Responding to Tragedy

adapted from a talk by Gil Fronsdal, October 1st, 2001

At the heart of Buddhism lies both realism and optimism. The realism entails an honest and unswerving recognition of the suffering and violence in our world. These existed at the time of the Buddha and they continue in our modern world. The optimism comes from recognizing the potential for alleviating suffering and violence. We can in fact remove from our hearts the toxic forces of greed, hate, and delusion. We can replace them with peace, loving-kindness, and compassion. For Buddhist practice, it is important to be both realistic and optimistic. Realism alone leads to despair. Optimism alone obscures the ground of spiritual practice.

In the face of unimaginable tragedy, violence and hate, we are called upon to honestly recognize our own fear, confusion and anger. Fear ignored produces more fear; confusion unacknowledged churns up more confusion; anger not confronted spawns further anger. To develop our mindfulness of all three is to learn how to be free of their forces.

This is a slow and gradual process. But the more free we become, the more we are able to organize our lives around our best intentions. The intentions to be kind, compassionate, helpful, happy, and liberated are among the most beautiful qualities we have as humans.

These qualities are not luxuries. They are not optional. We need to be able to call upon them when we respond to the cries of the world around us. The optimism of Buddhism is that we can make a difference to the world around us. Our thoughts, words, and deeds of empathy, love and caring are the needed counter-forces to hatred, violence, and despair. Our own efforts to find inner peace, our example, can be an important force of wholesome change for people who don’t know of that possibility.

The history of Buddhism offers many examples of how influential the peaceful presence of one person can be. When prince Siddhartha was dismayed by sickness, old age, and death, the sight of a peaceful renunciate inspired him with the possibilities of the spiritual quest which culminated in his awakening as the Buddha.

One of the more dramatic stories concerns the conversion of the violent king Ashoka in the third century BCE who was bent on conquering as much of India as possible. In his own words, which have survived on stones he ordered carved, he tells of being horrified at the carnage of the 100,000 deaths by which he won a battle. As he stood in grief on the battlefield, a single Buddhist monk walked by with a peace and radiance that moved the king to ask for teachings. Propelled by his own despair, the monk’s serenity, and these teachings, the king renounced conquest, violence, and capital punishment. While he retained his army for defense, his efforts were redirected from war to the social and spiritual improvement of his subjects.

We can’t be sure what teachings Ashoka received from the monk. The Buddha had much to say about violence and hatred; perhaps the monk repeated these verses from the Buddha:

Hatred never ends through hatred.
By non-hatred alone does it end.
This is eternal truth.
Victory gives birth to hate;
The defeated sleep tormented.
Giving up both victory and defeat,
The peaceful sleep delighted.
All tremble at violence:
All fear death.
Having likened others to yourself,
Don’t kill or cause others to kill.
If you surveyed the entire world
You’d find no one more dear than yourself.
Since each person is most dear to themselves,
May those who love themselves not bring harm to anyone.
The person who day and night
Delights in harmlessness,
And has loving-kindness toward all beings,
Is the one who has no hate for anyone.

In Buddhist teaching, we have available two healthy responses to the suffering of the world. One is compassion. A tremendous motivation to change the world for the better can arise out of compassion. I believe that compassion is a more effective motivation than aversion. The other response is called samvega, which is the passion for practice. In our contact with suffering, we find the motivation to come to terms with our suffering, to find freedom for ourselves and others. Both responses contribute to peace.

May we all remain confident that we can make a difference.