Guns, Race, and the Military: further Buddhist responses to the Navy Yard Shooting

This will most likely be the last I write on this topic. Discussions on my previous post are ongoing (here, here, and here), and appear to be getting increasingly thoughtful. And folks in Washington DC are beginning to lament the fact that the news cycle has passed this by, The mass shooting America barely noticed and Not all mass shootings are equal in the eyes of the media or the public.

But before moving on completely, I did want to note two Buddhist blogs that have introduced other important angles on the shooting:

  1.  The Editors of Tricycle Show Us the Way Following the Washington Navy Yard Shooting Rampage by Rev. Danny Fisher. Fisher is an ordained Buddhist minister and chaplain, writer, and Chair of the Buddhist Chaplaincy Department at University of the West.
  2.  The Navy Yard Shooter and America’s “Permanent” State of Violence by Nathan G. Thompson. Thompson is a writer, yoga student and Zen practitioner, and contributing editor at Buddhist Peace Fellowship’s Turning Wheel Media.

I point to Danny’s article in particular for introducing the “gun” angle alongside the other important discussions. While I disagree with the Tricycle editors’ suggestion that “We don’t think questions like “What does it mean to be a Buddhist?” or “How could a Buddhist do such a thing?” are at all relevant here,” I do see the need for this tragedy to once again lead citizens (and sanghas?) to push for sane gun laws in the US. From reading comments on my own posts and elsewhere, Buddhists in the West are still wrestling with “what it means to be a Buddhist” and incidents like this do offer important opportunities for reflection and perhaps debate on that question. Likewise, given the stereotypes discussed in my last post and in Danny’s and Nathan’s pieces, “How could a Buddhist do such a thing?” is certainly relevant, at least to many scholars, practitioners, and the general public.

But it doesn’t have to be one topic or the other. It can be both/and. We can discuss both of these issues and more without losing sight of the important issue of gun laws raised by Tricycle. And if Tricycle is serious about having a discussion focused on guns in particular, perhaps they could devote an upcoming issue to the topic. As people are growing increasingly aware, the violence in our society must be confronted at its roots, and who better to do so than a major Buddhist periodical?

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Saving what is in many ways the best for last: Nathan’s article at Buddhist Peace Fellowship carefully approaches the issue asking “how can we, as a Buddhist community, sit with and learn from this?” No distancing, no diversions, no definitional semantics, simply sifting through the numerous issues raised by the shooting. This is the kind of open, empathetic, questioning, and honest writing I hope to see more of in the Western Buddhist world.

“Monday’s mass shooting at the Washington D.C. Navy Yard hits home for American Buddhists because the gunman was one of us,” Nathan begins.

His article goes on to address a multitude of questions and perspectives, opening space for concrete solutions to be discussed. Questions that so many, including myself, didn’t even think to ask. “Will Black Buddhists in the U.S. face heightened scrutiny following this incident? Will this stir up the violent black man narrative in our sanghas, making it even more difficult for black male American Buddhists to practice and enjoy community?”

He continues:

This is the kind of incident that, if handled poorly, can greatly divide an already divided American sangha. I actually hesitate to even use such a label. We’re basically a bunch of fragmented groups here in the states, struggling to even understand and get along with each other, when the effort to attempt is even bothered. Some folks want to dismiss race in this case, but that’s even more foolish than trying to argue that Alexis wasn’t Buddhist.

Obviously there are a number of angles that Buddhists could approach this event from in order to create something positive in the wake of tragedy. How Western sanghas address guns is one approach. Conversations around race and inter-sangha communication is another. Another is pushing for better national funding, especially in the U.S. for mental health care and developing mental illness awareness programs within sanghas (while there is an Australian Association of Buddhist Counsellors and Psychotherapists, which does training courses, there doesn’t appear to be anything similar in the US, Canada, or England).

These are all very good aspects of the story and our varying layers of connection to it to think about and discuss. Let us hope that this has all been the beginning of many needed conversations rather than the end.

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  • Karze

    Did you discuss the faith of Sandy Hook or Aurora murderer or those of who were responsible for killing 99.9% of 10,000 Americans lives every year. Faiths of Sandy Hook or Aurora never arose because 99.9% of killing are carried by Christians.

    • justinwhitaker

      I did not, because none of those specifically pertained to Buddhism in America. I hope that the religious communities of those involved in past killings did discuss what they could learn from those tragedies.

      On the larger issue, it has been suggested that Christianity in general isn’t discussed much because Americans are well-aware that Christians can be both violent and peaceful. On the other hand, Americans have a tendency to see Muslims as violent and Buddhists as peaceful. So, goes the reasoning of many, it is helpful to balance that with discussion of both peace-working Muslims and violent Buddhists.

      • Karze

        This is another trick employed by the gun lobby and right wing Christians. Gun lobby need a distraction.

        Some even suggested that Buddhist meditation as having altered the state of the mind of man of who guns down the innocent people to such a level that he was not able to see the reality.

        Everything is relative. Buddhist are relatively peaceful people – meaning that Vietnamese and Japanese didn’t come to American shores or bombed American missions abroad after the war despite the American atrocities in Vietnam and Nuking of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

        While Muslims people have waged a war against USA on American soil and overseas missions.

    • Thomas Armstrong

      Karze: 99.9%, really? Please cite the source of your statistics. So, you are saying 10,000 Americans are killed with guns every year and of those all but ten are killed by Christians. Your words seem very specific; I confess I am dubious of the accuracy of your accusation. For one thing, I would be surprised that information about murderers near-always includes clear knowledge of the person’s religious affiliation.

  • Thomas Armstrong

    Buddhism needs to get off the high horse of thinking it has the patent on Virtue. I would be horrified to see a Tricycle issue devoted to gun control, telling us what the magazine’s “usual suspects” determined off at a retreat somewhere must be done about Texas.

    Frankly, American Buddhism is too, too much a captive of woo-woo liberal
    fantasy-land thinking and knows far too little about most of America and how
    people “out there” think and live and what they worry about.

    As much as any other liberal, I think the tea party [as an example] is crackers.
    But a huge fraction of Americans believe they are safer if there is a gun in the house and that the best deterrent and defense against chaos and lawlessness is to be able to defend yourself and your family. They are scared and they demand the right to do what they can to be less scared. The more mass killings there are in America, the more tightly these scared people hold onto their guns. Or, they view gun ownership as proof of manhood.

    I’m not saying that gun lovers are amorphous or even individually consistent in what they think or believe, but their Points of View are, in the main, rational. Their notions of what to do to ease their worries works for them.

    The World of Oddly Dressed Buddhists is as insular and out-of-touch as any group of anarchists who’ve been hiding out in a compound in the hills of Idaho since 1990. The usual tropes from the Oddly Dressed would be just blather for other liberals to nod in agreement about. It would be neither meaningful nor productive in any effort to change things.

    I mean no disrespect toward Danny Fisher, but a good example of what I see as The Buddhism Blind Spot came up in a blog post by DF nearly two years ago about a group of American Marines who were filmed urinating on dead Afghan Taliban soldiers.

    I am sorry. But too many Buddhists don’t know shite until they have walked around in the boots of people who are tough and confront challenges that are foreign to their own life. Buddhism often seems elitist and flakey because it often is.

    • justinwhitaker

      Tom, I agree with the general thrust of what you’re saying. My point was simply that IF Tricycle wants the discussion to be about guns, they should follow through, or at least that they have that as a possibility. It might show that they’re not as insular as you suggest, by welcoming gun-toting Buddhists to address their audience and converse with the “usual suspects” there. Otherwise it just seems like their short comment is a conversation-killer, which would be unfortunate.

      • Thomas Armstrong

        Justin, I was widening the conversation, not just addressing the notion of Tricycle strapping on a gunbelt. But since you mentioned it, you’re from a less than fully urban state. Am I mistaken, JW, or didn’t you once write that you own or owned a gun?

        I just think that Danny’s Urinating Marines blog post and the Melvin McLeod post [ ] that Danny links to in his recent post on guns are noteworthy only for their entrenched ignorance. McLeod ends his post ” no matter what [Alexis] called himself. If he really were [Buddhist], he couldn’t have done [the killing spree thing].

        Christians, too, are negatory on killing. Their first Commandment, if I’m not mistaken, is Thou Shalt Not Kill. But, to their credit, they aren’t quick to oust anyone and everyone who doesn’t toe the line because their religion is stuck in some sort of outside-reality Puritanical my-shit-don’t-stink mode. The Buddhist version of “Holier Than Thou” has a whiff of stale vanity that beats anything the Catholics have ever come up with.

        • justinwhitaker

          Widening the conversation? Oh, good good. And yes, my family (not me personally) does own a number of guns and I have some views:

          I liked Danny’s gun-law link though, as it addresses a key issue in any future gun control (and brought out in this and many past cases): mental illness. However, without dealing with how we collectively take care of our mentally ill friends and neighbors and deal with the collective causes of trauma that are at the heart of much mental illness, this might just add to the stigma that already accompanies those with such illnesses.

          I was happy with Danny’s Marines piece in the sense that it rejected the “shut up” narrative and moved toward questions we could/should ask as citizens connected with all that mess (from what I remember). I was also dismayed by McLeod’s quote about Alexis and hope that something further comes out of it, either from him or someone else at SS that isn’t just a whitewash or rationalization.

          I’m not sure if the stinky vanity of certain Buddhists is worse than Catholicism (I’ve met some doozies), but it’s up there sometimes.

          • Thomas Armstrong

            While I agree that the matter of mental illness is primary, it is still just one of a handful of elements to deal with in the arena of preventing gun violence. Too, predicting whom among the mentally ill might suddenly become a fulcrum of violence isn’t as yet very possible. If we, as a society, move in the direction of better “containlng” the mentally ill as our main way of deterring gun violence, it might be both highly unjust and highly ineffective.

            There are LOTS of mentally ill guys wandering the streets of Sacramento. [In Sacramento, our basketball-great mayor helps billionaires build sports arenas; no money for much else.] There’s a killing, now and then, but it is not so significant to make news outside the area.

            At to the Marines: Rep. West was basically right, if you just dial down his rhetoric from a screaming 10 to a mild 3 on the dial. What the Marines did wrong was to get filmed; not the trivial thing of urinating on bodies. Hillary Clinton and folks at the U.N. know full well the outrage is a charade invoking a kabuki dance of recriminations. War is hell. The American public [including Danny] is pampered such not to know about the horror of it. And THAT is grotesque. Not feeling the horror of war, America goes to war a lot. Yes, Rep. West is an ass; but he’s not so much wrong.

            Buddhists’ responsibility is to not be yet more marionettes dancing in the puppet theater, but to get to the reality and the nub.

            • justinwhitaker

              hear hear… I’ve got to get busy getting to the nub of my thesis; but yes – more conversations like this (and I hope you read/comment at Danny’s/Nathan’s articles as well) are needed if clear, concerted advocacy and action is to come about.

              • Thomas Armstrong

                I won’t comment at Danny’s or Nathan’s blog/article/whatever. I am sure mine is the outlier opinon.

                • justinwhitaker

                  Do have a look at Nathan’s at least if you haven’t already. I think you’re not as much of an outlier as you think. Besides, outliers are the ones who nudge us away from the status quo when needed (and are of course always welcome here, even if/when I’m too stubborn to fully listen).

            • Lynn

              Thank you for this response. People with diagnoses of mental illness aren’t generally dangerous, and a number of us are watching the reactions from these shootings with concern for our liberties. Much of the public seems to think everyone who hears voices, for example, is incapable of caring for him or herself and at risk of becoming violent at any moment. This is so false. We don’t need to be “contained,” we really don’t even need to be “taken care of,” if that implies we are incapable of caring for ourselves and in need of some benevolent savior. We (like all people) do need community and dialogue and support at various points in our lives. We do need the chance to talk about social ills and traumas that may have contributed to or caused various aspects of suffering. We do need the chance to be seen as whole human beings, with various traits and perspectives and beliefs and worldviews, all different from each other.
              I have been disappointed to see some of the reactions around this shooting in Buddhist circles, it has seemed to me that while defensively trying to distance Aaron Alexis from Buddhism, lest his affiliation somehow taint Buddhism or Buddhists, some have no problem then immediately lumping into some homogenous group called “the mentally ill,” with little knowledge or reflection on mental illness, what it means to others who have a diagnosis of mental illness, whether those of us with diagnoses might have some things to say about it, what kinds of implications this lumping might have for our civil liberties and freedoms, how national registries and forced treatment might be experienced by us, and whether these measures will even be much effective in keeping others without diagnoses safe, anyway.

              • Thomas Armstrong

                Lynn, Thank you, thank you. You know about these matters better than I do, and you are clearly ‘right on.’ I read my words and see some are mistaken. I didn’t mean to disparage people who are suffering from what we term mental illness — and, yes, lumping people together and not making distinctions is foolish and ridiculous and wrong and adds to suffering.

                It is mostly the case in Sacramento that people are abandoned as dollars go to glitzy sports arenas and downtown improvements. Poor and troubled people are abandoned by secular society, fopped off onto the churches.

                I don’t know what should have been done for Alexis, but certainly he needed attention for what was beleaguering him and had he gotten it, likely/possibly the events at the Navy Yard would not have occurred.

      • Thomas Armstrong

        Also. Picking on Danny, again. In the middle of a blurb, describing his blog, Danny has these two sentences:

        1. [This blog] affirms Cambodian peace activist and Buddhist monk Maha Ghosananda’s belief that “we must find the courage to leave our temples and enter the temples of human experience, temples that are filled with suffering.”

        2. Therefore we shall seek to look closely at contemporary human problems in light of Buddhist thought, looking for ways to apply Buddhist values in service of a more just, peaceful, and loving world.

        The two sentences, in the way Danny has proved to employ them, at least, are at odds. Buddhists should get out of the closet of their insular world, take off their halo, remove their seven-ton backpack of vanity, and try to understand the world view of others WITHOUT IMMEDIATELY TRYING TO CHANGE OTHERS’ WORLD VIEWS TO BOILERPLATE BUDDHISM. Danny and other Buddhist hoity-toities should try to get outside themselves. Really. Fully. THAT first and only. And see where that takes ‘em. Doing so would truly be the Buddhist thing to do.