The Navy Yard Shooting: A Look at Good and Evil, and Mental Afflictions

The horrific Navy Yard shooting a week ago has produced some discussion about the gunman’s involvement with Buddhism. The picture is yet unclear. Some friends of his say he was a devout Buddhist, while others suggest he only went to the temple in Ft. Worth to meet Thai women. The truth, as usual, is probably somewhere in the middle.

A few of the television commentators I watched the day after the incident seemed positively aghast at the thought that a Buddhist could commit such evil. One anchor on CNN questioned if the gunman was a legitimate Buddhist since Buddhism is a spiritual philosophy that advocates nonviolence. A Washington Post blog claimed that the gunman “was no Buddhist” because a “Buddhist is who Buddhism does,” which I’m not sure even makes sense.

Buddhism is not the only philosophy that preaches non-violence, and while a history of violence in Buddhism is not as extensive as in some other religions, it is there nonetheless. Still, the peaceful image Buddhism has managed to project is so pervasive that it is difficult for some to imagine that Buddhists, like anyone else, can kill.

According to the Oxford Dictionary, violence is “behavior involving physical force intended to hurt, damage, or kill someone or something.” When sanctioned by law, violence can be perceived as good. When unsanctioned, it is a form of evil. Yet, the behavior itself is essentially identical.

Robert Mitchum’s tattooed hands in the 1955 film, “The Night of the Hunter.”

In Western religious traditions, people tend to think of good and evil as two fundamentally and diametrically opposed principles or forces in the universe. Two primary wills directed towards opposite ends. Buddhism, however, teaches that good and evil are not separate; they are entwined aspects of life.

T’ien-t’ai master Chih-i, in the Mo-ho Chih-kuan (“Great Stopping and Seeing”), says, “Good and evil have no self-nature.” In Buddhism, when we talk about self-nature (svabhava), we are referring to the ability of anything to exist on its own, separate from other things. Neither good nor evil exist from their own side as independent functions of human nature.

Further, Chih-i notes that “If one realizes that evil is not evil, that everything is One Reality, then the Way of the Buddha is realized . . .” Simply put, he means that life is not black and white. Nothing exists as either completely good or totally evil. As Neal Donner explains an essay on “Chih-i’s Meditation on Evil,” there is no real contradiction between good and evil: “Even if evil is presently in one’s mind, good will always be found somewhere within it, for every element of existence is present in every other.” Just as good and evil do not function independently, neither is subordinate to the other, they are both equally part of the whole of reality.

This is the view from the ultimate truth, which differs from that of the relative or conventional truth. In the reality of conventional human life, evil is a destructive force that must be avoided in favor of producing goodness. Yet, it is not rational to think that evil can be completely eradicated. Indeed, evil is necessary. How would we recognize what is good if evil did not exist?

The fundamental, primary aim of all beings throughout the world is toward the same end, happiness. Thieves, murderers, even terrorists, want to be happy, although their notion of happiness may differ greatly from our own. Evil is the result of false beliefs on the part of an individual who mistakenly thinks that negative actions will result in the fulfillment of the primary aim. Evil is merely a result of ignorance and the wrong belief that something is a means to happiness when it is not.

The man who killed 12 people at the Navy Yard last Monday carved two cryptic messages into the wooden stock of the shotgun he bought two days before the shooting. One of the messages read, “Better Off This Way.” This suggests that with both good and evil coexisting in his mind, mental illness, and the extreme delusion it produced, actualized his potential for evil. The gunman,  impaired by post-traumatic stress disorder as a 9/11 responder, who heard “voices,” drank alcohol and played violent video games excessively, and frequently displayed angry and aggressive tendencies, became convinced that only through committing a desperate act could he find happiness. His primary aim was to liberate himself from suffering, an aim the suffering itself twisted into the act of inflicting suffering on others.

Two days following the Navy Yard shooting, Stephen Prothero, a professor in Boston University’s religion department, authored an editorial in USA Today. After citing some examples of violence in Buddhism’s past (two of which are myths), he wrote, “But it is simply not the case that Buddhism is a ‘religion of peace.’”

Prothero, who a number of times in the past has demonstrated he has little understanding of Buddhist teachings, once again fails. In my opinion, no other spiritual philosophy than Buddhism deals as systematically and comprehensively with the underlying causes and conditions that lead to violence – the mental afflictions that delude the mind and pervert behavior.

At the end of the day, it’s not about religion, good or evil, violence or non-violence. It’s about the mind and the afflictions that disturb it. In terms of the shooting itself and how to prevent incidents from this from being repeated, there are numerous discussions we should be having, not the least of which is how can we deal more effectively with mental illness.

For the longevity of all other enemies is not so enduring, beginningless, and endless as that of my enemies, the mental afflictions.

Everyone becomes favorably disposed when tended with kindness, but when these mental afflictions are honored, they bring about suffering all the more.

Shantideva, Bodhicaryavatara (“A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life”) *

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* Vesna A. Wallace and B. Alan Wallace, Snow Lion Publications, 1997


The Pendulum of Life

If you’ve been on Google today then you have seen their interesting graphic of Leon Foucault’s Pendulum, saluting the physicist’s birth on this date 194 years ago.

One of my favorite places in Los Angeles is the Griffith Observatory, which I really think should be named the James Dean Memorial Observatory in honor of the fact that Rebel Without A Cause was shot there, but that’s beside the point, which is that one of the treasures of the observatory is the Foucault Pendulum in the Rotunda.

Foucault Pendulum at Griffith Observatory (
Foucault Pendulum at Griffith Observatory (

The pendulum has been a feature at the observatory since it opened in 1935, and it’s one of the largest pendulums in the world.  The device demonstrates the rotation of the Earth. It has a 240-pound brass ball, suspended by a cable 40 feet long, that swings in the same direction all the time. To an observer it appears that the ball changes direction, but it’s actually the earth that is moving. Every eight minutes the ball knocks over a dowel to illustrate the rotation.

Now, everyone knows that the Earth rotates once in about 24 hours. But that is from the point of view of the sun. From the point of view of the stars, it’s once every 23 hours 56 minutes and 4 seconds. And what you may not know is that the Earth’s rotation is slowing down. That means days are longer than they were in the past. Because of Los Angeles’ latitude, the rotation time for the Foucault Pendulum at the Griffith Observatory is 42 hours.

Recently, I blogged about Soyen Shaku, the first Zen master to visit the West. In 1906 he wrote a piece called “The Pendulum of Life”:

[People] want to live, and they do not know that their living is really their death. This contradiction causes them an immeasurable amount of suffering. Apparently they are living, that is, they are moving bodily in the world of contrasts and opposites, of pleasures and pains, of sorrows and joys, of good and evil; and yet they want to escape from this actual state of things, they want to enter into a region where they have only monotony, stagnation, and abeyance, and even extinction. For are they not trying to keep the pendulum of life always up on one side only? The pendulum owes its existence to a constant swinging from one side to the other. When this is stopped, it ceases to be itself and exists no more. To live is to move, to change, to walk up and down, to come in and out, to enjoy and to suffer, to -smile and to weep. To refuse to do so is simply courting death.”

This reminds me of the famous quote by Norman Cousins that the greatest tragedy is when something inside of you dies while you’re still living. Cousins was a American journalist who fought heart disease by taking large doses of Vitamin C and laughing. He claimed that Marx Brothers movies were a key factor in his healing, and he was no quack, but rather served for a time as Adjunct Professor of Medical Humanities for the UCLA School of Medicine. Another way to describe his struggle is to say that he beat death by learning how to live.

What Soyen Shaku meant when he wrote that so many people court death is that they don’t know how to live. And what Buddha meant when he taught that life is suffering was that there is a undeniable quality of suffering in life, a malaise, an ill-ness, and that its cause is that we live the wrong way, for the wrong things. We often feel we are seeking enjoyment, happiness, but the things that we think will make us happy, bring pain and unhappiness in the long run.

Bust of James Dean at Griffith Observatory
Bust of James Dean at Griffith Observatory

Later in his piece, Soyen Shaku says, “Life, according to Buddhism, is worth living, because it enables us to do something.” Is this “something” merely to live fast and die before our time like James Dean? Or to learn to live while we are alive?

There is suffering, and there is happiness, too. The Buddhist way of life is to cling to neither suffering nor happiness, to be like Foucault’s Pendulum, without changing direction in our plane of swing between the two extremes. Through the practice of equanimity, the state of psychological stability, we can learn to remain undisturbed by life’s rotations.

Evidently, the gunman in Monday’s Navy Yard rampage was a convert to Buddhism. His last known residence was in Fort Worth, TX where he shared a place with the owner of a restaurant whom he’d met at a nearby Thai Buddhist temple. According to the roomate, the gunman spent a great deal of time at the temple “meditating and chanting.”

It’s tempting to speculate on the depth of his Buddhist practice, to wonder if the teachers at his temple had ever mentioned equanimity. I doubt it would have made any difference. The gunman was a pendulum swinging wildly and his psychological problems were so severe that he needed the kind of help that only professionals can provide. We may never know exactly what was in this man’s mind, but it seems that such individuals reach a point where they feel there is nothing left for them except to kill others and be killed.

For the rest of us, or most of us at least, we can do something else, we can learn to live while we are alive.