Friday, May 06, 2011

what the Buddhists think

Malcolm recently linked to an LA Times article titled "Dalai Lama suggests Osama bin Laden's death was justified."

This immediately reminded me of an old Beliefnet article from back in 2001 titled "Where are the Terrorists Now?"

Although Zen teacher Lorianne in no way rejoices in the death of Osama bin Laden, she picks up the karmic theme in a recent post that says in part:

Although I’m not blood-thirsty by nature, I acknowledge there are some acts so heinous, the world’s religions agree they are evil and cannot be tolerated. In Zen, we don’t talk about sin and punishment, but we do talk about cause and effect, “You make, you get” being our succinct way of observing how people tend to reap what they sow. As Jesus himself said, those who live by the sword will die by the sword, and Bin Laden’s death felt like the necessary and inevitable reaction to his own actions. As I watched last night’s news coverage, Bin Laden’s death didn’t seem so much a case of what “we” did to “him”: it felt like the natural and unavoidable outcome of his own choices, a sorry ending he brought on himself.

(NB: Please read her entire post to see this remark in its proper context.)

Agitate indiscriminately, and someone's going to agitate you back. Murder indiscriminately, and there's a pretty good chance you're going to get killed.

People on both the left and right-- each for their own reasons-- have been doing their best to shush any celebratory noises by the American people.* I generally agree that open celebration is unseemly, but I feel no shame or regret in experiencing the grim satisfaction I mentioned earlier. It's the satisfaction that comes when things seem, cosmically, to click into place the way you hope they will.

*In some cases, it seemed to me that the shushing began before any celebration could occur.



Sperwer said...

I share your sense of satisfaction, Kevin, although I would describe mine as "sanguine" (in both senses of the word) rather than grim. Some people just need killing, and OBL clearly was one such. Since that position is a recognizable one within the buddhist tradition - which, as I read it, is more concerned with the spirit in which killing is done than with the (mere) fact of killing itself - it would have been nice to see it articulated with a little more vigor and forthrightness than, e.g., the Dalai Lama managed on this occasion. The writer you reference has given us a very extended reading of her won thermometer readings, but her "taking refuge" in the abstraction of karmic retribution is an egregious and rather despicable dodge. Shit doesn't just happen, individuals make it happen - after choosing to do so. Here I'm talking about all those who participated in the decision-making and the actual killing of OBL. I think they undertook a moral act, in both the sense that it was an act with moral dimensions that cannot be minimized away by loose talk about karma and that it was a justifiable choice/act.

Elisson said...

Celebration, unseemly. Grim satisfaction, perfect.

Kevin Kim said...


Perhaps this is a case of "liberal" versus "conservative" Buddhism. Heh.

I found myself having mixed feelings about Lorianne's choice of words, but in the end, I think her insight strikes a balance between an overly individualistic outlook that reifies and essentializes the person, and an overly systemic outlook that ignores the roles of individuals in how the law of action plays itself out.

Lorianne does, after all, quote the scriptural notion that "those who live by the sword will die by the sword," a notion that takes individual action into account. It's not as if she's unaware of Osama-as-person and his culpability.

So my reading of Lorianne (and she's free to chime in) is that she's acknowledging bin Laden himself-- and his actions as an individual-- on one level, while also implying that individuals aren't monads: they exist in interrelationships, some of which might be described as "systems" or "environments," which also influence/affect the individual. Someone was bound to be the Bad Guy, and Some Parties were bound to take the Bad Guy down (if that doesn't sound overly Platonic).

Having said that, I don't know whether I share Lorianne's vision of karma. I can agree with her that there was something "natural" about this outcome, but not that it was "unavoidable," and this may betray my own individual-centric bias. For human freedom truly to be freedom, inevitability should be minimal, which further implies that cosmic justice isn't a given.

I believe Osama could have gotten away yet again, and might conceivably have lived to a ripe old age and died happily in his sleep. Unlikely, but possible; and if possible, then his death at the hands of determined US operatives wasn't inevitable.

Sperwer said...


I certainly agree with the notion of karma operating on obl in an individual sense; I'm more interested in the phenomenon of those on the other side who took action (and responsibility), perhaps in some cases with knowledge of the karmic implications for themselves) rather than sitting back thinking karma will take care of business. As for the writer, the level of articulate introspection is really quite impressive, but still seems to be to be on the verge of navel-gazing, especially considering the circumstances and the failure to address the really compelling question they pose regarding individual responsibility for doing the right thing.

Kevin Kim said...


I see what you're saying, but this may be something you'd have to hash out with Lorianne directly. Her post, taken in its entirety, doesn't focus primarily on the issue that interests you. I suspect that, if you were to dialogue with her, you'd discover that her actual position is more nuanced than the block-quoted paragraph lets on.