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A Symbol Of Compassion, Dalai Lama Hints Bin Laden's Killing Was Justified

Tibetan Spiritual leader The Dalai Lama gestures as he talks to journalists in Dharamshala on March 17, 2011.
AFP/Getty Images
Tibetan Spiritual leader The Dalai Lama gestures as he talks to journalists in Dharamshala on March 17, 2011.

Like the phrase "turn the other cheek" in Christianity, there's a central tenet in Buddhism that teaches forgiveness. It's in the Dhammapada, a book thought to come from the Buddha himself, in which he teaches: "'He abused me, he struck me, he overcame me, he robbed me' — in those who harbour such thoughts hatred will never cease."

But what about killing someone like Osama bin Laden — someone who in obituaries has been compared to Hitler and Stalin? Should the U.S. have turned the other cheek?

At an appearance at the University of Southern California, yesterday, a student posed that question to the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader known for his unyielding compassion. But the Dalai Lama, reports the Los Angeles Times,confounded expectations with his answer:

As a human being, Bin Laden may have deserved compassion and even forgiveness, the Dalai Lama said in answer to a question about the assassination of the Al Qaeda leader. But, he said, "Forgiveness doesn't mean forget what happened. ... If something is serious and it is necessary to take counter-measures, you have to take counter-measures."

This, reports the Times, comes from a man who also said he tries to avoid swatting mosquitoes. "When my mood is good and there is no danger of malaria," he said, he watches as mosquitoes swell with his blood.

The apparent religious contradiction was also at the center of a piece by James Martin of America, a Catholic weekly magazine, who writes that he saw the smoldering towers and the evil bin Laden brought upon the world first hand:

Yet Christians are in the midst of the Easter Season, when Jesus, the innocent one, not only triumphantly rose from the dead but, in his earthly life, forgave his executioners from the cross, in the midst of excruciating pain.

So, should we forgive a serial killer? Martin says if he'd lost a loved one to one's hands, he probably couldn't. But, he says, the scripture is as clear as it gets:

The Christian is not simply in favor of life for the unborn, for the innocent, for those we care for, for our families and friends, for our fellow citizens, for our fellow church members or even for those whom we consider good, but for all. All life is sacred because God created all life. This is what lies behind Jesus's most difficult command: "I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you."

The Vatican, however, took a more balanced approach. In a short statement released after bin Laden's killing, the Vatican did not codemn the killing of bin Laden. Instead Vatican spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi acknowledged bin Laden's responsibility for "spreading hatred and division," but:

Faced with the death of a man, a Christian never rejoices, but reflects on the serious responsibility of everyone before God and man, and hopes and pledges that every event is not an opportunity for a further growth of hatred, but of peace."

Update at 9:16 p.m. ET. A Little More On The Dalai Lama's Response:

The Dalai Lama's website has posted a more detailed explanation of what he said at USC:

In his response, His Holiness emphasized the need to find a distinction between the action and the actor. He said in the case of Bin Laden, his action was of course destructive and the September 11 events killed thousands of people. So his action must be brought to justice, His Holiness said. But with the actor we must have compassion and a sense of concern, he added. His Holiness said therefore the counter measure, no matter what form it takes, has to be compassionate action. His Holiness referred to the basis of the practice of forgiveness saying that it, however, did not mean that one should forget what has been done.

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Eyder Peralta
Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.