Saturday, November 7, 2009

The First Precept, Mass Murders, and Male Gun Obsession

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.


Genju said...

Thank you for the quote by Thay, Nathan. It is highlighted by the new items claiming that the US military should screen out 'extremism' when recruiting - presumably to "avoid" something like the killing at Fort Hood. It saddens me to see that the other stories about the man's claim of harassment and his applications for release are being ignored.

Is it so much easier to create more ghosts & monsters than to deal with our thinking that feeds the killing?


Donna Quesada said...

I hear you. And the argument from hunters about the necessity of it due to expanding animal populations? Funny, you would never hear such a response with regard swelling human populations. It would be clearly wrong and absurd. Until we as a species see that it is equally absurd with regard other animals, and that we should all be treated with kindness, we will continue the violence in all forms, at the expense of compassionate, creative problem solving.

Nathan said...

Hi DQ,

"And the argument from hunters about the necessity of it due to expanding animal populations? Funny, you would never hear such a response with regard swelling human populations. It would be clearly wrong and absurd." I agree with you. I'm really ambivalent at best about most hunting arguments. Most of us humans don't live in places where we "have to" hunt to stay alive - some maybe, but definitely not the majority. And I think the failure of people to see themselves as one species among many is a major cause of violence in the world.


Yes, the stories about harassment and marginalization are sad. I can imagine how isolated the guy felt. It's really awful he wasn't able to find a healthy solution.

And yes, I do think it's easier in the short term to make more "ghosts and monsters" than to address our fears and hatreds. But these kinds of killings make it all the more important to try.


Anonymous said...


"Yes, the stories about harassment and marginalization are sad"

What? Not a fraction as sad as the grief this man has brought about.

And, besides which, what stories? Abdul-Rashid Abdullah, deputy director of the American Muslim Armed Forces and Veterans Affairs Council, has said he has not received a single recent report of a U.S. soldier being harassed "simply because he was Muslim."

And if this mass murderer (who glorified Islamic suicide bombers on the Internet and handed out copies of the Kuran to his neighbours on the morning of the attack) was harassed, the US army has routes he could have gone down to deal with that. He was a Major after all.

A major in the US army, a privilidged member of society, someone who had been handed a trillion opportunities and benefits by the US and the US army.

He was hardly marginalised. From what I heard on the news, he had his entire education paid for by the US and was allowed to continue working even after getting poor assesments. Blimey, he was even a participant in a Homeland Security Policy Institute's Presidential Transition Task Force! How is that marginalisation?

And now he is considered a victim after he shoots dozens of people?

What needs to happen here is that the US army must be asked why they kept him on at all after he glorified jihad on the Internet and gave blood-thitsty rants on the Koran during medical lectures (

Major Nidal Malik Hasan carried out these murders not because of harrassment (many people all over this world are harrassed, but don't respond like this) but from sheer madness and, it seems obvious, a turn to radical Jihadist Islam.

Ignoring this does not make the world any safer.


Genju said...

Hi Nathan, No need to publish this. I just wanted to add a personal comment & thank you for enriching my Losing & Letting Go post.

On Friday, my partner and I lead a 1/2 day meditation retreat for 175 military members. I'm a Canadian military and police psychologist. It was a powerful experience especially poignant following so closely on the Fort Hood incident. Your post was very welcomed the next day.

I seem to be spending time hanging out here. :-) May I add you to my blogroll?

Lynette / Genju

Nathan said...

Hi Lynette,

Yes, you can add me to your blog roll. Thanks for you comments and for reading.

Hi Marcus,

I have to say that every time I post something that has been about terrorism of any form, you seem extremely quick to rush to the "Islamic jihad" commentary. No one really knows the motives of the Major at this point. Even that whole shouting "God is great" story has been seriously questioned. The media in the U.S. and elsewhere is filled with bullshit stories about Muslims designed to instill hatred and fear in the general public. And yes, it's true the same can probably be said of media outlets in some Muslim-dominant nations about Christians, Jews, and others, but that doesn't make any of it right.

Frankly suggesting that "it's obvious" the Major became a radical Muslim extremist without any real facts is outrageous. I never defended the murders the Major committed, nor did I say we should elevate his status to publicly martyred victim. The guy blew it big time, and has definitely created a hell of a lot of suffering. But it's so, so easy to jump on the anti-Muslim bandwagon, instead of taking a deeper look at how all of us contain seeds of violence that could manifest in terrible ways if we don't pay close attention to our lives. If you think I'm burying my head in the sand, and ignoring the "truth," there isn't a thing I can say to change your mind.

The whole point of this post was to examine how violence manifests, and to question some basic assumptions people have that seem to add to violence. In my opinion, another path to violence is hatred towards those who commit terrible acts of violence. If you assume you know exactly why they did or didn't do something, and that they are now somehow less "pure" than you are, that, too, is an act of violence in my book. This act of violence is tiny in comparison to the murders of a dozen people, for example, but as far as I'm concerned, the Buddha called us to examine it all, large and minute.

Do I want justice? You bet. Should the man be jailed for the rest of his life? I think so. And yet,
I urge you not to just write back a scathing response to me, but instead to just consider that even in the middle of the horror the man created, there's a place for some compassion for him, too, if only to help the rest of us heal by learning from where things went wrong in his life. Every stone cast makes another black and blue mark on an already battered body. Why keep adding to it?


Anonymous said...

"I urge you not to just write back a scathing response to me, but instead to just consider that even in the middle of the horror the man created, there's a place for some compassion for him, too, if only to help the rest of us heal by learning from where things went wrong in his life."


No scathing response here.

I'm all for compassion for this guy, and myself included him in my chanting over the last couple of days (along with his victims) praying that he'd find peace..

..but that does not mean you ignore (from some kind of PC agenda) the most likely causes of his actions.

Like you say, the best we can do is "learn from where things went wrong in his life"

All the best,


Anonymous said...


My final point.....

You say "The whole point of this post was to examine how violence manifests..." and yet you managed to avoid what is most likely one of the main causes of this man's violence.

Remember, this man's classmates complained to superiors about his anti-American views, he gave a presentation at the Uniformed Services University that justified suicide bombing, and he told classmates that Islamic law trumped the U.S. Constitution.

The army took no action. And the result.... 13 dead. Although I heard this morning (but don't know for sure) that it might actually be 14, that one of his victims was pregnant.

The horror of that is too much. You'll understand why I have problems seeing this man as a victim.


Nathan said...

Hi Marcus,

"You say "The whole point of this post was to examine how violence manifests..." and yet you managed to avoid what is most likely one of the main causes of this man's violence."

Every time a Muslim commits a violent act, some segment of people automatically jump to religion-inspired terrorism arguments. This is almost never the case when people of other religions commit violent acts. If questioning these automatic responses is "a PC agenda," then I guess our practice could be viewed as "PC" as well.

It very well could turn out that the Major was involved in extremist Muslim activities, but as of now, we don't know for sure, no matter how many news stories are flying off the press.

Instead of jumping to conclusions about motives, I'd rather just sit with the awfulness of it all, and try to examine how we all, in our own ways, add to the violence of the world. If that seems naive, so be it. I've been called worse names before.


spldbch said...

I don't have anything particularly profound to add to this conversation. I did, however, enjoy reading the comments and opinions of others. You've definitely stimulated thought and discussion about this issue.

Anonymous said...


After the murder of Dr Tiller recently, you wrote a post full of references to Christianity and you said "If we in the various Buddhist communities believe anything of the teachings of interdependence or dependent co-arising, how can view acts like this as individual actions alone?"

Yet when Major Nidal Malik Hasan, a Muslim fanatic who gave 'medical lectures' on the need to behead infidels and pour boiling oil down their throats, who handed out Korans on the morning of his attack, who glorified Jihad on the Internet, who tried repeatedly to contact Jihadists abroad, when he shoots all these people your blog post doesn't once mention Islamic extremism and certainly doesn't suggest (as you did before) that these can not be "individual actions alone".

This is not me being "quick to rush to the "Islamic jihad" commentary" as you suggest - it is me not burying my head in the PC sand. Nathan, identifying what went wrong with this man does not mean to attack every Muslim (most of whom do not support violent Jihad). But refusing to see what inspired him is to make things more dangerouis for all of us.

Wishing you peace,


Anonymous said...


Ahh, forget it Nathan. Feel free to delete that last comment. We're never going to agree on this one, and there is no point in pursuing this here. Although I disagree with your politcal views, I very much enjoy your blog and don't want to be unwelcome here. So, please, delete that and I'll hold my tongue next time I think you're wrong! It's something I'm working on! LOL!

All the best mate,


Nathan said...

Hi Marcus,

I'm just fine with my political viewpoints being questioned respectfully, which for the most part, you do. It keeps me on my toes, makes me reflect more and become clearer.

We may not be all that far off in terms of our views in some ways.

I'm glad you brought up Dr. Tiller's murder because there's a difference. Scott Roeder was very clear about his motives and their connection to his faith. There wasn't really a need to go into guessing about it because he, himself, said so.

Like I said before, it may turn out that Major Hasan was inspired by Muslim extremist rhetoric just as Roeder was inspired by Christian extremist rhetoric. I won't "bury my head in the sand" if that turns out to be true. I'm waiting for things to sift out though because the American media loves a Muslim terrorist story, and there's no doubt in my mind that we have a good amount of anti-Muslim bias here in the U.S. All I have to do is go to an extended family dinner to hear that kind of crap.

Meanwhile, here in the U.S. we have had two more shootings in the past week - and no one questioning the religious affiliations of the two killers.

It's all terrorism in my book - but it also seems to me that the moment a Muslim does something like this, it's open season on the religion. There were never calls for Christians to denounce Scott Roeder's violence or else be considered suspect themselves. I really think it's important to see these kinds of imbalances in societies because they are another form of violence.