A Little Tiny Meditation on Holy Wars and the Human Heart

While I’m always just a little suspicious of dates that have passed through numerous cultures over a long period of time, some set today as the day in 1099 when a month and a day after the Crusader army arrived at Jerusalem, in response to a vision of a priest they marched in procession around the walls of the city. They made their way to the Mount of Olives where the mad monk Peter the Hermit preached, exhorting them to take the city. The assault would take place five days later.


I’ve thought a lot over the years at how the children of the great Western religions have all encouraged holy war. The Jewish mythic history of Joshua and his armies taking the holy land at the direct instruction of the deity has been a curse on that land ever since. The Christian crusades are a mark of shame the Christian churches cannot avoid, however hard they try to squirm out from their culpability. And Islam’s jihad, well, today with a new caliph proclaiming his holy war from the desert between Syria and Iraq, what more is there to say on that one?

I’m certainly not letting the followers of other religions off the hook. While some have been more successful in avoiding the snares of spiritual justifications for their cultural wars, I am unaware of any world religion that has avoided this trap of God’s call to kill your enemies entirely.


On the one hand I feel in my bones how this happens. As we look at ancient cultures as often as not, maybe more, the name people give themselves is “the people,” “the human beings.” It is hard to see the other as in any way equal, or deserving of equal, or, even when a religion has become universal to not be co-opted by whatever corner of the world the tradition has sunk its roots into…

The universal is true.

And, it is only ever known in the particular.


A while back a magazine published an essay I’d written about meditation. They gave it some lovely illustrations. But, the part that was meant to illustrate “paying attention” they showed with the arrows projecting outward from the meditator.

I objected, but for their own reasons chose not to change the direction of the arrows.

The great Soto Zen master Eihei Dogen once observed that if we advance ourselves toward the ten thousand things, we are manifesting delusion.

Instead he calls us to let the ten thousand things come to us, let the arrows point inward; and then we find awakening.

We are one and we are many.

And we need to be careful how we engage these truths.

As you and I exist in our particularity it is easy to project out into the world.

Not all of that projection is going to be bad.

But, if there are problems and if we aren’t lucky and if we aren’t careful, we will project our hostility outward, and justify ourselves as the true expression of the great universal.

And holy wars follow…

Small and great…

A word to the wise.


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