On 7 July 2005, four young men travelled from Leeds to London – and blew themselves to pieces. Three of them exploded their bombs on London Underground trains and one on a Number 30 bus. Between them they killed 52 innocent people and wounded 784 more, many with life-changing injuries.
The shock waves raced around the world, along with the defining image of the event – the mangled remains of a red double-decker bus, an iconic image of London struck by a monstrous act of terror. Coming only four years after an even more monstrous act in a major Western city – 9/11 – the attack was quickly dubbed 7/7. As with the New York attack, it’s a shorthand label that has kept the date alive during the passing years.
For me, 7/7 has another significance, because on that very day in 2005 my book The Buddha, Geoff and Me was published. The contradiction of the timing struck me at once.
Geoff is the story of a cynical young man who is looking for meaning and direction in his life. In some ways, in his disillusion and alienation, he’s perhaps not so different from the four young men who became the 7/7 bombers. Unlike them, though, he encounters a teaching not of rage, vengeance and violence but its very opposite – Buddhism.
A fundamental tenet of Buddhist thought is that everyone possesses the Buddha nature, a state of being characterised by wisdom, courage and compassion. Normally this state lies dormant but, given the right trigger, it can be awakened and revealed in daily life; just as our anger sleeps within us until something pokes it and brings it boiling up from within. For the young man in my book, the trigger for his Buddha nature is meeting and becoming friends with Geoff, a down-to-earth, beer-drinking, roll-up-smoking Buddhist.
So – to return to the contradiction – here I was on 7/7 publishing a book about a young man’s journey to develop the best aspect of human life while, on the very same day, four young men were enacting the worst.
The irony was not lost on my best mate, who – it’s fair to say – is less than convinced by the Buddhist view of things.
‘So where was their Buddha nature then, eh? Forget to pack it in their exploding rucksacks?’
My answer – that in these four bombers it hadn’t yet been awoken – didn’t cut any ice with my friend. As he pointed out, even practising Buddhists can behave badly. History has seen Buddhist monks arming themselves to fight battles over land and property, contemporary Buddhism has not covered itself in nonviolent glory in Sri Lanka or Myanmar – and ‘Even you’re not exactly a paragon of virtue,’ he reminded me.
All true, but also pointing to a deeper truth.
The highest Buddhist teachings – there are several levels – explain that we all experience constantly changing life states, some of which seem to directly contradict each other; for example, anger and the Buddha nature. And yet, Buddhism says, these apparently contradictory life states co-exist within us; sometimes active, at other times dormant. Which means, as the Buddhist sage Nichiren observed, that ‘Even a heartless villain loves his wife and children. He too has a portion of the bodhisattva world within him.’ In other words, for all his villainy, ‘the bodhisattva world within him’ enables him to care about others (of his choosing) and work to protect and nurture them.
I recalled this observation when I learnt about Mohammad Sidique Khan, the leader of the 7/7 bombers. Before he left for what was later discovered to be a terrorist training camp in Pakistan, in November 2004, his wife had filmed a video of him dandling their baby daughter on his knee and lovingly kissing her goodbye. After the bombing, a note he’d written for his wife and daughter came to light. ‘Sorry I can’t be there, hope you understand. I love you all and inshallah [God willing] will meet you the best of places Jannah [heaven].’
Khan had worked as a primary school teaching assistant, helping children with behavioural problems. He was also a youth worker and had arbitrated in a dispute between rival gangs. As the Guardian reported:
Few men were more popular on the streets of Beeston than the 30-year-old family man. Recognised by his sensible sweaters and neat, coiffured hairstyle, Khan’s respectability peaked nine months ago when he visited Parliament as the guest of a local MP. There he was praised for his teaching work. Even now, those who hang about Cross Flatt’s Park describe him as their mentor.
In other words, Mohammad Sidique Khan seemed to have quite a large ‘portion of the bodhisattva world within him’ – so how on earth was he capable of such a hideous act?
The answer routinely given is that, as with every other murderous terrorist, he was ‘radicalised’ – that is, his mind was somehow twisted to adopt a brutal, vicious ideology with no regard for human decency or the lives of innocent people.
I have trouble with this explanation – it simplifies something that experts agree is actually pretty complex. So might an analysis based on another insight of Buddhist philosophy be helpful here – namely, the function of honzons in our lives? I wrote a short explanation not long ago for a military project in which I’ve been closely involved:
Honzon is a Japanese word that expresses the idea of core beliefs in its two composite characters.
- hon — fundamental
- zon — object of respect, veneration or devotion
The concept derives from Eastern religious thought and can be broadly interpreted as referring to what a person bases their life on, consciously or unconsciously, to give it meaning. It is similar to the concept of psychological centrality, and what the organisational expert Steven Covey calls ‘centers’.
Each of us has a center, though we usually don’t recognize it as such. Neither do we recognize the all-encompassing effects of that center on every aspect of our lives.’
A honzon can be defined as a person’s most essential needs attached to a specific goal, activity or object, real or abstract. A person’s self-identity is closely bound to his or her honzon. All individuals and groups have a honzon, which is also the basis of individual and group morality. For example, a person might never be violent – except to protect his or her honzon. Examples of honzons include the following.
Family Key relationship
Peer group Organisation/team
Pleasure/fun A substance
Mission Belief system
Abstract principle Nature
Culture/land/nation The enemy
For as long as our honzon is perceived to be intact, within reach or recoverable, we will draw strength and inspiration from it. The picture of our family or loved one in time of stress, the nation’s flag raised on the battlefield, the thought that the many hours of training or study will eventually bring fame or wealth; these are all day-to-day examples of the motivational power of a honzon.
On the other hand, the loss of our honzon leads to confusion, suffering, decline and even death. A threat to (or denial of) our honzon is the most serious of all challenges and can prompt the earliest and strongest reaction.
To my mind, radicalisation in essence consists of honzon replacement (or elevation). What the extremist previously saw as fundamental, the centre of his or her being – family, career, whatever – is supplanted by a ‘higher order’ belief system that relegates all other possible honzons to a lower rank. A new ‘higher order’ morality comes with this belief system that provides meaning and structure; in short, anything that advances or sustains the new honzon is ‘good’ and anything that obstructs or attacks it is ‘evil’. And the evil must be resisted, with violence if necessary.
Crucially, one common characteristic of violent extremists is that they consistently frame their lethal actions in defensive terms. In their minds, they are protecting their honzons. This is an extract from Khan’s pre-bombing video message:
Your democratically elected governments continuously perpetuate atrocities against my people all over the world. And your support of them makes you directly responsible, just as I am directly responsible for protecting and avenging my Muslim brothers and sisters. Until we feel security, you will be our targets. And until you stop the bombing, gassing, imprisonment and torture of my people we will not stop this fight. We are at war and I am a soldier. Now you too will taste the reality of this situation.
Similarly, when he murdered the pro-EU MP Jo Cox during the EU referendum campaign, the right-wing extremist Thomas Mair shouted ‘Britain first, this is for Britain!’, ‘Britain will always come first!’, ‘We are British independence!’ and ‘Make Britain independent!’ No prizes for guessing which honzon he thought he was protecting. Again, Anders Brevik, who killed 77 people in the 2011 Norway attacks, claimed to be defending Europe from the ‘cultural suicide’ of Islam and feminism. For him, ‘European culture’ – whatever that means – trumped all other honzons.
Unlike Khan, Thomas Mair and Anders Brevik were not pillars of their local community – far from it. In fact, a significant number of violent extremists, at least in Europe, share backgrounds of petty criminality and anti-social behaviour that already set them apart from mainstream society. Joining or identifying with an extremist group – and the honzon it chooses to revere – is not then such a big step, especially if they meet it in prison.
In short, many acts of political violence, including by states, can be understood through the lens of the honzons we adopt and the morality that we develop around them.
But understanding is only the first step. To solve this problem we need wisdom, courage and compassion, demonstrated in the thoughts, words and actions of more and more people. For if the War on Terror has taught us anything, it’s that we cannot kill our way out of this cul-de-sac. The more death we put into the system, the more death seems to come out of it, year by year.
The ultimate challenge perhaps is to find a honzon that has, as its central value, supreme respect for the dignity of life itself and to promote that widely in society. Perhaps then the wisdom, courage and compassion we so badly need will start to arise in abundance. And perhaps then the seemingly endless repetition of events like 7/7 will dwindle to the point where they’re no more than a bad memory of ages long ago.
So that’s my thought as we mark 7/7 for another year – wisdom, courage and compassion. And life, not death.
 Understand to Prevent: The military contribution to the prevention of violent conflict, MCDC, 2014.
 The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, 1988.