A Statement of Conscience
Bhikkhu Bodhi

"All beings tremble at the rod" says the Buddha, yet today the ominous rod of terrorism has become one of the gravest problems that we face. No longer is the terrorist threat reserved for the vulnerable public figure or the outspoken adversary. With their lightning speed and global reach, our modern media of communication have given the terrorist cadres a tremendous new power to intimidate whole populations. Far too often the victims of their hits are the helpless and innocent, struck down in a symbolic show of hate.

This appalling increase in terrorist violence pierces the moral consciousness at its core, leaving behind painful and persisting wounds. For those of us who reside in Sri Lanka the problem becomes ever more acute as we witness the tide of terrorism sweep across this traditional homeland of the Dhamma. It is no longer possible for us to immerse ourselves in the comfortable routines of our familiar world. Instead we must struggle in anguish and hope to deal with this frightful menace in our midst — to understand it and to confront it in a manner worthy of our Buddhist heritage.

It cannot be disputed that the worldwide rise of terrorism springs from complex causes of a political, economic and social character, which must be tackled by any adequate solution to the problem. At the same time, however, we have to insist that terrorism also has a deeper underlying human dimension that can only be ignored at our peril. If we probe beneath the burning issues of political ideology and ethnic grievances around which the terrorist forces rally, we will discover at its epicenter those same malignant drives that, in less virulent form, motivate so much ordinary human conduct.

As the vital dynamism from which terrorism springs we will find greed, a rapacious lust for power and domination. We will find hate, smoldering within as cold resentment or whipped up into a frenzy of destruction. And we will find delusion, a collective paranoia instilled by inflammatory ideologies or the blind submergence of the individual in the group. These are the hidden human roots of terrorism; fed by personal frustration and social discontent, they yield as their fruits the violence that surrounds us.

As we grapple with the problem of terrorism, asking ourselves what we can contribute to stem its rising tide, we may find an answer closer to home than we imagine. Let us first note that the spread of terrorism is not so much a macabre deviation from prevailing norms as an extreme manifestation of a wholesale decline in human fellow feeling. This lack of empathy and sensitivity to others can already be discerned in the everyday functioning of society — in the spreading disease of corruption, apathy and selfishness infecting the social organism. Add to this a frantic search for a sense of belonging through the rediscovery of ethnic roots, and the result is a potentially very explosive mixture.

If this much is recognized, we may then see that one of the most effective counter-measures we can apply in our individual capacity against the growth of terrorism lies very much within our reach. Simply put, it consists in reaffirming to ourselves — and teaching by precept and example — those fundamental ethical values upon which a harmonious and peaceful society is founded. This reaffirmation of genuine moral values — of compassion, honesty, truthfulness, tolerance and respect for others — will sound a thunderous statement of conscience. Whether made audibly or privately to oneself, it will raise a note of protest against the moral negligence from which terrorism draws its sustenance, acclaiming our confidence in the power of the good.

While we should not cherish unrealistic expectations about our ability to reshape the world, we also should not lose sight of our responsibility to counter prevalent trends. Nor should we discount our ability to make an impact. The clear and decisive commitment to ethical values has a quiet potency that can effect important changes both outwardly and inwardly. While subtly altering the interpersonal aspects of our lives, within our hearts it will fortify those two mental factors that the Buddha called the guardians of the world — shame and moral dread — the former the innate repugnance toward evil, the latter the fear of its consequences.

Above all, we must reaffirm the need to rise above the limiting perspectives of the self-centered point of view in which so many today have become entrenched. Recognizing that every community, and the world as a whole, is ultimately harmed by the struggle of each faction to secure its individual ends, we must stand up for the development of a sense of humane responsibility that will transcend divisive loyalties. The lesson that we must learn and teach is that embedded in the ancient maxim taught by the Buddha: "Considering others as oneself, do not hurt them or cause them harm." To recognize others as being essentially the same as oneself and to feel their wish for happiness as one's own, this is the only effective means we can propose to build the peaceful society for which we yearn.