Civil Discourse in a Time of Gunfire

with The Huffington Post's Richard Eskow

The editors and I had already agreed to hold an online conversation about "civil discourse" with the Tricycle Community.  Then, in a tragic coincidence, the shootings in Tucson brought the subject into painfully sharp focus.  The topic has been the theme of my own engagement with Tricycle from the beginning. My first piece, "Above the Fray."  dealt with my own conflicted feelings as a political writer and activist who found "right speech" and political engagement impossible to reconcile.

The world has changed so much in such a short time.  My concerns about genteel language sound almost naive today.  Right-wing activists carry guns into Presidential speeches.  Politicians speak openly about using violence ("Second Amendment remedies") to change political realities they don't like, or fire pistol shots into a target bearing the face of their political opponent - without public condemnation.  The wave of hate we were fighting in 2005 has become a tsunami. In recent years gunmen have targeted everyone from liberal religionists to abortion doctors - and now members of Congress.

"Above the Fray" described my own struggle not to escalate into vehement rhetoric - in on-air confrontations with Sean Hannity and other conservatives or during internal struggles with my own anger and frustration.  I explored the topic further in a piece about Buddhism and political engagement called "Election Returns:  The Karma of Politics, the Politics of Karma."  That gave me the chance to speak with a wide variety of teachers (including Sulak Sivaraksa, Bernie Glassman, Jack Kornfield, Anne Waldman, and Wes Nisker) about my own sense of conflict between political engagement and the "angels of my better nature." 

Each of them told me, in one way or another, that the answer lay in motivation.  W. S. Merwin wrote:

with the night falling we are saying thank you

Was I saying "thank you" with my speech and deeds?  If not, there are surely times for silence.  Silence was my first response to the shooting in Arizona.  Merwin's poem is called Listen:

back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging 

after funerals we are saying thank you
after the news of the dead 

whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you
in a culture up to its chin in shame
living in the stench it has chosen we are saying thank you

I interviewed those Buddhist leaders while Barack Obama was emerging as our likely President, and they were glowing with the possibilities of reconciliation he represented.  But reconciliation works best as it was practiced in South Africa, where forgiveness was preceded by admissions of guilt and an understanding of harms committed by the wrongdoers.  Has our President taken consensus-building too far?  Is there a time when the desire to accommodate all parties leads us astray?  "A true leader is a molder of consensus," said Martin Luther King, Jr., "not a builder of consensus."

The President declared that the shootings in Tucson were beyond our ability to understand, and that nobody should seek to profit politically from them.  But reality suggests otherwise.  The rageful rhetoric, the calls to violence, all come from one side of the political spectrum.  The victims have come from the other.  Neutrality in a time of injustice can itself be injustice. Isn't there a time to name names, a time when keeping the peace is less important than speaking the truth?  Can't our Westernized, gentled-down version of "right speech" sometimes be the wrong answer? 

Is the President's tendency to make peace a strength or a flaw in times like these?  If we are grateful for this precious gift of human existence, when does that gratitude express itself in strong language toward those who would rob others of it?  We should engage with those who spread the disease of hate.  But we run the risk of spiritual infection each time we do.  Can it be avoided?  Is it worth the risk?  For once we have more questions than answers.  It's your turn.

in the banks that use us we are saying thank you
with the crooks in office with the rich and fashionable
unchanged we go on saying thank you thank you 

with the animals dying around us 

our lost feelings we are saying thank you 

with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you 

with the words going out like cells of a brain 

with the cities growing over us like the earth
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you 

we are saying thank you and waving 

dark though it is

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william allred's picture

Why can't we sit peacefully with the Karma of other's. They earned it, they continue to create it-Let them work through it. You and I have all the peace we have earned. The pot boils in other quarters, as it must.
What we judge to be an inopportune or premature death, is a judgement we are not qualified to make. Arrival and departure schedules fit a timetable we were not asked to approve or develop. Why people can't enjoy the messiness of life, on a temporal earth, with temperamental human doings, while human being, is a question I don't hope to answer; "I'm just sittin' here watchin' the wheels turn round and round-How I love to watch them roll" John Lennon.

LeeInOK's picture


Still, I do spend and donate money intentionally - do you think the intent (or mindless lack there of) in how one spends money carries karma? I know it does when donating.

Equal time perhaps did nothing to decrease lies, but at least radio and tv seemed more civil and less hateful. No?

khrystene's picture

I thank goodness every day we can't buy guns as readily in Australia as you can in the USA. I definitely believe easy access is part of the problem. People become so lackadaisical about their attitude towards something that should be used only in the most specific of circumstances and only by those trained extensively (physically and mentally) to do so.

zardoz's picture

I agree with you, khrystene. I too am very thankful that I live in a relatively sane country (New Zealand) where the great majority, at every poll, dismiss the idea of guns for police, and especially for civilians (hunting aside).
The USA needs to get a grip and review the antiquated Second Amendment. I fear it's far too late for them, as so many (including at least one of the contributors to this forum) seem to think owning guns will solve the social problems there.

LeeInOK's picture

Has our President taken consensus-building too far? Is there a time when the desire to accommodate all parties leads us astray? Is the President's tendency to make peace a strength or a flaw in times like these?
Considering the great aversion held against Barack already, had he "drawn a line" it would only serve to deepen and entrench the aversion.

Isn't there a time to name names, a time when keeping the peace is less important than speaking the truth? Can't our Westernized, gentled-down version of "right speech" sometimes be the wrong answer?
A return to the previously mandated equal time regulations on all airways should help - it seemed to work better.

If we are grateful for this precious gift of human existence, when does that gratitude express itself in strong language toward those who would rob others of it? We should engage with those who spread the disease of hate. But we run the risk of spiritual infection each time we do. Can it be avoided? Is it worth the risk?
Experience has taught that when dealing with those who do not understand or speak your language, using the language best understood by them, even just a few words, facilitates communication. In a land where the Golden Rule (those with the gold make the rules) seems most evident, use gold to help make the rules and encourage those understanding your words to do likewise.

Richard E's picture

There's another point I'd like to make to everyone, because it has come up a couple of times: The concern about introducing politics into the sangha. Linda pleasantly surprised me (above) by accepting the introduction of politics as a possibility to grow, to learn, to reinforce our ability to be a community despite political differences. I heartily endorse that.

But I also agree with Jack Kornfield, who emphasized when I interviewed him that politics and the sangha must be kept certain in certain ways. Yet Jack is very active politically. This is a complex topic that probably warrants its own discussion.

Part of it has to do what what we mean by "politics." I don't consider anything I've said here to be political. I haven't advocated for any policy, politician, party, economic philosophy ... I've described an increasing spiral of violent rhetoric, glorification of violence, and acts of violence, which I believe are interconnected. The fact that the rhetoric is clustered on one side of the political spectrum at this moment in history, and that it's not "my" side, is just that: a fact. I would condemn it either way.

Sulak Sivaraksa in Thailand is a respected achan who uses much harsher rhetoric than I would - perhaps too harsh, although I don't understand the context or the linguistic impact. But he's one of those teachers who, in our brief conversation, reminded me we have an obligation to see things as they are and describe them without fear. Shunryu Suzuki, who I was never fortunate enough to meet (I'm a bit young to have had the chance), had some fine things to say on the same topic. But every teacher I've known has said the same thing.

As for violent leftist rhetoric, I do believe it caused some harm back in the sixties - although on a lesser scale than today's rhetoric, which is reinforced by centuries of "gun culture." Did you know that the US has far more guns per capita than any other nation on Earth? We have nearly 90 guns per 100 people. The second most gun-toting country is Yemen, with 55 guns per every hundred people.

Will Lowe, you may not have seen that there was a private citizen carrying a gun at the Tucson shooting. He pulled it out and prepared to fire at the person he believed was causing the violence. If he hadn't been stopped, he would have shot an innocent person -- someone who was wrestling with the shooter and helping to subdue him.

On a ligher note: I do remember being with some fellow rock musicians friends at a guitar shop in New York called Manny's when the Jefferson Airplane were at the top of the charts with violent revolutionary songs. A black limousine pulled up and two of the band's members got it. We chuckled at that a little - "the revolution pays better than it did in Mao's day." But the violence spawned by the left was tragic, too.

My own spiritual work involves close contact with political "opponents" of mine, some rather well-known. I would not hesitate to leave my house at any time of the day or night to help them, and know they feel the same about me.

I strive in my own political writing to meet the Hippocratic oath: First, do no harm. I strive - but I often fail. If I must fail from time to time, as it has become obvious I must, then at least I can learn from those failures.

Richard E's picture

Typo: Meant to write, "I also agree with Jack Kornfield, who emphasized when I interviewed him that politics and the sangha must be kept SEPARATE."

lleach's picture

Hi, Richard

If I can add to that with the Plum Village reformulation of the 14 Mindfullness trainings (an expansion of the five I mentioned earlier). Training 10, "Protecting the Sangha" states: "I am determined not to use the Buddhist community for personal gain or profit or transform our community into a political instrument. A spiritual community should, however, take a clear stand against oppression and injustice and should strive to change the situation without engaging in partican conflicts."

That seems to me to agree well with Jack Kornfield's approach.

The first of the 14 Minddullness Trainings, "Openness" might have some bearing on this discussion also: "Aware of the suffering created by fanaticism and intolerence, I am determined not to be idolatrous about or bound by any doctrine, theory, or ideology, even Buddhist ones. ... They are not doctrines to fight, kill, or die for."

That seems a good one to seek to spread by example. This is a good place to start. Now seems a good time.


Will.Rowe's picture

I find it very disappointing that Tricycle would allow articles of this nature to appear on its otherwise excellent magazine. The article is not about civil discourse but about the author’s promulgation of his own bias. This political bias will divide and cause harm to the Sangha.

The title itself is not about “civil discourse”; rather it is a very biased article from a very biased source “The Huffington Post.” The author next states “Right-wing activists carry guns into Presidential speeches,” as though this is not proper. Perhaps if there had been some of these citizens at the Tucson event, the murderer could have been stopped before he killed more victims. Gifford herself was a defender of the Second Amendment.

Nor was there any mention by the author of the uncivil discourse by the national media who deceptively or inaccurately sought to discredit conservative spokesperson Sarah Palin by attempting to link the gunman seeing one of 20 political targets on a map as some sort of mind control over the gunman to go kill someone. As it turned out, the murderer had been “targeting” Gifford before Palin even went on the national stage. In fact if the gunman has any political identity at all would certainly be on the far left side of the isle with his two favorite books of Communist Manifesto and Mein Kamp, both written by two socialists. Perhaps it is as Palin’s aid has stated: “craziness is not an ideology.”

The author never mentions the left using violence or promulgation of violence. Yet the landscape of the last 50 years is littered with the bodies of violence from the left: from the Presidential assassin and Marxist Oswald, to the multitude of leftist terrorists in SDS, Black Panther and Black Guerilla Party, Weather Underground, Symbionese Liberation Army, to the anti-capitalist, environmental extremist Ted Kaczynski.

The calls to violence do not come from only one side of the political spectrum. For the last ten years there has been a “wave of hate’ toward President Bush, which continues even today with Joy Behar on the View or HLN or politicians like Rep. Steve Cohen, who just this week stood by his remarks in which he compared Republican attacks on the health care overhaul to Nazi propaganda advanced
by Joseph Goebbels. Even President Obama himself called for guns to be brought to a knife fight, which is not very surprising since his former pastor for many years was the Reverend Wright, who made both racist and anti-Semitic statements.

This tactic of telling only one side, as though it were the only one, is commonly called the “lie of omission” and is commonly used the liberal media.
Be honest with yourself and recognize that there are two legitimate sides to these arguments. If this author is really concerned about his “own sense of conflict between political engagement and the "angels of my better nature," then perhaps he should start by being honest with himself. There are certainly two sides of an argument. Gun control opponents have an argument to be made, but so do gun rights advocates. Both Hitler and Stalin used gun control to subdue the populace; moreover, many people successfully defend themselves with guns against stronger, younger, violent criminals each year.

Besides honesty, I would suggest having a “civil discourse” instead of arguing with someone who you are at odds. An on-air confrontations with Sean Hannity and other conservatives is not an attempt at “civil discourse.” Perhaps the conversation might take place with a fellow Buddhist who has opposing views. (All Buddhists are not on the left, I assure you). A conversation with someone with whom the author has respect for may also help.

Meditate first before talking with the person. Keep it private without an outside audience tempting the ego to display its talents.

Remember, Politics is poison to the Sangha; it divides us. In the future I hope that Tricycle keep politics out of this fine magazine. Let us concentrate upon what unites us rather than divides us. There is enough division within the media and political rhetoric already. We should recognize our common humanity; we are people who cling to our politics—Oh what an attachment it is.
When we leave our bodies, this attachment stays behind also.

Richard E's picture

On reflection I think there is validity to one of your criticisms of what I wrote, which has been expressed by others as well. I should not have said that "all" the rageful or violent rhetoric comes from one side. That's not correct. The majority, yes, in my opinion. The use of gun imagery, even more. But I think that one sentence provoked a lot of the response which followed, and for that I take responsibility.

And I did not make clear that the lopsidedness I see is of most concern to me when it comes from media stars and senior politicians.

Tharpa Pema's picture

Thanks, Richard. That is the statement that troubled me most.

With gratitude, Linda

Richard E's picture

It's unfortunate you felt provoked to the point of attacking me personally in your response. I will examine what in my presentation might have triggered the kind of ad hominem remarks you were compelled to make about me as an individual, rather than addressing my argument.

My training has always been clear on one point: that we strive to see things as they are, rather than as we would wish them to be. I understood that I was running the risk of being vehemently attacked n this community, either directly as by you ("very biased" etc), or in what appears to be a passive-aggressive fashion (as in the person above who chooses to characterize me as s,somehow sick and couches it as an expression of compassion.)

I knew that I would be violating an unspoken but forceful taboo against straying from a pose of strict neutrality. But at this moment in history, reality is not neutral. The violent rhetoric, and the violent actions, are coming from one side of the debate. To ignore that is to potentially be complicit in the violence, in the name of 'neutrailt.'

And to Will's point, my concern is that very public figures have not behaved responsibly, not marginal figures. I remember violent talk by leftists in e old days, and I remember leaving political groups because I was unwilling to participate. But this is as if Hubert Humphrey and Walter Cronkite had participated n the rhetoric.

I spent a half hour today on a radio show called the Fairness Doctine, debating economics with a conservative. I appear with conservatives, have worked with tea party groups, and collaborate with political opponents (so called) frequently and warmly,. And I've been willing to criticize the left, including the President and the Democrats, whenever that has appeared to be the right action.

My allegiance is to reducing the sum total of all suffering, not to a party or a movement.
I've done considerable work on myself regarding this issue. I have interviewed, spoken with, and corresponded with Buddhist activists in the US, Great Britain, Burma, Thailand, Sri Lanka, and elsewhere. I make these statements calmly, centered, and with a great deal of compassion for all who have been trapped in the cycle of violence - including Tea Partiers, Gabrielle Giffords, Jared Lee Loughner and is parents, and those who attack me in this discussion. I understand.

Linda, I'm a bit surprised at you, though! (said with a smile)

Tharpa Pema's picture

I imagine we are all full of surprises. Keeps life interesting

Thanissaru Bhikku presented in his tricycle retreat last week three guidelines for “right speech”: that our words be: 1) true, 2) beneficial, and 3) timely.

My concern is with the score-keeping: “so-and-so is more violent then such-and-such.” I don’t know a single human being (or political party) who is not too biased and too limited in his or her own vision to make this call. Even social scientists and historians can only arrive at a provisional answer, based on complex assumptions we are all free to doubt. And by the time we painstakingly verify, corroborate, rationalize, document, and publish our findings, everything may have changed anyway! It just keeps on changing.

Also, human beings seem particularly prone to notice when other people threaten them and not to notice when their own behavior threatens others. It’s a basic human weakness we all share. For these reasons I question, first of all, the truth of any statement that one party is more violent than the other.
I’m afraid that, if we have to agree on the “truth” of anyone’s blanket culpability for all the world’s ills, we will never find peace.

The second point at issue is whether such a statement is beneficial. Will asserting or even debating the truth of the premise that “so-and-so is more violent then such-and-such” yield beneficial results? Will it reduce the violence? Or is it more likely to escalate the course of blame and verbal, and eventually, physical retaliation? Each of us judge for ourselves. This ongoing discussion is one collective experiment, our experiment, to see which statements promote good relations and which don’t.

Perhaps, as Siddhartha might have said, “It does not further” the cause of peace and the reduction of our collective suffering to pose or answer this question at this particular time.

Which leads to the third point: is the statement that “so-and-so is more violent then such-and-such” timely? Again, we each have the responsibility to judge for ourselves. Does it help or does it hurt right now to imply that one large opinion sector of our society is more responsible than the rest of us for a specific act of violence in Tucson and/or the violence of our culture as a whole?

We have seen on a few occasions in recent world history the rare and precious sight of nations engaging in large-scale reconciliation. These instances included both acknowledgement of harm and assurance of forgiveness. Indeed, these events have been the product of numerous positive factors coming together in the right place and the right time.

Let our considered and patient speech be one of them.

Tharpa Pema's picture

People’s thresholds for tolerating disagreement within the various groups to which we belong vary a great deal. For me, having the opportunity to learn—with mistakes!—how to engage in civil political discourse through such discussions as these in a semi-safe environment is very helpful.

Yet the fact that you fear any discussion of politics will divide us is certainly a matter of grave concern to me. I too believe that what unites us is more important than what divides us. I have benefited in my life from having a place to go when I feel vulnerable where I can trust the people to be supportive regardless of my politics or religion. If Tricycle serves that function in your life I can respect that.

Perhaps we can learn how to respond to each other’s concerns without formally proscribing certain avenues of conversation.

I believe each and every one of us have the seed of violence and of uncivil discourse within. We can use our energy and words to help each other overcome this dangerous potential.

With compassion for us all, Linda

Tharpa Pema's picture

"Walk like King, bear my heart on my face, not ashamed of how it reveals me." This is a beautiful choice of words. Thanks.

myers_lloyd's picture

If I just put aside feelings of aggravation and animosity, I know I can respond better, think better, feel better when entering political discourse. In Canada we don't carry guns and what some of you say about needing to do so is really chilling. Just chilling-you are always in a war zone, even at home and in your towns and cities. But we have a party here who would move us in that general direction and I write, campaign and work for civility in opposition to their proposals.
It doesn't help when the some of the picketers I appeared with recently behave as autocratically as the "bad" side does.
Luckily I watched Democracy Now!'s retrospective on Martin Luther King Jr., and heard him, watched as he walked fully clothed in human dignity past twisted faces and danger. Here is what I have to try to be, and here is how I need to protect the situations that arise. Walk like King, bear my heart on my face, not ashamed of how it reveals me.

Richard E's picture

Thanks, Linda - I appreciate the power of example you've shared, in terms of observing your own feelings. I try to do the same. You bring up one of the points I have tried to make in discussions with people whose politics are similar to mine: That those we "oppose" are no different from us, except in their background and the information they've received.

There was a very influential book called "What's the Matter With Kansas?" In many ways it was a fine piece of work, but the basic premise was that middle-class and lower income Kansans were "wrong" to vote for conservatives who would harm their own economic interests on behalf of the wealthy. They were doing so because they supported a number of social measures that most readers here probably would not: opposition to gay marriage, banning abortions, etc. They were acting primarily on their religious beliefs in an anthropomorphic deity, which might not be widely embraced here either.

There is a tendency to belittle such people as "stupid" or "deluded." My first response, and the one I try to share with colleagues on "my" side, is one of respect. What's more noble, after all, that acting against one's own interests in support of a higher cause? Even those who act violently at abortion clinics believe they are saving lives. We can't address what we believe is wrong unless we respect what is good as well - in ourselves as well as others.

I spoke at a demonstration in front of the Treasury Department last year, and talked about economic pain, loss, and inequality. A reporter from a right-wing magazine came up afterward and said "Nothing you said couldn't have been said at a Tea Party rally." I said, "Invite me and I'll come."

"Hate has never been changed by hate. That is an ancient law." That was said 2500 years ago by you-know-who, so it was ancient even then. We can condemn the behavior and not the person - especially if we recognize that we are all responding to our own experiences, knowledge, genetics, etc.

I use this analogy: It's like thinking the actor who plays a movie villain is evil. If we don't like what the character does we don't fire the actor, because the next one will do the very same things this one is doing. To change the outcome we must rewrite the script. Yelling at the actor changes nothing.

And this is like Disney World: We're all "cast members." I accept that I am, although I get carried away from time to time with that whole "what's my motivation?" thing.

Tharpa Pema's picture

I greatly appreciate this discussion, Richard, and thank you for facilitating it. It is very important to me to feel heard and also to hear. I am here to learn by listening and by articulating my own thoughts and feelings.

You comment, “My criticism is directed at the leaders and the powerful who exploit this rhetoric for their own ends. It is not directed at the average Tea Party attendee.” My experience as a political animal has been that I identify emotionally with the leaders I admire. Thus whenever I hear criticism of President Obama, I feel a brief instant of pain and fear.

I am sometimes aware when this happens and can remind myself that I personally am not under immediate, physical attack and that the anger expressed by another is a reflection of their own fear and almost always not an immediate danger to me. When my adrenaline surge has calmed I can seek for words of reconciliation rather than condemnation.

I don’t always observe these reactions of mine. The moment I feel fear my mind is directed to immediate self-defense. I leap to conclusions and act impulsively—i.e., I respond in unskillful ways. And since the danger is not immediate, but a matter of ongoing human conflict, the fear and defensiveness don’t let up until I become awake again to the physiological and psychological processes going on inside me.

I suspect that “the average Tea Party attendee” also identifies with spokespeople prominent in the media. They also feel pain and fear when these leaders are criticized. Perhaps they too, like me, are soemtimes overwhelmed by a sense of immediate threat whenever the people who say things that help them feel good about themselves are criticized. They also may stay stuck in fear and anger indefinitely.

I know that the most effective way to calm me down is to calm my fear.Therefore I desire to develop a way of speaking that helps calm rather than inflame fear—my own fear and other people’s.fear.

I too can be silenced for a time by fear of what other people might say or do to me, but it does not change my heart. And my resentful heart will express itself as soon as I happen to be in a position powerful enough to act on it. I will hurt others.

Or I can let go the fear. Buddhist practice helps me do this.

Thank you to everyone for the meaningful discussion. Linda

Richard E's picture

Linda's point about when this behavior is curtailed by criticism and when it is not is valid, and I have considered it. Here's what I have concluded: My criticism is directed at the leaders and the powerful who exploit this rhetoric for their own ends. It is not directed at the average Tea Party attendee, or whatever. And yes - Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, Republican party leaders et al. hear criticism and are very sensitive about it. If enough people criticize them, they will stop. And if they stop, I believe the violence will diminish. Hence it is my duty to criticize, and to be very specific about who I am criticizing.

A E Whitehouse: It is not Philip Ryan's piece. It is mine. Any negative comments should therefore be directed toward me and not him.

I am struck by several things in your comment: First, that it implies criticism is indistinguishable from "blame." Criticism can be healthy and positive, while blame is merely finger-pointing. Second, that my criticism is "categorical." It is not. It is a recognition that, in this place and time, certain destructive behavior is more predominant in one place than in another. Should Martin Luther King, Jr. have pretended that bad behavior was equally distributed between white and black Americans in the South of his day? Did he become un-spiritual by describing the behavior that needed changing and pointing out the need to change it?

Lastly, who decides what is and is not "Buddhist"? Consider these lines: "What is the use of platted hair, O fool! Why the goat-skin clothing? You look clean but there's a raging hunger inside you. I do not call a man a Brahman because of his origin or of his mother. He is arrogant, and he is wealthy."

They're from the Dhammapada. Do these criticisms make the Buddha "un-Buddhist"?

And need I point out that your comment, like my own, contained criticism of another?

For Linda again:

The "people" comment feels like wordplay. "People" can mean humanity, or it can mean a culture. I would've thought it was clear I was using it to mean a culture. If I say we as a people have more of an affinity for guns than, say, the Japanese, I am not denying our common humanity. Did you really think I was? There are excellent books on the history of the gun in early US history and culture. Those books don't negate our essential oneness with all peoples, but they sure help explain why there are so many shootings.

A lot of us are taught to have a "non-discriminating mind." On one level that's important. But on another, we must make discriminating judgments every minute. As for those who speak violently - predominantly on the Right- it's a mistake to think I condemn them or look down on them. I spent years as a working country/western musician, for one thing, and have played radical-right events that would horrify many people. I recognize their fundamental humanity, and their ability to change and improve, as I recognize that in myself and in you. In that sense, I genuinely don't discriminate between them and myself.

But I do discriminate in the behavior. And I will not pretend it's not there. Nor would I ask that of another on my behalf. That's why I welcome your criticisms and this discussion.

Richard E's picture

And just to add: It is certainly not my intent to cause discomfort, and at least one response suggests that discomfort was caused. My objective is not to increase the friction around us, but to address it with clarity and honesty. That may feel uncomfortable it times -

- and, of course, I could be wrong. That's why we talking.

lleach's picture

Hi, Richard

Please consider "from this, then that".

I am not suggesting this is the only explanation but just to show that one might approach this tragedy from another view entirely you might want to check out:

Personally I don't think politics in the U.S. is particularly nasty and know it is much better than other places in the world and other times. At least most of the major politicians aren't using knives, poision, gas, etc.

Something that has changed in recent times in some parts of the world is the electronic media. I feel we are still learning how to use it. It seems to me to currently water too many negative seeds. My nightly news thinks I need to know all about the terrible things people did to each other that day, watering the seeds of negativity, and almost nothing about the loving kindness that took place that day.

Larry Leach

Richard E's picture

Your link didn't work when I tried it. Perhaps you could try it again? In any event, thank you, Larry, for your thoughtful comments.

lleach's picture

Hi, Richard

Thanks for seeking to follow it. I tested the link and it is OK. I copied and pasted it into the browser window. It is a recent Scientific American article with a title that may not at first seem to relate to this thread: "Grand Theft Auto". If you can make it work you will see how it relates in particular to Plum Willage reformulated fifth mindfulness training, "Nourishment and Healing". It includes a determination to avoid "toxins such as certain websites, eletronic games, TV programs".

I mentioned earlier I was just entering a mindfulness retreat. It is now over. Our teacher would have responded to this thread with wonder because he lives in a commune in New Hampshire with no TV, no Internet, no newspapers, etc. The point is that what one cosumes waters the seeds of that consumption.

I do have TV, Internet, etc. but don't watch the programs that have you upset. I do watch the news so do get some of what you are referring to, but I also get much more input from politicians and others who are the voice of reason. I am quite proud of our politicians in that regard. I lived in England over twenty years ago and used to get a kick out of "Prime Minister Question Time". Even our representatives inside the "belway" are far better behaved. Most state and local politicians (with some notable exceptons) are hard working people respectful of all. They far outumber the few who the media chooses to highlight.

The thought that keeps coming to my mind is: "How would the Dali Lama or Thich Nhat Hanh behave on one of the programs that distresses you? How then would the others behave?"

Near the end of this morning's dharma talk our teacher felt it important to reemphasize a teaching from Thay: "Peace in onself, peace in the world". His point was that there is no sequence in these two thoughts. They coexist. Causality flows both ways. But we each have much more control on the first. If we all focus on the first the second is inevetiable.
So maybe a better question or take on the topic is more along the lines of "How can I better express right speech?"
Which of course brings us to the fourth mindfulness training, "Loving Speech and Deep Listening".

With respect,

Richard E's picture

Thanks, Larry. That worked! I watch young people play these games - I've tried them myself once or twice - and I worry.

As a writer I try to stay open to everything that's happening in our culture and others around the world. But I've found as I get older that I can no longer tolerate certain types of violence in movies, films, TV, other forms of entertainment ... and I couldn't tolerate the sadism and violence in "The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest," either, so I didn't read any more of those books.

I'm also disturbed by certain forms of mental games-playing among fictional characters. I've become more sensitive, I suppose - and also much more aware of how these images and dramatized interactions are affecting me physiologically and psychologically.

I lived in Great Britain too, and people in this country would be shocked by the harshness of Prime Minister Question Time! But the use of gun-related rhetoric by politicians and pundits, along with the stoking of great fears that our government is a dictatorship, still concerns me very much. You don't find that in England.

If you put that together with the glorified use of violence in our entertainment, and I think it's the equivalent of throwing a match into a ... oh, whatever that metaphor is.

All best,


aewhitehouse's picture

It is a shame that Mr. Ryan's piece does little to further the goal of more civil discourse, and I find his categorical blame to be decidedly un-Buddhist.

lleach's picture

Having just (as in two hours ago) attended a teaching by a follower of Thay (a monk who spent ten years in Plum villiage) I have to say not only the initial article but the follow up seems to me to show a man worthy of compassion. Unfortunately I lack both the understanding and words to be helpful to him. Perhpas some of the posters here like Linda might help.
Maybe we could work together to spread the five mindfulness trainings:

Tharpa Pema's picture

Thank you for the link! I have an older copy of Thay's "For the Future to Be Possible," and was unaware that the five precepts had been revised since that was written. It is wonderful that the dharma can be expressed in 84,000 (at least!) different ways. I never seem to tire of it. Each new version invigorates me.

Your words of kindess are most welcome in what has felt like a somewhat tense conversation.

With Maitri, Linda

Tharpa Pema's picture

For me the question is: What can I do to reduce violence? Will accusing one group of people of being more violent than another group of people reduce the violence? Not necessarily. Such accusations very often provoke greater frustration and further conflict. Violence may be repressed inside people at the present moment only to express itself again more explosively in the future.

It depends upon the readiness of individuals to acknowledge that violence exists within each one of us, that we share this trait. Each one of us has to work on our own anger. Out of that sense of commonality we learn compassion for one another. We learn that we can help each other to reduce our violent tendencies and achieve greater tolerance of each other’s mistakes and humanness.

You write, “We have never believed in that kind of sacrifice as a people.” “A people” implies that there is more than one “people.” I work diligently to consider all sentient beings as “one people.” Martin Luther King, Jr., was an American and a Protestant. He was willing to risk his life for the greater good. My father was a white Protestant minister and civil rights activist in the 1960’s. He was tear-gassed in Martin Luther King’s march in Memphis. He believed in the value of sacrifice.

Yet it is very hard in real life to reconcile the ideal of sacrifice with our very real desire to live, our desire to defend ourselves, and our fear of our own death. It is hard for everyone of every political stripe.

I am a liberal who lives in the South. I live in an environment where most of the people around me have political views that differ from mine. I still can see their warmth and humanness and I care about their well-being. I don’t feel like I’m right and they’re wrong. I feel my responsibility to promote good relationships among us all.

With Maitri, Linda

aewhitehouse's picture


Thank you for some very healthy and well-guided commentaries.

Richard E's picture

Great comments already. Re Paul's comment, however, I have to say I feel things are different with the Right and Obama/Democrats than they were with the Left and Bush/Republicans. It seemed to me that the violent rhetoric in the Bush era was far more rare on the left. There would be calls for impeachment or war trials, and there were a lot of ugly personal insults, but assassination? I rarely if ever saw that.

The deepest and most profound difference I can see, however, is that the violent rhetoric on the Right is coming from *leaders*, not random commenters on the Internet. Sarah Palin's just one example - I could name many, from politics, television, and radio. And the rhetoric is pervasive, fueling a kind of dark and grim atmosphere of oppression and the need for violent action.

I talked about this on the radio the other day, and it's important that I be clear: I'm not saying this to "score points" for one side vs. the other. I'm saying it to *save lives*. I think the rhetoric has to stop. The gunman who killed those Unitarians in Knoxville had Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly's books on his shelf. These guys say very violent things. O'Reilly called Dr. Tiller "Tiller the Baby Killer" over and over on national television. Words have consequences.

Believe me, if Democrats and liberal commenters were saying these kinds of things, I'd be criticizing them too. But I think we all can fall victim to false equivalence.

Linda, your remarks about reaching backward into history are touching and poignant. I use that kind of reflection myself, often. But we must find the balance between acceptance and action in each moment, and there are those things I find I cannot accept - not for myself, but out of concern for others. Your comments evoke the Buddha's story of the man struck with an arrow, who wants to keep reaching back in time to find out who shot him and why, rather than let the physician heal his wound. I feel that we need to pull an arrow out of our culture right now.

"Earthdancing," I think the Amish reaction to their shooting was profound and beautiful - a teaching moment for the country that perhaps (hopefully) reached some people. I don't think enough people admire compassion, to be perfectly honest. I think our culture teaches us that compassion is, at its heart, wimpy. Ya gotta be tough in this world ... but if they'd ever met a follower of Gandhi or King who was willing to take blows, even to death, without retaliation, they would have a new understanding of "toughness" - compassionate toughness.

Alonzo Parker, I understand what you're saying on one level. But how should we act on the other level, the more immediate one, the one where more little girls like Christina-Taylor Green may suffer and die?

Regarding Thay (Thich Nhat Hanh), it's timely to recall his exchange of letters with Martin Luther King, Jr. King wrote him expressing (as I recall) horror over the self-immolation of monks protesting the regime in Vietnam. Dr. King asked how it could be spiritually correct to take one's own life. Thay's response required greater toughness than I have (and the resolution of some moral issues I haven't resolved). He responded, "The point isn't to die. The point is to burn."

Supporters of the IRA backed hunger strikes that left ten men dead in Ireland. We have never believed in that kind of sacrifice as a people. Perhaps it requires a traditionally Buddhist or Catholic culture of self-sacrifice to embrace that.

But, as they say, I digress. There comes a moment when a person has to speak in specifics, not generalities, a moment to stop speaking of love and peace and say "you, over there, in the blue shirt, please stop acting hurtfully."

Hasn't that moment arrived? Or should we, as Alonzo suggests, tend to our own ocean until all the ripples die down for everyone?

Alonzo Parker's picture

We can desire to live peacefully in a calm ocean, as a kayak joining smooth currents. We can desire to live turbulently in a calm ocean, as a powered vessel forcing aside the water. We can desire to live in a turbulent ocean, tossed among waves and white water. Or we can choose to avoid desire. Choose wisely how to know, this will determine the nature of your ocean.

earthdancing's picture

Such a timely discussion topic... It brings to mind a question I first had during the Compassion Meditation conference in Atlanta last fall, when scientists presented their findings from various studies investigating the origins and effects of the practice of metta to the Dalai Lama. (Videos of the full conference can be found here: )

Certainly it seems clear to most if not all of us who read Tricycle that the practice of compassion meditation has many beneficial effects, an idea which the majority of the research studies presented seems to confirm. Increasingly, educators are taking note of this idea and are seeking to introduce programs designed to increase compassion into their schools. Again, an endeavor I wholeheartedly support.

My question is this: how many people in America actually hold the opinion that being compassionate, or at least behaving in a compassionate manner, is a) desirable, and b) possible (for ordinary people)? How many Americans really teach their children to "turn the other cheek"? How many tell them to "not stand for that"?

While I think as a nation we admire responses such as the Amish had when one of their schools was attacked by a gunman, I think we view such responses almost as aberrant behavior rather than as the epitome of a way of being worth striving toward. (a thought that saddens me greatly.)

In political discourse, we almost seem to relish vitriolic debate while demeaning talk of compromise, collaboration, cooperation. Why is this? Perhaps the issue is that we no longer even agree on the aims toward which we are working. Perhaps a "more compassionate America" is not what most people want.

We do need to speak up for the values we hold and advocate for them whenever and wherever possible. (I am reminded of the Martin Niemoeller quote about no one being left to speak out...) The nonviolent civil rights movement worked because ordinary people were appalled by the violence used against non-resisting, unarmed men, women and children. Would we be so appalled today? The Dalai Lama steadfastly advocates for a non-violent, even conciliatory solution to Tibet's conflict with China, even though it seems less and less likely that such an approach will ever "work". Why?

Neimoller's quote came about in response to a question (from a child, I believe) about how something like the Nazi regime and Holocaust could ever have happened. He did not suggest acting out, even in the fact of violence. He suggested that not speaking out was what allowed the ideas - the fears and the suffering they engendered - to take hold in his country. I have to believe the same thing applies here, today. The freedom to speak out is our greatest ally. I have to believe that words and deeds motivated by compassion rather than greed, hatred or fear, will eventually win over hearts and then open up minds. It may not happen in my lifetime, but that will not stop me from speaking from my heart during my lifetime.

Tharpa Pema's picture

How far back in history shall we go in our calculus of blame? How many countries are included? How many planets? How will we decide who is on what side? Who will we include and who will we exclude from the equation?

Science and righteousness demand ever-greater exactness in these, our definitions. Yet when we define, measure, and separate, we inevitably trap ourselves in samsara.

Or we can train--through gradual, sometimes painful and sometimes blissful practice, to increase our experience of compassion for all beings who feel vulnerable, fearful, and angry as we do, for all who hurt us with words as well as deeds.

We can fight and risk death for the sake of those who live after us. We can also NOT fight and risk death for the benefit of those. Is one path more noble than the other? Which choice will escalate and which de-escalate aggression in any given situation or social environment?

We must each decide this for ourselves, from moment to moment, from situation to situation. Each of us must learn through our own experience. In thoset moments we are alone.

I have behaved in both ways and I have felt great pain over some of choices I have made. When I perceive that my own interests separate me from the interests of some other person or group of people, I feel terribly unhappy. How am I to know what to do?

I find such choices far less painful to make when I do so out of awareness and compassion rather than in adrenaline-charged panic or anger. With practice, I can feel the adrenaline hit my bloodstream and practice being aware at that time . I plan ahead for how I might react without adrenaline in possible future situations, for the greater benefit of all.

May all of us learn what speech and actions help us to reduce our suffering.

Wtih compassion for us all. Linda

earthdancing's picture

Thank you, Linda, for sharing your compassionate, honest and wise thoughts. - Camille

juanitapat's picture

I too have been a proponent of kindness and civility, but only after 20-30 years of being a vociferous "down with the pigs" anti-war hippy in the 60s, a militant feminist, ready to fight for the rights of the oppressed at the drop of a hat. Too late, even in the 90s, I understood that all the tactics we had used in the 60s, the anger tactics, the rage, the righteousness, were being used now by my opponents. It's true that no leftists have been political assassins since, what?, McKinley, 1901. But we did develop our own left-wring violent fringe, and it developed directly from the language of violence, the rhetoric of hatred: the SLA, Weather Underground, etc.

I don't think, however, that we can realistically say that "both sides" have been equally violent. The list of right-wing political assassinations in America since 1865 is appalling. This very day is sacred to a man murdered by "the right," whether the shooter was a lone maniac or not. That's not even to count all the murders of black and Mexican civil rights supporters, the hideous killings of gay or even allegedly gay men and women. No, I think we have to say that political violence in America, i.e., violence not just criminal or passionate, is part and parcel of the "right" (for lack of a better word). "God, Guts & Guns" is not a liberal slogan. Is it possible that those entrenched in power have more of a tendency to kill what they see as representatives of change or "disorder." (I am not here willing to introduce Civil War as evidence of violence on "all sides.")

The cliche problematic is, as always: Hitler. If there had been armed resistance to the initial violent gangs of Hitler supporters, would the German holocaust have been averted? When is resistance justified, if ever, to the point of physical prevention of danger to another.

I have been following the dharma path for 7 years now. I see how anger and threat and toughness have harmed my life, the life of many close to me, and even harmed those I opposed. But before I learned to physically protect myself, I was a victim of sexual predators: at 8 years old, at 10, and a terrible episode at age 26. Maybe a third of all women are so harmed in their lives. Because they do not know how to defend themselves. Violence. When, where?

I remember a man asking Thich Nhat Hanh what he was supposed to do if an intruder threatened his home, his wife, his children. "What else can I do but fight to protect them?" Thay's answer was deeply wise: "Until there is something else you can do, probably you will fight to protect them. We do not deal in wrong and right, but in more or less harmful lives." I may paraphrase that second sentence.

What a deeply troubling topic this is, indeed. Thank you for the Merwin poem. It will enter my meditations.

Juanita Rice

poetess1966's picture

My dear Dharma sister,
I too was a victim of a predator at age 12. And at age 9, learned hatred from a gang of boys. I am 1/2 Cherokee. They tied me to a climbing gym and rubbed gravel in my eyes while taunting me as the "half-breed squaw". I very luckily healed without permanent damage to my eyes, but carried hatred, fear and rage for far too long afterward. And the abuse I suffered at 12 increased it. After coming to the Dharma, I began to realize that the anger I carried was eating me alive. I had to learn forgiveness. To me, forgiveness is about not carrying the karma of someone else's actions. It took me many years to get to the point of feeling compassion for those who had hurt me so badly. One way I found of beginning the process of healing was to ask a single question, "How much pain and suffering does it take to kill a human heart?" That applied to me as well as those who had harmed me. How close was I to killing my own heart with anger? Once I could allow my own heart to heal, I could begin to allow it to open to those who had done me so much harm. I hope that you will find your practice as healing as I have found mine.
With love

Tharpa Pema's picture

Dear Juanita,

I too was physically and psychologically abused as a small child (age 10 years) by members of my immediate family. Because my father was a political activist in the 1960's, I was also the target of the hatred of complete strangers. And my school mates! I was once surrounded and physically menaced by my entire fith-grade class.

I bottled up my terror and anger for years, or thought I did. After all, I was a member of a nonviolent social movement! It wasn't possible that I, like "the enemy," was a violent and hateful person.

Unbeknowst to me, I was leaking hostility everywhere I went and generating new conflict. I hated myself for a very long time after I discovered I was like "them."

Only when I learned compassion for myself did I have compassion to extend to other people when they feel terror and anger.

I still sometimes react with anger and aggression when I feel threatened. Yet every time I observe myself doing this I increase my skills in responding in an alternate, more productive way.

The dharma has taught me this.

Learning how to work with my fear is the hardest thing I have ever done in my life. It may also be the most valuable thing I have ever done.

With great compassion for your pain. Linda

koshin's picture

Please call me by my true names,
so I can hear all my cries and my laughter at once,
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.

Please call me by my true names,
so I can wake up,
and so the door of my heart
can be left open,
the door of compassion.

I keep going back to the ending of this powerful poem by Thay. How do we remain balanced in times like these with the shouting of fear and hate, and noise of uncertainty everywhere. I worshiped at a Christian Church yesterday, no mention of AZ or MLK, here in rural Wisconsin only the post office honors the holiday. How do you keep your balance, compassion, sense of justice. I felt Obama helped us all in his witness the other night. I can tell he was trained in this kind of talk by his wonderful pastor, Jeremiah Wright, a powerful witness to justice, mis-represented by the press and the wing nuts of the right. As a white man I have been in his training sessions, they are powerful and balanced. May we all here these words and be quiet, listen deeply and act in love....
Please call me by my true names,
so I can hear all my cries and my laughter at once,
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.

Please call me by my true names,
so I can wake up,
and so the door of my heart
can be left open,
the door of compassion.

My humble words:

On the Steps of the Temple

It is getting harder to reach down and slip on these sandals...
Temple after Temple, the sandals come off and on again...
Sacred space every where, humility in ones actions not just thought….

As I leaned over and put my shoes on, my sandals,
The monk watching the temple that morning, had come out and watched me carefully.
When I stood up, he offered me his arm to walk down the many steps.

I was so surprised at this act of kindness
I kindly say its ok, I can make it and he smiled…

What struck me for the rest of my Temple walk through the old city of Chiang Mai.
Was the natural way this happened,
Not a commandment,
Not a rule,
Not for merit,
Or a star in his crown,
But out of compassion, a deep comprehensive kind of love,
Unconditional, unmerited, un measured, love for all beings,
Thanks my friend,
Your care and this lesson that will not leave my heart or mind,

No merit or reward, but a human act, a practice, oh that it can be ours…..

peace and love, ko shin, Bob Hanson (Volunteer with the Milwaukee Zen Center Prison Meditation Program)

Tharpa Pema's picture

"The rageful rhetoric, the calls to violence, all come from one side of the political spectrum."

At this time I don't feel sure that this is true. Maybe the rageful rhetoric coming is from both sides, but I only see that coming from the side I personally feel threatened by.

Food for thought. With maitri, Linda

Richard E's picture

On reflection I think there is validity to this criticism of what I wrote, which has been expressed by others as well. I should not have said that "all" the rageful or violent rhetoric comes from one side. That's not correct. The majority, yes, in my opinion. The use of gun imagery, even more. But I think that one sentence provoked a lot of the response which followed, and for that I take responsibility.

And I did not make clear that the lopsidedness I see is of most concern to me when it comes from media stars and senior politicians.

paul6316's picture

I agree with you there. I listened to eight years of people I know and with whom I worked with hoping for Bush to be assassinated, and that they'd like to firebomb the houses of Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, right around the time that Tricycle published an article entitled "Confessions of a Bush Hater." These same people are now posting Twitter messages wishing for the death of Sarah Palin, some of which were collected in a YouTube video recently which was, of course, almost immediately taken down by the site (which is owned by liberal Google). I've practiced Buddhism for 9 years; my politics hover around the conservative side of libertarianism, and I own a gun to protect myself and my family in a dodgy neighborhood. My boss, whom I've always been careful not to reveal my political views, routinely refers to people like me as "stupid and evil." I know which side I feel personally threatened by.

Sloane DellOrto's picture

Thanks for this, Paul! I often avoid political discussions since becoming Buddhist, as it tends to make my friends angry... however, I know that it is possible to hold a politically conservative viewpoint *and* Bodhisattva intention together. :)

Tharpa Pema's picture

It saddens and humbles me to remember that neither I nor my coreligionists nor my political party are perfect.

It gladdens me that you, Sloan and Paul, have demonstrated the courage to speak in an environment where you feel outnumbered and targetted.

Please continue to remind us, as you feel able, that none of us know it all and that inclusion is a Buddhist virtue.


Tharpa Pema's picture

Thank you, Paul, for sharing your story. To me our similarities are infinitely more important than our differences. We all feel threatened. That in itself is a sound basis upon which to build.


paul6316's picture

I hope so, Linda. I doubt, though, that it can be done in a setting in which the moderator declares at the outset, "the rageful rhetoric, the calls to violence, all come from one side of the political spectrum." Any of us who think about politics and society in a certain way will always be excluded from "organized" Western Buddhism, and will have to continue to practice on our own. I don't expect it to change in my lifetime.