Esteemed faith leaders, delegates, and quests, religious cooperation, like all cooperation, arises from our mutual understanding and respecting one another. Such cooperation will lead to a peaceful and harmonious existence. Lack of cooperation and understanding coupled with the conviction that I am right and therefore you, with your different beliefs, must be wrong, will lead to anger, reprisals, and conflicts.
The Buddha spoke of this in the Infinite Life Sutra: “The strong overpower the weak, with both of them overwhelming and killing one another in turn. . . . [Karmic foes will] in turn take revenge on one another.” Left unchecked, anger and retaliation become a malicious relationship—one of continual, escalating reprisals. When taking revenge, one will not do it in the exact amount; one will overdo it a little. Therefore, the enmity will grow lifetime after lifetime without end, and the retributions will become increasingly terrible and far-reaching.
How does this happen?
Often, when someone says or does something we do not like, we automatically react out of anger. As Buddhists, we believe this anger started many lifetimes ago. Perhaps one of us said carelessly said something that hurt the other’s feelings. Subconsciously remembering this, upon meeting our again, whether in our next lifetime or a thousand lifetimes, that other person intentionally spoke harshly to us.
When our angry verbal exchanges were not enough, one of us struck the other. Then one of us killed the other. Then our families and communities were fighting and killing one another, and still the anger grew leading to territorial, ethnic, and religious conflicts, then wars.
Is there any way to stop this cycle of bitterness and retaliation?
Yes. We can do so by moving back down this ladder of escalation.
As an individual, understanding that all I can control is myself, I need to be vigilant and choose how to interact wisely with others. Everything I do begins with what I think. So the thoughts I keep reinforcing within myself will in time ensure that my reactions become automatic and spontaneous.
How might this work in real life?
In the United States, in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, lives an Amish settlement of more than 180 local church districts. As is the norm, the Amish and the English, what the Amish call Non-Amish people, get along well and live as good neighbors to one another.
On October 2, 2006, on a cloudless autumn day, twenty-six children aged six to thirteen, walked to the West Nickel Mines Amish School. Waiting for school to begin, they played in the schoolyard, older children looking after younger ones. When the bell rang, they went inside the traditional one-room schoolhouse.
Like most schoolrooms, the walls were decorated with drawings by the children. But there were no computers, no telephones, no electricity. The Amish do not use technology that could threaten the unity and harmony of their community. So, for example, as a rule their children never watch television, thus they would not have been exposed to violent television shows or movies.
On that peaceful day, school began, as usual, with a Bible lesson and recitation of the Lord’s Prayer in which is said, “And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”
After the morning recess, Charles Carl Roberts, IV, an English neighbor, entered the schoolhouse. He carried a semiautomatic pistol. The young teacher and her visiting mother, knowing three other visiting female relatives were in the room, slipped out the side door and ran across the fields to the nearest farm for help. Roberts tied up the girls assuring them he would not hurt them if they did as he said. Next, he ordered the women to leave and then the boys.
State troopers arrived within minutes of receiving the emergency call from the neighboring farm to find Roberts barricaded inside the school with the girls. When they called out to him, his response was to warn that if they did not leave immediately, he would kill the ten girls “right now.”
One of the oldest girls, thirteen-year-old Marian Fisher, realized what the gunman was going to do. In an attempt to protect and save the younger girls, Marian Fisher said to him, "Shoot me first."
Her eleven-year-old sister, Barbie, said, "Shoot me second."
As the gunman began firing, the police stormed the building, and the gunman killed himself with the pistol.
The call went out: “mass casualty.” State police, ambulance crews, emergency vehicles, and helicopters turned out in a desperate attempt to save the young girls. Family members and friends gathered at the nearest farm to wait word.
Within sixteen hours of the shooting, five of the girls died: Naomi Rose Ebersole aged seven; sisters Lena Miller and Mary Liz Miller, aged seven and eight, respectively; Anna Mae Stoltzfus aged twelve. And Marian Fisher, aged thirteen.
The Nickel Mines School shooting stunned people around the world. In what many viewed as an idyllic hamlet safely tucked away from hatred and violence, ten innocent girls had been shot. Five of them, aged seven to thirteen, died.
Then the world was stunned to learn that two of the girls had calmly offered their lives in the hope of saving those who were younger.
And then the world was even further stunned by the reaction of the Amish. They were in shock and grieved deeply at the sudden loss of beloved children but those who spoke to the media, the police, the hospital staffs did not speak angrily of what had happened. Parents did not cry out “Why?”
Neighbors gathered to bring Amish mutual aid: a quiet presence in the face of grief as they cared for young children, did chores, brought food, and so much more. But the aid did not stop with the families who had lost children. The Amish responded with grace and concern for the gunman’s wife, Amy, and her three children.
Within hours of the shooting, some Amish called on her, not out of anger or bitterness but from deep sympathy for her. Some, including parents who had just buried their children, attended the gunman's funeral. As donations for the Amish started to come in, arrangements were made for some of the funds to go to Amy since she and her children were now without a breadwinner.
Amazingly, the Amish had responded not with an explosion of anger; but with a cocoon of forgiveness. And perhaps this is what stunned the world most of all.
For in a world where retaliation is the norm for wrongs, perceived or real; where grudges are held and nursed; where wars have been fought in the name of religion; in such a world, forgiveness is very rarely the response.
How did the Amish forgive such a heinous act? And so quickly?
In Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy, we read of a bishop saying “Refusing to forgive ‘is not an option, . . . It’s just a normal part of our living. . . . Forgiveness was a decided issue, . . . It’s just what we do as nonresistant people. It was spontaneous. It was automatic.’”[i]
Just what we do. Spontaneous. Automatic.
To put it simply, the Amish strive to forgive others so that God will forgive them. Did they forgive completely and immediately? Some said they had while others said they were still working on it. But the thought of forgiveness was spontaneous, automatic. There was the intention to forgive and striving to sincerely let go of thoughts of bitterness and retaliation.
As the media reported on what happened, some questioned the rightness of forgiving someone for such an act. How can you forgive someone because then they would have gotten away with their crime?
Our forgiving someone for deeds committed does not mean that he now escapes the consequences for his acts. We have forgiven, not pardoned. Cause and effect tells us that we reap what we sow. Those who do wrong will assuredly reap the consequences. In forgiveness, we do not need to personally judge and punish the other person. Nor do we hold the wish for revenge in our hearts. One who forgives, unconditionally strives to let go of anger and hatred. As the Buddha cautioned, to carry anger is like holding a hot coal waiting to throw it at another. We are the one who gets burned.
Through forgiving, we will be free from bitterness and the wish for retaliation and revenge. Our individual lives will become more peaceful. Conflicts within us and with others will gradually be resolved and eliminated. And the world will move towards peace and harmony.
[i] Kraybill, Donald B.; Nolt, Steven M.; Weaver-Zercher, David L. (2010-03-11). Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy (p. 49). John Wiley and Sons. Kindle Edition.
Talk given by Venerable Wuling at “Achieving World Peace Through Religious Harmony and Conflict Resolution” Interfaith Summit, Bangkok, Thailand, May 23-25, 2012