Every time some American man shoots up a building full of people, I feel a deep sense of outrage. Even with years of meditation and Buddhist training, it's still there. No matter how many arguments I have heard from gun rights advocates, I've never been able to swallow the obsession with guns many men in the U.S. have. I'm aware that this is true in other nations - and clearly armed groups of men terrorize people in war torn and oppressed countries all over the world. However, given the last few days in the U.S., I feel called to question again, as a man, why we American men are so attached to our guns.
Many of you probably heard a few days ago about the Major who killed a dozen of his fellow soldiers and injured at least thirty others in Fort Hood, Texas. And then yesterday, a disgruntled former employee walked into his old workplace and killed one person and injured half a dozen others. Two days - thirteen dead, dozens of others injured. Is this another form of war?
The gun lobby, lead by the National Rifle Association, is powerful in the United States. It seems near impossible to get quality health coverage for all Americans, but you sure as hell can get a gun if want one. In fact, recent estimates suggest there is almost one gun per person in the U.S. And let's face it, even though a woman finally stopped the Fort Hood shooter, most of those owning the guns, and doing the shooting, are men.
The first Buddhist precept is a vow of non-killing. It's not an injunction against all killing, and indeed we are always, even in taking a breath, killing something. However, I believe that this precept calls us to examine deeply our desires to kill and to refrain from all killing that is unnecessary.
I can hear the hunters in the audience cringing a bit when I say this. Maybe they will even think I am judging them. Well, I've never had a clear answer when it comes to hunting. On the one hand, how many people in the U.S. have to hunt out of necessity. On the other hand, the common imbalance of populations of deer and rabbits, for example, create their own problems, and hunting, I suppose might be one solution to the problems they create. Hunting is, in a lot of ways, a separate issue from gun violence. However, groups like the NRA are filled with hunters whose numbers and financial contributions contribute to the blocking of laws that might prevent some of the gun violence that happens in the U.S.
But laws themselves are never enough. We men, especially those who own and use guns, must get reflective about why we're so collectively prone to violence. How much of our collective obsession with guns is a feeling that we are powerless in our lives? How much of it is a mistaken belief that in owning and using firearms, we might gain control of our lives? Why is it that it much easier to find men who are publicly, even politically passionate about guns rights than it is to find men who are as passionate about health care rights, just to give one example? And how much of this is driven by unexamined fears, including the fear to be a man who shows fear and vulnerability?
This is something I have never understood. If a man joins and serves in the military, he is heroic. It's especially true if he is killed while in the military. And yet, if a man devotes his entire life to quietly volunteering to nurse the sick, feed the poor, educate the next generation, etc., the word "hero" is almost never heard. Why is that? Why is military service privileged above that of doctors, nurses, teachers, farmers, community organizers, and a myriad of things people do that greatly benefit others?
Now, I've always found the word "hero" a bit dubious. It implies a sense of solid self and individual agency I don't really think is true. When we uphold someone as a hero, I think we often also continue the mythology of a fixed, separate self going on a public scale. And yet, since it's a term we hear often, it's worth paying attention to where it's used, and to question why it's being used.
Here's another question I have: when the word "hero" is applied to a solider who is killed, is this partly an attempt to deflect our attention from the violence that occurred?
Thich Nhat Hanh said the following about the first precept:
It is not just by not killing with your body that you observe the First Precept. If in your thinking you allow the killing to go on, you also break this precept. We must be determined not to condone killing, even in our minds. According to the Buddha, the mind is the base of all actions. It is most dangerous to kill in the mind. When you believe, for example, that yours is the only way for humankind and that everyone who follows another way is your enemy, millions of people could be killed because of that idea.
I've never supported state-sanctioned warfare of any sort, and thus all the questions about the military. However, this issue is much bigger than the military. When you live in a nation where there is almost one gun per person, and where over 9000people were killed by firearms in a single year (2008), and where men last year where demanding the "right" to enter Presidential candidate speeches armed with weapons, you start to wonder what the hell is going on.
Even though we are tiny minority of the U.S. population, we Buddhist practitioners have the tools within our practice to be peace, and help manifest peacefulness within our communities. We can do the hard work of examining our minds and our actions, and to learn and promote more non-violent ways of living together and dealing with conflict. Many members of other religious/spiritual groups are out there, doing different work with similar aims, and are ready to join us. Will gun violence and gun obsession disappear if we do this challenging work? Probably not. But if each of us, in the breadbasket of our spiritual practice, doesn't work to offer more nourishment to peace and non-violence, it's almost certain we will become surrounded by murder and mayhem.