Buddhism 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.