by Stephen Jenkins
The Dalai Lama's attitude to Bin Laden's death should not be too surprising – Buddhism is not as pacifist as the west fantasies
The Dalai Lama said Osama bin Laden deserved compassion but his killing was 'understandable'. Photograph: Jim Mone/AP
Buddhists work out their values through stories of Buddha's past lives, which show him in myriad roles, such as a battle-elephant or minister defending his besieged city. The following story is analogous to a terrorist situation. It is known throughout northern Buddhism. Communists even used it to rouse Chinese Buddhists to fight in Korea. The Buddha, in a past life as a ship's captain named Super Compassionate, discovered a criminal on board who intended to kill the 500 passengers. If he told the passengers, they would panic and become killers themselves, as happened on a Southwest Airlines flight in 2000. With no other way out, he compassionately stabbed the criminal to death. Captain Compassionate saved the passengers not only from murder, but from becoming murderers themselves. Unlike him, they would have killed in rage and suffered hell. He saved the criminal from becoming a mass murderer and even worse suffering. He himself generated vast karmic merit by acting with compassion.
The story is double-edged. Killing protects others from the horrific karma of killing. At Harvard in April 2009, the Dalai Lama explained that "wrathful forceful action" motivated by compassion, may be "violence on a physical level" but is "essentially nonviolence". So we must be careful to understand what "nonviolence" means. Under the right conditions, it could include killing a terrorist.
People fail to appreciate how extraordinary the Dalai Lama's commitment to nonviolence is. After all, he is a Buddhist and the manifestation of Avalokiteśvara, the deity of compassion. But Buddhist values are not simply pacifist, and Buddhist scripture and legend inform us that Avalokiteśvara readily takes a warrior's form when needed and supports the warfare of righteous kings.
Buddhist cultures, including Tibet, have not historically been pacifist. The previous dalai lama strove to develop a modern military. So the current one's dedication to nonviolence should not be taken as a matter of course. He was influenced by Gandhi, a British-trained lawyer whose pacifism was rooted in Thoreau's Civil Disobedience. His nonviolent approach is exceptional for a Buddhist political leader and integrates Indian and western concepts of nonviolent struggle.
The exaggerated image of pacifism projected on Buddhism (and Hinduism) was embraced and promoted by natives, as it conveyed moral superiority over colonialist oppressors and missionaries. Getting the message fed back by natives reinforced the original misconceptions. But the ultimate source is Euro-Americans themselves, weary of a century of warfare and longing for a pacifist Shangri-La. Buddhist cultural values were never so simplistic and practically served rājas, khans, and daimyō for millennia. The main reason Buddhists' history does not match our expectations, aside from them being as human as the rest of us, is that our expectations have been mistaken. Some think that fantasies of a pacifist utopia benefit the Tibetan cause. It can also be argued that they encourage communists to contemptuously dismiss western support for Tibet and obstruct Buddhists from engaging their values.
The Buddhist world is racked with violence and it has never been more important to understand Buddhist ethics. These include never acting in anger; exhausting alternatives such as negotiation; striving to capture the enemy alive; avoiding destruction of infrastructure and the environment; and taking responsibility for how one's actions and exploitation cause enemies to arise. They also emphasise the great psychic danger to those who act violently, something we see in the large number of suicides among youth sent to these wars. Above all, rather than "national self-interest", the guiding motivation should be compassion.
Since the Dalai Lama's first statement, it became clear that Bin Laden did not die in a firefight to avoid capture, but was shot down unarmed. The Nobel laureate made the news again, calling the killing understandable, but this time he equated the death with the hanging of Saddam Hussein, expressed sadness at the killing, and re-emphasised his commitment to nonviolence.