How to love terrorists

I have said many times – and I think most people will agree – that without inner peace, outer peace is impossible. This is not just a trite saying: it means we have a chance, and a responsibility, to make things better. Part of having peace in our hearts is to love and accept everyone with equanimity. Many people would say this is unrealistic, that we can’t treat people with equanimity when there are that minority who engage in such harmful actions – but this is a misunderstanding. Loving someone does not mean we passively condone their negative behavior, but I firmly believe that the only way to change someone’s actions is to begin by accepting and loving them:

Being accepted feels very different to being judged. When someone feels judged, they automatically become tight and defensive, but when they feel accepted they can relax, and this allows their good qualities to come to the surface.

We can learn to love people who are engaging in negative actions by learning to distinguish between a person and their delusions. Where we might see a suicide bomber and think ‘this is a bad person,’ a Buddha would think ‘this is a suffering being afflicted by the inner disease of delusions such as anger.’ This distinction is subtle but so important for us: we can learn to see that there is no such thing as an evil person. Everyone has the potential for goodness, even if that may presently be obscured by the clouds of delusion. In Eight Steps to Happiness, Geshe-la uses the example of a child throwing a tantrum. Although the mother is not blind to her child’s destructive behavior, she does not give him up as a lost cause – she continues to see him as beautiful and full of potential. That doesn’t mean she won’t correct his behavior; but she will do so with a loving mind, not judging but only wanting him to grow into his full potential.

If we blame others, it only leads to resentment. If we blame their delusions, it increases our compassion. Instead of wanting that person to suffer for what they have done, we recognize that they are already suffering; they are suffering from the disease of anger. If we could remove that suffering, cure them of that disease, then their negative behavior would cease. So the most appropriate response to those who are driven by their delusions to harm others is to wish for them to be happy, because then they would have no reason to harm anyone. At the very least we should not add more delusions into the mix by becoming angry with them!

Another way of thinking that can help us to see beyond a person’s negativity is to recognize the vast web of causes and conditions that bring about any situation. Geshe-la says:

Our normal view is that there is an inherently existent aggressor harming an inherently existent victim. This is a complete misconception of the situation. In reality, the aggressor and the victim are interdependent and utterly without inherent, or independent, existence. If we try mentally to isolate the aggressor from everything else in order to pinpoint someone we can blame, we cannot do so, for the aggressor has no existence independent of the other elements of the situation. The aggressor depends on his delusions and on the karma of the victim that impelled the aggressor to behave in that way at that moment; as well as on the circumstances of the situation, his personal and family background, the society in which he lives, his previous lives, and his being trapped in a samsaric body and mind. When we search for the aggressor in this way, he disappears in an endless web of relationships, causes, and conditions – there is no inherently existent person we can find to blame.

When we look at all the different causes that made that person who they are, we will find only one thing left to blame: delusions. Not just the delusions in that person’s mind, but in everyone’s; the negative views that are perpetuated from generation to generation, that become a part of a society, that result in a division between ‘us and them.’ If we can remove those delusions from just one person – ourselves – then we have already made a change in our society. We are all interconnected, so that change affects everyone. By choosing to love instead of blame, we will have made a start towards unraveling that web of causes and conditions that brings about terrorism.

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