My Letter to the Dalai Lama

A week after September 11, I wrote a letter to the Dalai Lama, who--although I am not a Buddhist--is about the closest thing to a spiritual leader I have among living people. I have reproduced the letter in full below. As I mention in the last paragraph, I realized at some point that I was really writing it to myself, to help clarify my own feelings and thoughts in the aftermath of the attack.

September 19, 2001

His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama
Tibetan Government in Exile
Dharamsala, India

Your Holiness,

I want to thank you for your words to my President and my Mayor, and your contribution to our relief fund. I was particularly struck by your words to President Bush questioning the advisability of a violent response to the terrible actions of September 11. I personally don’t know what the right response is, but I am a bit perturbed by the degree that our President is talking up war while we in New York City are still trying to comprehend the magnitude of our loss. The fact is, no act of vengeance and retribution can go back and turn those planes aside, undo those terrible events of September 11, return life to how it was before last Tuesday. I feel strongly that the people who committed this mass-murder, and the organization(s) that supported them, must be brought to justice, for the safety of the world—who knows what sort of destruction they are capable of? But how to do that while minimizing the Here war seems inevitable; it may even somehow be necessary (will the human race ever outgrow the need for war?), but I don’t believe that this is a war that will be ultimately be won on any battlefield (certainly not at “time and place of our choosing” as our president has said—he sounds like a frightened man trying to affirm control over the uncontrollable, and who can blame him?), but in the human heart, when and if we can find a way to resolve our grievances without having to resort to violence. Perhaps the best way to fight terrorism is by promoting peace—I hope the world can come together as never before to seek solutions to some of the longstanding conflicts. I know you will do your part, as you have tirelessly promoted peace and nonviolence throughout your life. The terrorists committed an act of unspeakable evil, but the root evil is the sort of monolithic thinking that puts one group (particularly ethnic/racial/religious) above another, proclaiming oneself good and the other, evil. I’m sure that the terrorists believed from the bottom of their hearts that America (and, presumably, Americans) is evil and must be thwarted, even in such a terrible way and at the cost of their own lives. That same thinking is rather pervasive (few of us are immune to it in some form or another); most obvious here in the harassment of Islamic-Americans in the wake of the attack. (The other day on the street I witnessed a “Christian” preacher railing against the followers of Muhammad.)

Here in New York over the past eight days we have seen the worst of human nature, but also the best. The valor and selflessness of not only our Mayor and emergency personnel, but also the numerous ordinary citizens here and elsewhere who have pitched in, in whatever large or small way they can. New York stands in awe and gratitude of the support that has poured in from all across America and from around the world—it has given us great comfort in this time of sorrow. Still, we are quite shaken, scared, and uncertain of the future. I guess I’m writing this to you because, particularly in times of crisis, we look to leaders, spiritual and secular, for hope and inspiration. You have always been one of those whom I’ve most admired; I heard you when you talked in Central Park a couple years ago, and in Ann Arbor, Michigan in the late 1970s (I hope you will return to New York when you are able.) In writing this letter, though, I realized that I am writing it as much to myself as to you, to try to sort out where I am amidst the whirl of events and emotions that’s surrounded me, to try to make some sense out of this, to begin to comprehend this tragedy. I can pray, and grieve, and be of service, but the more I try to absorb and comprehend, the vaster this all seems.

Yours in Peace,

Tony Hoffman
I e-mailed this letter to the Dalai Lama's headquarters, and in about a week received a response from a lama who said that the Dalai Lama had instructed him to tell me words to the effect that peace begins at home, and is something that is slowly and patiently built. Ultimately, I may have little control over the events of the world (and few practical answers to the complex problems that beset today’s world); all I can do is to try to respond to all situations as best I can.

I tend to take a long view on world affairs. I haven’t seen the post-September 11 situation as one of war versus peace; on September 11, regardless of the root causes of militant Islam’s resentment of America, we were ruthlessly attacked, and in effect a state of conflict has existed from that moment on. It’s the details of how that’s dealt with that more concern me. It was probably inevitable that we would invade Afghanistan to oust the Taliban and their al-Qaeda “guests”, and the U.S. had broad support and assistance from many countries in carrying that out. After that, though, things got more dicey, with our rather monomaniacal push towards invading Iraq. I remember, sometime after September 11, one of my colleagues saying “we need to kick some butt.” I agreed, but my unvoiced continuation was “as long as it’s the right butt.” I wasn’t convinced that attacking Iraq would help us in defeating the likes of al-Qaeda; if anything, it might draw our energy away from tracking down bin Laden and his lieutenants. Nonetheless, I wasn’t outspokenly against the war in Iraq; without knowing how great a threat Saddam Hussein really was, it’s possible that ousting him—even at the cost of world opinion—might have ultimately saved America, and perhaps the world at large, a lot of grief. (It did free Iraqis from a murderous dictator; hopefully that can be translated into an effective government.) It’s equally possible that it has made the situation worse, as Afghanistan has suffered from tribal factionalism and a resurgence of the Taliban. Afghani president Hamid Karzai has been derogatorily labeled the Mayor of Kabul by some local politicians. The trail for bin Laden has grown cold, for all we know; it’s rumored he is somewhere on the vast Pakistani/Afghani frontier, protected by tribal leaders. I am bothered by the notion of pre-emptive war as a matter of policy, and concerned that America may be too bent on imposing democracy through force rather than leading by example and promoting cooperative action (as opposed to unilateralism; the current administration has turned away from numerous international treaties).

I guess the bottom line for me is to try to live by example, to be calm, reasonable, compassionate when possible, strong when necessary, and not be too enamored of my opinion nor hold it above that of others. (I often see value, in certain situations, in the views of people I may generally disagree with profoundly.) If peace begins with me, I can try to practice it in my own life and to help in what ways I can to make the world around me a better place. As for the world at large, it seems at least as crazy and messed up as ever. [commentary written January 2004]

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