A wise Zen master once gave his meditation students the almost unanswerable koan, or existential riddle: “What is the most important thing?”
September 11, 2001 was such a Zen teaching moment, a fit koan for our time. As Americans sought answers and spiritual solace, church attendance across the country rose notably in the months following this national tragedy. That was a good thing, as questioning is the gateway to wisdom. But, ten years later, have we been asking the right questions? How many of those seekers actually became finders?
On that terrible day, when the buildings and airplanes - and our hearts -- sheared open, we were offered an unprecedented moment of intimacy, of a new, shared vulnerability. Our mutual confusion and grief during those intensely felt days of shock created powerful solidarity and empathy.
We realized how interconnected and interdependent we all are, both at home and abroad. This is how heartbreak can evolve into openheartedness, how we can gain through loss.
Unfortunately, those moments of openness and vulnerability passed all too quickly. America seemed more humiliated than humbled. It was soon apparent that we, as a nation, lost little of our hubris and sense of exclusionism. Instead of identifying more closely with those, globally, who have suffered similarly, we fell once more into old habits: working hard and shopping, hurrying and complaining, competing and arguing in our partisan and self-centered dogmatic ways. As we sought desperately to regain our footing and sense of security, both outer and inner, in this new world, fear and anxiety replaced openness, caring, kindness and curiosity.
As a teacher and mentor, over the decades I’ve learned to recognize extraordinary learning opportunities like 9/11. They leave plenty to build upon, so long as we maintain our clarity and goodhearted aspirations. And 9/11 was a wakeup call, above all.
The world has changed since then, but I’m not sure we have. The word religion originally comes from the idea “to unite”. Yet today, religious beliefs have become a divisive and even belligerent force in our turbulent world. I feel quite certain that this is not what the original founders and prophets, sages and saints intended! I see little evidence that we’ve learned much that is useful about religion and spirituality since 9-11. Many of us have learned a little more about Islam and that the word itself means peace, something many of us long for. But we still have much to learn about tolerance, and how to meaningfully integrate true spirituality into our daily lives.
Until recently, American wealth, power and prestige - providing us with a false sense of progress and security --grew by leaps and bounds. Meanwhile, countless others in foreign lands suffered from terrorism as hideous as our experience of 9/11. The Dalai Lama has dubbed this recent period “a century of bloodshed” while calling repeatedly for “a new century and era of dialogue.” Worldwide, others still face genocide and ethnic cleansing, war, poverty, hunger, epidemics, and environmental degradation.
We need to keep our hearts open, not only to one another, but to those far away from us, those who practice different faiths. This is the Diamond Rule.
Since September 11th, we’ve also learned that vast numbers of people adhering to other religions face their own internal struggles between extreme and moderate believers. They, too, struggle with modernity, science, reason and faith, and have their own brands of courage, and faith. We still know very little about other peoples and their beliefs - and 9/11 showed us the costs of that ignorance. Nor has our marginal newfound interest in global religion and cultures genuinely refined and deepened our grasp of the essence of transformative spirituality inherent in them all. We have not yet learned to turn the spotlight, the searchlight, inward, to help redress the imbalances caused in us, individually and collectively, by our extreme materialism, relentless outward orientation and lack of genuine self-knowledge.
Extraordinary learning opportunities like 9-11 aren’t always appreciated for their lessons. But we have plenty to build upon if we remember that original clarity of ten years ago, that extraordinary initial burst of empathy, cooperation, resilience, and our shared hopes for peace.
I believe we need to see the light, the divine, the buddhaness in everyone and everything, day-to-day and moment-to-moment.
We must ask ourselves what kind of people we really want to be. What sort of world will we create and leave for our children and the generations to follow? One important lesson of 9-11: it’s now or never. This is our time, our moment, to remember this timeless verity and act upon it.
How to extract meaning from memory? What is worth enshrining and memorializing in monument, verse and song? We Americans, hell-bent on deciding what to do, often forget why we do it, although intention is crucial. As global citizens we can and must choose to live mindfully and consider the implications and origins of all our actions: words, thoughts and deeds. It’s easy to mistake mere action for meaningful purpose and an authentic commitment to changing our ways. It is essential for our well-being and others that we forgive and remember, become better listeners, and learn the lessons.
Let’s use this weekend’s many memorial services as opportunities to awaken and open ourselves, to deepen and re-connect with one another, to reunite, to re-empower ourselves -- and our good hearts.
“You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”-Mohandas Gandhi
Lama Surya Das, who the Dalai Lama affectionately calls the American Lama, is an authorized lama in the Tibetan Buddhist order, and the founder of the Dzogchen Center. He is the author of the international bestseller Awakening the Buddha Within: Tibetan Wisdom for the Western World and twelve other books, including his latest release, Buddha Standard Time: Awakening to the Infinite Possibilities of Now. His blog “Ask The Lama” can be found at www.askthelama.com. To see Surya’s lecture and retreat schedule please visit www.surya.org.
Lama Surya Das will be in Washington D.C. on September 10 & 11 at the BuddhaFest 9.11 Remembrance: A Weekend of Peace, Compassion and Forgiveness, where he will join other prominent teachers in sharing his wisdom and compassion. For more information about the BuddhaFest 9.11 event please visit www.buddhafest.org.
More On Faith and 9/11:
Dalai Lama: Yearning for co-existence
Desmond Tutu: Our post-9/11 failures
Tony Blair: Remaking the world after 9/11
Sam Harris: 9/11 demands intellectual honesty
Thomas Monson: Rebuilding our souls
T.D. Jakes: Spirituality after the attack
Feisal Abdul Rauf: Radical Islam on its way out
Donald Wuerl: Peace begins internally
Katharine Jefferts Schori: Live the memorial
Mark Driscoll: Death and the hope of resurrection
Karen Armstrong: Unite through compassion
Deepak Chopra: Divided hearts, divided world
Yasir Qadhi: Americans still don’t know Islam