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Author of this essay:

Fa Tian Shakya
(September 13, 2006)

by Upasaka Fa Tian

Do the ends justify the means - even when the means are less than honorable? When an action, specifically an action that we consider barbarous, has beneficial results do we regard that action as justified? Or do we take the moral high ground, holding ourselves to standards of uncompromising righteousness and insist that dishonorable acts can never produce honorable results.

To anyone other than a man of Zen perhaps, these are questions that are rarely examined. And rarer still are the answers found in casual conversations over coffee. Cafeterias are the venue for hot topics - the Abu Ghraib 'softening' of prisoners, for example, indelibly captured in pictures that no American will ever forget; or the recent admission that we've been operating CIA prisons in foreign countries. Yes, we need to gather intelligence; but at what cost to our self-image as 'the good guys'?

I learned of the foreign prisons during my evening ritual of channel surfing. I was sitting in front of the television, remote control in hand, exercising my thumb, while my wife, who considers this an annoying tic, sat beside me and complained that I was changing the channels too fast. (I never stay longer than a few milliseconds at each one). When I hit CNN she poked me in the ribs and hollered, "Stop!" Although she's reluctant to admit it, she's become a news junkie; and CNN is her current drug of choice. Other women do yoga to the sound of sitars. She does her morning yoga routine watching CNN.

Like foreign films with subtitles, 'all news' stations like CNN or MSMBC have information banners streaming across the bottom of the screen. It's hard to believe that anyone can actually watch what's on the screen and read the banner at the same time. But it caught my eye; and thankfully Larry King faded from my consciousness. I really wasn't all that interested in pictures of the Cruise baby, anyway.

What caught my attention concerned these foreign-soil CIA prisons. Visions of 'extreme measures' flashed through my mind. I found it difficult to think of anything else for the rest of the evening. I worked in military intelligence for ten years (no oxymoron jokes please). My visions have meat on them.

Sitting in the cafeteria the next morning I heard a lot of different opinions. "Publication of this information gives aid and comfort to the enemy!" "As Americans we have the right to know what's going on!" "Diplomatically, this will only give us a black eye!" "I can just imagine what the CIA is doing to those poor bastards." On and on it went. I said, "It's unclear to me. Are we officially 'at war' and if so, are the prisoners covered by the Geneva Convention?" When the discussion shifted tangentially to the United Nations, I grabbed my coffee cup and returned to my desk.

Yet the great enigma, "Do the ends always justify the means?" stayed with me throughout the day. I couldn't resolve it in my mind and I carried it to the place in my garden where I often meditate, very near to the jalapeņo peppers. I can't say whether this dual purpose was made by an unconscious association, but there is something about jalapeņo pepper plants that invite the mind to slow down and savor whatever it's considering. Sometimes when I'm angry, I go out there and pull a few weeds as I mumble, "What would Buddha do?" WWBD. The weed pulling and the mantra usually do the trick. But now I was thinking about those endless instances of hypothetical situations in which we are given the option to choose the lesser of two evils, or merely the 'justifying' result of one.

Every action we take is based on some desire - whether to gain something or to be rid of it. It is intention that governs our decision. WWBD? He'd probably retreat into a Nirvanic state of Holy Indifference and do nothing. But we who are samsara-bound feel as if we have to act, to fulfill our desires to do good, to do harm, or even to do neither. Some 'cafeteria' Buddhists immediately become righteous when moral questions are asked. They say, "if your intention is to harm, then you create negative karma. You'll suffer in your next life. If your intention is to do good, then you create positive karma. You'll be rewarded in your next birth." Everything is black or white to them. But the grey areas come out when you're sitting alone in your jalapeņo patch.

Karma isn't some sort of cosmic ledger sheet where our past deeds are weighed after we shuffle off this mortal coil. There is no one who sits 'on high' to judge us at the End of Days. We judge ourselves moment by moment, for only we know what our own intentions truly are. Our actions - thought, word and deed - create and reinforce certain attitudes in us, and from these attitudes our behaviors manifest in the future; and being ensnared in this web of action and reaction - of cause and effect - is karma. We don't have to wait for the embalmer to know the right or the wrong of anything we've done.

I sat there noticing the thoughts as they arose, letting them pass on their own, able to see a common theme. I know that our government is doing what it thinks is needed to protect us from future terrorist attacks and to bring justice to those who've already committed them. But I prayed that we were, at the very least, humane in our treatment of the prisoners, and that when all was said and done, we'd never have to look at scenes of torture again.

As if to give aid and comfort to an earthbound Buddhist, I noticed a small spider on my right hand as it lay in my lap. How he got there is beyond me. I assume it was a 'he'; but I can't be sure. Perhaps he hitched a ride on my shoulder as I was pulling up weeds. Or maybe he dropped down from the trees. However he got there, the journey obviously wasn't as important as the destination because he seemed content to stay fixed on my hand. I felt a little like Gulliver must have, but with less of that sense of panic to be free, when the Lilliputians tied him down while he slept. I admit, though, that I was momentarily startled to find, after my meditation, that he was using me as his new web-address.

I raised my hand slowly and he began to climb the hills of my knuckles. When he got to the end, I turned my hand over and he slowly made his way across my open palm, only to climb the knuckles again when I turned my hand back. Around and around he went, like a hamster on his wheel, going nowhere, but very determined to get there. I set him down amongst the jalapeņos with a bow, silently thanking him for the gentle reminder about the web of karma, and the futility of endlessly wandering in circles like I had been, trying to determine whether the ends always, or ever, justify the means.

Humming Bird

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