Buddhist reflections on the events of 9-11



by Kenneth A. Champeon
 Muslims burn American flags in the streets of Jakarta.  The Taleban calls for jihad.  George W. Bush quotes a  Psalm in an address before the nation, while the U.S. military swarms around Asia in the name of a "crusade".  The leader of Israel visits the Dome of the Rock and ignites a period of violence that sends guided missiles smashing through the windows of Palestinian office buildings.
 In my history textbooks, monotheism was always presented as an advance over its predecessors.  With all due respect to Ockham's razor, I cannot understand why.  The Mesopotamian monotheisms want nothing more than to destroy each other, and perhaps it is high time we let them do it, provided they do it without destroying the rest of us in the process.  Perhaps they would consider going somewhere else to play their bloody game of King on the Mountain?   For as far as I know, no war has ever been waged in the name of Buddhism, Sikhism, Confucianism, Hinduism - and the plethora of other religions taking a wider, more evolved, more interesting, and inherently more tolerant view of deities and the cosmos.
 I have spent the last couple of years in Thailand, an almost completely Buddhist country.  The last time Thailand waged war against another nation was during World War II, and even this war was foisted upon them.  The Japanese, in the process of trying to establish a pan-Asian empire and purportedly to drive colonial powers out of the continent, rolled through Thailand with eminent ease.  Thailand subsequently declared war on the Allies, who in turn bombed Bangkok.  Such is the price of pacifism.
 Again, in the Vietnam War, Thailand was forced to choose, not between two forms of imperialism - Japanese and Western - but between two forms of economics:  capitalism and communism.  Until that time, the two systems had been able to coexist within the country's borders.  But now there was a war on, and there was much talk of dominoes, so Thailand had to decide whether it wanted to alienate China, the source of much of its culture, or suffer an invasion by the United States.  Thailand chose the former, and placed a constitutional ban on communism - but, again, it did this chiefly because the Thai people will do just about anything to avoid confrontation.
 Now, once again, the Isms are shrieking hysterically for Thailand's support.  Under the guise of anti-terrorism, the United States wants Thailand to quarter its troops and endure the jet-trails of its
 airborne war machines.  Already, though the press is mum about it, these seem to have begun to swarm in the vincinity of Thailand's U-Tapao airbase.  But Thailand wavers, because the Muslims in the south are picketing and writing petitions, or so we are led to believe. In the newspaper's photographs, they do not hold their denunciatory placards with much enthusiasm.  They are probably just scared.  They see the jet-trails too, perhaps.  They hear of Sikhs shot dead by terrified ignoramuses in American streets.
 When Jesus is reported to have said that the meek shall inherit the Earth, he might have been thinking of the Buddhists, for some heretics allege that he learned his pacifism from Buddhists during the unaccounted-for years of his life. (He certainly didn't learn it from Deuteronomy).  The Buddha understood something 2500 years ago that even our most revered leaders and intellectuals still can't seem to get their heads around.  In the /Dhammapada/, he said:  "Enmity has never ended enmity.  Only loving-kindness ends enmity.  This law is eternal."  (This law is also, incidentally, empirical - it did not come arbitrarily from the mouth of God.)
 The Buddha also went farther in proscribing the taking of life than did any other prophet or creed, save Jainism.  The Mesopotamian monotheisms are confused on this point more than on any other.  This holy passage says one thing, this other passage another, and scholars scramble to jerrybuild religious arguments for nearly every conceivable act.  The Buddha was a relativist about most things, but when cornered he could be absolute.  He said:  Don't kill - for that matter, don't /harm/ -- anything capable of feeling harm, anything sentient.  As far as I know, he did not make exceptions for cases of self-defense; he did not permit us, as Islam does, to "punish aggressors"; he did not sanction a trade in eyes for eyes, teeth for teeth; he did not slap on a proviso for sinister moneychangers in holy temples, or well-heeled terrorists in Afghan hills.
 Taking seriously this absolute proscription, Buddhist monks during the Vietnam War set themselves on fire in public squares rather than condone wanton bloodshed. Similarly did Gandhi, weaned on Jainism, prefer to starve himself and take the odd lathi-blow to the head over imitating the blood thirst of his British oppressors, busy massacring civilians at Jallianwala Bagh.
 Still, these were rare men, who desired little in the way of money and things.  Had they been greedier, had they wanted to swallow the material world like all those who now call for war (for who would fight who has nothing to lose from defeat and nothing to gain from victory?) - then perhaps they too would have championed vengeance, like children robbed of sweets.
 Lately the word "civilization" has been tossed about like the bauble that most such words are, and the word has been swiftly applied to the most contrary and invisible of things, like the United States, which executes its own citizens, and the West, which has excelled at the extermination of natives.  I can't help but wonder if the desperate industry driving the application of this word hides the plain fact that "civilization" exists nowhere on Earth, that we cannot even begin to imagine what civilization would be like.
 Oh, strides have been made; don't get me wrong.  We no longer enslave each other - except with wages; we no longer kill each other - without compunction; we no longer starve - without being deplored; we no longer brook tyranny - unless we wield it.  Today Achilles would not drag Hector through the ruins of Troy.  He would kick Hector's door down and riddle the shamed warrior with bullets encased in depleted uranium - using a silencer - enshrouded by a media blackout. The end, so to speak, is the same.
 To conclude.  The restaurant in Thailand where I presently write is owned by a retired soldier of the U.S. Navy.  He has married a Thai lady, and telling by his age, he might have served in Vietnam.  Photographs of aircraft carriers and fighter planes adorn the walls.  I have become accustomed to this paraphernalia of a war long ago, the only war in which America was humiliated.
 But as I am sitting here, trying to escape from all the upbeat talk of (as CNN has it) "America's New War", a group of uniformed American airmen appear, as if out of nowhere, and they enter the restaurant, befouling its air with their efficient chatter.  A torrent of weaponry acronyms spills out of their mouths, and they make the usual bland jokes about the inferior diversity of Thai cuisine.
 As I listen to the wagging of these foreign tongues, hoping to hear references to their mission, I wonder whether I am supposed to know that they are here.  But of one thing I am sure.  Loving enemy of monotheism though I may be, I now understand Osama bin Laden's rage at having infidels in the Holy Land.  Because I have now shared the air with the trained killers among my countrymen, and they do not belong in this land of a thousand smiles.  I want them to take their war elsewhere.  I want them to go home. 
 Kenneth A. Champeon, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.