The One Heart of Flight 93

Photo by J. Todd PolingSensei Anthony Stultz served as the Buddhist chaplain at the tenth anniversary memorial for the victims of Flight 93. He recalls this moving experience.

In the Zen Peacemaker family tradition we define Zen as a way of awakening to the oneness of all life. In the engaged Shin tradition, oneness is a metaphor for the compassionate action of the bodhisattva’s vow, personified in the cosmic mythos of Amida Buddha. The term “oneness” has become very popular and usually refers to conceptual ideas on nonduality and other interesting philosophical models. But the real heart of oneness is not an idea but an experience, an experience that opens us up to participate in a more universal consciousness unbounded by the fear-laden and survivalist tendencies of our self-conscious conditioning. I would like to share with you my most recent encounter.

In early August, I received a phone call asking me to serve as a Buddhist chaplain at the tenth anniversary memorial service for the victims of Flight 93, which was hijacked on September 11, 2001, and crashed into a field in Pennsylvania. I was deeply honored to be asked to serve in this capacity and immediately agreed. It was only after a few days had passed that I began to discover the immensity of the responsibility I had undertaken.

My first response was to let myself enter deeply into this space by practicing the way of “not knowing.” For me, this practice is about stopping and looking deeply into what is happening in my life and consistently asking, “What is this?” I allow everything that I think I know about a situation to rise up and then fall away like the thoughts that come and go in my meditation. The reality is that I often do this very poorly and spend a great deal of time obsessing. However, as the years have passed I’ve become deeply aware that the practice of not knowing is really nothing more than becoming intimate with reality as it is, not as I wish it were.

In this instance, I began to question whether I was “good enough” to do this. I wondered if I would do it well and be acceptable to the families. I wondered how they would perceive a Buddhist minister in what would be a largely Judeo- Christian setting. In other words, I questioned my own identity and self-worth. So, I sat down with trusted family and friends to review the stuff that was coming up, challenging it with the mindfulness process that we use here at the Blue Mountain Lotus Society.

Next, I entered into the practice of bearing witness. For me, this practice is about really getting close to the things that I have an aversion to. As I read the stories of the passengers and crew and watched the many documentaries and programs about their lives, I began to feel a connection to them that was visceral. I myself had recently gone through the sudden death of my father and the near death of my mother, all within the span of four months. I went deeply into my own pain and found myself openly weeping as the victims’ loved ones shared their stories of both suffering and joys. I experienced a real sense of interconnectedness with them as I came to realize the Buddhist wisdom that it is not in our strength but in our suffering that we truly connect with others.

Then I began to ponder the lives of the four men who had committed this act of violence. During one of the liturgical meetings with the other clergy, it was made clear that this day was for the victims and that even though the remains of the terrorists were now forever intermingled with those they had murdered, it was decided that it would be too painful for the families to recognize this publicly. I was troubled by this, not because I couldn’t understand the pastoral wisdom in their decision process, or that I had not felt my own grievous anger at the terrorists’ actions. I was troubled because it seemed to be a missed opportunity to recognize that these four young men were not born this way, that the hatred and delusion that led to this tragedy is not alien to me, or to any of us.

I thought of the Thich Nhat Hanh poem “Call Me By My True Names,” in which he expresses the awful truth that we are both the victim and criminal, that those whom we would push away in self-righteous indignation are actually a part of us—they are us. I remembered the words of Shakyamuni Buddha: “If we could understand the universe with the eye of omniscience we would forgive everything.” So I read everything I could find about these four men and came to the decision that I would remember them in my own prayer offering at the memorial—and that they would be held in my heart with forgiveness of their actions and the honoring of their true natures. I could abhor their violent behavior while still being clear that those acts were not a reflection of their true selves. I felt a huge release of emotion at this decision, knowing that I was not just forgiving them but forgiving myself as well.

On the morning of September 12, I drove through the quiet farm community of Somerset into the tiny town of Shanksville. The rolling green hills and sights were very familiar to me, having spent a large part of my youth there. When I arrived, I met the other clergy whom previously I had only known through telephone and email. I also met the man who almost single-handedly spearheaded the effort to make this event happen, the affable county coroner, Wally Miller.

As the families gathered, we vested in our robes and took our places on the dais that three U.S. presidents had shared just the day before. I removed my malas and practiced “just being,” listening and surrendering totally to the moment. We walked in procession to the field where three coffins filled with the remains of all those who had died rested on the very site where the plane had struck the earth. As we walked, I became absorbed in silent, mindful steps and the lonely strains of the bagpipe that preceded us.

When it was my turn to lead the liturgy, I caught the eyes of Toshiya Kuge’s mother, who traveled here from Japan to be with her little boy who had so loved everything American, much in the same way that I, as a young lad, had fallen in love with all things Japanese. I offered incense from a flame held by my brother priest, Father Dan O’Neill and recited, first in English and then in Japanese, the words of the Heart Sutra. As I bowed solemnly before each casket, I chanted the names of each of the passengers—all of them.

When the ceremony was over, each of the clergy went into the crowd to offer whatever pastoral care he or she could. I was humbled by the Kuge family as they presented me with an exquisitely wrapped gift, as is the tradition in their culture. Through a translator, I shared my honor at being with them, and with many bows and exclamations of domo arigato, I hoped that I had helped provide them some small measure of closure. I was happily surprised that many of the families came forward and thanked me for being there, saying that their loved one, while ostensibly Christian or Jewish, had in fact been a Buddhist practitioner. I told each of them that it was my deepest honor and assured them that we are all one people of faith in love.

As things settled and folks moved on, I walked off into the field alone, marking the very trail Flight 93 had taken as it crashed. Suddenly a voice from behind called out and said, “Sensei! Look!” I looked up and there, flying all about me, were thousands of dragonflies. I smiled and the tears flowed. Our order of clergy is the Order of the Dragonfly, named after my late beloved sister, Christine, who saw them as a symbol of the awakened life. It was a gentle confirmation of the healing action that had taken place. I whispered the Nembutsu and was embraced by oneness.


Anthony Stultz is a Zen teacher in the tradition of the Zen Peacemaker Sangha and the founder and director of the Blue Mountain Lotus Society in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. He is the author of Free Your Mind: The Four Directions of an Awakened Life.