On Wednesday, at least 17 people were killed in a shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Broward County, Florida.The attack, allegedly carried out by expelled student Nikolas Cruz, 19, is the latest manifestation of America’s alarming trend of gun violence. It would be hard for someone from Shakyamuni Buddha’s time to imagine the capabilities of an AR-15, which can kill so many, so quickly. It would be even harder to imagine it happening to school children in a country during peacetime. What can Buddhist teachings offer when something so tragic has become so commonplace?

Tricycle brought these questions to Roshi Joan Halifax, founder of the Upaya Zen Center in Sante Fe, New Mexico.

Here in the Tricycle office, we all heard the news and were reluctant to even turn on the TV, having seen this drama played out so many times already. How can we avoid being emotionally exhausted by something that happens so often?

In our morning service, the priest who was officiating broke into tears as he asked us all to sit with the truth of this tragedy in Florida. It was beyond his comprehension, and beyond mine, too. So here we are again, and in a way, we cannot really fathom why or what to do. But we cannot rest in this place of shock. We have to go deeper and look at the suffering on all sides of this terrible equation.

Numbing and moral apathy are a great risk; walling ourselves off from the truth of suffering won’t transform the values of our culture, our society, or our own values. Yet most of us need a balance between overexposure to suffering and possible moral injury and outrage, and responsible, wise, and compassionate engagement, including sitting in the charnel grounds of this kind of tragedy. This takes keen inner discernment, a community of support, and feedback from those who are not off-balance in the face of this kind of violence. It also means taking a deep look at systemic issues, from economic structures to gender stereotypes to how we raise our children. And in the case of young white men who pick up guns as a source of power in order to express their rage, how power (and lack of it) works in our culture.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama put out a tweet days before the shooting saying, “Although I am a Buddhist monk, I am skeptical that prayers alone will achieve world peace. We need instead to be enthusiastic and self-confident in taking action.” What political action do you think is necessary from Buddhist communities?

If our politicians do not respond to the outcry in our country this morning, then we vote them out. We emphasize the importance of compassion, moral character, and moral nerve. And I also share His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s perspective that prayer won’t do it.  

Every Buddhist community is different. Some will emphasize practice. Others will engage in actions confronting structural and direct violence. Some will work in de-polarizing factions; others will engage in political endeavors, like getting out the vote. Some will say Buddhism is not political. Others will disagree. Buddhism is a big roof. But, from my perspective, this roof is not one to hide under. It is one to gather under and then to go into the “marketplace” with boon-bestowing hands. Furthermore, my second Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, was clear that we have to stand up against injustice, even if it means risking our own life.

Our editor and publisher, James Shaheen, wrote about gun violence in our Winter 2017 issue, decrying how routine even our outrage has become. He wrote of a commonly adopted attitude, “The defeatist consensus was unspoken: yes, it’s terrible, and it’ll happen again.” If we know that Washington is deadlocked on this issue and that, even if they aren’t, another tragic shooting will one day happen again, what can we do or say as practitioners beyond bromides?

We need to be aware of the echo chamber most of us live in, and of expressing concern and outrage but doing nothing—feeling as if our words on social media are actually doing something, when we are just in the echo chamber of people who already feel like us. I feel that principled and direct action is called for. To say, “it will happen again,” is to go to a default position where we abjure our responsibility. Courageous, compassionate action is what is needed at this time.

This morning you wrote on Twitter, “I want to live in a country that loves its children more than its guns.” Can you elaborate on this remark? A gun-rights advocate might take offense to a claim that they don’t love America’s children, but are you saying here that actions speak louder than words?

I saw these words elsewhere and thought: exactly, this expresses my heart. We live in a culture of violence. It is being fed to us every day through all sorts of media. We hunger for it. We consume it. Then it consumes us, as it did this young guy. We know that the more we feed on violence, the more our consciousness allows us to normalize what for many is totally unacceptable. And this goes back to your first question: how much is enough to get us going but not overwhelm us. We cannot just default to a view of emptiness or be caught in the grip of moral outrage. We have to proceed with moral sensitivity and moral nerve in balance. It’s not easy, but necessary.

Correction: An early version of this story cited statistics that claimed that there were 18 school shootings in 2018, a tally that counted every time a gun went off on school grounds regardless of intention or if school was in session. These misleading numbers have been removed. We apologize for the error. 

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