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Peace and justice after September 11

Peace and justice after September 11

A peace sign made of flowers over the 'Imagine' John Lennon memorial in Central Park.
Our world is an inter-related international community. We, as individuals and nations, need to share more with others in our own and other nations, and do what we can to promote peace. (Photo by Lennyjjk)

Yap Wai Ming conducted the following interview when Venerable Thubten Chodron was in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on a teaching tour in November 2001.

Yap Wai Ming (YWM): Welcome to Malaysia, and thank you for granting us this interview. We’d like to ask you some questions about how to see the events of September 11th and their repercussions in a Buddhist light. Our first question is, “How do we deal with fear, anxiety and anger that have arisen in ourselves personally and as a society in reaction to attacks?”

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): Southeast Asians have a different kind of fear and anxiety as a result of the attacks than Americans have. The people I talk to here indicate their fears are mostly economic. In the States, the fear is for one’s life. People are afraid that there will be a bio-terrorist attack in which many people die or that another plane will be blown up.

When we are afraid and anxious, our mind is thinking of horrible events that could happen in the future. We start imagining worst-case scenarios and convince ourselves that they will happen. Then we get worried that the dramas our mind has invented will occur. But, at that moment, none of the things we are imagining has happened yet. They may not happen, but we make ourselves upset and anxious worrying that they will. The way to deal with it is to realize that our mind is creating stories. These stories are not reality. We have to come back to the present moment and be aware of what is happening now.

Even if the worst-case scenarios that we have imagined do happen, we are not totally without resources to deal with them. When we investigate, we find that we generally have the resources to deal with these events. Sometimes the resources are external, for example, we may know people who can help us or communities that provide assistance. But most importantly, we have our own internal resources. We have inner strength that can be called forth to deal with tragedies in creative and constructive ways. Through Buddhist practice and meditation, we develop these internal resources, so that when we meet with adversity, we can handle it without falling apart. To develop these inner resources, we must learn the Buddha’s teachings and contemplate them well in advance of the difficult situation. We have to train our mind beforehand. It’s like taking an exam—we have to study well; we can’t walk into the exam room unprepared and expect to do well.

Tibetan Buddhism has a series of teachings called mind training or thought transformation. These thought transformation texts explain methods to transform adversities into the path. I’ve had the fortune to have studied these and try to practice them. To help my mind deal with adversities I meditate on karma as well as on love and compassion. When reflecting on karma I think that whatever happens, happiness or suffering, is the result of my own actions. Therefore it is senseless to blame others or be upset about what I experience. Rather, I must learn from it and make a strong determination to avoid the negative actions that bring about my own and others’ suffering. When meditating on love and compassion, I think that the beings that harm me also want to be happy and avoid suffering, and that they are doing harmful actions because they are miserable. In this way, I try to develop a kind heart toward them, which has the side-effect of lessening my own misery.

To return to the topic of the anxiety that Southeast Asians have as a result of September 11, people here are worried about their own rice bowl. They aren’t so concerned with the refugees starving in Afghanistan or with Americans dying of anthrax or other bio-terrorist attacks. They are worried about their own lives. People are dreaming up scenes of a plunging economy and making themselves anxious about their own livelihood. It is a limited outlook. By focusing only on their own financial issues, they increase their own fear. If they broadened their horizon to see the situation of the whole world, then their own economic issues would appear actually rather small.

For example, consider the economic fears of Afghan peasants who have loaded most of their possessions on the back of a donkey and have set out with their children into the barren landscape. Their land has had a famine for several years, and now bombs are falling on it. They are refugees and hope to find some kindly people who will give them food, medicine, and a place to stay. The people have no idea where they are going or what will happen to them. Is such a situation likely to happen here in Malaysia or Singapore? I don’t think so. Even though there may be some economic slowdown here, you are not going to face anywhere near the problems of the Afghan refugees or so many other impoverished people on our planet. You will still have your flat; your family will not face violent attacks; your country will not dissolve into chaos. You may not be able to travel abroad or eat so much delicious food at home, but your suffering would be mild compared to that of others. If you look at your own situation that way, you will realize that your problems are not that bad and that you can handle them.

Broadening our self-centered perspective

YMW: A lot of times, our fears and anxiety are molded by what we see in newspapers and on CNN. Southeast Asia exports many goods to America, and a shrinkage of the economy would result in many people losing their jobs. This is for real. When people lose their jobs, they have a lot to fear. How do you deal with those fears that the media constantly bombard us with?

VTC: One way is to not watch the media! The media creates a hype that makes people unnecessarily anxious. We must develop discriminating wisdom to deal with the media—to know what is accurate and what is exaggeration, what is balanced reporting and what is slanted.

As I mentioned before, we have to put our fear in perspective. The economic fears that you have in Singapore and Malaysia are nowhere near the fears that people have in impoverished countries. You may lose your job here but you are not going to starve. People from other parts of the world are actually losing their lives and are starving.

Our self-centered attitude works in such a way that any problem concerning us seems incredibly horrible and dangerous. In the meantime, our self-centered attitude makes us ignore the suffering of others who are a lot worse off than us. When we broaden our perspective and realize that everyone equally wants happiness and wants to be free from suffering, then we stop thinking only of ourselves. A broad perspective relaxes our mind and frees us from the self-preoccupation that is so stifling and painful.

Another way to reduce fear is recognize the good things we have going for us in our lives. For example, you may lose your jobs, but thank goodness you are not going to starve. Your country grows lots of delicious food. You still have your family; you are not under threat of imminent attack. You may have to pare back and do without some things you’re used to, but that’s doable. External things aren’t the source of happiness, are they? Isn’t that why we are seeking nirvana, so we can go beyond attachment to things that aren’t capable of bringing us ultimate happiness?

Can we see the humor in how our limited mind works? For example, we call ourselves Buddhists and profess much devotion to the Dharma. But, we are much more afraid of losing our job this life than of where we might be born in future lives. Does this attitude correspond to what the Buddha taught? We say we believe in karma, but when it comes to abandoning negative actions so that we would not be born in a bad rebirth, we forget about karma. Our limited mind thinks, “Future life is so far away, but losing my job is real suffering”. But, if we lose our job, the suffering lasts only for a period of years. When we leave this life, it’s over. But if we do not engage in positive actions that create the cause for happiness in future lives, we could have a lot more suffering then. If we think about this and broaden our perspective, we won’t suffer now from worry and anxiety, and we won’t suffer in the future because we’ve acted with kindness now.

Non-violence and justice

YMW: The Buddha preached non-violence. How do we reconcile this with the concept of justice that the American government and many people internationally are demanding after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C.? Is revenge a solution? How can innocent victims be compensated for their loss and suffering?

VTC: I’ve never heard the word “justice” used in Buddhism, have you? I’ve never read that word in the scriptures or heard it in a teaching. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam speak of “justice” a lot. It’s a major concept or principle in those faiths. But it’s not found in Buddhadharma.

What does “justice” mean? In listening to people use this word nowadays, it seems to mean different things to different people. For some, justice means punishment. In my experience, punishment doesn’t work. I work with prisoners in the USA, and it’s clear that punishment does not reform people who have nothing to lose to start with. In fact, punishment and disrespect only increase their defiance. Punishment doesn’t work with individual criminals, and I don’t think it works on an international level either. The Buddha never advocated punishment as in “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” Instead, he encouraged compassion for both the victims and the perpetrators of harm. With compassion, we try to prevent potential criminals and terrorists from harming others in the future.

If compensation for loss means revenge, then as Gandhi said, an eye for an eye leaves the whole world without sight. Revenge doesn’t work. It does not undo the past. It only provokes more anger, hatred, and violence, which cause both sides to suffer more. If victims of a tragedy think that somebody else experiencing suffering will alleviate their grief, I don’t think that they understand their own grief. When we want others to suffer and we rejoice in their pain, how do we feel about ourselves? Do we respect ourselves for wishing others to suffer? I don’t think so. It seems to me that in the long run, holding grudges and cultivating vengeance only make us feel worse about ourselves. It doesn’t cure our grief, nor does it pacify dangerous situations.

If justice means preventing others from doing more harm, that makes a lot of sense. From a Buddhist perspective, those who have perpetrated great harm are suffering and have little control over their mind and emotions. Thus, they might also harm others. We have to prevent them from doing that for their own sake as well as for the sake of the potential victims. These people create tremendous negative karma when they harm others and will suffer greatly in future lives. So, we have compassion for people on both sides: for the perpetrators and for the victims of terrorism. With compassion, we have to capture the people who perpetrated the terror and imprison them. We do this not because we want to punish them or make them suffer but because we want to protect them from their own harmful attitudes and actions that damage themselves and others.

I am not saying that since the Judeo-Christian idea of justice is not found in Buddhism that Buddhists advocate remaining passive in confronting danger or harm. We can’t just sit back and hope that it doesn’t happen again. That does not make sense. We have to be pro-active and prevent future harm. We must find the people who support terrorism and stop their activities. But we do it motivated by compassion—not by hatred, anger, or revenge.

Healing from trauma with the Dharma

YMW: How can the Dharma help in the healing process of those whose loved ones were killed in wars, terrorist attacks, or natural disasters?

VTC: I would use Dharma principles differently depending upon whether I was advising Buddhists or non-Buddhists. For Buddhists, reflecting on karma and impermanence is very helpful. I would not suggest teaching this to non-Buddhists at a time when they are grieving, because they may not understand the Buddhist perspective on karma properly and misinterpret it to think someone was fated to suffer or deserved to suffer. This clearly is a wrong understanding that could be damaging to them.

For those who properly understand karma and its results, reflecting that our own previous actions create our present experiences eases the grief. Personally, I find this very helpful, for then I stop blaming others and feeling sorry for myself. Rather, I have renewed energy to avoid acting destructively and to purify my previously created negative karma. It also inspires me to reduce my self-centeredness in the future because my own selfishness made me create the negative karma, the painful results of which I am now experiencing.

For non-Buddhists and Buddhists alike, I would advise rejoicing that we had whatever time we did have with those people we love. We know that nothing lasts forever and that separation from the people we love will occur at one time or another. There is no way to prevent this, since we have mortal bodies. Even the Buddha lost his loved ones, and he himself passed away.

When separation or death occurs, we are not grieving for the past but for the future that we wanted to happen that is now not going to happen. In other words, we had a vision of what we’d like the future to be with our loved ones and now that will not be actualized because they have died. So we are grieving for the future, not for the past. If we think about this, we realize that we do not need to grieve for the future because the future hasn’t happened yet. The future is actually open, creative potential. Just because the future we had in mind will not happen, it doesn’t mean we have to suffer. We have a lot going for us in our lives, and we can create a positive future even if our loved ones are absent.

Instead of grieving for the future, we could look at the past and say “I was so fortunate to have known that person for the time that I knew them.” We were extraordinarily fortunate to have known and have had good relationships with the people we cherished and who are meaningful in our lives. Even though those relationships do not last forever, we can rejoice that we had the time we did have with them. We can appreciate that and feel in our hearts the richness that we received from knowing those people. Instead of mourning, let’s rejoice at the richness, love, and goodness that we experienced with them. Now we will go forward in our lives and share what we received with other people. All the love we have received from our loved ones, we’re now going to share with others. The kindness that our dear ones brought out in us, we will now share with others. With such a shift in attitude, we can accept the change.

YMW: With such a perspective, do you think some good result can be derived from the September 11 attack?

VTC: Good things can definitely come out of the present situation. My hope is that my country—individual Americans as well as the government—will reflect on our past actions and examine what we have done to contribute to other peoples’ feelings of hostility towards us. Doing this, we may see how our consumer mentality, our oil-driven economy, and arrogance as a superpower have contributed to the ill will that led to the terrorist attacks. I’m not saying the attacks were justified—the killing of thousands of people is never justified—but as much as we can see the ways in which we contributed to the causes that brought them about, that much we can begin to change and improve our relationships with others.

I hope Americans will see that they have not made enough effort to establish good relationships with Islamic countries. I hope the government will realize its arrogance in backing out of the Kyoto Agreement on the environment and the missile treaty with Russia and in not paying its dues to the United Nations. Hopefully, government leaders will see that it is not right for one country to act on its own for the world is an inter-related international community. Hopefully, the countries that harbor terrorist cells will also re-evaluate their actions and seek other means to protest oppressions or exploitation. As a planet, we need to re-evaluate the consumerist view that “more is better,” and how that view creates miserliness, jealousy, and inequality. This, too, contributes to others’ hostility. Wealthy individuals and nations need to share more with others in their own and other nations. Such sharing is to everyone’s advantage, because it promotes peace.

Religious fundamentalism

YMW: Do you think that some Buddhists may suffer from a fundamentalist view of Buddhism?

VTC: I have met some Buddhist fundamentalists; none of them have been extreme enough to resort to violence, thank goodness. But, as Buddhists, we should not be arrogant and say we do not need to worry about this. Whenever we see faults in others, we must examine ourselves to see if we have them too. One point in our favor is that Buddhist teachings are very clear that killing is not acceptable. We hear stories of high bodhisattvas who took life, but they had compassion for both the victim and for the perpetrator and were willing to experience the negative karmic results of killing. But those exceptions concern the few individuals who are high bodhisattvas and do not pertain to the rest of us. For the rest of us, killing is wrong.

Within Buddhist groups, we need to prevent any form of sectarianism, for that is a kind of fundamentalism. We must avoid getting locked into sectarian views claiming “my teacher is the best teacher,” “my Buddhist tradition is the best one,” “everybody should practice the meditation practice I do,” and “everybody should keep morality the way I keep morality.” Such attachment is the source of fundamentalism. The Buddha spoke of grasping at “I” and “mine” as being the root of suffering. Such clinging to our own views of the Dharma is an example of grasping to “mine.”

YMW: That I am right and everybody else is wrong?

VTC: Exactly! Our judgmental mind likes to say in absolute terms that this is right and that is wrong; this is good and that is bad. And of course, we think that we are always on the side of what’s right and good, never on the side of what’s wrong and bad.

The Buddha was an incredibly skillful teacher who gave different teachings to different disciples because people have different interests, dispositions, and capabilities. The Buddha knew that one method doesn’t fit all, just as one food doesn’t suit everyone. Therefore, within his teachings, there are a variety of practices and methods to choose from. All of them relate back to the Four Noble Truths, and if we understand this, we see that none of them contradict the others. If we really have faith in the Buddha, we must be open-minded, because such tolerance and appreciation of diversity was taught by the Buddha himself.

Worldwide, different religions will exist because not everybody has the same interests and dispositions. From a Buddhist view, such multiplicity of religion is beneficial, for everyone can find a spiritual path that suits him or her. All genuine religions teach non-harmfulness and compassion. It is only when a religious teaching is distorted by ignorant people that fundamentalism arises. True religious practitioners of all faiths cultivate ethical discipline, non-harmfulness, compassion, and love.

YMW: As a lawyer, I have to judge clients’ actions and advise them accordingly. I am always “judging”! What is your advice on that?

VTC: There is a difference between “judging” and “evaluating.” The judging mind is based on ego. It holds to my views and rigidly classifies things as right and wrong, good and bad. Coincidentally, my views are always right, even if I change them! The judgmental mind blames and criticizes others. Getting rid of our judgmental mind does not mean that we become lost in fog, saying, “There’s no good and no bad,” and unable to discriminate between things on a conventional level. Such an nihilistic attitude is very harmful because we need to make clear ethical discernments; we must know what is the cause of happiness and what is the cause of suffering, what is constructive karma, what is destructive karma. We need to evaluate our actions, improve them when they are faulty, and enhance them when they are constructive. Abandoning judgment does not mean we abandon clear discernment and accurate evaluation. These are necessary for society to function.

YMW: We live in this world where everybody’s action has a reaction. This inter-dependent relationship has resulted in the terrorist attacks in America having an impact on us in other parts of the world. How we perceive things will also have an impact on their reaction. Do you think the inter-religious dialogues could clear some of these misunderstandings? What role can Buddhists play in this area?

VTC: Inter-religious dialogue is an important element. First of all, people need accurate information about other religions. After September 11, bookstores in the USA reported that all the books on Islam have been sold out because people realized that they do not know about Islam and wanted to learn. In addition to reading, we need to meet people who practice other faiths, so we can talk to each other and even practise together. In August I took part in a retreat with a Catholic monk, a Muslim Sufi, and a Theosophist. We took turns leading meditation and had panel discussions about our beliefs, practices, and communities. Everyone found this useful because we learned not only about each other’s practice but also about how our communities operate. Such activities reduce friction among people because they understand each other and see that everyone is struggling with similar problems.

No country on this planet is homogenous. Each one has several minority populations, so accurate knowledge about each other and tolerance are essential. Since every government is faced with dealing with minority populations, they have to foster dialogues between the majority and the various minorities. This is essential not only for harmony in the country but also for harmony internationally. Malaysia and Singapore, for example, are pluralistic societies. America has people of so many different religions and origin. About 20 percent of Israeli citizens are Arabs. Half of the population living in Jordan is Palestinians. In Lebanon, part of the population is Christian and part is Muslim. Everywhere we go, we find countries with diverse internal populations. For us to function together, citizens and governments have to be aware and sensitive to this diversity. Much can be done at the grassroots level to get people talking to each other. So, inter-religious dialogues are extremely important, and it would be wonderful if the media aired more programmes on this.

YMW: Rather than to enhance the differences between religions?

VTC: Differences exist, but we don’t have to fight about them. The media should show religious leaders talking to each other with respect and interest. People follow the example of their leaders, and the media has responsibility to foster harmony in society, not just to report on quarrels.

Responding to harm with compassion

YMW: How do you view the Taliban recently destroying the Buddhist statues in Afghanistan?

VTC: In 1973, I visited Afghanistan and saw these beautiful Buddhist images carved in the side of the mountain in Bamyam. Their destruction was a loss not only for Buddhists but also for the world, for they were not only religious items, but also great artistic and historical artifacts. It’s admirable that as Buddhists, we did not riot or attack anyone when our holy artifacts were destroyed. We did not respond violently, not out of fear or weakness but because we do not believe in harming others. Although we shouldn’t boast about this, we do need to point out to the world that we handled this peacefully. This may set an example so that other people will see that non-violence is more productive as a response. On the other hand, we do need to speak out so that destruction of sacred objects of any religion can be prevented in the future.

YMW: The attachment to the artifacts will cause us to lose our peace of mind and will create more suffering.

VTC: Exactly. Are we going to violate the Buddhist principle of non-harmfulness in order to protect Buddhist statues? This would be completely contradictory!

YMW: How do we develop love and compassion for those who have caused us so much pain and suffering?

VTC: It’s easy to feel angry when we’re harmed. When we met the evening of September 11, some Buddhists in Dharma Friendship Foundation, our center in Seattle, said they were angry about the attacks. I believe that underneath the anger are other emotions. When we are afraid, we feel helpless. The feelings of fear and helplessness are very uncomfortable, and often we do not know how to deal with them. To mask those feelings, we get angry at others. As uncomfortable as anger is, it makes us feel powerful, even though the power is false.

When we get angry and blame others, we put them in a category. We give them a label: “evil doer,” “terrorist,” or “scum of the earth” and then think we know everything about them. For example, we developed an image that Osama bin Ladin is 100% evil. We don’t see him as a human being, but as a stereotype. We have an image that he came out of his mother’s womb as an adult who was a terrorist! But he didn’t; he was a helpless baby, just like the rest of us were. He was once a toddler learning to walk. He was not a terrorist from the beginning of his life. Looking deeper, we see that there are many more aspects of his life than just being a terrorist. I think he must show kindness to his family and to the people around him. Of course, it is partial kindness, not universal kindness towards all beings, but is our kindness impartial and universal? He must have some good qualities.

From the Buddhist viewpoint, he, and everyone else we don’t like, have Buddha nature. We cannot say someone with the potential to become a fully enlightened Buddha is inherently and irredeemably evil. We can speak about a person’s actions and say they are harmful and destructive. We have to separate the action from the person; the action may be harmful but we cannot say the person is evil. Why? Because the fundamental nature of a person’s mind is untainted by defilements and thus he or she can become a Buddha.

YMW: But who is the “person”?

VTC: That is a different topic altogether that could form a separate interview! When we see that the fundamental nature of someone’s mind is pure, it helps us let go of our rigid categories and labels. We can discriminate the action from the person. Then it’s possible to feel compassion towards the person who is creating this negative action because we realize that he wants to be happy and free from suffering in the same way that we want to be happy and free from suffering. There is absolutely no difference between us.

Take a terrorist, criminal, or even a person at our work place that we don’t like as an example. Each of them wants to be happy and avoid suffering. We and they are totally equal in that regard. There is no way we can say my happiness is more important than others’ or my suffering hurts more than others’. When we understand that to be happy is everybody’s fundamental wish, we can see something beyond their negative actions. We also see that we want to be happy and free from suffering and yet we still act destructively due to our ignorance, confusion, anger, attachment, jealousy, or arrogance. So we see that people harm others because they are confused, too, just like us. People do not harm others because they are happy. Nobody wakes up in the morning, full of joy and says, “I feel so good I think I am going to hurt somebody today” (laugh).

Nobody hurts people when they are happy. People hurt others because they are not happy. They hurt others because they are miserable and confused. When we understand that is why the terrorists did what they did, we can have compassion for them. That does not mean we say that what they did was right, good, or acceptable. Their actions were abominable. Their actions harmed thousands of people, affected the entire world, and created incredible negative karma that will cause the terrorists to experience suffering in horrible rebirths for a long time.

Thus we can have compassion for them and wish them to have happiness. At first, it may seem odd or even inappropriate to wish those who perpetrate such harm to be happy. But if we think about it, if the terrorists were happy, they would not be doing terrorist activities. In wishing them to be happy, we don’t necessarily wish them to have everything they think will make them happy, because many times we human beings think something will make us happy when it won’t. For example, wishing an alcoholic to be happy does not mean we wish him to have all the liquor he wants, even if he thinks that is going to make him happy. Rather, we wish him to be free of dependency on alcohol or any other substance. We wish him to have self-confidence and awareness of his beautiful inner potential so that he does not seek to medicate his pain by using alcohol or drugs. Similarly, we want the terrorists to have happiness, but not the false happiness that comes from rejoicing at the success of terrorist activities. Instead, we want them to have a correct understanding of their own religion, to develop kindness towards all beings, to have a sense of their own virtuous potential, and to have a constructive purpose in life.

I believe many young people are attracted to terrorism because they do not see a purpose in their lives. They do not see a higher goal. Modernity has been hard for people. It took the Western world centuries to adapt to it, and Western history was anything but peaceful. Similarly, people in Islamic nations are trying to adapt to modernity after being colonized and having their land arbitrarily divided into nations by European powers. They tried socialism as a unifying force, and it didn’t work. Neither did nationalism. Young people are looking for a goal that is beyond their own personal interest, a purpose that feels worthwhile. For some capitalism and consumerism are the goal, but those are hollow and self-centered, even though many Southeast Asians and Westerners think they bring happiness. So when these people are presented with a purpose, even if it is a distorted purpose such as put forth by fundamentalist Islam or Communism, they are attracted to it. I believe that all of us need to stop and ask ourselves, “What is a positive purpose in life? What will give our lives meaning without being harmful to others?”

YMW: After the terrorist attack in New York, it was reported that there was a series of backlashes where Middle Eastern minorities groups in the USA were targeted for revenge. Perhaps unconsciously by the media or simply due to people’s ignorance, a concept was created that Middle Eastern minorities are terrorists. Do you think that from the Buddhist perspective having labels and concepts such “He is a Muslim, I am Buddhist, you are Christian” is good?

VTC: There is nothing wrong with labels themselves. We need them to function in our conventional world. For example, we need labels to differentiate a baby from an adult. Problems arise, however, when we become attached to a label, or when we confuse the person with the label. When we lump people together as a group, superimpose our judgment and narrow labels on them, and then think this is who they are, it creates problems. Labeling “Buddhist,” “Christian”, and “Muslim” is fair enough because people worship and practise in different ways. But the moment we say, “I am this and you are that, therefore I can’t trust you,” or “therefore I am better,” or “therefore you should become what I am,” we get into problems.

But a lot of times we say, “I am this and you are that, therefore we are different, so don’t try to impose your ways on me. If you do, I’ll try to impose my ways on you too”.

And that is totally fruitless. That is “an eye for an eye,” isn’t it? It just doesn’t work. This can happen among groups in society or even among people at a family dinner. If we look inside ourselves, why do we try to impose our views on somebody else? It’s because we don’t have self-confidence. When we don’t believe in ourselves, we try to convince other people how good or how right we are, because we feel that if we can convince them we are good or right and they see us that way, then we must be good and right.

I believe that people are arrogant when they are lacking in self-confidence. Arrogance and low self-esteem are related. When we don’t believe in ourselves, we often create an image of being on top of things and therefore come across to other people as arrogant. When we really believe in ourselves and feel comfortable with ourselves, we don’t need to create an image or push our views on others. We don’t need to prove to others that we are competent, talented, intelligent, artistic, and so forth because we know we are. When we’re confident, we can also be humble, listen to others, and respect them. His Holiness the Dalai Lama is a good example of that.

Let’s not use this to judge the terrorists, thinking “They have such low self-esteem so they do this. But I have self-confidence and therefore would never act so deplorably.” Instead, let’s look at the areas in which we lack confidence and are puffed up. Let’s observe when we push our views and ways of doing things on others. In other words, whatever fault we observe in others, we should look for it in ourselves as well and apply Dharma methods to change it. As individuals, groups, and countries, we need to do this kind of reflection.

Buddhism in Malaysia and Singapore

YMW: You haven’t been to Malaysia and Singapore in some years. What changes do you see in the way people here look at things?

VTC: People here are more stressed out than before. They put more pressure on their children and on themselves to succeed. On the other hand, there has been a lot of progress in the way Buddhism is taught and practiced. People have done a good job in giving both Buddhists and non-Buddhists correct information about Buddhism. Before, there was a lot of confusion in Malaysia and Singapore about which practices are Buddhist and which are ancestor worship. Much of this has been clarified now, which is really excellent. Many young and intelligent people are studying Buddhist teachings.

Now it’s time for people to practice more. Many people attend lots of teachings but I don’t know how many meditate or reflect on what they hear on a daily basis. It’s important that lay people practise more and have a clear understanding of Buddhism, since they are helping to propagate the Dharma now, which is excellent. But, please remember the role and importance of monastics and support monastic life. As you said while we were having lunch, it is more difficult to practice as a layperson than a monastic. So everyone—lay people and monastics—has to make sure that we keep monastic life strong. New monastics must be trained well and receive a good education, so that they will keep good ethical discipline, develop compassion, and propagate the Dharma to all those who can benefit from the wise and compassionate Buddha’s teachings.

Guest Author: Yap Wai Ming