The Karma of Words

President Clinton has certainly carved out an odd legacy of language. Only months ago, his behavior in the Oval Office turned prime-time television news into salacious reports in need of parental monitoring. Now, the White House has introduced us to “Immaculate Destruction”—its inane description of what the administration hoped against hope would be a bloodless war.

If, in the Christian tradition, the Virgin’s birth - she was said to have been born free of original sin, hence “the Immaculate Conception”—made her worthy to bear the incarnation of God, will coopting the language of the sacred make us sinless too? In the land that has idealized the separation of church and state, are we to suppose that we have waged a war without sin and wrought destruction with the righteous aggression of a holy war?

In one sweeping gesture of verbal grandiosity, President Clinton, having proffered a public confession of sin, now enters the realm of divine intervention on the wings of NATO bombers. The White House may again quibble over definitions. After all, the President’s definition of sex left a lot to be desired. He may lay claim to the more secular connotations of “immaculate,” but it still sounds like a manipulative linguistic perversion in which the sacred is employed in the service of the profane.

Even a truly bloodless war—as this was destined not to be—is no bargaining chip with gods of destruction. Unbloodied but starving, ravaged by fear and disease, displacement, and grief, hundreds of thousands are at the mercy of smaller states that struggle to cope against overwhelming odds. This is not immaculate.

Where do we Buddhists find ourselves?

The first Buddhist precept is non-killing. A literal interpretation demands a crystallized commitment to pacifism. This is a position for which I have enormous respect, but it’s not one that I share. I am drawn to those schools of Buddhism in which “killing” becomes part of a more complex conversation; in the Balkans, the alleviation of suffering emerges as the prime motive for war, and the strategies accommodate paradox and contradiction. I cannot look at pictures of the Nazi death camps and fault the U.S. decision to enter the European theater; and as this winter went on, the massacres in Kosovo invited comparisons. Yet, saving lives by bombing Milosovic into the ground doesn't make war holy.

It may seem absurd to nitpick over words when real people are lying in pools of real blood. But the disturbing repetition of aggression begs for new versions of what is possible. On the map of human consciousness, in a conventional—or relative—way, “sacred” represents a zone of peace. When language is used to superimpose an aggression zone onto this, the possibility of even imagining a world without war is diminished.

In “Equality” Jeffrey Hopkins expounds on a favorite phrase of the Dalai Lama’s: “Everyone wants happiness; no one wants suffering.” Try taking a newspaper and looking at the faces of war and with each one repeat: “Everyone wants happiness, no one wants suffering.” Professor Hopkins cautions us not to eclipse the importance of this practice with generalities. Do it one by one, he advises. Make it personal. Hopkins encourages us to use language as a tool of truth, not as a palliative.

However well-intentioned the war may be, it comes with an inevitable unease that we must learn to be with—not distance ourselves from. If we can’t, the zone of peace that the sacred circumscribes will more likely than not go the same way as “safe havens” in the Balkans.

Helen Tworkov

Share with a Friend

Email to a Friend

Already a member? Log in to share this content.

You must be a Tricycle Community member to use this feature.

1. Join as a Basic Member

Signing up to Tricycle newsletters will enroll you as a free Tricycle Basic Member.You can opt out of our emails at any time from your account screen.

2. Enter Your Message Details

Enter multiple email addresses on separate lines or separate them with commas.
CAPTCHA
This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.