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Disarming the Heart: A Lama Urges Restraint

By Lama Surya Das


Cambridge, Massachusetts
Sept. 12, 2001

With yesterday's tragic events, we may be on the brink of an escalating war in the Middle East. I think that we must look into our hearts and minds to see what we are doing--individually and collectively--to alleviate or perpetuate these problems, and how we might become part of their eventual solution.

I think a vengeful, eye-for-an-eye retaliatory approach is not the most measured response at this time; it could simply result in more tragic loss of innocent life. Nothing good comes from violence and aggression, although it is certainly availible as a last resort. But do our leaders agree?

The criminals who have perpetrated this terrible act of terrorism must certainly be brought to justice. Terrorism cannot be allowed to continue. We must condemn the crime, but not let our anger escalate into unreasonable aggression, ethinc prejudice, racism, and even more violence in the world. I believe we must get to the roots of this, not just punish individuals. A nation retaliating against another nation maintains the unsatisfactory status quo of previous centuries, centuries of war and genocide. We must find another way to create a new world order, peace, and security in our time.

Religion is supposed to further peace, happiness, and harmony, not contribute to hatred, prejudice, intolerance, bigotry, violence, and war. Nonviolence is the first precept of Buddhism and a fundamental tenet of many world religions. Yet look what actually happens in our world in the name of religion, most recently in the Middle East and Bosnia, Belfast and Sri Lanka. Extremists are utilizing the margins of history and the shadowy borders of rogue states prone to religious fanaticism to tilt the balance towards hatred and chaos; we must not play into their hands by thinking and reacting as they do, or we are in danger of becoming what they are.

Here in America, guns in the schools and on the streets continue to harm us. Violence is a major focus of concern, but we have not made much progress in averting or dealing with it. Again, we must look into the causes and origins of violence both at home and abroad, and take whatever steps are necessary to solve those seemingly intractable problems.

Martin Luther King said that we have two choices: to peacefully coexist, or to destroy ourselves. Dozens of countries are in the midst of war right now; yet we remain for the most part insulated from that terrible reality. Here in America we don't feel first-hand the death of war. But I don't think that war begins outside on a battlefield, along some disputed border, in a diplomatic conference room or economic summit meeting; war begins with the cupidity, hatred, prejudice, racism, ignorance, and cruelty in the human heart. The true battlefield, said Dostoevsky, is the heart of man.

Buddha said that hate is never overcome by hate; hatred is only overcome by love. If we want peaceful coexistence in our world--and I firmly believe that we all do--we need to face this fact. We must learn how to deal with anger and hatred, and to soften up and disarm our own hearts as well as work in larger contexts towards nuclear disarmament and peace in our time.

We need to think globally and act locally, beginning with ourselves and each other--at home, in our families, at work, and in our communities, reaching out more and more in broad, all-embracing circles of collective caring and responsibility. This is the path to a more peaceful future for all of us.

Today is a time for prayer and reflection on what is most important in our lives, for banding together, and to think about what steps we might take towards nonviolence within ourselves and our own lives as well as towards a more peaceful world.

I myself am thinking about what the Buddhist wisdom tells us about how to deal with anger and hatred, grief and loss. Spiritual wisdom from all over the world teaches us of the healing power of forgiveness, kindness, compassion, and forbearance; how to apply that to events today is not only the challenge of our leaders but each and every one of us.


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