On Saturday, August 3, after posting a 2,300-word anti-immigrant manifesto online, a young man used a semi-automatic rifle to open fire at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, killing 22 people and wounding more than two dozen others. Just 13 hours later, another lone gunman killed nine people and wounded at least 27 in a separate attack in Dayton, Ohio. While the two men were united in a desire to harm others, the El Paso shooter was motivated specifically by racial hatred. 

In the days after the attack, Tricycle spoke with Helga Carrion, president of the Chenrezig Tibetan Buddhist Cultural Center in El Paso, about how her sangha responded to a mass shooting in their community and the importance of cultivating awareness and compassion in the wake of extreme violence. 

How have members of your center responded to the shooting? Have you met as a sangha since it happened? That Saturday morning [of the El Paso shooting] our sangha was meeting for our introduction to Buddhism class, and so we didn’t find out until after class what had happened. The next day we came together for our usual Sunday meditation and talked about how we can move through this and help others move through this. Our teacher, Losang Samten, always says that we should do a Chenrezig practice [a meditation on the bodhisattva of compassion, also known as Avalokiteshvara, which often begins with lighting a candle or butter lamp]. In preparation, I brought three candles [instead of one]. Three is symbolic for many reasons, but in this case, it represented the victims, their families, and the perpetrators.

That day a man brought his two children to class and asked if I could explain, especially for the sake of the children, why we were praying for someone who is so evil or did something so bad. So, we shared the story of one of the Buddha’s previous lifetimes, when he committed an act of compassionate violence to prevent a man from killing others [the Story of the Compassionate Ship Captain from Upayakausalya (Skillful Means) Sutra]. We also brought up the example of [the legendary Tibetan master] Milarepa, who was a murderer [before he turned to Buddhism]. Like all beings, he still had that seed of awakening, and he was able to see his mistakes and work to become enlightened.

We tried to make sure that it was understood that while we’re not condoning the acts of this individual, we are nonetheless recognizing our basic pure nature and the veils of misunderstanding, ignorance, anger, hatred, and all of those things that are the causes of these violent acts. Part of our practice was to visualize all the sufferings of all beings, including that of the perpetrators. 

We know that the attack in El Paso was motivated by racial hate. How did that sit with members of your center? Our community is Hispanic. The numbers we see in El Paso are probably pretty close to what we see in our sangha; 80 percent, or 85 percent Hispanic. I’m Hispanic myself. The majority of our officers, probably with the exception of one, are Hispanic. Yet we didn’t spend a whole lot of time talking about that. I think we had more of a general sense that El Pasoans have been targeted. 

In our sangha, we’ve got diversity—you can see by the fact that we have an introduction to Buddhism class in Spanish. If we are in class and one of our sangha members feels more comfortable speaking in Spanish, they will, and we’ll try to translate for the benefit of others. We also have some other ethnic groups represented in our sangha, which is wonderful. And some people in our sangha actually come over from across the border from Juarez, our sister city. When we host a particular teacher from Mexico City, we’ll get visitors from Chihuahua, which is a three or four hour drive from here. 

Sad as it is, it almost seems like people are no longer shocked when a mass shooting happens to their communities. These days, it almost feels inevitable. Do you sense that in El Paso? Interesting things happen after these acts of violence. Of course, there’s extreme emotions of anger, and hatred—people say things like, “I want revenge,” “They need to put them to death,” and “If I see them I’ll kill them.” You hear that. At the same time, I noticed that tenderness also arose. El Pasoans are very warm, generous, kind people. People’s hearts opened. 

Related: How Can We Respond to Violent Hate?

In the sangha, we focused on the question of the real cause of violent acts and violence in general. We try to look to look inside and see how we, as individuals, contribute to violence through our own negativity, through our own unkind acts, through our own seeds of hatred. Are we not also contributing to the violence in this world? How can we transform our minds? How can we use this opportunity to wake up?

People were grateful to hear about this kind of perspective—all we’re hearing in the media is that the cause [of mass shootings] is the external things: it’s the guns or it’s the video games. 

So many people feel hopeless after yet another mass shooting happens, but it sounds like you’re stressing this teaching of using everything around you in the service of awakening. Absolutely. First, we should look at our minds and how we can transform that. Then, we need to ask what’s needed on a practical level. What can we do? Can we help raise money for the victims? We’ll say prayers, we’ll say mantras, we’ll meditate, we’ll work on ourselves, but afterwards we need to get up and go help. When we’re feeling helpless, [we need to remind ourselves] there is always something that we can do.

As a sangha, are you planning on participating in any direct action? We’re a small sangha—maybe 20 or so people, and there are some days when two people show up—and yet we have 800 people on our mailing list that we can call upon. Moving forward, we’re going to brainstorm how we can practice compassion in action. In the past, we’ve been able to help others in the wake of natural disasters. Our center raised $10,000 for the earthquake in Nepal, and also raised funds for the hurricane victims in Houston and Puerto Rico. 

Sometimes I think Buddhism makes it harder to talk about specific violent acts or attitudes, especially when we’re meant to consider all harmful behavior as part of the same web of delusion. It’s quite a question—why this kind of delusion, and why are some people in particular so greatly affected? Yes. The veils are very, very thick. All the more reason that we need to take some action. We are creators of our experience through our actions of body, speech, and mind. People think that their voices are not going to make any difference. Yet each one of us has contributed to this. We have to take some responsibility here on an individual basis. 

That Sunday was Chokhor Duchen, The Turning of the Wheel of Dharma, which is the commemoration of Buddha’s first teachings, and his teachings on the four noble truths—the truth of suffering. But we can’t just stay at: there is suffering—and, oh well, we’re screwed. The Buddha also said there can be cessation [of suffering], and this is the path. 

Right. We’re supposed to have faith in the possibility of equanimity, even when it feels completely impossible. In my mind, the fear is that we start becoming numb to this. This time it was in my backyard. The following day it was in Ohio. Is this what the Buddha had in mind when he talked about the degenerate times? Yet the degenerate times are also characterized by a decrease in the teachings of the Buddha. Somehow, it doesn’t feel that way. Hopefully there will be some positive change, some little awakening occurring within the community.