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The Dharma Centre of Winnipeg

Big Buddhas in the Big Apple
Gerry Kopelow


Recently the New Yorker magazine asked several American artists to come up with some concepts for a memorial on the site of the destroyed World Trade Centre buildings. In the July 10, 2002 issue, J. Otto Seibold, a multimedia artist and children's book author, suggested replacing the vanished Twin Towers with replicas of the two colossal Buddhas that had been destroyed by the Taliban in Afghanistan exactly six months before the WTC, on March 11, 2001. At the same time, replicas of the WTC buildings would be rebuilt on the site formerly occupied by the statues; these would house Afghani refugees. Of course, all this reciprocal reconstruction will not happen, but there is a certain elegance and gentle symmetry to the idea......the big Buddhas and the big buildings were both outsized symbols of all-encompassing world views, and both were brutally blown to bits by hatred.

Nearing the first anniversary of the New York tragedy, though, it is startling to note the dramatically different reactions to these two horrific assaults. The attack on the World Trade Centre was motivated by religious fanaticism, and the response was/is war. The attack on the Buddhas was motivated by the very same religious fanaticism, yet the response was/is not war.

There are lots of Buddhists in the world, nearly 400,000,000 in fact, and there are some heavily militarized Buddhist countries run by severe dictatorships. Yet there have been no violent reactions to speak of, nor any talk of armed reprisals. Why is this so?

No one was killed when the 1000-year-old Buddhas of Bamiyan came down (up until the Taliban, they had withstood innumerable natural and unnatural threats, including Ghengis Khan) but that fact does not adequately explain the seemingly passive response from the millions of people that regarded them with deep veneration and respect. Naturally, the Buddhist community is not a homogeneous group, in fact there exist many strongly held views that separate passionately different ethnic and doctrinal factions. Underlying this rainbow of intellectual/cultural discord, however, are three fundamental and universally acknowledged principals, all elucidated for the first time two and a half millennia ago by the historical Buddha, Gautama Sakyamuni:

First, Buddhist practitioners remind themselves constantly that all phenomena are interconnected. There are no independent arisings because everything we recognize as real, both mentally and physically, springs from earlier causes. Horrible events - however morally grotesque and profoundly tragic they might be - are not unexpected, since a multitude of horrible causes, like poverty, ignorance, greed, hatred, and delusion are vigorously active in the world.

Second is the fact that all material forms, like minds, bodies, stars, and even massive religious icons and very tall buildings, are by nature impermanent: The acts of destruction in New York and at Bamiyan were indisputably brutal and despicable on every level, but nothing lasts forever.

And finally, as a logical corollary of the first two principals, Buddhists think that identity itself is also impermanent. We work to view the idea of `self' as a temporary construct. Our beliefs and our behaviours are largely conditioned reactions to the myriad of causes that unrelentingly impact on the brain, the mind, and the body from the moment of conception. What terrorists and tycoons - and all the rest of us - take to be absolute truth, is in fact, only relative truth.

In response to all of this the Buddha declared - as did Christ, Mohammed, Ghandi, and Martin Luther King in their unique ways - that the development of wisdom and compassion is the highest goal in life. Compassion is active empathy for the suffering of all beings. Wisdom allows effective compassionate action in any circumstance. Since both greed and poverty are causes of anger and despair, why not act to alleviate both greed and poverty? Since ignorance and fear are causes of delusion and inter-cultural hatred and brutality, why not try to bring security to the fearful and reliable knowledge to the ignorant? Such efforts would eventually bear wholesome fruit, both in downtown Manhattan and in the caves of northern Afghanistan.