December 21, 2012

Buddhist Teachers Respond to the Newtown Tragedy

For a long time, in teaching, I’ve been using the example of an unexpected phone call that completely upends our lives to illustrate the reality that our lives are fragile, evanescent, and vulnerable. Life can change on a dime, for anybody. Sometimes, if I use that example before a break, someone will come back shaken, saying they checked their messages while on the break, and it had just happened to them.

Of course I thought of that last Friday when I heard of the immense tragedy in Connecticut. “Heartbreaking” seems so puny and inadequate a word to describe that unfathomable pain—losing your child, losing your parent, losing your partner to violence. Imagine getting that phone call. Actually, some of us have. I know many people who have suddenly faced the death of a child or a dearly loved one, some to violence. The pain really is unfathomable.

I also thought of my teacher Dipa Ma, who has been and remains to be my model for using great pain as a springboard to great love and compassion. I would never want to be glib, and imply somehow that it is easy, but I know from her example, and the example of others, that it is possible. Dipa Ma lost two children, and then her husband, whom she loved very much. She was in Burma at the time of his death, with one surviving daughter. The doctor came, and said she was in danger of dying of a broken heart unless she did something about her mind. He suggested that she learn to meditate. The fruit of her practice was her lovingkindness, which completely changed my life.

Someone once asked a venerable old monk what he would say to try to encapsulate the most important of the Buddha’s teachings. He replied, “All things arise due to causes and conditions.”

When I first heard that it sounded rather dry. “Really?” I thought. “Cause and effect is it?” But now I understand that teaching differently—it is the clarion call of connection and the end of nihilism. What we do matters. What we care about matters.

We live in a terribly nihilistic society, and it is getting more so all the time. I am committed to working harder to change that trajectory, through my personal efforts to be a more enlightened person and to change the structures of society that I believe lead to greater disconnection, alienation, and violence. Plenty of people whom I have loved have mental illness, so some of those efforts have to do with trying to change how accessible treatment is.  Some of those efforts have to do with challenging the increasing normalcy of violence. And even though some who follow me on Twitter didn’t seem to like it, some of those efforts have to do with strengthening gun control laws, so that lethal tools are less available even if someone is overcome by hatred or fear.

May we all find the bounty of lovingkindness, and a vision of how we might try to make this a better world.


Sharon Salzberg is cofounder of the Insight Meditation Society (IMS) in Barre, Massachusetts.

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Brucio's picture

So many wise thoughts from you teachers and community members. For me, the letters A, B and C came to mind as I read. It didn’t sound like me, but there they were. It seems right to start with B, which I see as my response to the Newtown tragedy over the last ten days. I’ve cried, I’ve opened, I’ve been with across the miles. I’ve watched CNN and seen the faces – darling kids and torn apart moms and dads. Next I see C, and thoughts of gun control and mental health come to mind. What difference will all the suggested solutions make? I don’t know. Most deeply, I go to A. How can I be in the world so that no more Newtowns happen?

“Who’s left out?” That’s the question I’ve asked myself for years. Whether I’m with a group of kids or a group of adults, I’ve often looked for the one person who is on the periphery, whose eyes reveal the darkness. And I’ve often sat beside that person, and just talked. Perhaps not often enough. Sometimes, I’ve headed to the popular ones, hoping they’ll like me. But there’s no cheese down that tunnel. So I’ve decided that my major response to Newtown is to spend time with the lost and lonely, maybe even eliciting a smile. It seems right.

robedon60's picture

We are again faced with that which is far too horrible for words and are overcome with helplessness and impotence. There will be calls for reform and change as there have been so many times before. We are left feeling helpless and powerless and with the questions of what we can do.
It may be that feeling the sorrow will open a door to the recognition of our shared humanity and the knowledge that children throughout the world are our children. Connecticut, Colorado, Gaza, Israel, Pakistan, Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan; guns, drones, missiles, land mines, or bombs; schools, malls, rural villages, foreign cities; regardless of color or nation, child or adult; in shared sorrow they are our children and our neighbors. We can never know if these tragedies would have been prevented if a stranger had waved, smiled, or spoken kindly to those who committed violence.
All of this may seem like just more words unless we each go within, still the internal talk, and feel the sadness. Each of us have our individual ways of avoiding pain; some will be angry and blame, some will distract with pleasures of competing, eating or shopping, many will deny and dull the pain with thinking. We do this not because we are uncaring but because we don’t know what else to do and because allowing the pain may seem like too much. We moralize and have opinions in order to regain an illusion of control over that which we have no control. Secretly we may feel relief and gratitude that it wasn’t our child, grandchild, or loved one and also some fear, knowing that it could be. Many will be inclined to read this, nod or disagree and go on with their day. I would ask only that you pause, even if only very briefly, quiet the head talk, be still, and listen closely to hear the cries and anguish of those who are left behind in Connecticut and elsewhere, to see parents waiting for flag draped coffins, and the face of the Palestinian journalist carrying his dead 11 month old son from a hospital in Gaza. Cradle any softness you find and return to it often, for this is what makes us human. Over time we may find that we listen more carefully, speak more gently, touch with more tenderness, and smile with a little more sincerity. In the end it is not just about more jails, mental health funding, fewer guns, or any of the other things that media and politicians may call for. It matters little what we think. It is far more about feeling the deep sense of connection with one another and acting with compassion, kindness, and love. We can best honor those who have died, been maimed, and traumatized throughout the world by sharing the sorrow of those who love them and let the wisdom that results be our moral compass.
May all beings know the peace and stillness that waits within.

sunmoonlight's picture

Reflections of a Buddhist Psychiatrist in the wake of the tragedy:

drleroi's picture

Many years ago, I was managing an apartment building, and we had a heavy snowstorm. I tried to get a snowplow to plow the parking lot, but all he was able to do was pile it in big drifts at each end. One of the residents began harranguing me about the fact that he had to climb over this to get to his car. He went on and on. following me into my apartment. A friends child had left a toy gun, and I picked it up, and told him to go home and leave me alone. IT was sufficiently realistic that he thought it was a real weapon. He called the police. Luckily, I was not arrested. I could have been. Had it been a real weapon I might have. Or I might have done something really stupid. As buddhists, we mostly know that we don't have perfect control of our emotions. One of my best friends was an NRA member and an avid hunter. He kept his weapons in a locked steel gun safe. In the town I live in Georgia, a quarter of a million dollars worth of assault weapons have been purchased in the last week. We now require seat belts, and put helmets on our kids when they ride bicycles. Yet, we as a society don't seem to require any precautions at all with objects that have no other purpose then to kill our fellow human beings. I just don't get it.

Dominic Gomez's picture

As a society we have few positive models. History repeats itself. We have none other than now to do our human revolution and change the present so that the future does not repeat the past.

jboureston's picture

Amen to that Dominic.

It is a very sad situation and we cannot help but feel compassion for those have been affected (directly or indirectly) by this tragedy.

These talks are useful for contemplating the difficulties we all experience. I assume that you are citing the remembrances? It is beautiful and true that they can be the cause of suffering if we cannot accept them. But, if we accept that in life we ALL will have illness, we will die, that all will change (continuously), that we cannot escape the consequences of our actions, that our actions are the ground in which we stand, then can't we all find true happiness in the fact that we are alive in this moment? It is of course very sad that these beautiful people will not able to know old age. Of course it is a testament that life is very fragile and must be appreciated all the time.

I have to come back to Susan's point that (I'm paraphrasing a little):
"We might hate the horrible monster who did this. We might condemn him (rightly so). I’m not saying don’t do that. It may not be useful, but it is human. The only thing we cannot do under any circumstance is think that we are very different than he is."

We really don't know (or are just learning some insight into) what his life was like, or how we would react if we had his life. It is of course almost impossible to understand this person's difficulties and have compassion for him, but he must have been suffering too.

I offer love and acceptance to us all. As humans we are all in this together. Only some times can we find acceptance and happiness in this.

Blessings to all. May we be free from suffering, and find acceptance in the good and the bad, so we may find true peace from within.

Kevin K.'s picture

For me, Tulku Sherdor's post stands alone among these heartfelt teachings for its articulate call to action. I recently read a post by another Buddhist teacher that is more pointed still, and worthy of consideration:

Dominic Gomez's picture

Death is the fourth suffering endured by all foms of life. The other three are birth, aging and illness. To prematurely take away a young person's wonderful opportunity to realize this in his or her present lifetime is truly regretable.