Sunday, April 22, 2012

Anders Breivik Practices Meditation Too!

Perhaps you have heard that Anders Breivik, the xenophobic terrorist who murdered 77 people in Norway last summer, practiced meditation. While some out there might be temped to spin this story by suggesting that what he was doing was not meditation, I'm not inclined to do so. Given the kinds of horrorshow decisions made by Buddhist practitioners over the centuries, the fact that a mass murderer used a meditation practice as a method of detachment to prepare himself to kill isn't all that surprising.

Here are a few comments from Bodhipaksa's blog:

Traditionally, meditation is only one part of the spiritual path, and it’s accompanied with an ethical code that strongly emphasizes non-harm. Stripped of this traditional context, there’s no guarantee that meditation alone will make someone a better person.

It’s also possible to practice meditation in an unbalanced way that results in an unhealthy form of emotional detachment and a kind of emotional deadening. Sangharakshita, my own teacher, has mentioned seeing some early western practitioners of the Burmese Satipatthana Method becoming very detached from their emotions and from their physical experience. This seems to have arisen from their having misunderstood the nature of the meditation practices they’d undertaken (or perhaps they had a bad teacher or teachers).

I'd go further than this. Even with the ethical framework of the Buddhist precepts, and other teachings, there is still no guarantee that someone will "a better person." That isn't to say that the ethical teachings aren't helpful. From what I have seen and experienced, they can be life changers. But there really is no guarantee. Just ask anyone who has been in a sangha devastated by severe teacher misconduct.

At the same time, a story like Breivik's does raise many of the questions that come up with the secularization of spiritual practices like meditation. In particular for me, there is the struggle people have to let go of the view that something like meditation is a cure all. That even those who enter secular programs offering meditation somehow have picked up stories about enlightened figures, or have heard about people who supposedly cured major illnesses solely through meditation practices. And in the back of their minds, they think "that could be me too!"

I actually believe that a steady meditation practice can greatly benefit a person who has a major illness, but given all the causes and conditions present, it's never the meditation alone. And even old Soto Zen dogs like Dogen, who focused on meditation practice, didn't say that meditation is the only thing needed to become enlightened.

And so, what Anders Breivik did was take a practice and do it in isolation to meet his own ends. It's possible that he even technically followed the traditional instructions for said practice. (Learning to detach from the swings of emotional disturbances is part of Buddhist practice after all.) It could be said that while there's no guarantee that someone will become a more ethical person by practicing within a complete Buddhist framework, it's unlikely that someone who is otherwise living a destructive life will pull out of that through meditation alone.


Jeanne Desy said...

I'm always glad when someone emphasizes the fact that Buddhism is an eight-fold path, and meditation is only one of our practices. Right action is a major part.

Nathan, early in my practice I saw people who had been meditating for years in a teacherless sangha be so cruel to newcomers, including me. I got over it, because I was already devoted to the path. But one newcomer never got over being chided openly for "moving too much and disturbing other people." Years later she talked to me about it and was still full of hurt and anger. Did she stay on the path? I don't know; maybe that scared her away from meditation groups.

The devoted meditator in question really thought he was better than the rest of us because he could sit quite still in half-lotus. He seemed to have no concept of kindness or right speech.

Was Once said...

Pity someone who has such fears about life to spin on paranoid delusions manifesting it by whatever means.
He was doing everything he could to gather strength, pointing to the deep down aversion that he had. He still is trying reinforce his blinded vision by statements and actions. And we are hooked because it touches our nerves.

Nathan said...

"The devoted meditator in question really thought he was better than the rest of us because he could sit quite still in half-lotus. He seemed to have no concept of kindness or right speech." I have seen this as well. It's pretty sad. Am sorry to hear you and other newcomers had to experience that.

Unknown said...

Very interesting. The current fashion for 'mindfulness' in counselling & therapy circles is an example of people trying to take one part of Buddhist practice & use it to become 'happy'. I find it disturbing.

Jeanne Desy said...

I think people can use MBSR strictly as a happiness project and never got to Buddhist ethics and wisdom - and our behavior and understanding are really what leads to the stress in our lives. Just meditating to de-stress is not enough. I hope it doesn't turn people off on meditation and the spiritual path.

Nathan said...

"our behavior and understanding are really what leads to the stress in our lives" - so true. I think some are using MBSR like a pill. Take it for awhile, and it will "cure you." I think others are really benefiting from MBSR approaches, but my guess is that most of them are also doing more than just meditating.

Tallis Grayson said...

Wow! Your post has stirred up a lot of questions in me. I am reminded of how many different forms of mediation there are - perhaps as many as meditators really. For me meditation is a path to deepening empathy and compassion. Detachment is not a way of suppressing emotions, but rather of letting them freely float inside of you that you may really experience them and inhabit the space they occupy with growing awareness. I’m really thinking about the ideas in your post, re-examining my own practice. Thank you for this.

Unknown said...

i live in Norway! we have a safety rule her. no weapons allowd since 1900! the whorst thing is that: He will not even get the death penalty! It is the biggest rule in Norway! It is one of the reasons why Norway is the best country to live in. He will only get 21 years in prison! It is the biggest punishment you can get here! and my bestfriend crying almost every day, because Anders shot Espen Jørgensen!