Monday, May 2, 2011

Osama bin Laden's Death: A Buddhist Reaction



By now, I'm guessing most of you know that Osama Bin Laden, founder of the terrorist network al-Queda, was killed yesterday by a team of U.S. Navy SEALs. As a Buddhist and yoga practitioner, who has placed non-violent action at the forefront of his life, I was uncertain how to respond to the news when I first heard it last night.

It leaves quite a bitter taste in my mouth that this man was found not in Afghanistan or Iraq, where hundreds of thousands have been killed over the past decade, but in Pakistan. Seeing crowds of Americans cheering the man's death and singing patriot songs at the Capitol, in Times Square, and other places around the country also left me feeling uneasy.

My initial response upon hearing President Obama's speech, where he masterfully justified the War on Terrorism without naming it, equated justice with murdering a man, and generally sounded like a toned down version of his predecessor - my initial response was to stay up late and clean my apartment. Sweeping floors and scrubbing winter cobwebs from the walls, I thought of all those who had been killed. Killed under Bin Laden's twisted direction. Killed by American, British, Canadian, and other soldiers who were told they were defending their nations from Bin Laden's organization. Soldiers killed by terrorists, and other desperate people who were told to hate every foreigner to the bone.

As the reports trickled in on the BBC, playing on my ancient clock radio, I changed the sheets and swept the dust from beneath my bed. It was nearly 1 am when I finally fell asleep and by 4 am, I was awake again, there to lay in bed listening to the birds tweeting in the new morning.

I can imagine that family and friends of those killed on 9/11, or in the Kenyan embassy, or in London, Deir el-Bahri, Egypt, and numerous other places feel some sense of relief that Bin Laden is dead. Some are probably totally elated.

All I can say is that any feeling that justice has been done will be fleeting. Bin Laden's dead, but the roots of terrorism are still alive and well. The guy was certainly the international poster child of terrorism, and an inspiration to all these younger, desperate folks out there taking up guns, bombs, and the rest. At the same time, if you look at recent history, Bin Laden has been a fading figure whose ideas have spread to the point where he hasn't really been needed much anymore.

In the eyes of most people around the world, Osama Bin Laden ranks right down there with the worst of the worst in history. Besides the fact that Bin Laden was a human, just like you and I - something too many of us forget when it comes to people who commit terrible crimes - there's not much to say in his defense.

It's really hard, even for this Buddhist writing these lines and who is committed to the Bodhisattva vows, to feel much compassion for the man. Growing up wealthy and privileged, he opted to use those advantages to destroy life and inspire hatred. He warped the teachings of his religion, and spread that phoney version of "the truth" so widely that it will be generations before the stain he and his followers have put on Islam will fade. All in all, here was a man in a position to be a game changer in a region of the world in need of great leaders, and he was - a game changer in the worst of all possible manners.

Perhaps losing his father at the age of 10 had something to do with this. Perhaps what began as a struggle to overthrow an occupying giant - the Soviet Union in Afghanistan - engulfed this man to the point where he couldn't see through the power, hatred, and prestige. Perhaps witnessing the cynical way of American foreign policy under President Regan aided in turning the man's mind towards world wide terrorism.

Who knows. In some ways, it doesn't matter now because the guy is dead, and the world will be moving on to something else in the coming weeks.

To be honest, I still don't know what to think about it all. It's kind of like we killed a ghost out of belief that in doing so, the world will be a safer place. But there's no knowing if that will be the case.

And even if murdering this murderer ends up leading to a massive weakening of the world wide terrorist networks he inspired and funded, I wouldn't call it justice. Nor do I think it's something to cheer about.

Osama bin Laden is dead and my apartment is clean. Those are really the only two definite statements I can make about it all.

18 comments:

Anonymous said...

nathan, your eloquence one more speaks for me. i too had been cleaning (the zendo, where we'll sit in meditation tonight). i'm stuck (once more) by the simplemindedness of headlines and waving of flags. ObL's death, whether real or faked, does not bring an end to terrorism, nor is the "world a safer place." daishin

Petteri Sulonen said...

Bin Laden wasn't even that important. Certainly not now; the Al Qaeda of 9/11 hasn't existed since the Afghanistan invasion wiped out its training camps. Arguably not ever. The virulent movement he was figureheading is the bastard child of the worst demons of the Arab world and the worst abuses of American and European foreign policy. Something like it would certainly have emerged had Usama bin Laden never been born. The face in the crosshairs would just have been different.

Other than that, word. Is there some Buddhisty thing to say when somebody dies? Could use one now.

Also I'm really hoping that this is the closing of a cycle of violence, not the opening of a new round in the spiral. Good luck with that.

Anonymous said...

What makes you feel so sure about Bin Laden being the responsible for 9.11?
Ana Silva

Nathan said...

Dashin,

cleaning seems like a decent response, all things considered.

Petteri, "Bin Laden wasn't even that important. Certainly not now; the Al Qaeda of 9/11 hasn't existed since the Afghanistan invasion wiped out its training camps. Arguably not ever." Yeah, that was one of the first things I thought last night, sitting next to the radio. This guy's day has passed, and getting him is like getting a ghost.

Ana, it's hard to know exactly what happened on 9/11. I've heard so many theories over the past 9 1/2 years, I have basically come to the conclusion that some questions will never be answered.

Anonymous said...

Hi Dashin!

Right. But if he had been tried in an exempt court less doubts would remain, I think.
Ana Silva

Anonymous said...

It isn't hard for me to feel compassion for him and to realize that he is no different than you or I. We are all driven by our environments. Causes and conditions create and shape our views and beliefs based on karmic influences from our previous existences. The same forces have shaped my flaws, your flaws, and his flaws.

The thought of him finding himself in the hell realms is deeply troubling to me. I don't want to see any beings in the hell realms. Although his actions have planted horrible seeds, may those seeds ripen in me and may he find his way out of his suffering to enlightenment.

I apologize for the anonymous posting, but if I use my name on posts like this, I tend to second guess my own motivation.

Thank you so much for this incredible, beautiful, and eloquent post. I hope to meet offline sometime :-).

Anonymous said...

MAy all beings be happy and free from suffering.

Nathan said...

Ana,

Yeah, I would have preferred getting him alive and having a court trial as well. Who knows if the Navy SEALs involved were instructed to just take him out or not. The momentum of military training always seems to be in the direction of lethal force.

Nathan said...

"It isn't hard for me to feel compassion for him and to realize that he is no different than you or I. We are all driven by our environments. Causes and conditions create and shape our views and beliefs based on karmic influences from our previous existences. The same forces have shaped my flaws, your flaws, and his flaws."

The only thing I would add, though, is that we do have options, moment after moment, to do something, anything, to help steer karmic influences in a different direction. That was one of Buddha's main points - that we aren't bound by our past.

But with that said, sometimes the tide of causes and conditions just keeps on going in a certain direction, despite any personal efforts.

I appreciate your compassionate response, Anonymous - may you be well.

Jan Morrison said...

What We Have Wrought

I awoke this morning one way
Now I'm another.
I woke full of hope and piss and vinegar
for the day,
for the election and
my socks
and friends
and even royal weddings.

But now
we have a dead enemy.
What earthly good is that?

Now we have people thinking,
actually thinking with their brains,
that this is a good time to dance.
To wave bits of material
and shout out slogans of loyalty
and love
as if those emotions could rest
on the same lips
and that would be
a good thing.

As if love and hate
both together
gave you purchase up this
hard tight rope.

As if hate and love were
flowers in the same
good garden.

As if 'this' and 'that'
were ever anybody's
salvation.

Jan Morrison

Poppy said...

Beautifully written, thank you for sharing with the world.

May he, and all beings, be happy and free from suffering.

With you on feeling like we were chasing a ghost. Not entirely sure what I feel, other than regret that it came down to this moment in time instead of any one of a number of alternate moments in history.

Nathan said...

Thanks for sharing your poem with us Jan.

nick. said...

It's interesting to see reaction from different backgrounds. As someone raised as a Christian, I was horrified to find people genuinely celebrating the death of a man, no matter how villainous his actions in life.

Nathan said...

Nick,

I have seen some very thoughtful responses from leaders of different Christian communities. But yes, all the celebrating that went on was hard to swallow, especially given how often people have cited the celebrating that occurred in some places after 9/11 as a source of anger.

Anonymous said...

Hello Nathan,

My thanks to you for all your labors maintaining this blog.

In confusing situations like this, I try to review fundamental Buddhist principles to clear my mind. I too try to be mindful of my feelings of avulsion towards bin Laden, however, I remind myself that avulsion just like craving is a source of suffering.

I find it helpful to recall the interconnectedness of all beings. This helps me to feel compassion toward bin Laden as deranged as he was. I forgive the man, but never his heinous acts.

Finally, I am reminded of the precept against the taking of life. I realize this is not literal. Some may argue that the taking of life is justified when done in self defense or to spare the lives of others. We may never know exactly what happened in Abbottabad, however, one must always plan mindfully to avoid needlessly taking of life.

Nathan said...

"I find it helpful to recall the interconnectedness of all beings. This helps me to feel compassion toward bin Laden as deranged as he was. I forgive the man, but never his heinous acts." If more of us could regularly practice this, we'd have a much more peaceful world I think.

Sonja said...

Thank you for this post.

Sonja

Anonymous said...

Evil is empty, justice is empty it is us who place each of them in accordance with our thoughts and beliefs.