I am deeply upset by the events in Israel and Gaza. What started as a horrific attack on Israeli citizens has escalated into a nightmarish war with innocent Palestinian civilians being killed by the thousands. The death count will only rise on both sides unless the violence stops. As I thought about putting my response in words, I realized that I wrote and published an essay almost ten years ago that sums up much of my thoughts on violence. So I thought I'd share it now.
I wrote this essay in November 2015 after a terrorist attack in Paris and days before the Paris Climate Conference. The piece was first published in Elephant Journal.
I got back from my first ten-day silent vipassana retreat a few days ago, delighted to see my husband and two children after ten days of having no contact at all with the outer world.
After hugs and after going over how we had each spent the time, my 15-year-old son asked, “Did you hear about Paris?”
“Paris?” I asked.
“What, you didn’t hear about Paris? You’re kidding!”
My husband interrupted, “There were terrorists attacks in Paris two days ago.”
I had just spent twelve hours a day meditating in complete silence. Everything looked a bit brighter, a bit more sharply defined than it normally did to me. And for the past ten days, I had reflected on how precious life is, how ever-changing and ephemeral life is and how often in a normal day I usually forget that.
So when I heard that there were terrorist attacks in Paris, a city that I love and have lived in, my first reaction was to stop, to pause.
I remembered a story that the meditation teacher, S. N. Goenka, told in the retreat:
One day Buddha came into a small town. As was usual, a crowd gathered to learn from him. As the crowd grew larger, a young angry man began yelling at Buddha to go away; he worried that the crowd would get too large, that the teacher might take advantage of the students.
In response to the yelling, Buddha remained calm and asked the young man a question: “If you bought a nice gift for someone, but the person to whom you gave the present did not accept the gift, to whom would the gift then belong?”
The young man thought and said, “it would still be mine then.”
“Indeed,” said the Buddha, “and, now you have presented me with the gift of your anger. But what happens if I do not accept the gift? To whom does the anger belong?”
The young man listened. Understanding the lesson, he bowed to the Buddha.
What if we took this teaching of choosing what we want to accept and what we don't want to accept with us into the world today?
We have been conditioned to react to violence with fear and anger. We have been conditioned to think that if we react to the sources of violence with violence, we will have more peace and security.
In a recent New York Times Op-Ed, Roger Cohen told us that “To Save Paris” we need to “Defeat Isis.” “The only adequate measure, after the killing of at least 129 people in Paris,” he writes, “is military, and the only objective commensurate with the ongoing threat is the crushing of ISIS.”
But if we learn from history, we will take seriously the teaching of the Buddha and realize that anger and violence beget only more anger and violence.
As a culture, we tend to look back and point fingers, to say: you started this. But how far back do we go? Do we go back a year, a generation, a hundred years, a thousand years? Who is willing to stop the violence cycle?
We tried to eradicate Saddam Hussein, and we destabilized an entire region, ultimately strengthening militant radical groups like The Taliban and ISIS. Three thousand people were killed on 9/11, and as a direct result of our response to that violence, many more than 3,000 American soldiers died in the Iraq war, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians died, and the world is certainly not a safer place today than it was 14 years ago.
When 130 people die in Paris, we are conditioned to think we must do something to make ourselves more secure.
Buddhism teaches us to sit with fear, to sit with vulnerability, to sit with anger and with grief and to respond not in crisis, but with wisdom.
Buddhism is sometimes misperceived as a religion of passivity. If you don’t react, you don’t really care; if you don’t react, you must be weak—you must be lacking courage. But we can stop for a moment, and then act—not react—with pragmatic wisdom that will curb violence and suffering, not ignite the fire.
And we can re-imagine bravery.
To be a pacifist, to reject violence, is not to be naive. It is not to misunderstand the dangers of violence. Quite the opposite. It is to be realistic about the great dangers of violence and to, with strength, choose something else.
To be a pacifist, to choose peace, is not to deny the reality of death, but rather to awaken to the sanctity of life.
As Ghandi said: 'There are many causes I would die for. There is not a single cause I would kill for.'
We can re-imagine courage and turn our attention away from fighting an enemy and toward working together to make the world a more livable, sustainable place for all people.
This week, Paris offers the world an opportunity to do just that, in the Paris Climate Conference.
The Paris Climate Talks are our best hope of creating real international regulations without which it will be almost impossible to address the overwhelming threat of climate change and environmental degradation that affects every single human life and every species alive.
While we have managed to gather enormous resources to fight wars (we spent 10.3 billion dollars a month in the Iraq war, and consumed 50 million gallons of fuel each month in Iraq) imagine what would happen if we found a similar will to combat climate change.
For two weeks, Paris was in the news every day because of the terrorist attacks.
Now, it’s up to us to turn our attention to Paris again. Let’s come together and ask the leaders of the world to use their force to protect us—not by using violence, but by moving away from fossil fuels, by investing in renewable energy sources and by taxing carbon use for a more sustainable world.
The violence that we have perpetuated on one another and on our earth for centuries is leading us in the direction of existential doom: from nuclear weapons to a human-induced mass extinction. But we can pause. We can stop in ourselves.
The buddha, peace, divinity—whatever language or terminology or tradition that speaks to us—is not out there, but is in each of us. It's time we collectively change direction and choose to repair our world.