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Sadness and anger in response to mass shootings

Sadness and anger in response to mass shootings

A three-part series on how to work with disturbing emotions after mass violence. These talks were given after the back-to-back shootings that occurred at the screening of a Batman movie in Aurora, Colorado on July 20, 2012 and at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin on August 5, 2012.

  • Certain emotions in particular come up in response to mass violence
  • Sadness is natural and appropriate
  • Remember that we are also sentient beings with uncontrolled minds
  • The many people we can be angry at in this situation
  • Taking-and-giving meditation and generating compassion

Part 2: Fear and apathy in response to mass shootings
Part 3: Dealing with violent acts

We received a request from somebody who watches Bodhisattva’s Breakfast Corner if I would speak a little bit about how to handle the emotions that come up in response to the mass shootings that have been happening. Because in addition to the one in the Colorado theater, then a few days ago there was one racist neo-Nazi guy who killed six people in a Sikh temple outside of Milwaukee.

So, I think everybody’s kind of reeling from having two things so close together, as well as just the simple fact that this country seems to have mass shootings on quite a regular basis. And so a lot of emotions come up.

The specific emotions that come up in response

So, in thinking about it I was thinking of four specific emotions. One might be sadness. Another one, anger. Another one, fear. And then maybe it all fading into apathetic-kind-of-resignation about the situation. And so how to work with these different emotions in a Dharma way so that instead of getting discouraged and cynical, or apathetic, we can keep our hearts open and response in a way where we’re able to keep our optimism and also be able to keep benefiting others.


So, regarding the sadness … I think sadness is kind of quite a natural thing, and an appropriate emotion experience in confront of this kind of violence. Just the sadness of human beings with uncontrolled minds. And that kind of sadness—that human beings have uncontrolled minds—can lead us to compassion.

Of course, in having that sadness we have to include ourselves in with the rest of the beings who have uncontrolled minds. Okay? Because if we’re sitting apart like we’re very holy and we would never do anything like that, but all these other people have uncontrolled minds, then we’re kind of missing the point that we’re also under the influence of ignorance, anger, and attachment. And that until we eliminate our anger, and our ignorance, there’s absolutely no guarantee that in this life or a future life we wouldn’t do the same kind of violent, horrible action.

And that’s kind of a hard thing to accept. Because we like to think of ourselves as nice people who can restrain ourselves. But I’m sure those people who did those things also thought of themselves that way, and then at one point, you know, the mind snaps, or some previous karma—from habitually doing the action—ripens, and then they’re out of control.

So what I’m getting at is we should never have an attitude of moral righteousness, as if we’re superior to anybody else. But instead use this kind of experience of watching others flip out, or act according to their wrong views, or however you want to frame it, to say, “Okay, I’ve got to be really very firm in my own ethical conduct. You know? And I have to be humble, and not complacent, and work on my own anger, and work on my own violent thoughts and violent tendencies. Because even though we may not do that [these sorts of violent actions], we have our own little realm of violence, don’t we? You know, when we get mad and tell people off. I mean, we can really deeply hurt people.

And so to use that kind of sadness of seeing sentient beings with uncontrolled minds to make our own determination for ethical conduct more resolute. And so in that way something good comes out of the situation. You know?

And you can really see … You know, sometimes—like we have the precept not to kill. And sometimes we just feel, “Well, so what?” But one person having a precept not to kill is a big thing. If this guy outside of Milwaukee, or the guy in Colorado, had that precept and had kept that precept, you know? So much pain would have been avoided. So we shouldn’t underestimate the force of our own Dharma practice and our own ethical conduct. And really encourage ourselves in that way.

So that’s sadness.


Then anger. You know, I think anger kind of comes after the sadness. Sometimes sadness is just a [snaps fingers] blip and then we go right into anger, and our anger could be at quite a number of things.

  • Sometimes we’re angry at the perpetrator—the guy who shot the people.
  • Sometimes we’re angry at the NRA.
  • Sometimes we’re angry at our politicians for not doing anything.
  • Sometimes we’re angry at the hate groups.
  • Sometimes we’re angry at the mentally ill.

A feeling of helplessness

We can be angry at anybody. But I think the anger comes partly because we feel very helpless in the situation. Like what can we do to prevent this kind of thing? And the people who have the power to enact gun laws, or restrict hate groups, or have better treatment for the mentally ill. The people who have the power to do that seem to be more concerned about their own reelection than about serving the public. I don’t know about you, but that’s kind of, that’s how I look at it.

Do you look at it that way? It’s kind of a cynical viewpoint, but unfortunately, this is … I’m not saying this is true. But that’s the appearance to my mind at this point. Okay?

So it’s quite easy to get angry because we feel so helpless. And like, “Why don’t these other people do something?” Okay?

Dealing with the anger

So how do we deal with the anger?

I think again—and this is so difficult, to think I could have been, in a previous life, one of those people who doesn’t do anything to stop violence. Not only could I have been the perpetrator, but I could have been one of these people who just was more interested in my own bank account, and reelection and so on, that I didn’t really step up to the plate.

That’s kind of not so nice to admit, is it? Do you feel uncomfortable thinking that? I feel very uncomfortable thinking that I could be that kind of person. Yes? But why not? Again, until we’re free from ignorance, anger, and attachment, we can’t hold ourselves apart from anybody else. Okay?

Understanding and compassion

And so again, this calls for understanding, and calls for compassion, towards the people who have the power to do something and don’t. But it also calls for us to be more active. And I think here is where signing petitions, or writing to our congress representatives, or whatever, is something that we can do. Because if enough people do something like this, and they feel that their reelection is on shaky ground, then maybe they’ll do something.

One person I read in response to this was saying, “I understand the rights of people who want to own guns, but what about the rights of those of us who want to feel safe?” Don’t we have rights, too? Don’t we have rights to feel safe when we go to a public place? Or even when we’re in our own home?

So I think speaking out and saying something like that. Not in a hateful way, but in a persistent way, is something that we can do in a free country like we have now. (With as much freedom as we do have.)

Which is interesting. Because sometimes we complain that the government is doing too much, and sometimes we complain the government isn’t doing enough. So it’s hard to say if we have too much freedom or not enough freedom. Because we all want freedom in certain ways and we don’t want other people to have freedom in other ways, but then they have it the opposite way that we have it. Yes? Kind of interesting that way, isn’t it?

Taking and giving

And I think the taking and giving meditation is also very good to do. To take on the pain of not just the people who died, and not just the pain of their families and their immediate communities, but take on the pain that everybody in the country is feeling. Because everybody, in one way or another, is affected by this kind of thing. And so to feel that we can take on that pain ourselves and then give our body and our possessions and our virtue to others in a way that can transform them and lead them on the path. Okay?

And so then if we do the taking and giving in that kind of way, then sometime when somebody may ask us for help or Dharma advice and we feel exhausted and lazy, and like “Ugh, leave me alone,” then we might remember, “But wait a minute, maybe this person—this is the precise time to help this person so that they don’t later become somebody who perpetrates this kind of harm.”

Keeping our hearts open

Because we don’t know, do we? When somebody asks for help we don’t know what the result of helping or not helping is going to be. But at least in our mind to try to extend ourselves as best as we can. You know, sometimes we’re just not able to, and we have to accept that. But to basically keep our hearts open towards other living beings, instead of making everything into categories of, you know, this one’s an enemy and this one’s a friend, and then everybody else I don’t care about. Because especially in this kind of situation, with mass shootings, it’s so easy to make people into friends, enemies, and strangers. And that doesn’t help things very much, okay? So, trying to keep our hearts open, and realizing that all these roles change. And that we could have also been in all of these roles.

It’s very uncomfortable, isn’t it? I feel very uncomfortable, challenging these things. Because it’s so much easier to say, “These are the people I care about, they’re my friends, I trust them.” “These are the people who are evil, who do the shootings, and who sell guns, and who don’t restrict it.” And, “This is everybody else who I forget about.” It’s so much easier to go into that. But to really see it with a Dharma mind, that these categories are constantly changing, and that any of us could do any really virtuous thing or really awful thing until we free ourselves from samsara. It’s really challenging to think that way. It’s a big picture. But I think we have to continue to challenge ourselves that way in order to keep our hearts open so that we don’t get entrapped by the anger, or by the fear, or whatever. Or by the apathy, just signing it all off.

So I can continue to talk about fear and apathy tomorrow. We kind of did the anger and sadness today.

Does anybody have points they want to … or comments about this?

Questions and answers

Audience: [inaudible]

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): So the thing of having compassion for the people who perpetrate this kind of crime. It’s hard, isn’t it? But the reason for having the compassion is because these people— I mean, they’re like the rest of us. They want to be happy and not suffer, but they’re using totally the wrong means to bring about happiness and avoid suffering. Completely the wrong means. You know? Killing other people does not bring about one’s own happiness. It brings about one’s own suffering. And lower rebirths and horrendous consequences on oneself. So to have compassion for people with this kind of ignorance, that it in thinking that they’re solving problems are actually creating more problems. And not only for others, but also for themselves. When you think of the karmic results in future lives that they’re going to experience, it’s absolutely ghastly.

Audience: One of the ways I try to [inaudible] you know where it’s just too hard to think that I could think that way, is to imagine that was my son that did that, or my brother. So the perpetrator. And it brings me in closer. It’s like, oh, I know if that was my son or brother I’d have some compassion, I’d just be …

VTC: Okay, so you’re saying if it’s hard to think that you yourself could—by who knows what ever reason—do that, then to think: Well what would it be if it were my son or my brother or another relative who did that, then you would still have some affection for that person because you know them so well and you know them in a bunch of other situations and you wouldn’t just put them in that box of “evil person.” And so that opens the door for you to have some compassion for that person.

In some way I think that the friends and relatives of the perpetrators must have tremendous suffering. I mean, my goodness … if I were a mother and I thought my child did that, I would completely freak out. So they’re experiencing a lot of misery.

Audience: I found that the aversion, the attachment, the neutral, difficult. Now I’m starting to see it. But before that it was normal for me. It’s normal. I don’t like that, that’s that. But now … [inaudible] Anyway, I found it a natural thing, normal.

VTC: Yes. So what you’re saying is this categorization into friend, enemy, and stranger is very natural. And it’s one that before you me the Dharma you didn’t even think about. It’s like, everybody does it. This is the way we’re taught. This is the way it is. And these people are good, bad, and neutral from their own side, independent of causes and conditions and other factors. And then how interesting it is when you meet the Dharma, to start to question that automatic way of thinking that we have, of putting people into categories and locking them in with a key and throwing the key away.

Audience: In a very short time one day I saw somebody walk in and I had the reaction of aversion. And another person came, another aversion. And then another person, and that was okay. Like oh, wow.

VTC: Yes, it’s amazing, if you sit and watch your mind every day, how much it’s always going “I like, I don’t like, I want, I don’t want.”

Audience: And it’s hard when we see it ourselves. Oh, why do you do that all the time?

VTC: But it’s good to see this in ourselves. Because this is the way we’re going to start to change. Because we’re also going to realize that putting into categories like this damages our own happiness, and limits our own capacity and narrows our own mind.

Okay, so now we’ll offer our food to the Buddha as an act of virtue creating good karma. Rejoicing in our own and others’ virtue. Doing something that is of benefit to the planet.

Part 2: Fear and apathy in response to mass shootings
Part 3: Dealing with violent acts

Venerable Thubten Chodron

Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan. Read her full bio.