What Are the Depths to Which You’ll Go?

IMG_3624Buddhism began for me in high school as a thought experiment. It was a bunch of beautiful assertions about the nature of things—more often than not, the absolute nature of things—that seemed awfully hard to test. The idea that you and I might be fundamentally the same, that the apparent differences between us said more about my deluded view than they did about reality, drew me in completely. I wanted to believe it. But mostly, for me, it was poetic talk.

So early on, from before I ever sat on a cushion or met a Buddhist teacher, my version of practice was to look at the person across from me and ask myself, “Are we the same?” The answer was always “no.” I did not like the same music as the other person; I did not look like the other person; I did not express myself in the same way. We had different memories, different worldviews, different trajectories. In the midst of all that difference, I could usually dig out some little thing in common, but doing so felt like little more than an exercise.

Over time, though, the question morphed into something more workable. It wasn’t “Are we the same?” It was “Am I capable of the same things that person is capable of? Do I have the same components in me that make it possible to feel that way, to speak that way, to behave that way? Are that person’s motivations available to me?” And here the experiment changed; here, the answer started to come up “yes.” Every time. Twenty years later, I still ask it, as a reflex.

When I first started this experiment, I imagined that recognizing the self in other, and the other in self, would be freeing. Joyful, even. I could picture the serene look I’d have on my face as I looked at a stranger and saw, with clear eyes, that we are fundamentally not two. It sounds loving, and it can be. But this line of inquiry can be painful, too.

In the wake of the discovery that Aaron Alexis (the man who shot and killed twelve civilians and injured fourteen more at the Washington Navy Yard) identified as Buddhist, there’s been some interesting Internet chatter. That he was Buddhist is a titillating little fact, a surprise in a story that is feeling, with every successive mass shooting, more and more predictable. “I thought Buddhism taught nonviolence,” goes one conversation, and it hardly seems worthy of a response. Buddhism does not teach aggression; the fact that a Buddhist committed an act of violence is a statement on his own unskillful response to suffering, not on the Buddha’s teachings. The actions of a Buddhist do not define Buddhism.

But nor do the teachings of Buddhism define a Buddhist. There is another conversation in all of this, one that I find more troubling: “He wasn’t a real Buddhist, because a Buddhist could never do something like this.” The math behind this is very simple: If a Buddhist could never do this, and if I am a Buddhist, then I am incapable of doing what Aaron Alexis did. And if he and I do not share the same capacity for doing good or bad, then he and I are fundamentally separate.

It doesn’t work that way. We may want it to, but it doesn’t. The fact is, there’s nothing that a human being (any human being) cannot do. The difference, if there is one, is that Buddhists might know that.

When the children were shot in Newtown, I didn’t want to ask what mattered—instead, I turned to Tracy and asked her, “How could someone do such a thing?” I felt crushed by it, like it had stripped me raw. I assumed at first that it was because I have kids, so now I hear that kind of story differently. And that’s not untrue. But the real pain of it, the wound I didn’t want to see, was the question I had managed to stifle in those first moments. I wanted to say there’s a limit and I’ve found it, that here, finally, I can say, “I am not that.” But that’s not the truth. I know. Whether through practice or the constant asking or just advancing age, I know better.

I don’t mean, of course, that I can imagine the circumstances in which I would commit such an act of aggression. It doesn’t mean I understand why. And it doesn’t mean that I could ever be the particular combination of fears and hopes and memories and grasping that is the shooter, any more than I could be who I was last week. But can I prioritize my suffering over the needs of others? Can I objectify another human being? Can I get lost in a heroic story I tell about myself? Can I feel, in defiance of all rational thought, that I have but one option left open to me? I have dark places. I know I do, because at times like these, I go looking for them.

There is another side of this, one that is easy to forget: if we are, each of us, capable of any human act, then we are capable of any show of bravery, any gesture of compassion. Mahatma Gandhi has been a hero of mine since I was ten years old—like almost no one else, he has inspired me by demonstrating the depths to which one can commit to something, the degree to which one can offer up a life. But though I feel great love when I see a picture of his face, I also look upon him, sometimes, with a heavy heart—not because he sets a standard to which I could never possibly aspire, but because I know that I can, and I don’t. We all can. Our heroes have nothing on us.

When we hear of someone committing an unthinkable act of violence, as Buddhists, our reaction should be to make it thinkable. We have to go there, to dig deep within ourselves, to crawl around and search in the dark until we find where, in our own minds, we are capable of treating another life so lightly. We must gaze, unblinking, at our capacity for treating others as disposable objects, or as mere characters in a story of our own creation. Let the media pundits and psychologists try to figure out why Aaron Alexis did what he did–why is not the right question. The question for us is how—not just, “How could he do it?” but “How could I do it?” Because you can. We can. And because soon, someone else, somewhere, will.


I tried to tackle this same subject on One Continuous Mistake a few months ago, but in relationship to my four-year-old son.

10 comments on “What Are the Depths to Which You’ll Go?

  1. Andy Walker says:

    Thanks for writing this. I can recall a similar trajectory of my own understanding and application of the notion of “sameness”. I too sought to apply it as a panacea to the perceived delusion and harshness of the world, only to find it straying into darker waters as I mulled it over more (long before I ever came to Buddhism).

    But, while it may be a more complicated understanding, it’s also a more compassionate one — a softening of the heart, and an opening toward the delusion in others we see in ourselves — and I credit age and experience along with the teachings for helping me to appreciate that.

    It’s to the point now where it’s almost a reflex: every time I read about someone doing some horrible thing, I find myself wondering how it was that compassion and kindness found themselves shrunken, shunned or beaten down. I take a good long look, and I remember.

  2. Ray Watkins says:

    I am grateful to hang out with such an honest and detailed thinker.

  3. feralmonk says:

    For me it is not the question of whether I am like anyone, vice versa, or am capable of committing the same heinous acts as any other (i.e. different) person. Differences are real. What is not real is that they are separate from each other.

    The main point of buddhan life for me, therefore, is that compassion lets our differences be differences but without separation.

    I am not Aaron Alexis – we are indeed different and I am under no delusion that I could be just like him – but, I am not separate from Aaron Alexis and cannot make it otherwise. I can, however, TRANSFORM how I relate to that which is so different from myself so that I don’t feel any urgency to kill it by enacting separation.

    I bristle when we chant homage to Maitreya, Future Buddha of Loving Kindness. Future is immanent, always has been. Loving kindness is immanent. Maitreya is not remote, but waiting in the lobby of here and now. Are we yet making tea?

    I bristle when I hear the vow that I must save all beings, but then realize that I and the person in front of me at this very moment are members of the set “all beings” and if I am not compassionate with myself and with the YOU at this very moment, then I am breaking my vow.

    The merging of difference and unity is not mystical. It is simply the most ordinary aspect of reality that we overlook, namely, that nothing that is different is separate.

  4. Gavin Michael Hicks says:

    Thank you for this thoughtful post.

  5. A post that leaves one spellbound. Thanks.

  6. markfoote says:

    I particularly enjoyed your essay over on the “continuous mistake” blog. What a great title for a blog about parenting; I say that, even though I have no children of my own, because every time I act from what I know I am reminded that my thought and belief are temporal and can cause harm unbeknownst to me, now and in the future.

    Because I have experienced action that is not from what I know, but rather is based on some necessity of breath and belief played out in my senses, I see every volitional action as a mistake of some kind. I spent a long time to write this:

    “How do I stay true to this place and this freedom of mind, when freedom knows no bounds of decorum? Mind of friendliness, of compassion, of sympathetic joy, of equanimity in ten directions to infinity is the gate.” (comment on Brad Warner’s blog)

    The mind of compassion, of sympathetic joy, and of equanimity extended in ten directions to infinity is linked in the Pali Canon to the induction of the immaterial meditative states, to the induction of the state of the plane of infinite ether, of infinite consciousness, and of “no-thing” or the plane of emptiness. The mind of friendliness is included in the sermon where this is recounted, but not associated with any meditative state. When I say the extension of friendliness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity to infinity is the gate, it’s not because I knowing realize the associated meditative states, but because I realize that my feeling of self, the feeling of place that I associate with myself, has a freedom and in that freedom is action that is not volitive, that essentially my deepest beliefs beyond my ability to control precipitate.

    That is why I feel it’s important to think as appropriate, speak as appropriate, write as appropriate about what we believe. Our beliefs are present in the practice of Zen as in every walk of life. I have come to understand that what we think does shape our beliefs, and our beliefs will give rise to action, even though the whole process is just slightly outside our control (a hypnogogic phenomena, if you will).

    I’m aware that my significant actions actually take place just outside my control (and I’m aware that the more I try to bring my actions within my control the more out of control they become). It’s as necessary as this breath that I experience the freedom of my sense of place to shift and move, and I that this depends to a greater or a lesser extent on the extension of the mind of friendliness, the mind of compassion, the mind of sympathetic joy, and the mind of equanimity to infinity in the ten directions.

  7. Neti-Neti Yeti says:

    When “Buddhist” becomes a convenient description for only those aspects of our lives which exemplify the precepts, I think we forget what it means to pursue the way. If we were free of all obscurations, there would be no longer be any reason to be Buddhist. To identify as Buddhists, it deosn’t mean we are virtuous, it means we are obscured. The only question is how much, how often, and in how many different ways.

  8. Carl Kakuzen says:

    This is an excellent post and I applaud you for being so open and honest about a sensitive topic as this.

  9. […] Idee wird in einem Blogpost von Koun auf Nyoho Zen etwas weiter ausgeführt und bekommt dort einen interessanten Spin. Koun stellt die Frage, warum er […]

  10. Ian McTavish says:

    I love stories or dharma talks. I refer to such talks as ‘dirty talk’, otherwise talk which relates the dharma to another, the mud from which the buddha manifests in our midst. My root teacher had his faults, but where he pointed led me to a whole shift in awareness which caused me increasingly share with others. Thank you. I look forward to reading more from you.

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