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The Way of Peace ...

December 7, 2006 By:
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Sometimes, I get a book in the mail, and I have to scratch my head in befuddlement about why it was sent to me. Such was the case with The Buddha and the Terrorist by Satish Kumar. It's a small, delicate volume, clearly published with consideration and care by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, a reputable publisher. But why I got a copy was totally beyond me, and my bewilderment only grew as I perused the jacket copy.

First, consider the author. Kumar, we're told, was born in India, has studied Buddhism, and was a Jain monk for nine years. He is the editor of what is called the "international magazine," Resurgence (which I've never heard of). He's the director of programs at Schumacher College in England, an institution that, again, I've never heard of. He's also published No Destination: An Autobiography and You Are, Therefore I Am: A Declaration of Dependence. I'm unaware of these titles. But my being unknowledgeable of any of these things is of little consequence in the assessment of this book.

The fact that Thomas Moore, author of Care of the Soul, was asked to write a foreword to the text seemed to be of note, since he's a big name in publishing circles, with a considerable following. What he wrote gave me my first inkling of why the Jewish Exponent might have been on this publisher's list to receive a review copy.

"It is often said, accurately, that violence begets violence," begins Moore. "There is a virus buried deep in all violence that is contagious, that inspires an equally brutal and mindless response. A terrorist blows up a bus, and an army comes out to settle the score. This exchange of violence and this contagion of terror have been handed down for eons from family to family and from nation to nation. It is a chain of terror made up of people gone amok with anger and those just as disturbed with their feelings of virtue and righteous vengeance."

There didn't seem to be anything wrong with that, for the most part. All fine sentiments, though I worried that the detail about a bus being blown up and an army retaliating might have been a swipe at Israel, but I kept on going.

Moore continued: "But there is good news. The Gospel of Jesus, the Dharma of Buddha, the Tao of Lao Tzu, and the tariqa, or 'way of love,' in Sufism all teach that you can let go of your grip on this chain. You can be free of it. When obscene violence interrupts your life, you don't have to respond with virtuous, justified and reasonable force. You can choose not to be part of the destructive cycle, and that choice not to participate is a first step toward peace."

Now it became perfectly clear to me why this little volume had been sent. Since Judaism was nowhere on Moore's list of religions that provide a path to peace, I was convinced that the bus-bombing reference was a comment on Israel, and that the tale that was to follow was a lecture to all Jews to stop their murderous ways and learn how to achieve true peace.

I fumed immediately, but forced myself to continue. Perhaps I was reading things into these pronouncements. But here's more of Moore, as they say: "[T]he way out of violence depends on a great and penetrating vision. You have to understand radically that terrorism of all kinds is an insanity, whether it is the work of a band of renegades or the more sanctioned and public action of an army. You have to understand that violence, even when calculated, is the expression of a pained and twisted soul. It is the work of a spirit or urge that takes over a person or a people and blinds them to human solidarity and community. Your job, in the spirit of the Buddha and Jesus, is to calm the souls of everyone involved."

'Vengeance and Punishment'

How is one to do that? Moore notes in his foreword, just as Kumar suggests in his retelling of this story from the Buddha's life, that a single individual can make a significant difference; and that by choosing the path which Moore suggests, you may have to strike out on your own -- you may even have to look "passive and weak." But only those with "the inner courage needed to overcome habits of vengeance and punishment" can truly attain the will and power to change the world.

This is the point of the story Kumar tells in his straightforward narrative, rendered in an unembellished style, both of which seem perfectly suited to the tale. As the story opens, Buddha, who is traveling in the north of India, comes to the town of Savatthi, only to find all the streets deserted and the stores locked up tight. He tracks down one of his devoted disciples, Lady Nandini, and asks her what the trouble might be. She explains that a young man named Angulimala, which literally means "wearer of a necklace of fingers," has been terrorizing the town, murdering its citizens, then adding their digits to his personal jewelry.

Lady Nandini begs the Buddha to stay with her and not venture into the Jeta Grove, where he is most likely to come face to face with Angulimala. But the Buddha shrugs off her concerns. "Nandini, the Buddha has no fear of death, and the Buddha does not change his plans out of fear."

When the two do come face to face, Angulimala is shocked that this man does not fear him. Not only that, this brazen fellow calls him by name.

"Who are you?" asks Angulimala. "Why aren't you running away from me? Don't you know I am going to kill you without blinking an eye and thread your fingers onto my necklace?"

"Yes, yes. I know who you are. But do you know that I can be killed without blinking an eye?" The Buddha pauses, then adds, "I am always ready to die. Dying harms no one. But killing? How do you feel about killing others, Angulimala? Have you looked deeply into your feelings about killing?"

The Buddha insists that Angulimala is capable of lots of things other than destruction, capable even of friendship.

The younger man does not believe this is true because, he says, the world has abandoned him: His village abandoned him, because both his mother and father abandoned him.

Why? asks Buddha.

It was all because Angulimala had disagreed with his father. "I disobeyed him. I rebelled against him. I wanted to stand up for myself and follow my own path, but he would not let me. One day I hit him. I was angry with him."

Buddha closes his eyes, takes a deep breath and in a deep voice says: "Angulimala, were you so overcome with anger that you saw yourself separate from your father? Was this feeling of separation the cause of the quarrel between you and your father? Is it not true, Angulimala, that before you abandoned your father you abandoned your sense of connection? Is it not true then that you are yourself the cause of all the abandonment? Angulimala, I am your friend and I want to help you to recognize the cause of your pain and your problems, to recognize your sorrow and suffering, and to recognize that there is no one else responsible for your actions other than yourself."

We are told that Angulimala stood speechless. No one had ever spoken to him in this way. And because of this, and lots of other things that the Buddha says to him, Angulimala changes his ways completely and becomes a man of peace -- a committed follower of the Buddha.

Now, of course, Angulimala's story doesn't resolve itself all that easily. He first is confronted by the townspeople whose relatives he's killed; they refuse to believe in his conversion and wish to tear him limb from limb. Buddha intercedes and, in the end, Angulimala's change of heart is accepted. He then lives the rest of his life spreading peace.

Ah, how easy it all is! In my head, of course, I envision all kinds of alternate endings. I see the Buddha saying his piece, and then Angulimala running him through with his sword. I see Angulimala letting Buddha go, but continuing to kill anyone else who crosses his path. I see Angulimala taking the Buddha hostage ... you get the point.

Do all the people responsible for this volume really believe that simply confronting, let's say, present-day suicide bombers in this conciliatory way will bring an end to their bombings and death threats, either in Israel or Iraq? Granted, dialogue is a good thing, peace talks are a wonderful tool, but there are individuals in the world -- true believers -- who are completely immune to all reasonable pleas, to say nothing of the effect of holy words outside of their own belief system.

The point is not that I don't find the life and teaching of the Buddha, and Buddhism itself, compelling and even inspiring. It's just that I think they are both metaphors for ways of acting in life, not pictures of reality. Perhaps for those who are committed pacifists, this book would resonate with the sound of absolute truth. But as a Jew and a Zionist, I long ago put away my pacifistic dreams. If Israelis were not committed to defending themselves, Israel would have disappeared long ago.

Reality doesn't intrude in The Buddha and the Terrorist, which is a well-intentioned fable without much in the way of practical applications. For all its wonderful sentiments -- and for all that Moore and Kumar believe with sincerity -- I think, even as a fable, its usefulness in the modern world is severely limited.

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