On August 7, 2011 a deranged asshole with a gun killed eight members of the family of a close friend of mine, including her 11 year-old nephew. Like most such perpetrators in America, he had acquired the gun easily, cheaply, and legally.
I have been appalled by the pathetic state of our gun laws since I was old enough to know about them. When John Lennon was shot by a madman in New York City, that really finalized it for me. But on August 7, 2011 I made the conscious choice to never, ever be nice about this subject again.
There is no middle ground for me when it comes to this issue. The gun laws in the USA are fucked and need to be changed. At the very least it needs to be harder and more expensive to get a gun in this country. That won’t fix everything, but it will fix a lot of the problems.
Don’t bother trying to change my mind. I will not listen. I don’t need to. You are wrong. What’s more, your uncaring greed, irrational paranoia and inexcusable ignorance are directly responsible for the deaths of my friend’s family members. I do not like you and do not want to talk to you. I hope that is clear.
I am also a Buddhist.
Buddhists are supposed to be tolerant of opinions other than our own. We’re supposed to keep an open mind. At least that’s what Buddhists on TV shows are like. They kinda float around smiling and saying cute things and never get mad about anything at all. If you say you’re a Buddhist, you’re supposed to be exactly like that.
Of course that’s just nonsense. But Buddhists really are supposed to understand that we are not different from anyone else in the world. We are all intimately connected. Even if you hold unreasonable and stupid views about guns, you are an expression of the universe just like me. In the deepest and truest sense I love you. Even as I hate your fucking guts.
The idea of universal oneness is very appealing when you’re talking about how we are all one with the birds and the bees and the flowers and the trees. It sounds super nice when you’re with close friends or at a rave tripping your brains out and grooving to the sounds and lights with a few hundred like-minded humans.
But what do you do when it comes to something you absolutely cannot abide by? Maybe for you gun control is not the issue that brings this out. But each of us has a line that we are unwilling or unable to cross. What’s yours?
This is hard for me every time there is yet another completely avoidable mass shooting in the USA. I get angry. I can’t even make myself feel better by recalling that there are always other ways of looking at things. There aren’t any other ways that make any sense at all.
And yet I took a vow not to give way to anger. That does not mean I have vowed never to get mad again. That would be impossible. But I have vowed to make an effort not to allow anger to control me, not to speak out of anger, not to act out of anger.
We have to be careful here with words, though. The word “anger” means a number of different things. The anger we’re looking at when we make our vows as Buddhists is the emotion of anger. But in English, we also use the word “anger” to indicate a somewhat different condition that is largely unemotional. If I say that I am angry about the state of gun laws in America it does not necessarily mean I am filled with boiling rage over them. That could be the case. But it could also mean that I see a situation that urgently needs to be changed and I am committed to being part of that change. We sometimes use the word “anger” as a way to indicate this kind of intense urgency.
In my own case, it’s a bit of both. When I heard about the shootings in Oregon last week, I was emotionally angry. As I write this piece now, I am still emotionally angry. If you’re not angry when things like this happen over and over and over again and no one will do anything about it then something is very wrong with you. That’s not evidence of some kind of Buddhist equanimity. It’s evidence that you should seek psychiatric help.
So what should we as Buddhists do at a time like this?
It’s a question I get asked often and one I’ve been asking myself these past few days. But the problem is it’s the wrong question.
What I should do is unimportant. What I am doing is important. So I observe. I watch the anger rise. I don’t try to stop it. I don’t tell myself I’m wrong for feeling what I’m feeling. Or if I do find myself telling myself that, I take a step back and see even that for what it is — a thought reaction born out of the habit of trying to escape from reality.
At times when the emotion of anger is clouding my judgment, I try to do only what is necessary. If there’s a shooter right in front of me, I will (hopefully) act right then and there rather than waiting for anger to subside. But in the case of the on-going battle for sensible gun laws in America, it’s better to wait until I feel a little more balanced. I’ll admit I made a few angry Facebook posts this past week. But on the grand scale of things angry Facebook posts don’t really count for much.
As practitioners of Zen, we try to respond clearly and not out of our accumulated habits and messy emotions. My own practice over the years has often been about this. It’s never easy to do. But it does get a little easier with practice.
And for now, that’s all I can say.
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