Monday, January 03, 2005
How Could God Have Let This Happen?
The toll from Asia's earthquake and tsunamis has climbed to 155,000 as more bodies are uncovered in Indonesia. Television commentators are referring to the disaster as being of "biblical proportions" for the way it swallowed up whole towns and villages with complete indifference.
This blog continues to get hits from web searches for topics like "buddhism + tsunami," indicating to me that many people are wondering what the Buddha's teachings have to say about the disaster. As I go to the other sites (besides this one) listed in the searches, I find few attempts to discuss this issue. While many Buddhist web sites express sympathy and compassion for the victims and survivors, and provide links to relief organizations, they don't seem to be offering a Buddhist interpretation of the events.
In today's Boston Globe, Charles Sennott addresses the question "How could God have let this happen?" He notes that deaths in war seem easier to comprehend. Even in the moral black holes of history, from the Nazi death camps to the slaughter in Rwanda, assigning blame is easier, even if the grieving is no less difficult. But when a natural disaster strikes, the question of God's role, or lack of one, presents an especially difficult challenge.
In Buddhism, "God" cannot be defined and cannot be differentiated. If anything is God, then all is God. While we like to think that man was created in the image of God, from a Buddhist point of view this is just human arrogance. So when an "act of God" results in an earthquake that kills 155,000 people, it's disturbing if we anthropomorphize "God" - then it's just another act of seemingly random cruelty.
In the particularly hard-hit Aceh Province of Indonesia, several statues of Buddha were reportedly unmoved by the flood waters. One news account quotes a Buddhist monk as saying: "The people are not living according to religious virtues. Nature has given them some punishment, because they are not following the path of the Lord Buddha. The people have to learn their lesson."
In my opinion, such a view is a fundamental misinterpretation of the Buddha-dharma. Buddhism does not accept the existence of a divine plan or intervention, but encourages its followers to seek the path that will allow them to accept the ever-changing state of the universe (impermanence) and the inevitable role of suffering in human experience (the First Noble Truth). Nature does not mete out punishment according to virtue or vice. The world is simply thus, including occasional earthquakes and tsunamis. In this world of samsara, even following the path leading to the cessation of suffering does not nullify the existence of the First Noble Truth. So no matter how sincere the practice of the people may be, rain will still fall, people will still grow old and die, and the earth will still occasional shake.
When it comes to events like this, Buddha's teaching can be very unpopular. My teacher, Michael Elliston-sensei, points out that when the Titanic went down, Sokei-An (an early teacher of Zen in America, who founded the New York Zen Institute in 1937) was giving a series of talks which were subsequently published in the newspaper. He made the point that everybody who had died on the Titanic was at least 50% responsible for their own deaths by virtue of having been born. Meanwhile, all the headhunters were trying to find who was responsible, who could be blamed, how the sinking could have been prevented, and so on. Meanwhile, Sokei-An was saying, "it's at least fifty-percent their fault."
As harsh as it sounds, each victim of the quake was at least 50% responsible for their own deaths, because each was responsible for their own birth. The law of dependent co-arising shows how each individual's existence arises out of desire, and how desire arises out of ignorance (avidya). Out of existence inevitably arises suffering, old age and death.
This is not to say that we don't have compassion for the victims and their survivors. Buddhism is at heart the never-ending commitment to relieve suffering in all its forms. So the compassion, while profound, also extends beyond just the recent events and includes the whole cycle of ignorance, desire, existence and death.
So what then is the Buddhist response to the earthquake? Certainly, support and contribute to the relief charities if you are able. But to really end the suffering, we must break the cycle of ignorance, desire, existence and death. And since the base of the chain of dependent co-arising is ignorance, the cycle is broken when ignorance is replaced by enlightenment, and all living beings are liberated from the cycle.
In Zen, enlightenment is achieved through realization of the true nature of the self:
"To study the way is to study the self.
To study the self is to forget the self.
To forget the self is to be enlightened by all things of the universe.
To be enlightened by all things is to transcend the distinction of self and other and to go on in ceaseless enlightenment forever."
- Dogen Kigen Zenji