"A Japanese student was allegedly kidnapped and gang raped by five Indian men near the Buddhist shrine Bodh Gaya for a month." Image Source: Daily Mail.
If you want a cataclysmic, in-a-nutshell example of what is wrong with the world today, read the news item from a few days ago about the Japanese student who was kidnapped and gang raped for a month near the site where Buddha attained enlightenment in India. Or: follow today's coverage of the Charlie Hebdo al Qaeda terrorist murders in Paris, in which twelve people died, including a policeman who was shot in the head at point blank range. The summary of those events is here. The two outrages bookended Christmas in December and Orthodox Christmas, which is celebrated on 7 January in the Julian calendar.
Al Qaeda terrorist murdered a policeman in Paris on 7 January 2015. Image Source: Mirror.
On 20 November 2014, a 23-year-old Japanese girl, who is a Buddhist, arrived in Kolkata and wanted to see the Bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya. This great fig tree is considered sacred because this was where Gautama Buddha (circa 563 BCE - 483 BCE) achieved enlightenment. The student was lured there on 23 November by a Japanese-speaking Indian guide, who with other men held her hostage and gang raped her at gunpoint for over a month. She finally escaped and reached the Japanese consulate by 26 December 2014. (see other reports here, here and a more detailed article, here).
The terrifying crime and ruined pilgrimage violated Buddhism's holy shrine and the idea to which it is dedicated. At the moment of enlightenment under the tree, or Bodhi, Buddha is supposed to have seen the true nature of things. It is a state he attained after progressively transcending delusional states of being and escaping from the bondage of temporal, fleeting things.
Cartoonist Ruben Oppenheimer's response to the Charlie Hebdo murders on 7 January 2015. Image Source: Reuters.
The venerable and holy sage had combined meditative practices to rise above the karmic challenges of life then and now. Buddha's answer was to reject duality and see the two states, inward life and outward world, as one. He thereby escaped a cyclical conflict between internal and external worlds - between thought and action - that spanned many lifetimes.
In the west, Buddha's radical, spiritual and utopian experience took on the connotation of finding the true self and moving beyond social conditioning. Western enlightenment refers to freedom, release and deliverance. The western concept rejected religion in favour of secularism, in order to clarify and reject anything that is unquestioningly accepted as true via blind faith, endless cultural tradition or raw instinct, because the latter are seen as sources of tyranny. This 18th century democratic ethos of liberty deified reason and knowledge to break through mysticism and authoritarian illusions. There are problems with this neo-gnostic version of enlightenment, because it establishes rational knowledge as a new tyrannical and even mythical power, as Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer argued in the 1940s:
"the human mind, which overcomes superstition, is to hold sway over a disenchanted nature. Knowledge, which is power, knows no obstacles: neither in the enslavement of men nor in compliance with the world’s rulers... Technology is the essence of this knowledge. It does not work by concepts and images, by the fortunate insight, but refers to method, the exploitation of others’ work, and capital... What men want to learn from nature is how to use it in order wholly to dominate it and other men. That is the only aim."
The terrorist murders of the Charlie Hebdo staff today in Paris confirm that this war between internal and external worlds is no laughing matter. How does one reconcile the inward-looking community with universalist principles of a larger, external society? Is this a war between an aggressive, anti-modern religion and secular liberty? Was the attack intended to violate Orthodox Christmas as well in a battle of religions? Or perhaps there is an even bigger challenge here, to see past the ties that bind us all.