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Good and Evil Face Off in the Forest

Imagine the range of the human spirit as a spectrum of enlightenment: primal brutality at one end, transcendent wisdom at the other.

Imagine two individuals who embody these two extremes. At one end it would be easy to place the Buddha — a timeless archetype of nonviolence and reason; at the other, who else but the terrorist, who advances his brutal cause — personal, nationalistic, or religious — by the heedless (even deliberate) slaughter of innocents? Imagine the Buddha witnessing the most horrific image of our age: the collapse of the twin towers of the World Trade Center, as thousands perish before his eyes.

Suppose these two people were to cross paths (in an isolated forest, perhaps) and to face each other — eye to eye, ideology to ideology: the embodiment of good, and the embodiment of evil.

Would there be a confrontation — the power of the spirit against the power of the sword? If so, who would prevail? If so, why? And if such a meeting were to be described in the form of a parable, would the tale have anything meaningful to say to us — about the issues and images that fill us with fear, rage, the struggle for meaning, the need for justice, the thirst for vengeance?

In The Buddha and the Terrorist, newly released by Chelsea Green Publishing Co., author Satish Kumar tries to do just that. Distilling into his narrative an enduring legend that takes several forms in several Middle Eastern and Asian oral traditions, Kumar recounts a meeting, deep in a quiet forest, between the apotheosis of pacifism and Angulimala — one bad-ass bandit, thug and murderer whose reputation, to put it mildly, precedes him.

(Bad-assmanship calibration unit: “Angulimala” means “wearer of a finger necklace” — a necklace made of the fingers of the people he has killed. He’s that bad.)

The seasoned criminal postures, sneers and threatens. The Buddha speaks. The face-off becomes a dialogue, and by the time it’s over, the Buddha is leading an awe-stricken and repentant convert back to his village of kindred spirits.

A parable, of course, is a lesson — and not a history lesson. Were a real man as physically passive as the Buddha to meet a real man as physically and mentally brutal as Angulimala in a real forest, the upshot would probably be brief, savage, and decided conclusively in favor of evil.

But that’s not the point. Victory (a term the Buddha probably wouldn’t like) isn’t always about force. Just as often, it’s ultimately about tenacity.

In today’s polarized, desperate world, tenacity often seems to be working in the terrorists’ favor. Kumar reminds us that it doesn’t have to be that way. It’s a lesson many world leaders desperately need to learn.

Born in India, Satish Kumar was a Jain monk for nine years. The editor of Resurgence magazine and director of programs at Schumacher College, he is also the author of No Destination: An Autobiography and You Are, Therefore I Am: A Declaration of Dependence.

In an era when “terrorist” evokes the unspeakably awful images that are now part of humanity’s collective consciousness, Kumar chooses as his terrorist a sword-wielding renegade, of an indeterminate “long time ago” in North India, who commits terror the old-fashioned way — one decapitation at a time. In so doing, Kumar reminds us that terror requires neither high explosives, disintegrating airliners nor crumbling skyscrapers. Terror is terror, and it does not trivialize the horrors of Sept. 11, 2001, to note that terror can be inflicted on a single individual or an entire population with the most primitive of weapons.

In fact, terrorism defined at its broadest does not even require physical violence. A teacher who uses fear to rein in the pesky intellectual curiosity of a 10-year-old who is bored with the inside of the box is a terrorist of sorts. Bosses who bully their employees into mute subservience are terrorists. The uber-umbrella of terror includes not just gang-bangers and suicide bombers but shop clerks, librarians, wine stewards, television commentators, talk-radio neo-Nazis — and writers.

None of which, again, diminishes the crimes of a lunatic trying to prove his point by opening fire on a crowded marketplace with an AK-47. But holding the definition of terrorism to that threshold diminishes, in turn, the damage that “ordinary” human beings do to one another — one at a time — with subtle, toxic tricks of the mind that assert their power by instilling fear in others and permanently poisoning lives.

There’s more to the story of Buddha and Angulimala; the latter is still a wanted man, for one thing, and now the Buddha is harboring a fugitive. The master must deal with King Pasenadi of Savatthi himself, who mobilizes 500 soldiers and tracks Angulimala down. Buddha tells the king of Angulimali’s conversion; the king finds it hard to swallow.

As he had done with the terrorist, Buddha converts the king to his viewpoint by the power of his will, his voice, and his philosophy. After that, Angulimala still has plenty to struggle with: how a multiple murderer masters and remains true his vows, etc. In the real world, it’s never as simple as it is in Kumar’s fable, but the fundamental dynamic is equally at home in both worlds: It’s all about power. In simple, poetic and graceful prose, Kumar explores power in all its forms, from brutality to piety.

The Buddha and the Terrorist is not a how-to manual for rendering violent religious fanatics impotent. But if your boss, spouse or bellhop is a control freak, a genius at manipulation and a master of the hidden agenda, Kumar’s book may help you to comprehend that person a little better.

That doesn’t make it easy. But as the Buddha was among the first to figure out and try to explain, true power does not erupt explosively from the barrel of a gun — or from the obliteration of a skyscraper.

It emerges, a drop at a time, from the well of understanding.

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