(This column was written very soon after 9-11)
The Buddha never tired of reminding his disciples to live as if each moment were their last. Human life is short, and the human body fragile. How easy it is to forget these existential facts in the busyness of our everyday lives.
The morning of Tuesday, the 11th of September, 2001 began much like any other. Thousands of ordinary people were beginning their work day in the World Trade Center, much as they did every morning. Some were booting up their computers, some were exchanging greetings and jokes with colleagues, others were arriving in the elevator and I'm sure some were yawning as they fished in their pockets for change to feed the coffee dispenser. How many were keenly aware of the miracle of being alive? How many were aware of each breath, as if it were their last?
Tragically, as we all know, in this case it was. Thousands of precious human lives were destroyed in an act of carnage. The world watched in horror as the two proud towers crumbled in a fiery mass.
Now we are left, all of us, shocked and outraged. We still have to go on, and we need to process the storm of emotions this event has triggered. It is the spectacular and unexpected nature of this crime that has hit us so hard. At times like this, the buttress of a firm spiritual tradition is priceless, and people have been going to their churches, temples and mosques.
The event should serve as a reminder of the realities of life and death. In this way, even the evil purpose of the suicide bombers can be turned around, and they become unintentional Divine Messengers. The threat of terrorist outrage can make us feel terribly insecure, but the Buddha's message is that security is not to be had in this conditioned world. The Buddha's advice was not to seek an unreal security, but to be fearless in the face of constant insecurity while seeking the one and only unshakeable safety, in that which is Deathless. And to remember that our time to accomplish this is short.
The goal of a terrorist is, by definition, to instill terror. If we succumb to that terror, we hand them a victory. Furthermore, if we allow their evil deeds to poison our hearts, we allow them to conquer. In the face of such terrible deeds, there is a strong urge to anger and vengeance. It is very difficult to remember that, in the words of the Buddha, "Hatred is never overcome by hatred, hatred is only overcome by love. This is a law eternal."
Many in our society have shown a wonderful spirit of compassion by pouring out money and blood to help the victims. But others have been conquered by the same evil emotions that drove the suicide bombers, and there have been unjustifiable outrages against innocent Muslims. There is an even greater danger war-fever driving a spiral of violence and counter-violence. Bombing innocent villagers in Afghanistan would only serve to perpetuate the carnage upon more helpless people who only want to live their lives peacefully. More precious human lives would be wasted.
After the immediate threat is dealt with, and any perpetrators brought to justice, it is to be hoped that the powerful of this world will spare some thought to getting at the real roots of the problem. As long as there is hunger, injustice and oppression in this world, there will remain the breeding grounds for future terrorists. For only one example, consider how many children are going to bed hungry tonight in Iraq, because of the NATO embargo. Will they not grow up embittered and desperate? These are the terrorists of tomorrow.