This week 12 people were killed and 58 wounded by a gunman in an Aurora, Colorado movie theater. Random mass shootings are not limited to the United States, but we do seem to have more than our share of them. In the U.S., unspeakable tragedy is the new normal.
There's much we still don't know about the Aurora shooting. But it must be said that the United States is a violent country. By some calculations our homicide rate is 20 times higher than that of other western countries. I believe we are also the only western democracy with a death penalty.
Here's another startling statistic -- the U.S. defense budget accounts for 45.7 percent of total military spending in the world. We also have a rapidly growing number of homeless children and little political will to do anything about it.
The U.S., my country, is a place that values toughness. Our culture encourages us to be armed and armored against anything that we don't like. The dharma, on the other hand, values tenderness, and being open to things as they are (see "Practice as Tenderizer"). It also teaches us to avoid being jerked around by our likes and dislikes.
Brad Warner wrote yesterday that "Our most basic problem is that we do not know how to behave morally." Many Americans think the U.S. is exceptionally moral. In their minds, the U.S. exhibits a standard of morality the rest of the world should emulate. The homicide rate suggests otherwise, of course.
Brad Warner is right. There are exceptions, of course, but American cultural ideas about "morality" are more about self-protection, tribal loyalty, and vengeance than about peace, compassion and harmony. And this has set off a destructive spiral of more fear and more violence.
Years ago we were warned about the dangers of a "military-industrial complex," but the American gun industry has a powerful political-commercial complex in place that may be even more pernicious. And a large part of the population has been demagogued into believing that they must be allowed to possess military-grade firearms for "protection," or some nameless awful thing will happen. So, after each shooting tragedy, only a few politicians call for restriction on firearm ownership. Then those few are quickly slapped down and told to shut up, and nothing changes.
Sensei Warner has more interesting stuff to say about morality, so do read the whole post.
The question is, what can we as practitioners of the dharma do to turn this around? At this point, our first responsibility is to look to our own fears and self-clinging, and gently encourage others to do the same.
After the 9/11 tragedy, Thich Nhat Hanh said, "We must learn to speak out so that the voice of the Buddha can be heard in this dangerous and pivotal moment of history. Those of us who have the light should display the light and offer it so that the world will not sink into total darkness."
Yes, we must learn to do that. Sometimes it seems hopeless, but this is where faith enters. We must do our best without attaching to a result, which we may not see in our lifetime. Mindfully planted dharma seeds will ripen.