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Mass Murder: A Buddhist Yogi's Response

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More than 50 people injured. Twelve dead. We woke up to the news from Aurora, Colo. Many friends here in Portland went to see Batman that night. They raved all about it on Facebook. But we know very well the question on their minds today. The thought permeates deep into the core of our beings: "What if that was us last night? That could have happened to us."

Since I was a child, whenever I hear about a tragedy the first thing that happens is that I ask myself these same questions. How would I feel in that situation? What would I do? Would I run or try to help? When I was about 5, I saw a dog dead in the road and thought about how he was alone and what if that were my dog and why is no one helping. I remember when my mom told me about the Holocaust and when my sixth grade teacher read to us from the Diary of Anne Frank. All I could imagine was how it felt to be those people.

Recently, a friend in the sangha (spiritual community) was found alone in his apartment, his iPhone as dead as his body. He was an addict, like me. I'm almost 15 years sober. He died of an overdose. We often say in 12-Step, "But for the Grace of God, there go I." When I was young I couldn't manage the suffering from these stories or in my own life. But now, as yogi and a Buddhist practitioner, I know I have a choice on how to respond.

As a certified yoga teacher and practitioner, I should practice Ahimsa, non-harming. But in the situation of a madman with four guns and gas canisters, it might not be so simple. If I'm capable of stopping him and use violence to do so, is the harm caused to the killer justified? I think so. If he weren't stopped, more harm would surely be done. I am a yogi. But I'm glad I'm a Buddhist yogi, because in Buddhism we have more teachings that can be applied to complicated moral dilemmas such as this.

First, I know without a doubt that if I were in a movie theater and a man started shooting people that I would instantly go kung fu on his ass. I'm not a super ninja, far from it. But in that moment, every maneuver I've ever learned or seen would be called upon. He would die, or I would die trying. That's not called being an American or a hero or a Buddhist. It's called stopping the killing. It doesn't mean I have no compassion for the murderer. We must find compassion in our hearts for someone who is so insane and full of rage that they go on a killing spree. Some would run, some would freeze. But I would do what I had to do in that moment, as we all would. Hopefully my body would act with swiftness and skill and the shooting would end as abruptly as it started. None of us could say until we were in the situation. But these are my thoughts today as I feel the pain of this event.

In Mahayana Buddhism we set our intention as the highest aspect of action. The earlier Buddhists would say, "Do No Harm -- no matter what." But the later teachings considered more complex ethical dilemmas. Intention is key. It must be tempered with wisdom, however. The road to the hot, hot hells is paved with misguided intentions. With the knowledge that I am on the bodhisattva path to end suffering for all beings, however impossible it seems and however long it takes, may I do my best at all times. That means I should be aware of my real intentions and try to change bad ones to good ones whenever possible.

Sometimes we all have bad intentions. A lot of times we're in pain ourselves and want to lash out. This is one of those moments. The man in the theater with the gas and the guns is also lashing out. We know this. But it's not helpful to the girl laying in a pool of her own blood for us to be pacifist in this moment. The man must be stopped. The philosophy behind this is that he is also creating his own miserable karma, a cause for more and more suffering for himself. It would be a very high level indeed of spiritual compassion to actually know this in the moment and to apply a killing blow with utter compassion. But the man must be stopped. We can pray about it later.

I wasn't there though. I'm here in Portland where we think we're far far away from such violence. But we're not so far from it really. The people in the theater in Aurora surely didn't think it could happen to them. But though I wasn't in that theater last night, it did happen to me. It happened to all of us. The Buddha would probably say that every time anyone inflicts any suffering on any other being it happens to all of us. But we stay tuned out and try to forget suffering any way we can. We work insanely hard to distract ourselves from the pain of our own bodies and minds by every addiction, craving and activity possible. How could we be asked to consider the suffering of anyone else, let alone a mass murderer or numberless sentient beings who are killing and being killed around the clock and have been doing so since beginningless time? But the Buddha knows all suffering from all beings who have lived, are living and who will live. That is the heart of absolute, infinite compassion. For the rest of us, to attempt be on a spiritual path, at least from a Buddhist perspective, is to try to understand this and to try, however falteringly, to apply it in our lives. That is the heart of relative compassion or the aspiration to have the compassion of a Buddha. From my perspective, however, if the Buddha were sitting in that theater, he'd have kicked some ass. Some would call this fierce compassion.

When a tragedy happens, if we're fortunate enough to be outside observers, we can practice Dharma by allowing ourselves to feel the pain, firstly. We can react later, but hopefully from a quieter, deeper place. I know that if I were in that theater and had to fly over some seats with my arms ready for a rear naked choke, if I survived, I'd spend a long time in quiet prayer and meditation for that being and for all beings who suffer. Buddha said, "Life is suffering." No one is a stranger to suffering. Knowing this, may we all aspire to be free of suffering and it's causes.