The Dalai Lama and Osama Bin Laden: Taking Horror Seriously

06/09/2011 11:22 am ET | Updated Aug 09, 2011

The night that Osama bin laden was killed, I found myself feeling relieved -- even a bit glad. I examined those feelings and wondered: Were these feelings consistent with my Buddhist commitment to peace, compassion and forgiveness? I wasn't sure, but my feelings were my feelings.

The next day I read that the Dalai Lama appeared to suggest in a public forum that the killing of Osama bin Laden had been justified. The Los Angeles Times reported:

As a human being, Bin Laden may have deserved compassion and even forgiveness, the Dalai Lama said in answer to a question about the assassination of the Al Qaeda leader. But, he said, "Forgiveness doesn't mean forget what happened. ... If something is serious and it is necessary to take counter-measures, you have to take counter-measures."

The report went on to comment, "It was, perhaps, an example of the Dalai Lama confounding expectations, something he seems to relish doing."

What expectations did the L.A. Times think His Holiness had confounded? Did the reporter (or others in that Los Angeles audience) expect the Dalai Lama to give a homily on universal peace and love? His Holiness has spoken of "counter-measures" in other contexts. In his book "Healing Anger" (p. 10), he actually goes even further, saying:

In fact, one of the precepts of the Bodhisattva vows is to take strong countermeasures when the situation calls for it. If a Bodhisattva doesn't take strong countermeasures when the situation requires, then that constitutes an infraction of one of the vows.

I remember my own feelings, watching those endless video loops of the World Trade Center the day of 9/11, and hearing about other clips they didn't show on television, of people leaping to their deaths from the top floors to avoid the flames -- people guilty of nothing more than showing up for work that day. I pictured my son or my wife being one of them and imagined how I might feel. I pictured the people whose sons and daughters and husbands and wives did die that day, and tried to imagine how they might feel. I made myself sick imagining these things. What I felt that day was horror.

In the days and weeks after 9/11, I talked about the event with Buddhist friends. I heard a range of views. Some, like me, talked about their feelings of horror and helplessness. Others spoke of the need to understand the causes and conditions that had impelled the terrorists to such acts -- the history of colonial oppression in the Middle East, the American exploitation of their oil, the looming American military presence in their lands. I understood these explanations, but they seemed to me to lack emotional and spiritual power.

So now I ponder what the Dalai Lama said that day in Los Angeles: "If something is serious ... you have to take countermeasures." I was interested in his use of the word "serious." It seemed to have a specific and weighty meaning. Was the Dalai Lama referring to what I am calling "horror"? He certainly knows the subject. He has heard thousands of first hand stories of the imprisonment and torture of his people; he knows exactly what is being meted out to monks, nuns and ordinary people in the homeland to which he cannot return. I also recall that once, in response to the question, "Are you angry at the Chinese?" he replied, "The Chinese have taken everything. Why should I give them my state of mind?"

I can't find a precise attribution for this quote (though it exists in various places on the Web), but I heave heard it quoted and, If I recall correctly, he then gave a very precise and nuanced answer. He didn't say, "No, I am beyond anger." He said, "I don't give them my state of mind." In other words, he takes charge of his own state of mind, and if any anger arises he works with it and transforms it. That is his power. As a Buddhist meditator, I understand that kind of answer. It touches me emotionally in the way those other explanations and rationales about 9/11 did not.

I once met His Holiness, years ago when he spent a few days at the small retreat center where I lived. At that time, there was concern that he was being shadowed by assassins, and due to the political circumstance, he was not offered any security by our own government. He was on his own, guarded only by two unarmed and very large monks (who seemed never to sleep) and by us fellow Buddhists. I was in charge of managing the 24 hour perimeter we established, and we took turns guarding the building where he slept. I remember him waking at 3 a.m. every morning and doing his meditation practices in his room for several hours, while we stood outside in the pre-dawn light.

I found him to be a simple, straightforward and humble man. He gave several television interviews while he stayed with us, and never seemed interested in "confounding expectations." He just said what he thought. He laughed often, yet possessed the demeanor and presence of someone who was quite serious.

In that way, he reminded me of my own teacher, Shunryu Suzuki. Suzuki lived through World War II in Japan, and when we asked him about it he would only respond, "My whole country went crazy." He remained abbot of a fairly large temple during the war. How many funerals did he do during those four years, I wondered, for the young men of his town who came back in coffins? In the latter years of the war, he was posted to Manchuria as a Buddhist chaplain. He never talked about that experience either, but we now know that wartime Manchuria was a place of torment and ungodly experiments. I wonder what secrets the Japanese soldiers there confided to chaplain Suzuki, and what horrors Suzuki kept locked in his heart for the rest of his life. Like the Dalai Lama, Suzuki laughed a lot, but he too was a serious person. He too had seen horror.

So yes, the day bin Laden died, I felt relief, deep sadness and a sense that justice had been done. The events of 9/11, the world's turmoil and violence, the endless killing and counter-killing are all quite "serious," as the Dalai Lama says. He is a serious man for serious times, yet, like my own teacher, he can still laugh.

How is that possible? That is a deep Buddhist teaching for these these dark days and times that I continue to ponder.