December 21, 2012

Buddhist Teachers Respond to the Newtown Tragedy

A couple of Sundays ago, I was standing in my office at Blazing Wisdom Institute in the Catskills, balancing on my Cam Walker boot, metal cane in left hand, still recovering from surgery on a broken bone in my right foot. 

Facing me inside the door were three officers of the law in sharp, starched uniforms, shiny boots and the hats and badges of their offices: our Delaware County roving Department of Environmental Conservation agent, and two Sheriff's deputies from the town of Delhi.

I had been calling their offices and cell phones politely but relentlessly for weeks.  Right across the road, in an unkempt field just 300 feet from where we stood, our neighbor's son and his friend visiting from New Jersey had been amusing themselves day after day by firing hundreds of rounds of live ammunition, from at least five different kinds of weapons, at all hours of the day and night.

I learned from my three official visitors that as long as weapons are licensed in New York (the visible ones, anyway; pistols somehow disappeared whenever the officers arrived on the scene to investigate), they can be fired when drunk, in the dark, or even blindly out of your own kitchen window, if you like.  Semi-automatic assault rifles, bear shotguns; whatever.

"Shooting is a sport!" DEC officer Bauer exclaimed, his military training on display in his bark and his bearing.  It doesn't matter, apparently, whether the booming and startling noise of guns firing disturbs others' peaceful right of occupancy of their own dwellings.  That law (disturbing the peace), as our officers of the law tend to interpret it, relates to loud parties, or dogs barking at night.

It doesn't matter whether the sound of gunfire makes small children (and many adults) feel terror in their own homes, or make the roads feel unsafe to walk, as shots are fired just behind a bordering line of trees.  Shooting licensed firearms, by law in New York, typically becomes a problem only after someone actually gets shot.

In fact, the only applicable law controlling the use of firearms in our situation is an environmental statute forbidding their discharge within 500 feet of occupied dwellings, schools or places of worship.  But that law won't be prosecuted in our case, Bauer explained, unless I can come up with video evidence, on my own initiative, that this has taken place.  The shooters will be taken at their word unless caught on video in the act. 

To capture that footage, of course, I would have had to approach to within shooting distance and along a clear sight line, without stumbling over my own walking boot or cane, as snowflakes fell steadily that Sunday and cast a white slick over our steep driveway and the road below.  No matter that the shooter already once before had threatened to “take me down” when I had tried to talk to him about his unleashed dogs terrorizing our pets and visitors.

Why is this the law of our land?  Can citizens now protect themselves from a tyrannical government with small firearms, as the second amendment to the federal constitution arguably intended in 1791?  How many of us need to keep our targeting skills sharp, or else starve, as compared with those living in the era of that amendment?  What kind of liberty and personal freedoms are being protected by a right that takes little to no account of the rights of others not to be shot by guns?

I read an op-ed piece in the New York Times a few months ago written by a nurse that cited a statistic that 200 people are shot in the United States every day by guns, of which on average 80 die from their gunshot wounds.  That's a pro football stadium full of shooting victims in this country every month. 

How many of those were shot by citizens lawfully protecting their homes and persons from assailants and intruders?  Very, very few.  The numbers do not afford a rationale for us all keeping guns under our beds at night, not even when deterrence is factored in. 

Why do we allow this daily rampage to go on and on?  Changing the law, by itself, won't entirely solve the problem.  But praying for peace and wishing for all others to renounce their violent habits and tendencies also will not soon solve the problem. 

This problem is not solely within our minds, nor is it solely environmental, cultural, or legal.  It is the interplay of all of these: it is our collective karma to live in a society that glorifies the ability to violently defeat others.  And karma, as they say, is a bitch.  A rabid bitch that follows close behind, and bites you in the ass when you least expect it.

I wish I had thought to ask the law enforcement triumvirate, "Do you go to church with your families?  Would you have no problem with a couple of dudes in camo gear firing hundreds of rounds of ammunition right across the road from your church, all through the service, and when you are walking your small children out to your car after it ends?" 

I doubt it.  But then, the right to worship is also sacred to most gun-toting Americans, at least when it is their own form of worship.  Which constitutional freedom trumps, the first amendment's right to worship, or the second's right to bear arms?  Shall every small town sheriff and prosecutor decide this for himself or herself?  I imagine that few carry weapons with them into their own halls of worship.

Modifying the law to require screening of the mental health of gun registrants, as some are now suggesting, is a fool's errand.  Adam Lanza took his mother's guns, shot her, and then used her guns to kill twenty schoolchildren and six adults trying to protect them.  No one ever doubted that she was of sound mental health.  No one can doubt, either, that if guns are available, disturbed people will find access to them.

For that matter, we can design no test with which to predict accurately the stressful circumstances any person, now deemed sane and responsible enough to own and operate firearms, will face going forward, and how that person will respond to those conditions, gun at the ready.  We can only strive to measure competence currently and retrospectively, but all crimes of violence by licensed gun users, or by others who obtain access to their guns, will occur prospectively.

Why are we so afraid not to trust ourselves to make the right decision on the use of dangerous firearms in any and all situations?  What greater fear, truly, are we protecting ourselves from, by arming ourselves this way?

One problem we must face is that our history as a nation is one of conditioning ourselves to believe that the skillful use of powerful weapons affords us liberty and security; and to act on that belief. 

The entire history of humanity, however, is proof to the contrary.  The law of karma is to the contrary.  You don't secure reliable and lasting peace by defeating your enemies, real or perceived, through violent force.  We who have studied our own thought processes and emotions through intensive meditation practice, we who have carefully analyzed, logically and empirically, the truth of interdependence of the entire phenomenal world, know this to be true.  It is not a debate position.  It is the truth. 

The question of whether we have movies that glorify violence because of our violent propensities, or vice versa, is therefore a foolish one.  The external phenomena and behaviors, as well as the internal beliefs, habits, and emotions, are interdependent and mutually reinforcing.

Who will speak for this truth?  It is undeniable that other societies that ban private ownership of guns and do not share our ideology about the right to bear arms have fewer shootings and murders per capita than we do.  They have tens and hundreds of times fewer shootings and murders than we do, in many or most cases. 

I feel it is my duty and responsibility, as a human being, as a citizen of this nation, as a parent and a child, and of course as a Buddhist practitioner, to speak out, with compassionate resolve, not only against violence and the glorification of violence as a means to end conflict, but against legal access to any and all firearms that facilitate the perpetration of violent acts. 

I do not find arguments that there is no way to give practical and well-bounded content to this dictum to be convincing, or even plausible.  And if the argument based on unenforceability were sound (i.e., that a black market for unlicensed weapons will replace the legal market and make it harder to control weapons distribution), then recreational drugs would have been legally sanctioned decades ago. 

If some people must still provisionally own long-barreled rifles with which to kill their dinner, in order for all of us to be safer from deadly assault with firearms, I will accept that compromise in practice, as a step forward, though never in principle.

I hope you will join me in speaking out on this important issue.  After all, we all reap, and weep over, the karma that we continue to sow together.


Tulku Sherdor is the executive director of the Blazing Wisdom Institute.

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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.

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.