The power of compassion: Do Not Kill Buddha, Thou would bury the dead. Burma, Boston, and Tsarnaev.

“If you see the Buddha on the road, kill him.” This phrase may sound shocking, considering the Buddha’s teachings of the Noble Eightfold Path that talks about “right” (in harmony with the teachings) action and speech, including “speak only words that do not harm.”

To kill is indeed a strong word that invokes violence and perhaps not the one that I would have used, but this saying actually comes from an old koan, attributed to Zen Master Linji, the founder of the Rinzai sect. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, a koan is “a paradoxical statement to be meditated upon that is used to train Zen Buddhist monks to abandon ultimate dependence on reason and force them into gaining sudden intuitive enlightenment.” This explains that the saying is not to be taken literally, and that the imaginative parable is about abandoning the idea of Buddha as an external entity, realizing that it is an illusion. This razor edge metaphor is meant to strike down an idea that we tend to equate to our various concepts of Buddha or religion for their own sake. To some degree it is like the imaginative blazing sword of Manjushri, Bodhisattva of transcendent wisdom, cutting through our ignorance, often depicted in Buddhist art, and seen as somewhat violent to those unfamiliar with the teachings.

Our tragedy is that we usually take things too literally, attached to our thoughts of what is right and wrong, often inflamed by our emotions. The recent events in Boston around the burial of the dead body of the terror suspect, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, is an example.

How do we meet the Buddha on our road after all? We learn that the wise Buddhist masters would say that any concept, including our cultural and ethnic ideas, would be ultimately limiting, and that we must embrace the Buddha nature in all. It is similar to what theistic believers would consider as seeing everyone as children of God. In other words, Master Linji calls us to ‘kill’ the thought that often arises out of our ignorance, attachment and aversion, but do not kill Buddha – a Buddhist, a Muslim, a Christian, an Atheist, or any human. This is the path shown to us by the historical Buddha and by many ancient prophets in various religious traditions of peace and love. Today, the conflict between the Buddhists and Muslims in Burma and Sri Lanka is tragically incomprehensible and sadly it is not new to the history of religions. Recently, the Dalai Lama, a spiritual leader for Tibetans and a highly respected teacher for many people around the world, has called on Buddhists in Burma to stop their brutality towards the Muslims, asking them to remember or see the face of Buddha and return to the true teaching of the historical Buddha in offering refuge and protection to all living beings, including their Muslim brothers and sisters.

How do we offer refuge to those we may strongly disagree with? Like the conflicts in Sri Lanka and Burma, today’s Myanmar, and many other conflicts and acts of terror around the world, the Boston bombings have brought out the best and the worst in humanity, inspiring positive action of healing and also increasing a fear of the other. For the most part we have been able to respond with great compassion, especially toward the victims and their families. Nothing will ever be able to heal completely the wounds, especially the absence of the lost ones, and we will continue to grieve with the families affected.

Perhaps we are unable to forgive Tamerlan Tsarnaev, perhaps it is too soon, but as human beings, endowed with indispensable values of empathy and compassion, we cannot deny him a burial ground. After all, what do we do with the body of a human who allegedly committed an unspeakable crime causing several deaths and harm to countless others? As painful as it is, we must find the courage to rise as a human family above the monstrosity of aversion in times of our own sorrow and pain, and to embrace compassion that is as universal as it is personal. This compassion is inclusive of the words of Jesus “Love your enemy.” This is what Paul Douglas Keane, a Yale Divinity School graduate and now retired teacher, learned from his late mother, who taught Sunday school at his Christian church for forty years. Mr. Keane offered Tsarnaev’s family a burial plot next to his mother’s grave to recognize the importance of his mother’s faith, deeply rooted in recognition of God’s inclusive love and forgiveness. A Massachusetts Police Chief Gary Gemme is right that we are not barbarians and must do the right thing in burying the dead. I am grateful for people like Paul Keane and Martha Mullen, a mental health counselor in private practice and a graduate of United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio, who help to bury the dead. Giving Tamerlan Tsarnaev a recognition of his inherent humanity at the time of his birth and therefore a burial ground at the time of his death, is what we can do to follow the teachings of Jesus and the Buddha, allowing ourselves to be human even to those who in their hate, ignorance and confusion, acted inhumanely towards us.

In the Universal Gateway chapter of the Lotus Sutra it says: “Even if someone with harmful intent should push you into a fiery pit, by mindfully invoking Compassion’s power the pit of fire will turn into a pool.” While we may not be Jesus, Buddha or Bodhisattvas, the great aspiration of compassion should still guide us on our path. It promises that we may fall more than once, yet to succeed we are in need of our strong human faith: “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope” (Martin Luther Kin Jr.). To show such hope is to act with compassion toward all. In the years to come, I hope that looking back we will see its healing power.

Image Credits: Enver Rahmanov. Image is in the public domain. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

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