09/09/2011 04:09 pm ET Updated Nov 09, 2011

What Would Buddha Do About a Terrorist Attack?

Joseph Campbell, the mythologist, pointed out that, throughout history, people have always been able to tell the dominant social institution by the height of its buildings. The more important the institution, the taller the structure. In early civilizations, the tallest were the altars and churches, then the great cathedrals and temples.

Over time, religious institutions declined in influence and government held sway. State houses, capital domes, courthouses, the bastions of bureaucracy, were visible reminders of the power of government over the lives of its citizens.

Today, as we scan the skylines of our cities and towns, we can easily recognize which institution has come to dominate people's lives: the temples of big business tower over both the houses of church and state. Modern business not only drives the economy, it sets the cultural tone and shapes the values of society. It is no accident, then, that the first target of the 9/11 terrorists was the citadel of business, the high temple of global capitalism -- the World Trade Center towers.

In the past ten years we have heard different opinions on what we should, or should not, have done about this assault on our cathedral of commerce. We've heard political opinions, military opinions, media opinions, and much, much public opinion. We think we could benefit from the opinion of someone you may not have heard from: the Buddha. What does the Buddha think about terrorism? Could spiritual wisdom have informed -- could it still inform -- our response to this ongoing threat?

We have needed all the help we could get in sorting out our feelings and our alternatives in the wake of 9/11, and the Buddha's help has certainly stood the test of time. So, what would the Buddha have done then? And what would the Buddha do now? In his teachings, we find this answer:

"He insulted me, he beat me, robbed me!"
Think this way and hatred never ends.
"He insulted me, he beat me, robbed me!"
Give this up and in you hatred ends.
Not by hate is hate defeated; hate is
Quenched by love. This is eternal law.
Dhammapada 3-5

Conflict, even violence, is a fact of life caused by desire and attachment. We can strive to end conflict, but we can never fully succeed. What we can fully control is our response to conflict. It is human nature to want to respond in kind when others hurt us, but the Buddha urges us to resist this inclination. If we meet others' attacks with our own attacks, joining in their negative karma, we are simply adding fuel to the fire, and endangering everyone, including ourselves. We have ample evidence of this in the thousands of American lives -- and the million Afghani and Iraqi lives -- lost in our wars of retribution. Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein are dead, but many Muslims hate us more than ever. Our revenge has come at an uncountable price.

Instead of exacting blood, Buddha counsels us to take another road, to respond to others' hostility with compassion. Wise teachers throughout the ages have echoed Buddha's wisdom: Jesus, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., the current Dalai Lama, and many others in many cultures. These leaders have never taught weakness, but they have always taught love. And they have overcome greater foes than al Qaeda.

The Roman poet, Virgil, wrote "love conquers all." You may believe there are things love is not well-suited to conquer, but love is perfectly suited to conquer hate. Violence, retaliation, the responses currently being advocated by our leaders, add to the tremendous energy embodied in hatred. Love, on the other hand, takes the energy of hate and redirects it. Hate cannot go beyond itself. It draws its strength from contraction. Love lives to go beyond itself, drawing its strength from expansion. Love can thus comprehend hate, integrating it into something larger. Slowly hate is defeated, as a grain of salt dissolves into the sweetness of a pond.

The Buddhist monk and philosopher, Chandrakirti, wrote, "We disrespect people sacrificing their possessions for liquor and such. I ask why we respect them for sacrificing themselves in war." Chandrakirti asks a powerful question: How is giving one's life to a war any different from giving it to an addiction? Maybe it isn't. In both we choose something over love, over status, over health, even over life itself. It's a bad bargain.

You may object (and the 9/11 terrorists would agree with you) that war leads to something beyond itself, something greater. But the Buddha would question both war's means and its ends. What worthy ends are not better achieved through love than through hate? The world needs changing, but not through violence. The world needs infrastructure, hospitals, agriculture, schools, and people that get those things do not unleash terror upon those who give them. There is always another way. Immediately after 9/11, the Buddha would have called us to unity. He would have called all nations, all religions to unite against violence, whether by terrorists, or against them. It is not too late. The Buddha calls today. He calls for blood -- not shed by others, but given to them.

Is this a profound challenge? Of course! We are just human, as the Buddha knows. But our harboring hatred because others have hurt us is like us taking poison hoping others will die. We may or may not forgive, but we must let go of revenge, otherwise we become prisoners of our own anger, and of the vicious cycle that is terrorism. As in 2001, so today, we must quench our hate in the waters of love. It's a slow business, but a sweet one.

Franz Metcalf and BJ Gallagher co-wrote this blog post. Their new book, "BEING BUDDHA AT WORK: 108 Ancient Truths on Change, Stress, Money and Success" will be published in January by Berrett-Koehler.