The Tender Heart: A Buddhist Response to Suffering
This book is a revision of a work previously entitled Safeguarding the Heart: A Buddhist Response to Suffering and September 11. That book was written in the months immediately following the destruction of the twin towers of the World Trade Center, a section of the Pentagon, and the jet plane in Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001. When I had originally thought of writing a book, I had intended to discuss Buddhist ideas about the self and the mind as an introduction to Buddhist thought. However, as I explored these ideas in the wake of September 11, the issue of suffering kept on reappearing, and I realized that this core tenet of Buddhism was tied intimately to our understanding of the self and the mind and could form the heart of a new writing project.
Safeguarding the Heart was published a year after the terrible events of that day. For me, Buddhism’s constant and unblinking examination of the reasons for suffering is why I felt Safeguarding the Heart might be, at the very least, a gesture toward the healing and understanding that needed to take place if we were to learn and grow from that terrible events of that day. I have been gratified by people’s responses to the book and their comments on how they found it useful in thinking about that day.
Living in the U.S. in the period immediately after those events and seeing how difficult it was to talk about September 11 and what should be done about it without stirring up enormous emotion and blind terror. In the book, I asked some uncompromising questions of what our response to the terrible events of that day should be, and hoped that the United States might reach out in such a way that the cycle of suffering and retribution might be broken. The years since have only shown me how important it is that we learn how best to respond to suffering and to act judiciously so we do not compound that suffering more.
Re-reading the book in preparation for this revision, I was struck once again how shocking the act was. Yet, frankly, given all that has happened since, the horrific events of that September morning seem now only one day in a terrible and seemingly unending series of days where innocent people going about their daily lives are killed by suicide bombers or murderers. Since then, we have passed through the toppling of the Taliban and seen their re-emergence; we have witnessed the ousting of Saddam Hussein and observed the rising up of an insurgency that now seems multi-headed and difficult to contain or even identify, one that is unified only in its cruelty and savagery. Pictures from Abu Ghraib prison have been released, and we have heard about the torture conducted there and at Guantanamo Bay in the name of preserving our freedom. And there have been other events that have captured the world’s attention. In 2003, most of the parties in the civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo finally came to a tentative peace agreement after a decade in which it is estimated that over three million people lost their lives and many others were raped or displaced. In the same year, the conflict in the Darfur region of Sudan began, whereby militia loyal to the Sudanese government prosecuted a systematic campaign of genocide that has seen upward of 400,000 people murdered, many hundreds of thousands forced to become refugees, and fighting that is now spilling over into Chad and the Central African Republic. Somalia fell back into its lawless ways, the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda continued to abduct children and force them to do terrible things to each other and adults, while famine in Niger and flooding in Ethiopia has left many thousands without food and homes and at the mercy of the elements. Some of these conflicts have come to an end or there is a tentative truce. But no one should be in any doubt that the legacy of that suffering will be felt for generations.
In the United States, in October 2006 a gunman killed as many as ten young girls in an Amish school in southeastern Pennsylvania, before killing himself; while in April 2007, a mentally disturbed young man killed thirty-two students and teachers at Virginia Tech. In August 2005, nearly two thousand people died in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which forced Americans to face the misery of poverty and degradation in their own backyard in a way that they hadn’t had to confront for generations. At the same time, torrential flooding in India killed over a thousand people and left hundreds of thousands homeless. In December 2004, a tsunami off the coast of Indonesia killed some 230,000 people in a matter of hours. In October 2005, an earthquake in Pakistan left 75,000 dead and over three million people homeless, just as the harsh Kashmiri winter was setting in. These are catastrophic events, about which, we might say, we can do nothing, although the poverty of Louisiana existed before Katrina exposed it, and the easy availability of guns in American society can only make random shootings more likely. However, when we consider preventable or treatable conditions, it is worth noting that each year up to three million people around the world, mostly children, die from malaria, two million from tuberculosis, and nearly three million from AIDS.
My aim here it not to diminish the suffering that took place on September 11, 2001. After all, every one of these statistics constitutes one person, with their own life and aspirations and needs and desires, and every one of these individuals died individually. However, the events of that day need to be placed in the context of the universal tide of suffering that ebbs and flows over us, whether we are directly or indirectly to blame for its occurrence. There were many tragedies—both collective and individual—before September 11, and as we have seen there were many after it. There will be many more as this book goes to press and is printed, and yet further in the years to come. Suffering is not going to end soon.
I have, therefore, revised Safeguarding the Heart to show how we can learn and grow from every shocking event and every grave illness. I have attempted to explore how we can process the deep emotional pain that lies for decades inside our individual bodies and even cope with that anger and sorrow that lies for centuries within our collective national identities. I explore in general terms the Buddhist ideas of impermanence, conditional existence, the laws of cause and effect, the nature of the mind and self, and karma, and illustrate how they relate to suffering. I also look at some of the means at our disposal to lessen trauma and foster tranquility both within us and in the world around us. As I stated in Safeguarding the Heart, my analysis in The Tender Heart doesn’t aim to speak for all Buddhists in every Buddhist school. It is based instead on my thoughts as a practitioner of Humanistic Buddhism and my experiences as a nun of nearly thirty years.
In times of tragedy, words and religious expressions can seem hopelessly vague and empty. As we discovered in the wake of September 11, calls for peace and understanding can seem naïve and inappropriate, especially to those who suffer the immediate pain or loss and the shock of being attacked. And yet, as I hope to show, in the wake of suffering it is essential that we do call for those things, because the peace we demand can be our peace, and the understanding that we want can provide us with a way of dealing with the horror. Buddhism, I believe, can offer comfort and hope, and open up a space for us to try to understand if not why such terrible things occur then how we might best respond to them. By comprehending how we suffer individually and collectively, we can better appreciate how interrelated our world is and therefore how best to work together to solve its problems.
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