If you've spent any time at all cruising the social media sites where gun-control advocates and open-carry extremists air their differences, you've probably seen someone from the gun camp claim the Dalai Lama as a kindred spirit.
"If someone has a gun and is trying to kill you," the quotation usually runs, "it would be reasonable to shoot back with your own gun."
The quotation has been taken out of context—so, let's restore that context, and see where we stand.
The source of the quotation is a newspaper report written by Hal Bernton for The Seattle Times on May 15, 2001. And Bernton isn't quoting His Holiness, but probably paraphrasing from his notes—there are no quotes around the sentence attributed to His Holiness. Or perhaps he had a transcript. It doesn't matter. The day before the piece appeared, the Dalai Lama had spoken in Portland to an audience of 7600 high-school students from Oregon and southwest Washington, and Bernton's article is refering to this appearance. According to the report, His Holiness returned again and again to the importance of finding ways to break the cycle of violence that "poisons" our schools and our lives.
And why shouldn't the Dalai Lama warn this audience against the long-term effects of violence? Three years earlier, at Thurston High School in Springfield, Oregon, Kip Kinkel had murdered his parents, and then entered the high school where he killed two more and wounded twenty-five students. Kinkel was fifteen years old.
Thirty-five students from Thurston High School, a war-zone in the students' minds now, were present for His Holiness's talk three years later, and the audience, obviously and understandably, had mass-killings on their mind.
As we all do nowadays.
So here before them sat the world's leading advocate of nonviolence; here before them was an unparalleled opportunity to ask a genuine practitioner of peace how we might handle such a dangerous situation.
One student, obviously wanting to understand the practical, daily methods of nonviolence, asked what she ought to do if she saw someone attempting to kill her classmate. A reasonable and heartfelt question from a young woman who lived in an area that only three years earlier had witnessed a senseless mass-shooting in a high school.
And so in that charged environment, His Holiness, obviously reaching out to the distressed, impressionable young woman, stated plainly that if she had a gun, and if someone was trying to kill her, or her friend, it would be reasonable to shoot back in self-defense.
But he also added that the intention should not be to kill the assailant, but to wound him by shooting him in the leg. And then he added that this violence should not be forgotten, and that the assailant should be forgiven.
I can't think of a more appropriate thing to say to a young person, obviously and justifiably upset by the prospect of more school violence on her horizon. His Holiness did not call for students to arm themselves; he did not issue an endorsement for guns in schools; he did not offer up sanctimonious praises of the Second Amendment.
He confirmed her opinion that in certain extreme circumstances, self-defense is of course justified, but only with a full mastery of those methods of self-defense and with a clear conception of the after-effects of having protected one's self by harming another person.
Hardly the kind of language you find coming from the open-carry advocates or the NRA.
His Holiness tried to put a young person's mind to rest by contextualizing an act of violent self-defense within the larger context of compassion, forgiveness, and love for our fellow human beings—a life that he has ceaselessly advocated and embodied since for over seventy years.
And like Gandhi, who walked this ground before His Holiness, and to whom His Holiness often refers, violence, even in self-defense, is only reserved for those who are incapable of the more demanding, the more courageous action—sacrificing one's life for the high purposes served by love and compassion. Few of us are capable of that sacrifice.
Those who are, and those who do make such sacrifices, we call martyrs.
I could list here scores of quotations by His Holiness that insist on the importance of nonviolence as the defining context of all human action—"the ultimate method of solving human problems," he has said—but I won't. Nonviolence forms the backbone of his vision, his daily practice, and his advice to the various communities that gather to hear him.
I will let His Holiness have the last word, however, with a story that appears in his book, Ethics for the New Millennium, and one that I have heard him tell in person on several occasions. He is speaking of a quality that in Tibetan is called sö pa, a word that has no satisfactory equivalent in English. We often translate it as "patience," but its literal meaning has to do more with our ability to bear or withstand hardships, and it specifically applies to our attempts to resist the negative thoughts and emotions—revenge, hatred, violence—that rise up when we are forced to bear those hardships, when we are threatened, or when we are harmed.
Obviously, these emotions play a prominent role in the the emotional landscape that attends our current gun debate.
The story I have in mind concerns a Tibetan monk, Lopon-la by name, who was held in a Chinese prison for over twenty years. As with most of the Tibetans held in these prisons, torture and deprivation were part of Lopon-la's daily regimen. Tibetans since the Chinese occupation suffer scores of human rights abuses, and many of them never live through the ordeal. But some of them do, some of them escape, and some of them arrive in India where they are given an audience with His Holiness—a service the Dalai Lama has provided to every Tibetan arriving in Dharamsala, India, since 1959. His Holiness had known Lopon-la in Tibet. In the passage below, he describes their meeting in India:
He looked older, of course, but physically he was unscathed, and mentally his ordeal had not affected him adversely at all. His gentleness and serenity remained. From our conversation, I learned that he had, nevertheless, endured grievous treatment during those long years of imprisonment . . . he had been forced to denounce his religion, and, on many occasions, he was tortured as well. When I asked him whether he had ever been afraid, he admitted that there was one thing that had scared him: the possibility that he might lose compassion and concern for his jailers (p. 102).
It is a parable for our times. His Holiness tells this story because it embodies one of his essential teachings about confronting violence. When facing hardships, when looking clearly at the prospect of violence, abuse, and even death, the Dalai Lama writes, "the ones who suffer the least are those who attain a high level of sö pa (103)."
Listen carefully. He does not endorse the constant carrying of arms, he does not declare that an armed society is a polite society, and he does not worry about the health and well being of our Second Amendment. He worries about the health and well being of our heart, which he sees as the seat of compassion and sö pa. All of our efforts, in his opinion—an opinion developed over a life-time and easily accessible to anyone who has the requisite curiosity—should be directed toward enhancing precisely those qualities of compassion, nonviolence, and equanimity.
Any attempt to remove a single sentence from the Dalai Lama's massive body of work on nonviolence and compassion, and a single sentence, at that, spoken to a young woman in distress about the nature of self-defense, and then on the basis of that sentence, to imply that the Dalai Lama has sided with the American gun-lobby . . . well, I won't insult your intelligence by laying out the desperation that lies behind such a maneuver.