The Buddha on Paris: The Story we need to Remember Now.

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I got back from my first 10-day silent vipassana retreat on November 15th, delighted to see my husband and two children after 10 days of having no contact at all with the outer world.

After hugs and after going over how we had each spent the 10 days, my 15-year-old son asked, “Did you hear about Paris?”

“Paris?” I asked.

“What, you didn’t hear about Paris? You’re kidding!”

I couldn’t tell if my son was pulling my leg. What was I supposed to have heard about Paris?

My husband interrupted, “There were terrorists attacks in Paris two days ago.”

My reaction to the news was different than it might have been otherwise, because I had just spent 12 hours a day meditating in complete silence. Everything looked a bit brighter, a bit more sharply defined than it normally did to me. And for the past 10 days, I had reflected on how precious life is, how ever-changing and ephemeral life is and how often in a normal day I usually forget that.

So while I was of course disheartened by the terrorist attacks in Paris, a city that I love and that I have lived in, my first reaction was of stopping.

I remembered a story that the meditation teacher, S. N. Goenka, told over the retreat:

One day Buddha came into a small town. As was usual, a crowd gathered to learn from him. As the crowd grew larger, a young angry man began yelling at Buddha to go away; he worried that the crowd would get too large, that the teacher might take advantage of the students.

In response to the yelling, Buddha remained calm and asked the young man a question: “If you bought a nice gift for someone, but the person to whom you gave the present did not accept the gift, to whom would the gift then belong?”

The young man thought and said, “it would still be mine then.”

“Indeed,” said the Buddha, “and, now you have presented me with the gift of your anger. But what happens if I do not accept the gift? To whom does the anger belong?”

The young man listened. Understanding the lesson, he bowed to the Buddha.

What if we took this teaching with us into the world today?

We have been conditioned to react to violence with fear and anger. We have been conditioned to think that if we react to the sources of violence with violence, we will have more peace and security.

In a recent New York Times Op-Ed, Roger Cohen told us that “To Save Paris” we need to “Defeat Isis.” “The only adequate measure, after the killing of at least 129 people in Paris,” he writes, “is military, and the only objective commensurate with the ongoing threat is the crushing of ISIS.”

But if we learn from history, we will take seriously the teaching of the Buddha and realize that anger and violence beget only more anger and violence if we accept their gift.

Let’s remember what has happened in the past when we have tried to “crush” a dangerous power: We tried to eradicate Saddam Hussein, and we destabilized an entire region, ultimately strengthening militant radical groups like The Taliban and ISIS. Three thousand people were killed on 9/11, and as a direct result of our response to that violence, many more than 3,000 American soldiers died in the Iraq war, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians died, and the world is certainly not a safer place today than it was 14 years ago.

When 130 people die in Paris, we are conditioned to think we must do something to make ourselves more secure.

Buddhism teaches us to sit with fear, to sit with vulnerability, to sit with anger and with grief and to respond not in crisis, but with wisdom.

Buddhism is sometimes misperceived as a religion of passivity. If you don’t react, you don’t really care; if you don’t react, you must be weak—you must be lacking courage. But we can stop for a moment, and then act—not react—with pragmatic wisdom that will curb violence and suffering, not ignite the fire.

And we can re-imagine bravery.

We can re-imagine courage and turn our attention away from fighting an enemy and toward working together to make the world a more sustainable place for all people.

This week, Paris offers the world an opportunity to do just that.

The Paris Climate Talks are our best hope of creating real international regulations without which it will be almost impossible to address the overwhelming threat of climate change and environmental degradation that affects every single human life and every species alive.

While we have managed to gather enormous resources to fight wars (we spent 10.3 billion dollars a month in the Iraq war, and consumed 50 million gallons of fuel each month in Iraq!) imagine what would happen if we found a similar will to combat climate change.

Imagine what could happen if we really tried to save lives, and didn’t just react to violence with more violence. The World Health Organization predicts, in what many believe is a very low estimate, that there will be 250,000 additional deaths per year as a result of climate change. Others put the numbers higher, from 400,000 per year to 100,000 million by 2030.

For two weeks, Paris was in the news every day because of the terrorist attacks.

Now, it’s up to us to turn our attention to Paris again. Let’s come together and ask the leaders of the world to use their force to protect us—not by using violence, but by moving away from fossil fuels, by investing in renewable energy sources and by taxing carbon use for a more sustainable world.


Relephant Read:

Beyond Paris: Seeking Oneness. {Poem}

Join the People’s Climate Prayer: November 29th – December 11th, 2015.


Author: Nadia Colburn

Editor: Toby Israel

Photo: Rafa Velazquez/Flickr


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Nadia Colburn

Nadia Colburn holds a Ph.D. in English from Columbia University and currently teaches writing and spirituality workshops. She is a founding editor at Anchor Magazine: where spirituality and social justice meet, and her writing has appeared widely in such places as The New Yorker, Yes! Magazine, Boston Review, and Boston Globe Magazine. Nadia is also an OI Aspirant in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hann, a Kundalini yoga teacher, and a Research Scholar at the Ronin Institute. Learn more at her website.

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anonymous Dec 10, 2015 8:24am

Thank you, Brittany!

anonymous Nov 30, 2015 7:14pm

Great message! Thank you for writing your article 🙂

anonymous Nov 30, 2015 6:28am

But the problem is that when people bomb us and then we go bomb them all we get are more bombs; it simply doesn’t solve the problem.
I’m not advocating simply meditating. I’m saying we need serious action–but that action should not be in the form of bombs but in the form of immediate climate action to protect our environment and life on earth.
An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind but there are other routes that actually save human lives.

anonymous Nov 30, 2015 2:04am

Violence is necessary sometimes; against terrorism most certainly. One can't sit back and meditate and watch the whole world being bombed!

anonymous Nov 29, 2015 7:13pm

Hi, Yes–that is a good point. Buddhists can use force if it is pragmatic. I just believe that in this case using force is not pragmatic, and that instead, we should use our force to combat an even more serious threat–which is climate change and environmental degradation.

If we could just decree: no more Isis, that would be great, but as I think history has shown us violence multiplies violence. So, much as we might wish violence would solve our problems, I don't think it usually does–pragmatically. But if we work together to try to treat the earth with more respect, then those actions will multiply for the good and save lives.

Thank you for your comment!

anonymous Nov 29, 2015 1:10pm

Hello Nadia.

The story about the Buddha is wisdom, And wisdom is the way to react to everything,
Including a terror attack.
However, responding to the threat of Isis with military means does not necessarily means you accepted the anger, or lack of wisdom.

One, even a Buddhist, can respond to a situation with means that do not represent peace, if he does that not from anger, but from wisdom.

A monk was riding his bicycle down the street when all of a sudden a thief approached and tried grabbing a precious item he had. The monk hit the thief's hand with a stick and rode away. Someone asked him regarding that, the monk said he did not have any anger towards the theif, nor was anger the reason for his actions. It was just what he needed to do.