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A Hard Lesson in Tolerance From an Explosion of Earth and History

When Afghanistan's ancient Buddha sculptures were destroyed, Buddhists reacted with peaceful protest.

March 30, 2001|MARY ROURKE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Admirers of the Dalai Lama read the news from Afghanistan early this month and remembered the Buddhist monk's teachings about virtue. "Be thankful for your enemies," he said. "They force you to practice compassion."

That advice has been put to the test in the weeks since Afghanistan's ruling Taliban party, Muslim fundamentalists, demolished two towering stone sculptures of the Buddha that had looked over the Bamian valley for at least 1,500 years.

The country shifted from Buddhism to Islam in the Middle Ages, but the sculptures remained as cultural landmarks, evidence of a period when the Silk Route passed through Afghanistan and made it an international center. The taller statue reached 175 feet, the other 125 feet, and both had once been painted and bejeweled, with metal faces.

Before the statues came down, Buddhist leaders joined government organizations from Iran to the U.S., urging the Taliban to preserve them. Until the political upheavals of the last 20 years made the site inaccessible, the sculptures drew scholars and tourists as well as Buddhist pilgrims. In this century, they were perhaps the oldest examples of colossal Buddhas in the world.

For all the site's significance, however, once the sculptures were destroyed, Buddhists reacted with restraint. "I have been impressed by the response," says Alan Wallace, who teaches Tibetan Buddhism at UC Santa Barbara. "It has been minimal and soft-spoken."

He compares Afghanistan to Tibet in the 1950s. Chinese invaded the country, monasteries were burned, monks and civilians killed. "Tibet has a living tradition of Buddhism," he says. "When their monasteries were bombed and people were killed, the Buddhist response was violent. You can't just passively let another society steamroll over you.

"But nothing can be done about the statues at Bamian. They offer a basic lesson of Buddhism. Don't get attached to externals," Wallace says. The impermanent nature of things is central to this worldview. Many religious leaders commented, after Bamian, that it was only statues that had been destroyed.

Undeniably, emotions ran high in the days following the demolition. Buddhist monks and students marched in the streets of Sri Lanka, India, Nepal and Thailand. In India, they burned an effigy of the Taliban's leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar. The government there is now investigating whether it was Buddhists or sympathetic Hindu protesters who burned a Koran, the Muslim holy book.

So far, however, there have been no reports of Buddhists retaliating anywhere in the world. Not in Sri Lanka, where Buddhists account for 94% of the population and Muslims 6%, nor in Thailand, where the numbers are similar, nor any of the countries where Buddhists and Muslims live together.

American Buddhists and scholars of Buddhism are still piecing together the meaning of Bamian. They say it teaches the power of religious symbols to provoke violence and suggests that cultural history is at a crossroads, as evidence of our collective past is threatened. Most of all, they say, Buddhists are showing the world what it means to practice what you preach.

"The Buddhists didn't strike out and attack," said Don Mitchell, who teaches Buddhist studies at Purdue University in Indiana. "That is a stark contrast to what we usually see. It is a lesson in religious tolerance."

"Restraint is a virtue in Buddhism," added Mitchell, a Roman Catholic who has been involved in Buddhist-Christian dialogues since 1984. "Tell the truth but refrain from words, let alone acts, of anger to break the cycle of violence. Buddhists have been exculpating their traditions and values by their responses to Bamian."

Looking Ahead to Protect Other Sites

In California, some Buddhists are starting to look beyond the destruction of the statues toward ways of preventing similar losses. Leaders from every religious background are joining them. At Cal State Fullerton, an interfaith group of scholars and religious leaders met recently to suggest next steps. Most of those present were faculty members in the school's department of comparative religion. Their ideas were anything but predictable. Suggestions ranged from the documenting of endangered historic sites around the world to building closer relations between Muslims and Buddhists in Southern California. More than one Buddhist in the group urged that human rights for Afghanis, not broken statues, be the object of future concern.

"Bamian is an eye-opener," said Ananda Guruge, professor of Buddhist studies at Fullerton. "Shouldn't we in academic circles take some action to see that it doesn't happen elsewhere?" A former ambassador from Sri Lanka to the U.S., Guruge proposed documenting sites like Bamian, with replicas, photographs and videos. Not only those sites important to Buddhist history, but to all other religions.

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