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


Smatterings of Violence Followed by Polyphonic Interlude

burma-violenceIn the news:

Fresh sectarian violence broke out in north-western Burma Saturday when police refused to hand over a Muslim man accused of raping a Buddhist woman. Buddhist mobs burnt dozens of Muslim-owned houses and shops. The radical monk Wirathu, who calls himself the “Bin Laden of Buddhism,” claimed on his Facebook page that hundreds of people took part in the riot.

Last month, A Burmese court sentenced 25 Buddhists up to 15 years in prison for murder during a night of rioting, burning and killing in central Burma. A day earlier, a Muslim was handed a life sentence for murdering one of 43 people killed in March also in central Burma. In June, another Muslim man, 48-year-old Ne Win, whose attack on a Buddhist woman set off sectarian rioting in north-east Burma was sentenced to 26 years in prison.

Also last month, in Sri Lanka, a Buddhist mob attacked a mosque in Sri Lanka’s capital and at least 12 people were injured, the latest in Buddhist violence against Muslims there.

Violence and mob action on the part of Buddhists in Burma and Sri Lanka is reprehensible. I believe that Buddhists around the world who share this view could do a lot more to stem the tide of this violence by speaking out against it. The force of Buddhist public opinion could be a tremendous force for good. However, aside from a few token comments here and there, the world Buddhist community has remained largely silent.

In the United States, we don’t really have any sectarian violence, just the regular senseless kind: In Spencer, Oklahoma, a Buddhist monk, Weera Chulsuwan, 66, also known as “Tony the Monk,” was nearly beaten to death by two teenagers last Friday. Evidently the two youths thought Chulsuwan had money, unaware I guess that Buddhist monks are not known for carrying around large sums of dough. Chulsuwan received 15 blows to the head and face, and for over 24 hours was in and out of consciousness. In the moments following the attack, he managed to crawl several feet from his yard to his home and then had to charge his phone battery before he could call 911. He has been a monk for 30 years. The two teenagers were still at large.

Here’s something about about Tibet that is refreshingly non-violent. The UK’s Daily Mail reports that “The Rolling Stones were a huge hit when they headlined Glastonbury this summer, but an even older group were the festival’s surprise stars.” The reference is to the Gyuto Monks of Tibet who have been together for 600 years, and like the Stones, not always with the same line-up, although that may depend on your point of view about reincarnation. In any case, The Stones have only been around a mere 50 years.

gyuto-monksThe Gyuto Tantric Monastic University is a major tantric institution belonging to the Gelug tradition. Jetsun Kunga Dhondup, a disciple of the First Dalai Lama, founded the Gyuto Order in 1475. Nearly 1000 monks lived at the monastery in 1950 when Tibet was invaded by the Chinese army. In 1959, only some 60 or so were able to flee with the Dalai Lama to India.

Gyuto monks are known for their distinctive style of chanting, often referred as “overtone” but is actually polyphonic. An individual monk sings what sounds like an entire chord as opposed to a single note. A sold-out show at the Royal Albert Hall brought the monks worldwide fame in 1973. This was followed by a series of recordings by David Lewiston in 1974. Since then they’d made a number of recordings, and have toured often, once in America with the Grateful Dead.

I should also mention that these guys have really deep voices. Enjoy this short taste of the Gyuto Tantric Choir:


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