How can we make sense out of the senseless? When a deranged young man opens fire killing innocent people, what lessons can we take away that can give meaning to the lost lives? Learning something new or deepening our understanding seems to be the best way to honor those who've suffered the most. I'd like to offer some thoughts from a Buddhist perspective.
Events unfold largely due to causes and conditions. An event like this does not happen in a vacuum. An unbalanced person with paranoid delusions, with easy access to guns, immersed in a culture of hatred and violence, whipped up by a media hungry for sensational news, given messages that a politician is threatening his well-being and should be targeted, can produce the tragedy we're dealing with now. All of those factors were likely at play. To only blame the young man's mental stability and simply say, "Oh, he was nuts," misses the point. Our country spends 60 percent of its budget on the military and more than the next dozen nations combined. Is it just a coincidence that we have so many civilian gun killings? Pima County sheriff Clarence Dupnik sarcastically commenting on the easy access to guns said, "What will be next -- Uzis in kids' cribs?" Yet, we were still shocked.
Every human being wants to feel safe and have peace. That's a tall order in a culture that glorifies violence. Gun rights groups are now proposing legislation that would require the Arizona Department of Public Safety to provide firearms training to state legislators. Would that have protected Gabrielle Giffords? As Martin Lither King pointed out:
"The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate...Returning violence for violence multiples violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: Only love can do that."
The Buddha similarly taught, "Hatred never ceases by hatred. Hatred only ceases by love. This is an ancient and eternal law."
When the news about the shootings first came out, many assumed that right wing conspirators were behind it. That conclusion led to outrage. Later, when it became obvious that the killer was mentally unstable, the outrage lessened a bit, at least toward the suspect, because he was clearly confused. Even though what he was doing made sense to him, he was ignorant of his actions on some level because he was out of touch with reality.
In Buddhism, ignorance has an even broader definition. One aspect of it is not truly understanding the karmic consequences of our actions. Another is lack of awareness as to where happiness really lies. Basic understanding of karma states very simply that actions which come from greed, hatred or ignorance lead to suffering. Actions based in generosity, kindness and wisdom lead to happiness. After his enlightenment, the Buddha was motivated to teach because of the ignorance he saw: although everyone wants to be happy, most people are acting in ways that lead to more suffering.
Jesus' famous statement on the cross was based on this same understanding: "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." He saw that, although on one level they knew very well what they were doing, they didn't understand who he was or the consequences of their actions because their minds were colored by hate and fear.
The real villain in this story is not Jared Loughner. It's not the media. And it's not the gun rights advocates. The real villain is ignorance. Because of ignorance, people project their fear and turn those who are different into enemies -- both in their minds and in actuality. This is the history of war, as Sam Keen brilliantly pointed out in Faces of the Enemy. Once you demonize the "other" they become less than human and you can inflict pain on them without guilt or shame.
Clamoring for more access to guns because you genuinely want to feel safer is like trying to put out a fire with gasoline. And those politicians who seem to know what they're doing as they spew vitriol, consciously inciting and provoking others by making an opponent a target, are simply pyromaniacs enthralled by the fire of conflict and power. That, too, is ignorance in the Buddhist sense because, although it might seem to have a purpose, in the end it will not lead to less suffering.
Right now, this tragedy is capturing our attention. Can anything good come from it? Unfortunately, Columbine and the shooting spree at Virginia Tech had little effect on the access to guns by anyone including the mentally unstable. The NRA is stronger than ever. And the cowboy mindset in this country, from our military budget to Second Amendment advocates, is still entrenched in our psyche. The response of two congressmen to the Arizona tragedy was to announce that they would be carrying guns from now on. Not exactly good modeling for non-violence. As long as media is salivating over stories that frighten and outrage us, it's unlikely that the level of public discourse will favor voices that speak to our nobler qualities. As one friend puts it, "At this point in time we are in a race between fear and consciousness."
A story like this affects us all. But rather than hoping it's a wakeup call that magically turns down the hateful rhetoric and makes our society safer, I believe what's needed is a personal inquiry. Do you get outraged and wish ill will on those who have a different political viewpoint than yours? Do you feel uplifted when they're the target of ridicule?
A friend who shared his reflections about the shootings said it made him ask himself, "How do I show up in this culture?" We need to stop and feel into it -- the pain, the fear, the anger, the confusion -- and ask ourselves: "Where does this take me? What's the wisest response internally and externally?" The answers from the past aren't quite sufficient. Something else is needed. This is the time to ask ourselves how spirituality can help when a new response is called for.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote,
"If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?"
Each of us has love and hatred within us. The more we can be aware of how our own anger and ill will colors our thoughts, words and actions, the greater the chance for real transformation within ourselves. That transformation can lead to genuinely understanding how the confusion of an individual or a group could create greater pain and sorrow for themselves and others. When we can see the real villain as ignorance, we can stop demonizing "the other side." Then our words and actions, based in clarity and compassion, minus the hate, will be more effective and be part of a larger transformation in human consciousness.
James Baraz is a co-founder of Spirit Rock Meditation Center and has taught the online "Awakening Joy" course since 2003. To learn more about the upcoming 2011 course, visit Awakeningjoy.info.