Newtown shooting and gun violence: A Buddhist response

December 28, 2012

Losang Tendrol is a nun in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. She teaches meditation at the Guhyasamaja Buddhist Center in Fairfax, Va.

In a press release issued on Dec 19 after the shooting in Newton, Conn., New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg stated that 34 Americans fall victim to gun violence every day. They are our parents, children, friends, neighbors, and our police officers, managers, teachers –  perhaps indirectly we all know someone who has met a violent end. Every death tears a hole in the intricate network of relationships that unites us.

The Buddha taught that from birth, each of us has an instinctive gentleness towards others – a desire to protect those around us from harm and a willingness to make sacrifices to help even strangers. Cultivating and nurturing this love gives meaning to our short lives. Yet looking within ourselves we also find our innate self-focus. This self-awareness is a sense that we exist apart from others. Rather than being a negative factor, it is this very self-focus that enables us to feel empathy because it is the basis for our common humanity. It is only because we experience suffering first hand that we generate the motivation to eliminate the suffering of others. As a nation, we deeply mourn the loss of the 20 school children and their teachers at Sandy Hook because of this deep seated connection.

In contrast, many believe that human nature is malevolent, so we need to guard ourselves from others.  We invest in many defense systems ranging from security systems, door locks, firewalls, antivirus software, passwords, all the way to what some consider the ultimate protection – possessing guns.

Some own guns based on the conviction that the world will end and we need guns in order to survive. Others feel that guns are necessary to stand up against a tyrannical government, or to rid society of undesirable people. The underlying rationale is the need for protection against an external threat, an outside enemy who intends to injure us.

In response the to the Sandy Hook shooting, Wayne LaPierre, head of the National Rifle Association advocated for putting armed police officers in every school in America. More guns, however, is not the solution. Instead as a society we need to address the underlying causes of violence in our nation. As many have proposed, we need to increase expenditures for public mental health care so that the mentally ill receive appropriate treatment, supervision and care. It must be terrifying for someone who is delusional to be left to survive on the streets all alone.  Strict measures should be taken to ensure the mentally ill are unable to obtain guns.

Likewise, we need to tone down the violence in the entertainment industry so that our children do not grow up thinking that aggression is an acceptable means of resolving problem.  Violence breeds more violence, today's killers may be tomorrow's victims. According to the Buddha's teaching about karma, actions always have related consequences. Murder is a misdeed because it harms others and the result is that the killer will experience tremendous suffering in the future and may even die in a similar manner. As such, all guns should be illegal as they only serve one purpose – to end lives.

Still, many shootings in America are not committed by people who are mentally ill, but instead by people who are angry and restless, and who lack the ability to regulate their emotions. So what is the long-term solution? The Buddha taught that the only real medicine to cure the disease of harming others is by transforming our own minds. Through meditation, we discover that the true source of our problems is not external enemies; instead, it is our own negative emotions and ignorance. Each of us needs to address the underlying malaise and discontent that give rise to our hatred, attachment, fear, and self-centeredness.

By cultivating bodhicitta, the mind that seeks to benefit others, we find meaning and joy in life.  Lama Zopa Rinpoche, a Tibetan Buddhist teacher, explains how to we should set our motivation: “In the West, millions of people suffer from depression, but if you dedicate your life in the morning to numberless sentient beings, you will have unbelievable joy and happiness the whole day. Cherishing the I opens the door to all suffering, while cherishing others opens the door to all happiness. When you live your life every day for others, the door to depression, relationship problems and all such things is closed and instead there is incredible joy and excitement.” The benefits of the mind of compassion, bodhicitta, are described in this verse:

Bodhicitta makes you abandon all harms,

Bodhicitta rids you of all sufferings,

Bodhicitta frees you from all fears,

Bodhicitta stops all negative conduct,

~ Khunu Lama Rinpoche

In his book “Beyond Religion: Ethics for a whole world,” the Fourteenth Dalai Lama of Tibet, Tenzin Gyatso, stresses the need for secular ethics grounded in compassion that transcend the confines of religious traditions. Such ethical principles celebrate our shared humanity and interdependence. 

It is up to each of us as individuals to make these principles the rules we live by and thereby to fulfill our full potential as human beings. While this may seem impossible,  it is in fact realistic because the inner peace that arises from such ethics lies hidden in our minds waiting for us to reveal it through study and contemplation. 

By caring for others with compassion, we create vast amounts of positive karma and this gives rise to a feeling of safety and ease. We don't need guns because we understand how a strong community is a reflection of close ties with our neighbors forged through mutual respect and kindness. We are no longer paranoid that everyone is out to get us because we have looked deep within ourselves and expelled our inner enemy - self-cherishing.

Gradually, as more people choose to practice the path of peace, killings such as the incident in Newton, Conn. will no longer occur.

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