The Newtown Massacre: A Buddhist Perspective

Candles line a sidewalk memorial in honor of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting victims, Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2012, in Ne
Candles line a sidewalk memorial in honor of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting victims, Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2012, in Newtown, Conn. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

As a Buddhist minister, I try to come up with some words of condolence about the Newtown, Conn., massacre to share with my own congregation. I try to think of some scriptural passage, some words of wisdom. But I keep drawing a blank. I have spent the last few days mute and speechless, just taking in random snippets of data: the shooter bursting into the school armed to the teeth with his mother's own guns; the school principal lunging to stop him and paying with her life; a pundit on television opining that what would solve the problem is yet more guns; children locked in a closet with their teacher, waiting for the "good guys" to come; the first responders bursting in, fearing the worst and encountering worse than that. Meanwhile in China, on that same day a deranged man burst into an elementary schoolroom and attacked a classroom of children with a knife. This seems to be happening with some regularity in China and other places too. Did I miss the moment when the world suddenly started killing little children in their classrooms?

All of this is still a jumble, yet I do know from my Buddhist study that these seemingly disparate postcards from reality are all connected, all linked, all part of one fabric. How can we make sense of it all? And then I thought of Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk.

I first met him in 1980, when he visited the Buddhist center where I lived. I was immediately struck by two things: First, he walked slowly, very slowly. And second, he had a hint of a smile on his face -- he called it the half-smile. He told us of his experiences in the Vietnam war -- how he watched helplessly as children were shot by soldiers, burned by napalm or blown up by bombs. He told us how he walked from village to village, orphanage to orphanage, doing what he could to help the children who still lived. Later, exiled in France, he raised money to help Vietnamese children from afar, perusing albums of their photographs and slowly studying each face, trying to feel the suffering of each one.

At the interfaith memorial service on Dec. 16, when President Obama read each victim's name for the world to hear it was like Thich Nhat Hanh studying the photographs -- each name a prayer and potent cry. Now, after 30 years, I understand more deeply why Thich Nhat Hanh walks so slowly. It is so he can feel all the world's pain and see it with full clarity, just as it is.

And what about his half-smile? The half-smile is not an idea, it is a practice and a deep fact. The face of every Buddhist statue in the world shows the half-smile. This is a teaching beyond words. The half smile is our redemption, a practice that moves beyond anger and despair, toward compassion and hope.

I read an essay once by a reporter who was touring Cambodia in the first years after the genocide there. In every village he visited, there were piles of skulls -- memorials to what had happened. He found these mounds chilling to contemplate, especially the tiny skulls of children, yet the surviving villagers -- all Buddhists -- smiled as they showed him these things. "How can you smile in the face of all this?" the reporter asked them, incredulous. One of the village elders replied, "Because it is something we can still do."

In his speech President Obama posed the following question. He said, "All the world's religions start with a simple question. Why are we here? What gives our life meaning? What gives our acts purpose?" When he said that I thought, "Yes, that is right," and asked, "What is the Buddhist answer to the question?" I would say that we are here to help each other, to cultivate wisdom and compassion, to "walk slowly" with clarity and keep the half smile. That is our path.

In my congregation we sometimes perform a ritual called the Well Being Ceremony. We chant a Buddhist prayer and then I offer up the prayer to all people everywhere who are ill, who have died, and who are lost or in pain. I say, "These are their names." And then one by one and all together each Sangha member says the names of the people they are holding close in their hearts. The room fills with the murmuring of these many names, a powerful sound acting as its own prayer. And when we are done I say once again, "These are their names."

As for the Newtown massacre, soon the intensity of communal grief will fade as it inevitably does, and we will seem to move on. Pundits will have their say, politicians will have their views. It seems that we can only "walk slowly" for so long, and then we want to pick up the pace. Not so for Thich Nhant Hanh, however. Wherever he is I know he continues to walk slowly, keeping the half smile, looking closely with compassion at each person he meets or sees.

In that spirit, echoing President Obama, I repeat the names of the victims of Newtown who have perished. I honor them in this way. These are their names:

Charlotte, Daniel, Olivia, Josephine, Ana, Dylan, Madeline, Catherine, Chase, Jesse, James, Grace, Emilie, Jack, Noah, Caroline, Jessica, Benjamin, Avielle, Allison, Dawn Hocksprung, Mary Sherlach, Vicki Soto, Lauren Russeau, Rachel Davino, Anne Marie Murphy.

May they be at peace. These are their names.