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Sunday, February 17, 2013
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My Zen sangha (Clear Mountain Zen Center) has a web site where they post recorded mp3 files of the weekly “teisho”, i.e. the 10 minute talks usually given during the second sitting period by Sensei Carl Bachmann, or one of the senior teaching members. Last week, Sensei Bachmann’s talk reflected upon the movie “Zero Dark Thirty” in light of the First Buddhist Precept, i.e. “abstain from causing harm and taking life”. Actually, the Sensei was discussing the overall US effort to find and kill Osama Bin Laden, which is what Zero Dark Thirty fairly accurately portrays. The movie seems to have convinced him that evil truly exists. Some weeks ago he was considering re-writing our Gatha of Repentance as to expunge the term “evil karma”. But since ZDT, he is content with it.

So what did teacher Bachmann find to be the main evil of ZDT? I would have thought it was the September 11, 2001 attacks which killed 2,996 people, and also the other terror attacks carried out before and after that date by Al Qaeda against civilians in London, Madrid and throughout the Middle East. Those attacks appear to me to violate the First Precept in a huge and heinous fashion.

But no. The good Sensei felt that the covert US actions depicted in the movie, including the torture of people thought to have key information, plus the night raid where Bin Laden was found and quickly shot dead, reflected a horrible evil. Our teacher did not consider the magnitude of evil that inspired the unpleasant and ultimately deadly activities shown in ZDT.

Sensei Bachmann makes the point that the First Precept covers more than actual killing; it extends to “killing of the soul”. And as such, the process of torture arguably violates the Precept for both the tortured and the inflictor of the torture. Both are drained of life’s spirit as a result of this terrible action, even though all parties live on. And the mechanical nature of the killings in final raid on Bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan also eviscerates the human spirit that the First Precept seeks to defend, according to our teacher. I.e., the SEAL team had to kill anyone in their way, without regard to whether they were actually a threat or not. This, according to Carl Bachmann, is true evil.

The Sensei tried to demonstrate his point to our sangha by considering human society as a body. We are all members of that body, like the finger or hand or arm is a member of our physical bodies. Mr. Bachmann said that what he saw depicted in ZDT was akin to a person chopping off their own finger or arm.

And here is where his teaching shows its imbalance and ultimate flaw. If a finger or hand or arm has cancer or gangrene, perhaps it has to be chopped off in order not to kill the entire body. And then, of course, there is the amputation scene in the movie “127 Hours“. Life sometimes forces us into tough choices. If the Buddhist Precepts simply say that all choices are wrong in a situation such as the response to a horrible, civilization-threatening attack, then they ultimately say nothing of any value.

I feel that our teacher missed the most important evil in his talk, and I am using this little platform in social media to voice my opinion on that. I do this will all due respect for his many years of Zen study and training, and his great levels of wisdom. I will continue listening to his teachings and taking them to heart. But on this issue, I felt the need to stand apart from him.

One can intelligently argue that the US used too much force and has been too brutal in its anti-terror efforts. I myself feel that torture is probably not justified, given how ineffective it generally is. But the response to something as egregious and nefarious as Al Qaeda cannot happen without bloodletting and loss of life. I once had faith in pacifism; I once felt that the willingness of a few to sacrifice their lives in the face of war and terror by not defending themselves would teach all others to give up the ways of Mars. But unfortunately, the world has since taught me otherwise. Pacifism would likely be exploited by those bent on violating the basic precepts of human civilization through violent domination.

This is the world that Buddhism and Zen have to face. There is much good that they do in it and for it. Those such as Sensei Bachmann must make sure that in defending against evil, a victim is not co-opted by the same evil (or worse). But to entirely condemn US counter-terrorism as evil, without considering the massive evils that inspire it, is somewhat naive (although I admit that my teacher’s intentions in his talk were certainly good; and as he admits, his talk was off-the-cuff and perhaps not fully thought out).

I am not a Zen teacher and never will be one. But I am a human being and an American, and someone who believes that human civilization and its traditions are worth defending. As such, I need to say something in response to what Sensei Carl Bachmann has taught our group regarding Zero Dark Thirty. Although we close our eyes while sitting in zazen, Zen students must not close their eyes to the fact that darkness comes in more than one tone. The world comes in many shades, and we must face them all.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 11:30 pm      

  1. Jim, While I definitly believe that true power lies in non-violence, there simply *are* the gray times. I can’t add much to what you have already said, except something I read in another place. I’m paraphrasin it, tweeking it, and “adjusting” it a bit here; not truly quoting the idea, but giving it my own approach: These gray things, when they simply have to be done, must be done with sorrow and not with any other intent or emotion. If “dark things” must be done and sometimes they must, they must be done with sorrow. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — February 18, 2013 @ 11:40 am

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