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In Times of Trouble

By: Norman Fischer, Zoketsu Norman Fischer | 09/16/2001
In Topics: Politics

After the awful attacks on the World Trade center and the Pentagon, Zoketsu reflects on good and evil and how we can respond to these events. “There are some people who wonder how there could be such evil in this world. How human beings could generation after generation perpetrate such acts. But I do not wonder about that. To me it seems so very much ingrained in who and what we are.”


As everyone who knows me knows, I am a big fan of zazen practice. I have always found it interesting and challenging, if difficult sometimes. There are times when everyday life seems trivial and burdensome, when one wants to let it go for a while to seek some more profound peaceful or colorful sense of life on the cushion–to seek reality, enlightenment, samadhi, a glimpse into life’s deepest mysteries. But there are other times when life becomes so stark, so absolutely real in and of itself, that there is no thought of meditation practice–just bearing witness to what is is enough, and more than enough.

That’s how I felt this last week when I heard of the bombing of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. I’d slept in that morning, having gone through a weekend of multiple retreats. When I got up that morning my wife put on the radio and we heard the news. At first it seemed horrible, but abstract. I went about my day as planned, meeting with people, making calls and doing e-mails. I thought about what had happened, but not so much more than I might have thought about other items that pass by on the news. But as the day wore on the enormity of what had occurred came home to me – the thousands killed instantly and horribly, the terror, the shock, the giant cloud of smoky cement and steel and debris crashing down onto the southern tip of Manhattan as the great towers collapsed. One T.V. shot showed an immense cloud, with a fireball in its midst, rapidly rolling toward the camera as people ran furiously just ahead of it.

Then the shot grew darker, and finally altogether black. Unimaginable carnage. One T.V. anchorman said, "Yes, we do have pictures of this but we do not think they are suitable to show on television." Hundreds of fireman and policemen trapped in the building probably dead. People hurling themselves into the sky from the upper stories, flying quietly through the air to their death below. People burned, running through the streets on fire. I tried to imagine what it might have been like to have been on one of the four hijacked airplanes — what terror would have flooded the body, how the heart must have been beating uncontrollably, how the feeling one takes for granted, of security, of a self grounded in an ordered reality, must have all of a suddenly flown away, leaving a terrifying disorientation and panic flooding the whole body.

And what did the terrorists feel? An apocalyptic religious high? Some perverse, out-of-this-world joy of martyrdom, as the early Christian or Jewish martyrs might have felt? Elation? Pride? Panic? Ambivalence? Or the grim precision of carrying out a task long since committed to? Later that week I went to San Francisco to an appointment at Embarcadero Plaza. It was the first time since September 11 that I had been among tall buildings. And I felt a palpable anxiety–these buildings, signs and symbols of security and prosperity, of the soaring confidence of humankind, these buildings could be penetrated and destroyed in an instant, simply, by a airplane that could rip into them just as easily as a knife into flesh. Ordinary life suddenly swept aside in an instant revealing a stark horrifying prior claim. Life as raw wound.

Later in that same day, as I continued to listen to television, I heard an ex-army colonel talking about war and retaliation. I heard The Rev. Franklin Graham, Billy’s son and heir to his religious empire, talking about Muslims, how they hate us Americans because we are Christians, and how we all need to "wake up," by which I think he meant "take action." Then later hearing our President speak of "good versus evil," and of the relentless hunting down of all those who did the deed, including those who support them and harbor them. Hearing all this I became jittery, and angry.

In all my Dharma classes that week I had been planning to finish up my series of talks on the Surangama sutra, a wild Buddhist text that talks about the intricacies of deep meditation practice. But it was really impossible to do that.

In the Surangama sutra we hear of Kuan Yin, the bodhisattva who through the power of her practice of listening, and turning the mind around through that accurate, powerful, listening, is able to deeply hear the cries of the world. She hears these cries with a still and perfect serenity, and she understands that they are all manifestations of the perfect light of enlightenment. Because of this she remains peaceful, and is able to offer exactly the right kind of help to beings, each one a different help, according to the situation. I suppose we all are and aspire to be Kuan Yin. But also we aren't Kuan Yin. We are human beings and so when we confront the stark realities of the delusion of human violence we cringe. We aren't serene. We get jittery and angry. We feel grief and anguish, terror and disorientation. I don’t think we want not to feel these things. If we are human we do feel them and we want to feel them. Maybe we have to be both. Both Kuan Yin, who accepts what is with perfect and effective equanimity, and also poor human beings, who find what happens sometimes unbearable and unacceptable. And yet we have to bear it and accept it because there isn’t any alternative.

The day before the terrible bombing I was at Spirit Rock, helping to facilitate a meeting the community leaders there were having about racism and diversity in the sangha. In the meeting we heard many expressions by people of color, about their frustration and their suffering–suffering that often is hidden to people of the dominant culture, who have no idea what their brothers and sisters go through in the course of any ordinary day in America. One African American woman said to the group, "racism isn't just eye holes cut into white sheets. In its most insidious form it is simply privilege itself. When you live in a world structured so that some races dominate over others, some races enjoy peace and prosperity while others suffer terribly, then your simply enjoying your privilege unthinkingly is itself a form of racism."

And this is what is so upsetting to me about the remarks I have been hearing our government officials make. I do not doubt that something needs to be done in response to these events–what needs to be done I do not know. As a religious person it is not my job to figure this out. I do not know what I would do if I had the responsibility. But if whatever action is taken comes out of a wrong understanding of the situation, out of a blindness to the social and spiritual forces that have given rise to it, then I think that action will be twisted and ineffective. I have seen this so many times in my lifetime: violence inspiring violence that gives rise to more violence. Wars that end temporarily, only to produce new wars.

The people who hijacked those airplanes and murdered so many people were themselves people. They did what they did because of their damaged hearts and twisted minds. But their hearts became damaged and their minds twisted for a reason. There isn’t any separate evil out there that I can find, blame for all this, and root out of the human family. There’s just one world, one human race. The evil that happens happens for a reason.

I heard a Catholic priest speaking about all this on television. Someone asked him to explain how God could allow such things to happen. He said, it’s a mystery, we don’t know. But I think we do know. Terrible things happen because humans beings act with violence and aggression and delusion. And they do that because they have been hurt, because others have acted with violence and aggression and delusion against them and their families. People do what they do because they are terrified of confronting the pain and anguish in their own hearts. The violence outside of us is an outer projection of the violence and pain we feel inside.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not saying that my moment of anger on the highway is the equivalent of flying a plane into the World Trade Center, or that violence on that scale happen because of my irritation and hatred. Nevertheless, if I want to act to alleviate such enormous acts of violence in this world, I need to begin by understanding the causes and conditions of it as a part of a world in which I live and participate. If I externalize such events and their perpetrators, scapegoating them onto some outside force or person, some evil in which I have no part, and then, to alleviate the grief and the impotence that I feel, try to stamp out that evil once and for all. This will never work. It is so perfectly clear. The result of this kind of understanding will be more and more violence. Soon after the crisis happened His Holiness the Dalai Lama wrote a letter of condolence to President Bush. In it he offered his prayers. "It may be presumptuous of me to say this," he said, "but I hope that the American government will not try to correct the situation with further violence."

But this is what we have been seen for so long it seems like forever. This disaster in New York and Washington is terrible. And now is the time to think of nothing but how terrible it is. But there have been so many terrible things. Almost every nation in the world has felt terrible things like this. The dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that killed so many many people and destroyed so many many buildings. The bombing of London, of Dresden, of how many countless other cities. The bombing of Iraq, killing hundreds of thousands. Vietnam, a country utterly decimated and destroyed. The Holocaust. The genocide of the native peoples of the Americas, of Africans, of Armenians, of the Balkan peoples. All these people were also people. All the lives lost in those places and times were just as important as the lives we lost last week. We cannot forget about any of them. And now, so close to home, we are feeling the pain of all of those useless deaths.

There are some people who wonder how there could be such evil in this world. How human beings could generation after generation perpetrate such acts. But I do not wonder about that. To me it seems so very much ingrained in who and what we are. To speak in theological terms, it’s not that evil is out of God’s control and that we, on God’s side, have to overcome it. Good and evil exist on the same plane, and operate by the same calculus. Evil is good covered over. Wherever we ourselves, in our confusion and in our unwillingness to look at life as it actually is, with all its pain and difficulty, commit acts of evil, we add to the covering. And whenever we have the courage and the calmness to be with life as it is, and therefore, inevitably, to do good, then we remove the cover. We transform evil into good. This is the human capacity. Evil is not a part of reality that can be excised, cast out and overcome. Evil is a constant part of our world because there is only one world, there is only one life, and all of us share in it.

In the beginning I said that sometimes the starkness of reality makes meditation practice seem irrelevant. But I did not mean meditation practice itself. I mean the preciousness of it, all the interesting refinements and developments of the practice that can get so artistic sometimes, like a fine miniature painting. It’s all of that that reality often blows out of the water, especially during weeks like this one. But meditation practice itself–the simple practice of being quiet, and, if possible, being quiet together, in community, for our mutual support; the practice of listening to ourselves, to the cries of the world, listening deeply with an accurate ear, allowing, opening to what we hear–that practice is more relevant in times like these than ever. There are, in a crisis, a million ways to help and we all should help in whatever way we can. I can give this talk today. This is my way. And there are others ways too that I can help. But beyond help, and in addition to it, we need to bear witness to what has happened. To take it in, imagine it, feel it, grieve over it, accept it, not accept it, understand it, fail to understand it, and comfort each other in that. To do that we need to sit, we need the expansiveness of our sitting, as well as of our chanting and our prayers. It seems absolutely essential.

Writtena and edited by Norman Fischer, and proof-read by Tim Burnett .

® 2001, Norman Fischer