdrawal or aggression. We need a consistent and strong practice to see these states within ourselves and not be swept away in the floodtide of feeling. Awareness is the process of transformation.
Some years ago, I was teaching a retreat for law students. In speaking of the intensity of the adversarial system, one of the students said that he needed his anger in order not to feel fear. Mindfulness was not on the law school curriculum, and it never occurred to him that opening to and accepting the fear might be a more powerful and sustaining source of strength.
Fear can also grow in our minds when we spin out disaster scenarios and then inhabit those projections of mind. Although this is easy to do in the present circumstances, it is not a useful strategy for embodying wisdom and compassion. We need to open to what is true, recognize the motivations behind our responses, and act from as wholesome a place as possible.
Given the suffering that exists in the world, and the forces we see at work in our own minds, a deep question remains: Where is the place of ultimate safety? Where is our true refuge? These are the questions the Buddha responded to in for 45 years of teaching. The awakened mind is a refuge; the teachings are a refuge; association with wise beings is a refuge. These three jewels are not imitation gems. They do provide a place of safety in the midst of confusion and turmoil. Thich Nhat Hanh writes of “peace in every step.” We can practice peace in every step, in every breath, in every moment. It is up to us.
We can also practice loving-kindness and compassion, for our own benefit and for the benefit of the world. It is only through love and compassion that hatred ceases. These expressions of kindness are the necessary conditions for peace. We need to start with ourselves, in our own lives, and let it radiate outward as a force for good in the world. The Buddha’s words from the Mettā Sutta are a powerful prescription and prayer for our times:
May all living beings be happy and at their ease.
May they be joyous and live in safety.
May all beings, whether weak or strong, small or great, visible or invisible, near or far away, born or to-be-born—omitting none—be happy and at their ease.
Let none deceive another, or despise any being in any state.
Let none by anger or ill will wish harm to another.
Even as a mother watches over and protects her only child, so with a boundless mind should one cherish all living beings, radiating friendliness over the entire world.
So let one cultivate a boundless good will toward the entire world, free from ill will and enmity.