THEOSOPHY, Vol. 90, Winter 2001-2002
(Pages 5-11; Size: 13K)


[Article number (17) in this Department]

In light of the recent terrorist attacks on the United States, what does it truly mean "to turn the other cheek"?

Tragedy and suffering shape our lives continually, whether for a few moments of tremendous loss or years of isolating hardship. These events force individuals to face long-held beliefs and adjust to what seems suddenly and deeply real and important. Terrorism, defined as destruction or murder driven by religious renewal and political ambition, is a war waged with unsuspecting masses, possibly strangers to a cause. Individual response to it uncovers lifetimes of experiences and layers of emotions, masked and unmasked, released in waves as shock diminishes, wounds heal, and retaliatory acts occur. A wider rippling effect of fear and anger or even sympathy is anticipated and confirmed, often manipulated by opportunists and secondary players. Wading through the ripples is a task for each of us.

From all directions in daily life, we are called to pay attention, to choose sides, and to act. We each find ourselves with different needs and strengths in our preparedness. The profound conviction of our beliefs and ideals is drawn into question. You may find yourself at odds with neighbors when you really want to reconfirm your sense of solidarity and support. You may find yourself irrelevant to the discussion if you can't offer some solution to the needs for security and protection. Does theosophy provide the foundation for meaningful discussions within this world dialogue (friends and neighbors included)? The following are three voices exploring different facets of this inquiry into "turning the other cheek" to terrorism.


There is only one commandment in theosophy: "act for and as the Self of all." The Self of all is the spiritual unity that underlies all existence, that shines alike in all beings, making us all related, all one, all "brothers." Acting on this basis means seeing all others as one with ourselves. To harm another is to harm all others, including ourselves, for we are all a part of the same whole. To help another is to help all others, including ourselves.

Throughout time, this one universal commandment has been expressed by different people in different ways. In the ancient East, the Sanskrit term ahimsa was used to describe it. Ahimsa means doing no harm to any other being; it means acting with love and compassion towards others. The idea appears again and again in the statements attributed to the Buddha (from The Dhammapada, trans. Eknath Easwaran, Blue Mountain Center of Meditation, 1985, pp. 78, 111): "Everyone fears punishment," he says, "everyone fears death, just as you do. Therefore do not kill or cause to kill. Everyone fears punishment; everyone loves life, as you do. Therefore do not kill or cause to kill." He also said, "Hatred cannot put an end to hatred; love alone can. This is an unalterable law." The idea here is to return love for hatred, nonviolence for violence, forgiveness for anger. Six centuries later, Jesus the Christ taught this same doctrine:

...have heard that it was said, "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth." But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; and if any one would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well....
All these are magnificent expressions of the same basic law of life: brotherhood, to act for and as the Self of all.

We have seen that one rationale for this law is the unity of life. Another rationale is karma. Karma is action, and every human action is a means towards an end. It may safely be said, as the Buddha suggests above, that in the end all people want peace. Even the most hardened criminal or fanatical terrorist, though not realizing it, harbors deep inside him the ideal of a peaceful, secure existence. The treachery of the mind, however, becomes convinced that violence can lead to nonviolence, hatred to love, and anger to tranquility. The great sages throughout time have taught that this can never be. Every action produces results that are akin to its original nature and intent. Just as when you plant a carrot seed, a carrot plant -- and not some other plant -- appears, so, when you sow a deed of violence, violence inevitably follows.

Not only criminals and terrorists but many, perhaps most, people in the world today believe that in order to accomplish a good end one must sometimes use an evil means. In order to achieve peace, one must use violence to stop the war makers. But the moment we assume such a position, we become war makers ourselves. In truth, there is no separation between ends and means. The end is wrapped up in the means. There has never been and there never will be an instance when a violent means did not eventually culminate in a violent end. Peace and peace only will bring about a lasting peace. This is an unalterable law.

Anyone who tries to live according to this highest ideal of ahimsa will be going against the powerful current of modern life, which is essentially mean, selfish and violent. It is not easy to go against the current. It is extraordinarily difficult. But it has been done, by individuals (Buddha, Christ and their followers) and even by entire communities -- in our time, India led by Mohandas K. Gandhi and the civil rights workers under Martin Luther King. And many, many others are doing so in their own lives in their own way, unknown and unheralded by the rest of the world.

Which shall it be? Shall we continue to drift in moral darkness, blindly adhering to the modern conditioned responses of anger and retaliation? Or shall we steer our spiritual ship by a brighter, more eternal star -- the law of ahimsa, the law of turning the other cheek, the law that says no matter what another does, we will not use ignoble means to attain a noble end, we will use only noble ends to attain a noble end? Ultimately, we must each choose for ourselves -- as individuals and as nations -- whether or not to follow this law, and if so, to what extent.


To hear this phrase (to turn the other cheek) repeated throughout the world might sound naïve in the acquisitive climate of distrust and selfishness that characterizes the materialistic world by which we are surrounded. Nevertheless, the implied meaning has endured throughout human history. HPB makes reference to its origin:

"The history of the Buddhist reform is full of the most noble and most heroically unselfish acts. 'Be ye all of one mind, having compassion one of another; love as brethren, be pitiful, be courteous; not rendering evil for evil, or railing for railing; but contrariwise, blessing' was practically carried out by the followers of Buddha..." (Key to Theosophy, p. 228.)
What is the meaning beyond the literal for this phrase? How can we explain for example, the action of Mahatma Ghandi and his position of nonviolence? By any worldly standard, this act would be viewed as an act of fanaticism, and yet, it resonated throughout the world to affect far-reaching changes in the way people think. In The Words of Gandhi (Newmarket Press, 1991, pp. 55, 58), "Nonviolence implies voluntary submission to the penalty for non-cooperation with evil. ... The force generated by nonviolence is infinitely greater than the force of all the arms invented by ingenuity."

In a time of tragedy, are we able to see clearly enough to act rationally? Do we react or respond to negative situations? In the Bhagavad-Gita, Chapter V, Krishna advises Arjuna: "The path of action is obscure. That man who sees inaction in action and action in inaction is wise among men; he is a true devotee and a perfect performer of all action."

Compassion is implicit in the perfect performance of action, for "Compassion is no attribute. It is the LAW of LAWS -- eternal Harmony, Alaya's SELF; a shoreless universal essence, the light of everlasting Right, and fitness of all things, the law of love eternal." (Voice of the Silence, p. 75.)

In Letters That Have Helped Me (p. 161), attributed to Judge (Path, August 1890), perfect justice presupposes equity:

It is necessary, when acting, to lose all sense of identity and to become an abstract power. Justice is the opposite of Partiality. There is good and evil in every point of the universe, and if one works, however indirectly, for ones own partiality, one becomes, to that extent, a Black Magician.
Our motives are clearly in question at all times. Our journey through many lifetimes is one of unfolding awareness to finally include and become at one with the whole of life. This is only possible by acting for and as the self of all; to take this position is to recognize the oneness of life as well as our immortality. In this context then, we must remember to judge the act and not the person or persons that are acting as agents for the action. From this point of view, our response to aggression will be one of restraint rather than retaliation.


Although the attraction of opposites is a basic magnetic law in the physical world, the world of effects, like attracts like, is the law in the world of causes, the plane of active intelligence. Esoteric philosophy says that every outer action has an inner impulse, and the Buddha tells us in the Dhammapada, "All that we are is the result of what we have thought." Just as the building first appears in the mind of the architect, so we will never surpass the self-imposed limits of our imagination. It is on the inside that "the final battle" is lost or won.

"To turn the other cheek," in light of the above, means to act in a transformative way by setting those forces in motion that we would like to see manifest in the world. Since it is natural to want a harmonious and peaceful world, why would we want our inner geography to be filled with volcanoes of hate, dark valleys of fear, and deserts of revenge. In other words, let us replace "he who lives by the sword dies by the sword" with he who lives by love and respect will demand the same from others by appealing to the higher nature of things. This is not a pacifist point of view but one of potency and principle. Even if we need to use unusual measures to stop something that threatens the well-being of ourselves, our family or society, we can learn to do it with a higher end in view, with compassion and love, not with feelings of hatred and the hope of "getting even." The fact that humankind has always used "the stick" to solve its problems and the same ones still persist should tell us something. We need a new paradigm for action. We need to take a deep look into our motives if we want to set up causes that will be beneficial to us and others in the long run. Unless there is a paradigm shift within, a shift from "us versus them" to "we," we will continue to ride the historical treadmill.

Cast out the dark shadow of revenge,
dispel fear with the flashing eye of courage,
turn the other cheek without falling
deep into the gray trance of passivity.
Rise up on the strong wings
of justice, tempered by compassion.

Next article:
(Spring 2002)
[Article number (18) in this Department]

Back to the
complete list of articles.

Back to the full listing containing all of the
"Additional Categories of Articles".

Main Page | Introductory Brochure | Volume 1--> Setting the Stage
Karma and Reincarnation | Science | Education | Economics | Race Relations
The WISDOM WORLD | World Problems & Solutions | The People*s Voice | Misc.