Just a shot away

Oh, a storm is threat’ning my very life today
If I don’t get some shelter, oh yeah, I’m gonna fade away

Murder, it’s just a shot away, it’s just a shot away

– Rolling Stones

Shootings. Bombs. America has become a battleground, once more. This week I heard echoes of the 1960’s.  The sound of breakage, things that have been broken for all these years, shattering all over again.

The sheriff in Arizona, a state that has moved in a disturbing direction in recent years, made a few statements about the effect on unbalanced people when they listen to vitriolic remarks coming out of certain mouths about tearing down the government. Nothing new there. We were pretty vitriolic about the Viet Nam war, and tearing down the government. But the current situation has another flavor altogether. Where there was bitterness before, now there is poison.

Two of the problems we have not properly addressed in the last forty odd years are mental illness and guns. The formula looks like this: mental issues + vitriol + easy access to semi-automatic weapons = tragedy.

In an interdependent world, what is said on talk radio or in political campaigns is not removed from incidents such as Tucson. Playing with violent metaphors is a dangerous game. Immediately behind it, we see the specious maxim of “the end justifies the means”. I am so righteous in my position that I am justified in any wrongdoing I commit in order to propagate my view.

This is an issue that Buddhism addresses directly, for this destructive mind-set is the product of contentiousness, the clinging to views.

As I have mentioned before Nagarjuna, the real architect of Mahayana Buddhist philosophy, regarded non-contentiousness (anapalambha) as the very heart of the Buddha’s teachings. The tendency to seize, to cling, is the root of conflict and suffering.

I believe that I can count on one hand the number of Buddhist writers and teachers I know of who have spoken at any length about the emptiness of views. And yet, an understanding of this principle is a cure to much of the sickness in our society.

Nagarjuna said,

The wayfarer that can understand this [non-contentiousness] does not seize, does not cling to anything, does not imagine that this alone is true (and not that). He does not quarrel with anyone. He can thus enjoy the flavor of the nectar of the Buddha’s doctrine. Those teachings are wrong which are not of this nature (i.e., non-contentious and accommodative). If one does not accommodate other doctrines, does not know them, does not accept them, he indeed is the ignorant. Thus, then, all those who quarrel and contend are devoid of wisdom. Why? Because every one of them refuses to accommodate the views of others. That is to say, there are those who say that what they themselves speak is the highest, the real, the pure truth, that the doctrines of others are words, false and impure.

This is from the standpoint of the ultimate truth. Conventionally, of course, views are natural and necessary. But the views, as views, themselves are empty, because they are only relative. Clinging to a specific view in an extreme manner causes pain to oneself or others and can set into motion situations that spark suffering in an even wider arc. Extremism as a consequence of excessive clinging manifests itself in many different ways. It may be angry words at someone who disagrees with your view. It might placing an ideological opponent on a map with simulated gun sights. It might be putting that opponent in the crosshairs of a Glock.

To obtain an understanding of non-contentiousness is what Nagarjuna called “The State of Prajna-paramita” – the state of transcendent wisdom, freedom from conflict, the state of mind where all contention ceases:

In the ultimate truth, all the different views disappear, all the activities of the mind return and enter the true nature (dharmata) and there is no other sphere for the mind to reach. There all words cease: the world is itself beheld in its true nature as Nirvana and not anything different. It is this wisdom by means of which one realizes this ultimate truth that is called the eye of wisdom.

The madness that stems from clinging to views is stopped by us when we realize the emptiness of views. We all have a part that we play in this psychodrama. If what is said on talk radio is not removed from the incident in Tucson, neither are our own thoughts, words and deeds. It reminds me of the line in another Stones song, Sympathy for the Devil: “I shouted out ‘Who killed the Kennedys?’ When after all It was you and me.”

There is no shortage of extremism. It’s everywhere. Even in Buddhism. I see  clinging to views and vitriol frequently in the Buddhist blogosphere. The angry comments when views are challenged. Tasteless humor. Belittling others for their sense of themselves and for the paths they follow. Typing and categorizing others. And I can’t help but feel that a preoccupation with masturbation and farting is not only out of place, it’s also not indicative of a well-balanced, healthy adult. Maybe it is a generational thing, but I suspect it has more to do with one’s level of maturity and grasp of Buddha-dharma. And I am confident that in the coming days there will be no shortage either of denouncements of the recent events from some of the folks who themselves contribute to the current heated atmosphere.

In a free society anyone can have any view they wish to have, although in certain cases there is a requirement to have enough expertise to advance a particular view. But clinging to a view so tightly that one is propelled into violent action has no place. On that, surely we all agree. But where and when do we begin to give up the excessive clinging that leads to the countless “little murders” we commit in our mind on a daily basis?

Buddhism has a cure for this senseless violence. It starts with you and me.

I tell you love, sister, it’s just a kiss away
It’s just a kiss away
It’s just a kiss away
It’s just a kiss away
It’s just a kiss away
Kiss away, kiss away

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