December 21, 2012

Buddhist Teachers Respond to the Newtown Tragedy

Let me share with you an open secret: To save one child is to save a world. The educators who unhesitatingly gave their lives during the tragic events at Newtown, Connecticut, last Friday knew this. They can inspire us to think globally and act locally, beginning with ourselves and each other. What can we, can I, give?

“This is our first task, caring for our children,” President Obama reminded the nation on Sunday night. “It’s our first job. If we don’t get that right, we don’t get anything right. We know we’re always doing right when we’re taking care of them, when we’re teaching them well, when we’re showing acts of kindness. We don’t go wrong when we do that.”

Likewise, the Buddha reminds us that “Hatred does not cease through by hatred, but only by loving-kindness and compassion”—wishing others well, and being moved to empathize and act accordingly. Kindness and unselfish good deeds are the rent we pay for together inhabiting this endangered earth.

In the aftermath of the Newtown tragedy, the significant need for guardianship and altruistic service comes into mind with great force. How to be bodhisattva leaders and responsible stewards of the world, genuine elders and guides, to protect the most vulnerable among us? Where, when, and how to meaningfully address the roots of violence and mental illness, both individually and collectively?

Personally, I’m not sure that weapons control alone can entirely solve the problem, even should it come into legislative being. If we don’t learn to disarm the heart and nurture empathetic feelings of interconnection, cultivating inner peace and harmony, then external peace and harmony will always continue to elude us. As you are, so your children shall be. Let this be one lesson we never forget. If we wish to feel safe, we need to create a climate of safety for one another, and for our children in the future.

The tragic events at Newtown are a rare and terrible gift. In breaking our hearts, in shocking us out of complacency and routine preoccupations, they may also give rise to openheartedness and vital opportunity. For suffering can give rise to understanding and even greater wisdom; this can be the pearl beyond price, the product of the inner vicissitudes and irritation of a hard-shelled yet internally soft oyster.

I think it’s crucial now, in our time of grief, that we collectively reflect and recognize this as a defining moment in which we can transform ourselves. Let us act now to help enable a sane future to be realistically possible. We must. For the benefit of all the children.

We’re all children of a higher power, if you like to look at it that way—including animals and all living things. Buddhists believe that all beings are innately endowed with the luminous Buddha-nature, and that life is precious, sacred, a miracle. I try to handle it with prayer. Therefore, I pray to lift up all children into the peace and light of better lives and safer, more secure futures, free from fear, harm, anxiety, and want. I wholeheartedly pray to be(come) the Bodhisattva of Children.


Lama Surya Das is the American founder of the Dzogchen Foundation, a lay practice center in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In addition to twice completing the traditional three-year Vajrayana meditation retreat, he is also the author of several books.

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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.