Mass shootings like the one in Oregon last week leave many of us with feelings of despair and frustration. Are we helpless to stop these incidents? They also lead to questions about guns and mental illness. Investigators have portrayed the Oregon shooter as an angry young man disconnected from others. How can prevent people like this from amassing stockpiles of weapons?
Frankly, angry and disconnected describes an awful lot of us, and from the Buddhist point of view, we all have mental health issues.
Buddhism teaches that all human sufferings stem from mental afflictions. We also call them delusions. The Sanskrit word is kleshas, meaning, “that which disturbs the mind from within.” A primary affliction is anger, also known as aversion or hatred.
Anger is a vengeful attitude toward one’s self, toward others, towards things that produce frustration, and towards frustration itself. Individuals who live in the realm of anger are obsessed with fault-finding, and while they may display a victim mentality, the truth is, as T’ien-t’ai master Chih-i put it, they are more “like a hawk sweeping the sky in search of prey.”
One of the most instructive and powerful Buddhist texts dealing with anger is the one I mentioned in a recent post, Shantideva’s A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life (or “Way of the Bodhisattva”). The Dalai Lama has given teachings on this work many times, in particular on the “Patience” chapter.* In 2001, I attended one of these teachings in Pasadena California and took copious notes.
Anger has lingering effects. The Dalai Lama said that when strong anger arises, all our normal senses of behavior are destroyed:
When one is under the domination of anger, those around us suffer also. Even friends and family suffer because they worry about our bad mood. Small outbursts of anger may seem to bring some satisfaction but there are long term negative effects. Anger [that arises when another person has harmed us] does not reverse. If we return the harm then the person responsible just becomes angrier and it becomes a vicious circle.”
The Dalai Lama pointed out that Shantideva identifies anger as “the real enemy, our inner enemy.” Anger is very powerful and comes from causes and conditions that we need to analyze so that we can prevent the causes from arising. He said, “The Buddhist way is to try and trace back the causes and counteract them.”
Here, I’d like to say that when we talk about causes and conditions, it is not just causes and conditions. It is also choices. I don’t accept that Shantideva or Buddhism in general is determinism. We have free will. Many of the causes were produced by actions we chose to undertake, and because mental afflictions disturb the mind from within, only we can chose whether or not to take the necessary actions to defeat them. This should be empowering, for it tells us that we are not at the complete mercy of external forces.
Verse 8 in the chapter on Patience reads,
Therefore, I should eradicate
the fuel of this enemy,
for this enemy has no other function
than to harm me.
According to Shantideva, the practice of patience is the most effective antidote to anger. It involves cultivating tolerance and compassion, but it also requires an ability to endure hardship and maintain a strong determination to remove the causes of anger.
What happens in society is a reflection of what happens in the minds of those who live in that society. Because of this, we are not helpless to stop gun violence and societal anger.
I believe that Buddhism rejects the notion of helplessness. If there were not a possibility of rational hope for human beings in the face of suffering, the Buddha would not have taught the Four Noble Truths, in which he said, “Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of the way that leads to the cessation of suffering . . .”
We change the world by changing ourselves and it can have a ripple effect. We are only helpless when we become hopeless, and because we can change, there is always hope.
As the Dalai Lama noted, in itself the mind is neutral and can take either the form of mental affliction or insight into true reality. It is up to each one of us to decide in which direction our minds will move.
Since my mind is not physical,
no one can destroy it.
And the Dalai Lama said,
We are changing our natural habitual patterns and since what we are changing is so monumental, there can be no relaxing in the battle against mental afflictions. Those who battle mental afflictions are true heroes.”
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* A 1993 teaching given by the Dalai Lama on the “Patience” chapter in Shantideva’s Guide was published as Healing Anger The Power of Patience from a Buddhist Perspective