9/11: Meditate to Liberate


On the anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Center, we bring the story of how one Buddhist chose to respond by challenging the consciences of those whose business is to promote the sale of weapons war.

9/11 changed everything. We all knew that — the only question was, how? The US government’s “war on terrorism” was swiftly launched and a deep conviction arose in me that this was not the way to go. In their fervor our leaders, especially America’s, seemed utterly oblivious of the simple truth that violence breeds violence. Their response seemed opportunistic and vindictive, Bush’s rhetoric duplicitous and deeply worrying, our leaders seemed uninterested in peacemaking. To me, and perhaps many others, the words of the poet Godfrey Rust rang true: “The moral high ground is just a pile of smoking rubble.”

Soon after that fateful day I left my office in Birmingham and embarked on an itinerant life, a wandering Buddhist teacher-organizer affiliated to Buddhafield, a collective that holds outdoor retreats and festivals under canvas in the West of England. I wanted to dedicate myself to exploring new approaches to practicing and spreading Dharma and — as the so-called “war on terror” broadened — to deepening my own involvement in social and political issues. This led me to i quest for “acts of power”: public actions demonstrating what I stood for which I could perform wholeheartedly as a Buddhist.

I’ve had many years of doing Buddhist “retreats” and I felt it was now time for some “advances”

It has become increasingly imperative for me to engage with the world as well as with my mind; to take direct action, while continuing to work on myself and being a good citizen in a general way. I’ve had many years of doing Buddhist “retreats” and I felt it was now time for some “advances.” But alongside this came unease about aligning myself with many conventional forms of protest — the noise and negativity of angry demonstrations, the violence implicit in sabotage and occupation, the wildly different agendas of other activists.

How to act directly, as a Buddhist, without compromise, without compromise, without undermining the positive in society? I knew well that greed, hatred and ignorance were rampant in the world — I also knew they were flourishing in my own mind, and I had to change that just is much as anyone else’s. I knew that polarization and demonization helped no one and never led to constructive communication, however satisfying it might feel in the moment. I also realized the issues were complex, that I was relatively ignorant and in no position to state categorically what was right. I only knew that the “war on terror” was not it.

Out of all this, and out of a series of events over a remarkable summer, came the beginnings of a way forward. This way promised to be a new and powerful approach to practice and protest, marrying inner and outer, demonstrating alternatives with minimum polarization, speaking directly to our innermost conscience, cutting through the endless arguments — a way forward that nonetheless takes courage and determination.

We call it “Meditate to Liberate.” It is the brainchild of John Curtin, a veteran animal-rights campaigner who has seen protestors at their most violent, and who has been drawn increasingly to Buddhism, despite his criticisms of many Buddhists for their passivity in the social sphere. 0n the second anniversary of 9/11 there was a large arms fair in London’s Docklands — 15,000 delegates gathering to trade weapons, including cluster bombs and torture equipment. It was time to act.

We boarded the train and swiftly seated ourselves in silent meditation in front of each doorway up and down the carriage

Attending a protesters’ briefing, we learned that many delegates would arrive by local train and that this was the best way to get close to them. We immediately knew what to do. On the day, after some nerve-wracking training in arrest procedures, we dressed in our blue meditation shirts or robes, bought all-day travel passes, boarded the train and, as it pulled out, swiftly seated ourselves in silent meditation in front of each doorway up and down the carriage. The exit was not blocked but anyone leaving had to brush past our silent forms. Pinned to Our chests were large badges reading: I AM A BUDDHIST AND I AM OPPOSED TO THE ARMS TRADE. Others in our group had leaflets to hand to interested passengers, and another, in a loud voice, invited all present to reflect oil the death and suffering that would result from the fair.

As we sat there, hearts pounding, we found our meditations clear and strong, much habitual discursiveness stripped away by the raw immediacy of the situation. Strong feelings arose: fear, anger, elation sadness, all to be calmly, mindfully witnessed and absorbed. Around us we felt people come and go, overheard the occasional comments and, as we stopped at Custom House, venue of the “arms fair,” felt a great swish past us as most passengers alighted to do their deals. We sat on for one more station, arose a little stiffly, and caught the next train back.

We did this again and again throughout the day. in the streets around we could hear crowds of demonstrators held back by lines of police. We broke for lunch and overlapped with many of them in a local Christian café. The arms fair continued — none of us could stop it. But, by the time we went home, we’d had an intense day of meditation practice, and done our level best to prick the delegates’ consciences. I am confident this type of action is both powerful and in harmony with the spirit of Buddhism. And it may just contribute to ending the “war on terror.”

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8 Comments. Leave new

  • Meditation is liberating, allright. And so was President Bush when he declared a war on terror.

    If the attack on the United Statea by muslim militants that killed thousands of innocents isn’t a declaration of war, then what is? Mr Bush’s appropriate declaration of war and the interrogation of captured terrorists resulted in the prevention of some further attacks and the saving of many lives, according to a recent government report.

    While Buddhists are never the aggressors and buddhism teaches war is unskillful and should be avoided, Buddhism has not always separated itself from war. It’s a practical philosophy, understanding it’s not righteous to stand aside while innocent people are being slaughtered.

    A late Theravadin monk and scholar said, “The Buddha did not teach his followers to surrender to any form of evil power be it human or supernatural being.”

    Meditate to liberate, yes. But to meditate while the house is burning, no.

  • the moral high ground is just
    a pile of smoking rubble

  • Argh I should try saying something more specific. I greatly respect your humble approach to making your voice heard without imposition or moral judgement. Clearly there is a judgement of some kind operating but not the sort that looks down on someone in order to gain security. Thanks for recounting this journey.

  • When the attack occurred I was at work in a university physics dept. I worked with a number of Muslims from Persia , Pakistan And one Christian Iraqi. They seemed genuinely appalled by what had happened. When I challenged them, out of my misplaced anger, about this concept of Jihad They all had similar replies.
    Jihad they explained was a life mission too do good, through spreading their faith or helping the needy or any other positive acts. Terrorism to them was a prevision of Jihad.
    Each one shared the view however that US policy toward the Palestinian plight was the root cause. Sixty some years ago Palestinians lived in a land that they occupied for centuries. When 911 occurred they were refugees with no home. Eight years later still no home, still as much animosity as before. Until there is some justice for these people the hatred will continue.
    I am not an expert by any means, but a Buddhist approach might emphasize justice and end war.

  • Thanks for an interesting article. I have great sympathy with Randy’s perspective though. I have always thought that the idea that “violence breeds violence” while initially attractive is not in fact a simple truth. World War 2, a war so violent that nothing today can compare was not only necessary but morally completely appropriate. Evil of that scale needs to be stopped. It can also be reasonably argues that that extraordinarily violent period paved the way for a modern, peaceful Europe, quite simply, people fighting for decency and justice won. While i have the greatest of respect for all who work for peace, there comes a point at which evil actions must be physically stopped. This exists at the most basic level of a police marksman shooting the hostage taker to free an innocent hostage and by logical extension to greater levels of violence also. That is not of course to say that every effort ought to be made towards peaceful resolution, but there most definitely has to be a line in the sand. It is also not to say that of course the values and motivations of involved parties are not often dubious, as were Bushes and as indeed were Churchills. That is the joy and the pain of politics.

    I’m afraid i must also take issue with Bruce to some degree. Obviously the vast majority of Muslims are appalled by the terrorism of the last decades. But this argument ignores that the majority of the 9/11 hijackers were not palestinians but Saudis. It also ignores the fact that most of the modern terrorists, including the 9/11 attackers, expliclty identify a primarily religious, not political justification for their actions. Unfortunately they represent a dangerously warped view of Islam just as warped as that of fundamentalist Christianity, and with as little excuse for any background reasons to their beliefs.

    However, all of these are debates that are to an extent unwinnable and dependent on political pursuasion. What really interests me and i would love comments on, is whether there is a place in Buddhism for someone with views like mine? I have long been desperately attracted to Buddhism but have never felt able to engage greater due to thse kind of issues. Can one be a buddhist and have such an ambiguous relatinship to the question of pacifism? Randy’s comments reassure me that i am not alone! And Lokabhandu, despite all the above i greatly admire you’re efforts at the arms fair. Whatever the rights or wrongs, anything that brings greater thoughtfullness to human suffering is to be greatly admired.

    • What a very diverse collection of views, and so respectfully offered as well.

      I agree with Stephen that sometimes participation in wars is politically and even morally necessary, although I also think it’s a last resort and often an admission of failure. For example, I agree that it was absolutely right to stand up to the Third Reich, but at the same time had Hitler’s forces been prevented from occupying the Rheinland — something that could have been achieved with virtually no loss of life on either side since the Germans had only light arms and orders to retreat if they were challenged — he wouldn’t have been able to obtain the industrial base for his subsequent aggressions. There was a failure of nerve and clarity that set the stage for that war. And to go back a step further, Hitler wouldn’t have been such an attractive leader in the first place had not the Treaty of Versailles systematically humiliated the German people.

      Similarly, it seems clear why the US was attacked on 9/11, because Bin Laden spelled it out in a letter which I would imagine at least 95% of Americans haven’t read, and are probably unaware of. Bin Laden is a psychotic fundamentalist, but he’s a psychotic fundamentalist who is convinced that the US is trying to control and manipulate the Muslim world in order to advance its own interests. Which goes to show that even a psychotic fundamentalist can be right some of the time. Again humiliation is at the root of a war. Would 9/11 have been avoided had the US not being playing games in the Middle East? I think it’s quite likely, although who knows what other problems might have arisen otherwise? I have no crystal ball. My point is just that history books all too often start describing a conflict with the words “war broke out” as if “these things just happen”. In fact there are always reasons beyond the “mad leader” and “war broke out.”

      But given that none of us is psychic, we’re rarely going to know whether our actions are going to set up the conditions for a war. And sometimes I think we’re going to have to end up fighting.

      But then there’s the question of how to fight those wars. If the point of invading Afghanistan was to make the world safer, it failed miserably. Bush failed to capture or kill Bin Laden, and Al Quaeda just slipped over the border into a country that has nukes, and where it is now gaining influence. And removing a fanatically religious regime and replacing it with a weak and corrupt regime which leaves the country exploited by warlords isn’t really much of an advance at all. Perhaps a quick push into Afghanistan in order to wipe out Al Quaeda once and for all would have been better, had that even been possible.

      And as for the war in Iraq — Bush and Cheney lied every step of the way into that one. It’s shameful. I really do believe that both those men should be tried as criminals. Saddam was a maniac, of course but the war there killed far more Iraqis than Saddam ever did. And there are many maniacs in charge of governments, but strangely only those in oil-rich countries need to be deposed by military power. Where’s the clamor to invade Burma?

      Anyway, I admire Lokabandhu’s actions, especially since they were aimed at people who have a vested interest in promoting warfare. We wouldn’t have been in Iraq if it wasn’t for the smell of oil money.

  • I would completely agree that war always represents a failure and I bow to your clearly greater knowledge of world war 2 history! I think where i suspect we would all agree is that Buddhist ideas have the potential to help reduce these failures, even if only on a small scale.

  • I enjoyed the comments and love the way different opinions can be expressed in a respectful manner. Speaking of 9/11, I was fearful for my life even though I live several miles away in NJ. I allowed my fear to turn into anger, and had the mentality, “we have to get the people responsible and make them pay”. I agreed that military action was necessary, after all thousands of innocent people lost their lives that day, so someone had to pay. As the wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq dragged on for years, and my discovery of Buddhism (I am a newbie), my opinion has changed. Violence does breed more violence. Many innocent civilians have lost their lives because of the war on terror. Don’t they have a right to be angry and seek revenge? Gandhi said “the law an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind”.


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