As a nation and as individuals, we have all been indelibly marked by the mass shootings that have occurred all too often in recent years. One week ago, our hearts broke yet again as we learned of the elementary school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. Faced with the acutely painful suffering of not only those who were immediately affected by the tragedy but also of a nation whose social fabric and institutions have led to the possibility of these tragedies happening at all, we ask ourselves—with difficulty—how to respond to such violence, suffering, and pain. Today, Tricycle looks to those whom we often turn to for guidance and leadership in heartbreaking times—our teachers—to help us see this senseless violence in a way that brings us hope. With contributions from Susan Piver, Frank Ostaseski, Sharon Salzberg, Angel Kyodo Williams, Tulku Sherdor, and Lama Surya Das, they offer us the Buddhist teachings with which we can handle our profound grief, and move beyond it toward compassionate and wise action. As we gather with our families during the upcoming holidays, we remember, and mourn, all of those killed at Sandy Hook Elementary. Our minds, hearts, and prayers are with them.
May all beings be well
May all beings be happy
May all beings be free from suffering
It is almost impossible, no, it is impossible, to have any idea how to react to a tragedy as profound and senseless as the one that occurred today at an elementary school in Connecticut. It is impossible to grasp.
I’m sure that, like me, many of you have been crying all day.
An event this horrific causes us to see that all of our normal coping mechanisms are inadequate. We turn to each one—blame, hiding, medicating—and each one fails.
Nothing can make this okay. There is no explanation that helps. Blaming lack of gun control, insufficient guns, or inadequate mental health care may be entirely reasonable and valid, but it doesn’t matter. No matter how right you are (or aren’t), it doesn’t change the grief, rage, or numbness.
Using ideas to treat or metabolize feelings doesn’t work.
Then what? I’m afraid that there is not much we can do other than to be absolutely, irredeemably heartbroken. It turns out that this is helpful. Weep, sob, rage. Weep, sob, rage. Every time your mind tries to tell you, “this is because of poor gun control,” or “this world is rotten, terrible and I have to ignore it in order to survive,” and/or “if mental healthcare was better, we could help people before they explode into violence,” please ask it to wait. I’m not saying we shouldn’t act. WE SHOULD. But before we act, we should feel. Allow your heart to break. Let down your guard. There is strange redemption in heartbreak.
Then, in your own way, you could open your heart to the suffering of all who have been directly involved.
Relax your mind and then think:
For all of you children who lost your lives and may now be wandering terrified and confused, I share your suffering with you. In return, I offer you my peace.
Breathe in their suffering. Breathe out your peace.
For all of you parents who lost your children, I share your unspeakable suffering. May I take even the tiniest bit of your sorrow and rage into my own heart to relieve you of it. In return, I send you my strength.
Breathe in their suffering. Breathe out your strength.
For all of you children who lived through this horrific day, I share your suffering with you. May I take in your fear and your nightmares. In return, I send you my bravery.
Breathe in their suffering. Breathe out your bravery.
For the officials of the state of Connecticut and of this country who have born witness and now must act, I share your suffering with you. May I take in your shock and confusion. In return, I send you my confidence and open heartedness.
Breathe in their suffering. Breathe out your confidence and open heartedness.
Then, as best you can, relax your mind and sit quietly for a few minutes or a few lifetimes.
We can’t leave out that someone committed this crime. We might hate the horrible monster who did so. We might condemn and excoriate him. I’m not saying don’t do that. It’s not useful (especially to you), but it is human. The only thing we cannot do under any circumstance is think that we are any different than he is.
It would take a very big person to offer compassion to the perpetrator and I for one am not capable of it today. But while I cannot feel kindhearted, nor will I permit myself to imagine that if I lived his life, I would not be just like him.
In the meantime, tonight I will wrap my arms around those I love and, recognizing the extraordinary fragility of our lives, give thanks for the preciousness of our time together. Truly, the only solace is in the dharmas of love, compassion, and fierce warriorship.
Susan Piver is a meditation teacher in the Shambhala Buddhist lineage. She is the author of five books, most recently The Wisdom of a Broken Heart. This piece was originally posted on her website, and is reprinted with permission.
Grief may be the greatest healing experience of a lifetime. It’s certainly one of the hottest fires we will encounter. It penetrates the hard layers of our self-protection, plunges us into the sadness, fear, and despair we have tried so hard to avoid. Grief is unpredictable, uncontrollable. There are no shortcuts around grief. The only way is right through the middle. Some say time heals, but that’s a half-truth. Time alone doesn’t heal. Time and attention heal.
In grief we access parts of ourselves that were somehow unavailable to us in the past. With awareness, the journey through grief becomes a path to wholeness. Grief can lead us to a profound understanding that reaches beyond our individual loss. It opens us to the most essential truth of our lives: the truth of impermanence, the causes of suffering, and the illusion of separateness. When we meet these experiences with mercy and awareness, we begin to appreciate that we are more than the grief. We are what the grief is moving through. In the end, we may still fear death, but we don’t fear living nearly as much. In surrendering to our grief, we have learned to give ourselves more fully to life.
Frank Ostaseski is the founder of Zen Hospice Project in San Francisco, the first Buddhist hospice in America.
For a long time, in teaching, I’ve been using the example of an unexpected phone call that completely upends our lives to illustrate the reality that our lives are fragile, evanescent, and vulnerable. Life can change on a dime, for anybody. Sometimes, if I use that example before a break, someone will come back shaken, saying they checked their messages while on the break, and it had just happened to them.
Of course I thought of that last Friday when I heard of the immense tragedy in Connecticut. “Heartbreaking” seems so puny and inadequate a word to describe that unfathomable pain—losing your child, losing your parent, losing your partner to violence. Imagine getting that phone call. Actually, some of us have. I know many people who have suddenly faced the death of a child or a dearly loved one, some to violence. The pain really is unfathomable.
I also thought of my teacher Dipa Ma, who has been and remains to be my model for using great pain as a springboard to great love and compassion. I would never want to be glib, and imply somehow that it is easy, but I know from her example, and the example of others, that it is possible. Dipa Ma lost two children, and then her husband, whom she loved very much. She was in Burma at the time of his death, with one surviving daughter. The doctor came, and said she was in danger of dying of a broken heart unless she did something about her mind. He suggested that she learn to meditate. The fruit of her practice was her lovingkindness, which completely changed my life.
Someone once asked a venerable old monk what he would say to try to encapsulate the most important of the Buddha’s teachings. He replied, “All things arise due to causes and conditions.”
When I first heard that it sounded rather dry. “Really?” I thought. “Cause and effect is it?” But now I understand that teaching differently—it is the clarion call of connection and the end of nihilism. What we do matters. What we care about matters.
We live in a terribly nihilistic society, and it is getting more so all the time. I am committed to working harder to change that trajectory, through my personal efforts to be a more enlightened person and to change the structures of society that I believe lead to greater disconnection, alienation, and violence. Plenty of people whom I have loved have mental illness, so some of those efforts have to do with trying to change how accessible treatment is. Some of those efforts have to do with challenging the increasing normalcy of violence. And even though some who follow me on Twitter didn’t seem to like it, some of those efforts have to do with strengthening gun control laws, so that lethal tools are less available even if someone is overcome by hatred or fear.
May we all find the bounty of lovingkindness, and a vision of how we might try to make this a better world.
Sharon Salzberg is cofounder of the Insight Meditation Society (IMS) in Barre, Massachusetts.
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 new Dharma Community, and constantly muses about Mindfulness That Matters.
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.
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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