Dec 18, 2012
Grasping the snake of impermanence by the wrong end
The other day I posted a news article about various ideas for replacing the ancient Buddhist statues of Bamiyan, Afghanistan, which were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001. One of our Facebook commenters had the following to say:
I am so grateful for the Taliban destroying these statues, what an amazing lesson in the impermanent nature of reality. The people who did this are our greatest teachers, firstly for helping us to practice patience with our negative feelings of anger and secondly to show us how attached we can become to impermenant objects.
There’s certainly a traditional teaching in Buddhism of having gratitude toward our enemies for giving us an opportunity to practice patience. This is most famously found in the teachings of Shantideva, the 8th-century Indian Buddhist scholar, whose best known work is the Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life (Bodhicaryāvatāra).
In the chapter on patience, for example, Shantideva says:
“Since my adversary assists me in my Bodhisattva way of life, I should long for him like a treasure discovered in the house and acquired without effort.”
The Dalai Lama’s teaching is heavily influenced by Shantideva, and so you’ll hear him saying very similar things. For example in “How to be Compassionate,” (page 22) he says,
“Since enemies are the greatest teachers of altruism, instead of generating hatred for them, we must view them with gratitude.”
That part of our commentator’s statement is uncontroversial (although I don’t believe that the Buddha himself said anything about being grateful to our enemies and I don’t know whether he would have agreed with it). It’s the bit about being “grateful for the Taliban destroying these statues” that troubles me.
There’s a big difference between being grateful for having an enemy (as an opportunity to practice patience) and being grateful to your enemies for having caused destruction. To be grateful to your enemies for causing destruction is a form of rejoicing in unskillfulness. We shouldn’t be glad that the Taliban destroyed these statues. They were rare, and beautiful, and irreplaceable.
Of course we shouldn’t unduly mourn, either. It’s natural to feel a sense of loss and hurt when something we value has been destroyed, but it poisons our lives — and the world generally — when we mourn or get angry. The Buddha describes the ideal attitude thus:
With the destruction of what is subject to destruction, he does not sorrow, grieve, or lament, does not beat his breast or become distraught. This is called a well-instructed disciple of the noble ones who has pulled out the poisoned arrow of sorrow pierced with which the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person torments himself. Sorrowless, arrowless, the disciple of the noble ones is totally Awakened right within himself.
In The Water Snake sutta the Buddha said that grasping the Dharma wrongly was like grabbing a snake by the wrong end. And “Their wrong grasp of those teachings will lead to their long-term harm & suffering.”
Being grateful when people have caused destruction is grasping a snake by the wrong end. It’s going to come back and bite you. Right now, for example, an entire city of Buddhist ruins in Afghanistan, Mes Aynak, is about to be destroyed by a Chinese consortium intent on mining for copper. Should we be grateful? I don’t think so. We should do what little we can, including signing this petition, to stop this destruction from happening, and we should have compassion for those who act unskillfully, but we should neither be distraught nor glad.