What shall we do?
by tiziano terzani
In the Indian Himalayas, 17 January 2002
I like being in a body that's growing old. I can look at the mountains without feeling I have to climb them. When I was young I'd have wanted to conquer them. Now I can let them conquer me. The mountains, like the sea, remind us of a dimension of greatness which can inspire and uplift us. That same greatness is also in each of us, but we find it difficult to recognize. This is why we're attracted to mountains. This is why so many men and women over the centuries have come here to the Himalayas, hoping these heights would reveal the answers that eluded them while they were down in the valley. They still come.
Last winter, an old sanyasi dressed in saffron came past my retreat with his disciple, who was also a renouncer. "Where are you going, Maharaj?", I asked him. "In search of God", he replied, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.
I come here, as I've done this time, to try to get some kind of order into my head. The impressions of the past months have been very powerful, and I need silence before I set out again, before I go down to the valley once more. Only in this way can one hope to hear the voice that knows, the voice that speaks within us. Maybe it's just the voice of common sense, but it's a voice which is true.
The mountains are always generous. They present me with dawns and sunsets that are unrepeatable. The silence is broken only by the sounds of nature, which makes it seem even more alive.
Life here is simple in the extreme. I write sitting on a wooden floor, my computer powered by a solar panel. I get my water from a spring, which the animals of the woods drink from too, sometimes even a leopard. I cook rice and vegetables over a gas cylinder, and am careful not to throw away the used matches. Everything here is pared to a minimum. Nothing is wasted, and you soon learn to give everything back its original value. Simplicity is a great help when you want to sort things out.
Sometimes I wonder if the sense of frustration and powerlessness which many, especially the young, feel when confronted with the world of today is not due to the fact that it seems so complicated and hard to understand. The only possible reaction is to believe it's the world of someone else, a world you're not allowed to get your hands on or change. And yet it's not true. This is everybody's world.
Faced with the complexity of these inhuman mechanisms operated goodness knows where by goodness knows who, the individual becomes more and more disorientated and feels more and more lost, till he ends up just doing his little job at work, the task he has before him, dissociating himself from all the rest and increasing his sense of isolation and uselessness. This is why I think it's important to bring every problem back to its essentials. If the basic questions are asked, the answers will come more easily.
Do we want to get rid of weapons? Fine. Then let's not get lost in discussions about whether closing down factories which manufacture rifles, munitions, anti-personnel mines or atomic bombs will cause unemployment. Let's resolve the moral issue first. The economic one can come later. Or do we just want to meekly give in to the idea that the economy decides everything, and that all we're interested in is what can make us a profit?
People object that there have always been wars throughout history, so they're hardly likely to stop now. "But why does the same old story have to be repeated? Why not try and start a new one?", Gandhi used to reply to anyone he heard make this tired, clichéd objection.
The idea that man can break with his past and make a qualitative leap in his evolution was common in nineteenth-century Indian thought. The argument is simple: if homo sapiens, the current stage in our development, is the product of our having evolved from the apes, why can we not imagine that man will mutate again and turn into a more spiritual being, one who is less attached to the material realm, more committed to his relationship with his neighbours and less rapacious with regard to the rest of the universe?
Seeing that this evolution is bound up with the question of consciousness, why don't we consciously try and take the first step in the right direction? There couldn't be a better time to do so, now that this homo sapiens has reached the peak of his might, including his ability to destroy himself with those weapons he so unwisely created.
Let's take a look in the mirror. There can be no doubt that we've made enormous progress in the previous millennia. We've learnt to fly like birds, swim under water like fish, land on the moon and send probes as far as Mars. Now we can even clone life. Yet despite all this, we're not at peace with ourselves or the world around us. We've trampled the earth, polluted rivers and lakes, cut down entire forests and made life hell for the animals, apart from the few we call our friends and pamper till they meet our need of a substitute for human company.
Air, water, earth and fire, which all ancient civilizations saw as the primary elements of life and hence sacred, were once capable of self-regeneration. Not any more, since man succeeded in dominating them and manipulating their power to his own ends. Their sacred unity has been polluted, the balance shattered.
Great material progress has not been matched by great spiritual progress. Quite the opposite. Indeed, from this point of view perhaps man has never been so poor as since he became so rich. This is why man should now consciously reverse this trend and wrest back control of that most extraordinary tool, his mind. Thus far man has used his mind mostly to understand and take possession of the world outside him, as if this were the sole source of our elusive happiness. Now it's time for him to re-apply his mind to exploring the inner world and the knowledge of the self.
Are these the barmy ideas of some fakir on a bed of nails? No, not at all. They're ideas which have been gaining ground in the world for some time now. They've gained ground in the West, where the systems they are meant to be directed against have already swallowed them back up and turned them into the products of an immense alternative market which ranges from yoga classes to meditation courses, from aromatherapy to spiritual vacations for those who are tired of chasing after the hare of material happiness. These ideas are also gaining ground in the Muslim world, torn between tradition and modernity, where the traditional meaning of jihad is being rediscovered, not just a holy war against an external enemy but an inner holy war, against man's basest instincts and passions.
Thus we shouldn't just write off the possibility that man can aspire to higher things in the course of his spiritual development. The point is not to continue blindly on in the same direction we're taking at the moment. This direction is madness, as are the wars of Osama bin Laden and George W. Bush. Both of them use the name of God, but their massacres are not any more divine because of it.
So let's call a halt. Let's imagine the present from the point of view of our great-grandchildren. Let's look at today from the perspective of tomorrow, so we don't have to regret having missed an opportunity. The chance we now have is to understand once and for all that the world is one, that every part has its meaning, that it's possible to replace the logic of competition with the ethic of co-existence, that no-one has a monopoly on anything, that the idea that one civilization can be superior to another is the product of ignorance, that harmony, like beauty, lies in the balance of opposites, and that to eliminate one of these opposites is pure sacrilege. What would day be like without night? or life without death? what would happen to good, if Bush manages to keep his promise and wipe out from the world all evil?
This obsession with reducing everything to uniformity is very Western. Vivekananda, the great Indian mystic, travelled round the United States at the end of the nineteenth century to promote Hinduism, and after one of his lectures in San Francisco, an American lady got up and asked: "Don't you think the world would be more beautiful if there were only one religion for all men?". "No", replied Vivekananda, "maybe it would be even more beautiful if there were as many religions as there are men".
"Empires wax and wane...", begins The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, one of the classics of Chinese literature. Such will be the fate of the American empire too, especially if it seeks to impose itself by the brute force of its now highly sophisticated weapons rather than by spiritual values and the original ideals of its founding fathers.
Two old crows were the first to notice I'd come back to the mountains. Every morning at breakfast time they settle in the deodar, the tree of God, a mighty cedar in front of my house, and caw for all they're worth till I give them the remains of my yoghurt, which I've learnt to make myself, and the last grains of rice in my bowl. I wouldn't be able to forget they're here even if I wanted to. Nor do they let me forget the story the Indians tell their children about crows. A man who was sitting under a tree in his garden, as I am, one day found he could stand the crows' petulant cawing no longer. He summoned his servants, who came and drove them away with stones and sticks. But the Creator, who awoke from his nap at that moment, realized straight away that a voice was missing from the great concert of the universe, and furiously sent one of his assistants to rush down to earth and put the crows back on the deodar.
Here life is lived to the rhythm of nature. There's a strong sense that life is one, that you can't add to or subtract from it with impunity. Everything is linked, every part is the whole.
The Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh puts it very well when he speaks of a table, a little low table like the one I'm writing on now. The table is here because of an infinite chain of events, things and people: the rain which fell on the woods where the tree grows that a woodcutter felled and gave to a carpenter, who put it together with nails made by a blacksmith with iron dug from a mine ... If a single element in this chain hadn't existed, even the great-grandfather of the carpenter, this table wouldn't be here now.
While I was living in Japan, to protect the climate of their islands the Japanese had the bright idea of cutting down not their own forests but those of Indonesia and the Amazon basin. Soon they had to admit that even this would affect them - their actions changed the climate of the whole earth, including that of Japan.
By the same token, we cannot today imagine that we can keep a large part of the world poor while our bit of the globe gets richer and richer. Sooner or later, in one form or another, the bill will be laid at our feet, whether it's man or nature herself who'll bring it to us.
Up here, the impression that nature has a psychic presence of her own is very strong. Sometimes, when I'm all wrapped up against the cold, and I stop everything to go and sit on a ridge nearby and watch the first rays of sun lighting up the peaks of the glaciers, slowly lifting the veil of darkness and revealing chain after chain of other mountains from the milky depths of the valleys, an air of immense joy pervades the world, and I too am caught up in it, along with the trees, the birds and the ants, the same life represented in so many different magnificent forms.
It's feeling cut off from all this that makes us unhappy, as does feeling cut off from our fellow men. "War doesn't only break men's bones, it also breaks their human relationships", the dynamic Gino Strada said to me in Kabul. To mend these relations, as well as the physical gashes he mends in the emergency hospital, Strada has a ward where young Taliban soldiers lie just a step or two away from their enemies from the Northern Alliance. The Taliban are prisoners and the Northern Alliance soldiers are not, but Strada hopes that their common mutilations and similar wounds will help bring them together.
Dialogue is an enormous help in resolving conflicts. Hatred only nurtures more hatred. A Palestinian sniper kills an Israeli woman in a car, the Israelis react by killing two Palestinians, a Palestinian swathes himself in dynamite and blows himself and a dozen young Israelis up in a pizza restaurant, the Israelis send a helicopter to bomb a bus full of Palestinians, the Palestinians ... need I go on? How long will it all continue? until there are no Palestinians or Israelis left? until all the bombs are finished?
Certainly there are reasons for every conflict, and these have to be addressed. But it will all be useless unless one party acknowledges the other's existence and recognizes they are equal, until we all accept that violence only ever leads to more violence.
"Fine words. But what can we do?", I hear someone say, even through the silence. Every one of us can do something. Together we can do thousands of things.
The war against terrorism is being used today to militarize our society, to produce new weapons and increase defence spending. Let's oppose this, and refuse to vote for anyone who's behind such policies. Let's check where we've invested our savings, and withdraw them from any company that's even remotely linked to the arms industry. Let's say what we know and feel to be the truth, that killing under all circumstances is murder.
Let's talk about peace, and introduce a culture of peace into our children's education. Why should we always teach history as if it were an unending sequence of wars and massacres?
With all my Western studies, I had to come to Asia before I discovered Ashoka, one of the most extraordinary characters in antiquity. Ashoka lived three centuries before Christ, and at the peak of his power, after he'd added yet another kingdom to his already vast empire extending from India to Central Asia, he realized that violence was absurd, decided the greatest victory of all was that of conquering men's hearts, renounced war, and had his new ethic carved in stone in each of the numerous languages which were spoken in his territories at the time. One of Ashoka's memorial stones inscribed in Greek and Aramaic was discovered in 1958 at Kandahar, the spiritual home of Mullah Omar where the U.S. marines are now camped out. Another one stands at the entrance to the National Museum in Delhi; Ashoka announces in it the opening of two hospitals: one for humans and one for animals.
The causes of war are to be found within us, more than they are outside us. They are to be found in passions such as desire, fear, insecurity, greed and vanity. Gradually we have to rid ourselves of them. We need a change of attitude. Decisions which affect us and others, let's make them on the basis of a bit more morality and a bit less self-interest. Let's do more of what is right, and less of what's just convenient. And let's bring our children up to be honest rather than crafty.
Let's restore certain traditions of good behaviour, even to the point of reclaiming our language from the kind of talk where the word "God" has become a kind of obscenity. Let's go back to talking about "making love" rather than "having sex". Even this will make a big difference in the long run.
It's time to move out into the open, time to make a stand for the values we believe in. A society gains much more strength by its moral resolution than it does by acquiring new weapons.
Above all, let's stop, take time to think, hold our tongues. Often we feel tormented by the life we lead, like the man who flees in terror from his own shadow and the echoes of his own footsteps. The more he runs, the more his shadow seems to stalk him, the more he hears his own footsteps clatter, the more he is frightened. Until he stops and sits in the shade of a tree. Let's do the same.
Viewed from the perspective of the future, these are days in which it's still possible to do something. So let's do it, sometimes on our own, sometimes all together. It's an opportunity.
The road is a long one, and in parts still to be invented. But would we rather take the path of brutalization which lies before us, or the even quicker one which leads straight to our extinction?
So have a good journey - outside as well as inside!
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