Before I begin, a couple of things. First off, tomorrow (July 21, 2012 for those of you reading in the future) I will host the regular Saturday zazen at Hill Street Center, 237 Hill St., Santa Monica, CA 90405. It starts at 9:50 AM with zazen instructions for anyone who needs them. Those who don’t need instructions can show up at 10. We sit at 10 AM and afterwards we talk. Beginners and first-timers are welcome. Every time you sit zazen is the first time.
Also, this new blog seems to randomly send certain comments to be moderated. It’s not supposed to. Sorry! I’ll keep an eye on that. This blog has no comment moderation. However, you do have to register in order to comment.
I was planning to write a different article today but then I heard the news about the shooting at the premiere of the new Batman movie in Colorado. If you haven’t heard about that, click on the highlighted words in the previous sentence and read the CNN article.
Last night I was driving down Sunset Boulevard around eight o’clock and saw a line of people outside the Vista Theater apparently waiting for the midnight premiere of Batman: The Dark Knight Rises. I recall thinking that after the mind-numbing yuckiness of The Amazing Spiderman, I just did not want to see any more superhero movies for a long time. This, from a guy (me) who worked in the business of making superhero movies for fifteen years.
Addressing the incident in Colorado, President Obama said, “If there’s anything to take away from this tragedy it’s the reminder that life is very fragile. Our time here is limited and it is precious. And what matters at the end of the day is not the small things, it’s not the trivial things, which so often consume us and our daily lives. Ultimately, it’s how we choose to treat one another and how we love one another.”
True that. You do not even want to get me started on the matter of the Second Amendment and gun control. That debate was over and settled for me on the night of December 8, 1980 when John Lennon was murdered by a maniac with a legally acquired gun. There is no further need to discuss the matter. You will not change my mind on this issue. So please do not bother trying.
But facts are facts. People in the United States of America are allowed to have guns. I am not complacent on this issue and I will continue to do everything I can to change this fact for as long as I’m alive. Nonetheless this is the situation. I’m an American and I like living in this country. So I have to do what I can to make it better.
To me, this most recent tragedy is part of a much larger problem, which most people barely seem able to grasp. As technology advances, more and more people will continue to have access to greater and greater destructive power. The attacks on New York and Washington, DC on September 11, 2001 are the best example of this. Up until then, such an attack could only have been carried out by one of those very large, highly organized units of humanity we call a nation.
Nations have banded together to commit horrific atrocities in the past. This is certainly true. But it’s very hard to get that many people to participate in something really awful. Hitler, to take the most obvious example, really had to work at it. If he’d been able to get the holocaust or the blitzkreig attacks on London going with just the first fifty guys who showed up at one of his beer hall gigs in Munich I’m sure he would have. But he couldn’t. He had to get thousands of people to support him. The difference between then and now is that now you can get something really horrific going with a handful of people. Or even just one. The technology has progressed and will continue to progress along those lines.
In Japan, where I lived for eleven years, as in most of the civilized world, not just any lunatic can go buy a stash of guns the way they can here in America. This doesn’t mean there are no homicidal crazies in Japan. It just means they have to use more primitive technology. When I was over there a guy went into an elementary school in Osaka armed with a great big knife and killed eight children. I’m sure he would have used a gun and killed more if he could have gotten one. But he couldn’t.
Our continuing greater access to advanced technology is the factor that makes fundamental human change extremely urgent right now. In the past we could get away with a lot of shit because we didn’t have access to such tremendous destructive power. We couldn’t do that much damage to each other, to our planet and so forth. Now we can.
We’ve all heard the argument that guns don’t kill people, people kill people. Of course the fact is that people with guns can kill people far more effectively than people without guns. But this has been said so often it’s a cliche. Still, even I have to admit that it’s true that if everyone who owned a gun were moral and sane, people could have as many guns as they wanted. Unfortunately not everyone is moral and sane. Nor can we effectively test everyone who tries to buy a gun as to their level of sanity and morality. So we need to control the access to such weapons. Again, this is just a fact, not something I want to debate.
To me, the most urgent issue in the world is not gun control. It’s morality. I’ve always felt this way. It’s one of the most fundamental points in all of Buddhism. People who say that Zen Buddhism has no stance on morality do not understand the very strong stance Zen Buddhism takes on morality. Some of this is the fault of Zen Buddhists who fail to (or are simply unable to) explain our ideas of morality clearly. But it’s also because the Zen take on morality is so very different from what we’ve been used to that it’s hard for people to grasp even when it is explained clearly.
I’ll make what will probably be an inadequate attempt at explaining it here on this little blog. Please forgive me if this just ends up being confusing.
All attempts to regulate morality through rules are doomed to fail. Even the tougher gun control laws that are clearly needed in the United States will ultimately fail. People will still be able to obtain guns if they really try hard. The difference is that they’ll have to try hard and thus may be deterred from doing whatever it is they want to do with their guns because it’s too damned difficult to get them. Yet there will be those few who are determined and those few will be able to do terrible things.
But guns are far from our only problem. Our most basic problem is that we do not know how to behave morally. In part this is because we imagine that morality is based on rules imposed by others. We associate moral behavior with the avoidance of punishment. Religions try make us believe in an imaginary place where even those bad things we’ve done that the law or our parents or whoever have failed to punish will be punished by an imaginary being who sees everything. The law of karma in Buddhism is too often poorly explained as yet another means by which this is supposed to occur. We’ll be punished for our bad behavior, it’s often wrongly said, by a kind of invisible moral force somewhere in the universe.
What’s really going on is that we misunderstand ourselves to be autonomous units who can inflict harm upon other autonomous units without suffering ourselves. But this is like thinking your right hand can stab your left foot and get away with it. Of course in some sense it can. Your right hand will not feel any pain if it does that. But your right hand can only do this if it is able to ignore the fact that it is part of a larger unit that does feel pain when it harms another part of that same larger unit. It’s not that the right hand will die and go to hell and be punished for stabbing your foot. Nor will the bad karma of stabbing your foot find its way back to your hand some time in the future. It all happens instantaneously.
The problem is that we are deeply, deeply steeped in a kind of huge collective delusion. Our mistaken way of understanding things has become so pervasive that we take it to be a fact. Our right hand really does think it’s not connected to our left foot. But it’s not that hard to understand for ourselves right now that it’s a mistake. It just takes a bit of work to allow ourselves to settle enough that we can start seeing things as they actually are.
I am not trying to suggest that if only that guy in Colorado had meditated a little we wouldn’t have had this tragedy. In fact, there are so many meditation centers in Colorado I would not be surprised to learn that he did meditate. Perhaps even regularly. Meditation is not a magic solution to mental illness. In the short run sometimes meditation can seem to make mental illness worse by bringing it more to the surface.
But I do believe that our society desperately needs to establish a culture of meditation because we need a new basic foundation for moral action. We need a new foundation for moral action because the means for great destruction are now in the hands of far more people than ever had access to them before.
Obama is right. Ultimately, it is about how we choose to treat one another and how we love one another.
My heart goes out to all those who have suffered because of this recent tragedy and all of the other tragedies like this that we’ll never hear about.
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