Articles February 19, 2002

Beyond Words: Remembering 9/11

Jack Kornfield

Most of us probably remember where we were on September 11, 2001. The events of that day did change history, for better or worse, and we can only hope that we all learned some valuable truths about life as a consequence of the terrorist attacks that occurred on that shocking day. Now, ten years later, we offer a few ways to look back at this tragic day and its aftermath, using the words of our teachers from that time.

In October of 2001, Jack Kornfield was interviewed by Susan Moon for Turning Wheel: The Journal of Socially Engaged Buddhism. In responding to a question about personal safety in scary times, Jack said, "The insecurity that naturally comes from the terrorist attacks and the media frenzy that has followed them touches our deepest fears. But the truth is that life is insecure, and has always been so, independent of what happened at the World Trade Center . . . So when people ask me about their fears, I remind them to breathe. I remind them to touch that place within that is timeless and compassionate, that can hold all the events of time."

*To listen to a dharma talk given in response to the events of 9/11 by Jack Kornfield on October 15, 2001 at Spirit Rock, click here.

*To listen to a dharma talk by Sylvia Boorstein offered during the Thanksgiving Retreat in 2001, click here.

The following article was published in the Spirit Rock News in early 2002, the first edition published after the events of 9/11:

Beyond Words

By Sylvia Boorstein

There are times when “No, thank you”—the composed refusal of what is undesirable—is impossible. Even “It’s okay”—a shorthand for trying to regain mind balance under pressure—doesn’t work when things are desperately not okay. Wisdom statements don’t work in the middle of heartbreak. Heartbreak requires silence.

On September 11, 2001, when terrorists destroyed the entire World Trade Center Building in New York City and part of the Pentagon in Washington and killed thousands of people, there was nothing anyone could say. Late that night, when I read my email, I found messages from all over the country, most of them sent to list-serves, everyone in the sender’s address book, that were reminders to pray. The messages were all different, of course, but the central instructions in all of them were, “Pray for the people who died. Pray for all the people that they left behind. Pray that your heart stays open.”

The next morning, the second Wednesday of the month, people came early to Spirit Rock Meditation Center to recite Refuges and Precepts. The room had been left as it had been arranged for the prayer vigil the night before, mats and cushions for sitting on the floor, chairs behind them, all arranged in a circle around a low table covered by a black cloth. A candle in a tall glass, still burning from the night before, was surrounded by individual small votive candles for people to light. A vase held a dozen red roses. People sat in silence. Some people wept.

We sat for thirty minutes. I don’t know the exact words that I used when I spoke but I hope I said something like this:

When there is nothing at all to say, when the enormity of the situation requires that we say no words at all because words could only diminish what has happened, the only possible phrases are Refuges and Precepts. When I say, “I take refuge in the Buddha,” I am reminding myself and everyone who hears me that I trust the capacity of the human mind to pay attention. I trust that human beings have the unique capacity, amongst all animals, to recognize and refrain from actions motivated by greed, or lust, or envy, or anger, out of the compassionate awareness of the suffering that heedless actions cause. And, when I say, “I take refuge in the Dharma,” I am saying that I absolutely believe that all of the great spiritual traditions that have endured as part of the human experience are founded on that same premise, and that genuine religious practice, in all its forms, is designed to support the natural human inclination toward goodness. And, when I say, “I take refuge in the sangha,” I am encouraged by thinking of people all over the world, members of religious communities or not members of religious communities, whose lives are dedicated to making sure that their heart stays peaceful and that the world becomes peaceful. The refuges console me.

We all recited the Refuges together, in the traditional way, three times.

Then I taught my understanding of the Precepts. There are five of them.

When I recited the first precept, “I undertake the training precept to refrain from harming living beings,” it felt to me the one overarching precept, the summary of all the rest. I talked about the ways in which individuals had been harmed and the world had been harmed on September 11. When I said, “I undertake the training precept to refrain from taking that which is not freely given,” I didn’t need to say that what hadn’t been freely given the day before were lives and dreams and hope. Everyone knew. The precepts to refrain from unwise speech and unwise expression of sexual energy—precepts that we normally talk about on Wednesday mornings in their most ordinary contexts, echoed, more clearly than ever, the urgency of not harming living beings. The fifth precept, the intention to refrain from intoxicating the mind with anything that leads to heedlessness which causes pain, and suffering, is the first precept—all over again. Usually when I lead people in the taking of precepts, I say, “I undertake the training precept to refrain . . . ” On September 12, 2001, we all said, “I vow to abstain from harming living beings.”

On September 13, I spoke by phone with my friend Tamara, a psychotherapist and also a mindfulness teacher, who lives in New York City. She told me that when she heard the news on Tuesday, she went immediately to the Red Cross Center two blocks from where she lives and volunteered to help. She said, “Pretty soon the whole center was crowded with people. Everyone wanted to register their skills so they could be assigned work. It was impossible to stay home.” Then she told me how she had spent all of Wednesday at Shea Stadium in Queens, set up—overnight—as an emergency shelter equipped to serve a thousand people and meant to be used by police and fire personnel needing to sleep between shifts. Tamara said that very few people came. “We would get alert calls all day long,” she told me. “They would announce, ‘Get ready. A bus is coming,’ and then, ‘Bus isn’t coming.’ Then they explained that people were refusing to leave the line. “One man,” she said, “Worked thirty-one hours straight. People were working until they couldn’t stand up any more. Then they walked a few blocks away from the scene, slept for a few hours on the sidewalk, and came back.”

Before we ended our phone call, Tamara said, “I need something else from you. I want you to listen to these haikus I wrote this morning. They felt like a continuation of the Red Cross debriefing I had last night. Then, I want us to write haikus together.” Tamara is a poet, and often reads her work to me. It’s a pleasure we share. She read her poems. We wrote some together. She said, “Somehow, doing this makes me feel better.” I said that I also felt better, and we talked about why we thought that was so. We agreed that writing a poem, making something new, reminded us that we are still alive. Also, Tamara’s haikus celebrated goodness. Here is my favorite:

Adrenalin pumping

The milk of human kindness

Twenty-four seven.