Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Buddha Meets the Drone

by Jack Lawlor

From time to time, we need to experience how what is wise and compassionate is indeed possible.

My family attended a lovely retreat with Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh in 1989 which included not only adults, but also children. As is often the case, Thay ( the Vietnamese term of endearment for "teacher" ) invited the fifteen or so children in attendance to perform a skit one evening after dinner. The children chose the unlikely topic, "The Buddha Meets the Jetsons", which actually proved to be as telling as one of the retreat's many fine Dharma talks. Why? The children at the retreat portrayed 25th century-ish Jetson adults as stressed, overburdened, rather hyper and erratic beings who often ignored what was obvious in front of them and who often were caught in misperceptions of what was actually happening, leading to error and injury.

What the children were portraying so accurately, of course, was their own 20th century parents. It was obvious that the children were very diligent and accurate in perceiving adult behavior. So was the other character in the skit: the 6th century BC time-traveling visitor to the Jetsons, Shakyamuni Buddha -- whose demeanor, depth of character, and attentiveness compared starkly to the distracted, hapless, and overwrought George Jetson. It was interesting to see the Buddha attempt to instruct the Jetson family in such ancient practices as sitting meditation and walking meditation, all based on the primal practice of awareness of the breath. The Jetsons shook, strained and complained loudly about being exposed to this form of teaching, but without question in the skit these mindfulness techniques had their intended effect. The children attending the retreat were, in essence, submitting an optimistic report to us that in the last several days they were -- despite all their previous skepticism -- beginning to see how ancient contemplative practices were having a calming, insightful effect on their parents, who were becoming more open-minded, loving and sane.

Why have we given up on what could be a favorable outcome? Is our cynicism that hard, that deep? Can't we, as Christ urged, become more child-like in order to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, which according to the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas, "is spread before us but men do not see it"? Is there room for robot drones that attack civilians in foreign countries in such a Kingdom, such a world? How did we come to need to use drones in this way? Forty-two years ago I came upon Tolstoy's following description of a boyhood friend and the thrill of the possible, which still challenges me today:
"It goes without saying that under [his] influence I involuntarily adopted his outlook, the essence of which was a rapturous adoration of the idea of virtue, and the conviction that man's purpose lies in continual self-improvement. To reform all humanity and eradicate all human vice and unhappiness seemed plausible enough to us at the time, just as it seemed an easy and uncomplicated matter to reform ourselves, to master all virtues and be happy...

God only knows, however, just how absurd those noble dreams of youth were, or who was to blame that they were never realized...."

Leo Tolstoy, Boyhood. Childhood and Youth
Next installment: "The Buddha and a Culture of Violence"

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this intriguing post. I was and am still a big fan of the Jetsons but will now consider their frenzied running around. I am ruminating on "Is there room for robot drones that attack civilians? and "How did we come to need to use drones in this way?" Your wording makes it sound as if the drones were innocent and that it is our use of them that has made them evil. Is it a dream of youth to wish for a world without either drones or the deadly use of them?