October 1, 2014

True Atonement

When we achieve true restorative balance within ourselves we are happy and content, and can live without regret, remorse or guilt. We are at peace. The enlightened approach is to always be vigilant, to guard against committing sins - those violations of our Buddhist Precepts. But when we slip and fall into error, we must go that extra mile into positive areas and not only make restitution and correct the damage, but we must also correct ourselves.

Anyone who saw the movie Gandhi holds forever in his memory one galvanizing scene:  The time is shortly after India gained independence from Great Britain in 1947. India is torn by civil strife; Muslims and Hindus are killing each other; and Gandhi is fasting to protest the violence and to jolt people into becoming aware of their terrible actions

Gandhi is near death from starvation when a crazed man, a Hindu, arrives with food that he insists Gandhi must eat. He demands, "Here! Eat! Eat! I'm going to hell - but not with your death on my soul!"

Gandhi replies, "Only God decides who goes to hell."

"I killed a child!" the man confesses. "I smashed his head against a wall!"

Gandhi asks, "Why?"

"Because they killed our son... my boy! The Muslims killed my son!"

Gandhi sees the man's unbearable grief and remorse. He gently tells him, "I know a way out of hell. Find a child, a child whose mother and father have been killed - a little boy - and raise him as your own. Only be sure that he is a Muslim..."

The man's expression changes to one of hope. He suddenly sees a way in can undo what he has done and effect a restitution. He can replace his own son and provide a Muslim orphan with a home and parents. It is a perfect solution.

And then the Mahatma adds, "And you must raise him as a Muslim."

A look of horror and incredulity comes over the man's face. He had not counted on this degree of atonement. He drops to his knees and sobs.

We remember this scene because we, like that man, know the problem of sin. Yes, we express our regret. And yes, we accept penance. If we have stolen money or other goods we know we need to make restitution. But this merely takes the event back to the status quo ante. We give back what we stole or pay for it in cash. We repair what we damage or replace it. We print a retraction or publicly apologize. Or, we balance the destruction of one life by giving life to someone who would surely perish without our help.

But this is not enough. It is as if the act of sinning takes us into negative numbers and restitution simply takes us back to zero on the number line. The slate is clean. It's as if we had never sinned at all. Or so we tell ourselves. In fact, in order for true atonement to occur, we must go into the positive numbers, remake ourselves from the sinner who harmed, who hated, who contemptuously stole, cheated, or destroyed, into a person who benefits, loves, and is honest and generous. In short, we have to transform ourselves from one who harmed an enemy into a caring person who benefits that same enemy. Loving our enemies is the greatest of challenges but one that all religions mandate as the ultimate test of redemption.

Absolving a man of sin and giving him the chore of restitution does not correct the man.

After he writes his check - or has someone else write it for him - he remains the same hateful individual, the same bigot, the same thief or killer. He may even become more hateful towards those he has harmed, more filled with resentment for having been exposed and punished. The lesson he learns is that crime carries a penalty, one that can be embarrassing or inconvenient, or expensive. If he changes at all it is either to be more careful the next time he vents his rage or sins, or else to calculate that the sin isn't worth the trouble.

It is not enough to ask for forgiveness, to say, "I'm so sorry." A sinner has placed himself in his own hell and others cannot pull him out of that hell by their acts of forgiveness. He has to do this for himself. He can compensate the victim or he can be put in jail as punishment for his crime. But until he remakes himself into the kind of person who does not commit such crimes, he cannot restore the necessary balance. In Newtonian terms, "For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction." It was in that "opposite" reaction that Gandhi saw the man's redemption. The Hindu man who in his hatred had killed an innocent Muslim child must adopt a needy Muslim child and by raising him as his own son, discover the true beauty of Islam. He did not have to forsake his own religion. But he did have to be converted from the false Hinduism of ignorant hatred to the true Hinduism of understanding, love and tolerance.

Zen has many stories in which this kind of conversion occurs. We hear of a Samurai warrior who, in an act of combat against an enemy, unconscionably kills an unarmed young man, a farmer's son. The Samurai has violated the Code of Bushido, and he knows he must restore the ethical imbalance his action caused. He removes his armor and goes to the grieving father. The Samurai knows that the father had depended upon his son to help him with his farm work; and the Samurai's crime has disturbed this natural flow of events. He picks up a plow and begins to work. As the years pass, a great affection develops between the Samurai and the old man. When the old man dies, the Samurai buries him as he would have buried his own father. In some versions of the story he stays on to work the farm because he no longer has the heart to be a warrior. In other versions he puts his armor on again knowing that this time he can fulfill the Code's requirement of humility. He has acquired wisdom. He has gone from recklessness and ignorance to wise and careful respect.

In May of 2001, Afghanistan's fanatically Muslim Taliban government, maliciously destroyed two of the world's oldest Buddha statues. For more than 1500 years, the Buddha's towering figures had stood carved in the cliffs of the Bamiyan Valley on the ancient Silk Route that linked Europe and Central Asia. The destruction of these statues was an act of religious bigotry that stunned all people of conscience.

A year later, when the fanatical regime of the Taliban had been defeated, Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan's new leader, announced that the people of Afghanistan would rebuild the larger of the two Buddha statues that had been destroyed. Karzai understood the nature of sin and knew what would be required for his country to atone for it - an action equal to and opposite from the action that destroyed the statues was necessary. Islam does not countenance religious effigies, yet a Muslim nation would rebuild the Buddha's statue. As a reminder of the devastating consequences of extremist ideology and intolerance, Karzai said that he would leave in situ the rubble of the smaller of the two destroyed statues.

When we achieve true restorative balance within ourselves we are happy and content, and can live without regret, remorse or guilt. We are at peace. The enlightened approach is to always be vigilant, to guard against committing sins - those violations of our Buddhist Precepts. But when we slip and fall into error, we must go that extra mile into positive areas and not only make restitution and correct the damage, but we must also correct ourselves.

The world does not often see a man like Mahatma Gandhi. As he, a Hindu, was considerate of Muslims, so Hamid Karzai, a Muslim, has shown consideration for Buddhists. Karzai, too, is another Great Soul; and we are all profoundly grateful to him for his enlightened kindness.

Articles by Chuan Zhi

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