December 21, 2012

Buddhist Teachers Respond to the Newtown Tragedy

The shootings that took place in Newtown—taking the lives of 20 children, all first graders, and 7 adults including the shooter—is a tragedy of such immense proportions, it has rightfully thrown many of us into confusion and deep questioning. As Buddhists, yoga, and mindfulness practitioners, how do we hold this? Make sense of it? Respond? ...What to do?

As with any experience that stretches us beyond the field of our knowing, of familiarity, our first and most powerful response is not really a Buddhist response at all, but a human one. It is to just sit. To allow ourselves to feel with the body that which is incomprehensible to the mind. Such a sitting would be a non-questioning one. It isn't so much about trying to figure out why or how or who to blame, or even what there is to be done about it. Rather, there is only "just sitting"—allowing what there is to be felt to be felt. To let what is, be.

Much of our culture has become about not having space to feel what there is to feel. Distraction from discomfort reigns supreme. Our technology largely serves to accentuate that: with a few extra moments of unfilled time, our fundamental discomfort with ourselves surfaces, sending us to computer and cellphones to check email. So much of what has gone astray in our culture has to do with our inability to allow ourselves to "be with." This is, I believe, a place in which the practice of meditation can meaningfully contribute to society...that in our "do" culture, we are empowered to cultivate a space in which to simply "be." This pause, this settling into ourselves, this calm abiding, is a valuable firewall for preventing our pain from becoming confused with our action. It is essential that we become present to our desire to "do something" so that we don't allow pain and confusion to drive us. In this way, the practice of being present to what is is radical.

Given where American society sits today—in this constant tug of war between aggression and distraction—neither can dharma practitioners languish solely in the action of nonaction. Our becoming aware and present is essential, but insufficient. For some of us, there may be nothing further to do outwardly; our bearing witness is enough. But as a broad and diverse body of people bound together by not only the values, but the practices of wisdom and compassion, the larger Buddhist and yoga communities sit at a crossroads in which it is becoming increasingly apparent that a collective response to such tragedies, to such crises, to such epidemic confusion and its underlying causes, is a responsibility we must step into. We must put ourselves on the line and our values to the test of making active, meaningful, strategic contributions in the places that our social attention goes to at such times: traditional and social media, political advocacy mechanisms, and platforms that amplify our voices beyond speaking to just ourselves.

Because while we won't all agree on what there is to do, we possess a strong and binding core of shared sensibility as to how. Our commitment to and alignment with the path of the Buddha instructs and teaches us to bring both compassion and wise action to bear upon our response.  As a community—however loose, decentralized, non-hierarchical—we must have one.

We must grapple with the immense responsibility and gift of being aware of our interconnectedness, recognizing that we cannot separate ourselves from being accountable for the social conditions that give rise to such tragedies.

And we must do something about it.


Angel Kyodo Williams is a maverick teacher, Zen priest, yogi, and founder of Center for Transformative Change. She is the author of Being Black: Zen and the Art of Living with Fearlessness and Grace, is a thought leader for transformative social change, leads the newDharma Community, and constantly muses about Mindfulness That Matters.

Share with a Friend

Email to a Friend

Already a member? Log in to share this content.

You must be a Tricycle Community member to use this feature.

1. Join as a Basic Member

Signing up to Tricycle newsletters will enroll you as a free Tricycle Basic Member.You can opt out of our emails at any time from your account screen.

2. Enter Your Message Details

Enter multiple email addresses on separate lines or separate them with commas.
This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
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.

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.