If you’ve ever worked for sensible gun-control laws in America, you’ve confronted the anger, violence, and aggression that accompanies some—not all, by any means—of the more radical gun-advocates in the country. It’s hard not to take the bait, and respond in kind.
But I try not to do that. Here’s an old Zen adage, edited slightly to fit the current situation. The message is the same, however, and when I’m assaulted by these folks on my Facebook page or my Twitter stream, I remember this story. It helps.
The story goes like this.
* * *
Once, a Zen Master sat in his meditation hut in a remote area in the mountains and answered questions posed by those who undertook the arduous journey to find him.
A very large, threatening, bearded, and gun-toting American Insurrectionist found the Master after an exhausting and debilitating journey.
He had one question. “What is the nature of Heaven and Hell,” he asked?
The Zen Master looked shocked.
“Why,” he began, “should I ever provide the likes of you with this information? I mean, look at yourself. You’re obviously out-of-shape, you don’t bathe, you have no respect for your elders, you’re probably illiterate, and you come before me with a Sig Sauer P 226 strapped on your hip? Do you really understand the Greek grammar behind the phrase, molon labe, that you’ve stupidly plastered on your Twitter page? Or for that matter, do you really understand the Second Amendment, and its different receptions by the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists? And you want me to tell you about Heaven and Hell? Really? You're ridiculous. Get lost. If you say another word, in fact, I will throw you down the mountain. You have no rights here or anywhere.”
Utterly overcome by rage, red-faced, standing his ground, the Insurrectionist reached for his Sig Sauer, pulled it out, and took a bead on the Master. Heavy-breathing. Shaking. A very tense moment.
Unperturbed, the Master looked at him. “That’s Hell,” the Master said.
A couple of seconds passed, and the Insurrectionist realized what had happened. He had projected his fear and insecurity—the products of his ignorance—on to a learned Master. Then, he had visualized him as a threat because of that ignorance, and was on the verge of taking the Master’s life.
The Insurrectionist realized that he was already deep in Hell and that he had spent years laying the groundwork for that Hell.
He dropped his gun. He looked at the ground. And he felt, for the first time in his life, real humility in the face of an unarmed power. He turned to go in silence.
“That’s Heaven,” the Master added.
* * *
The story doesn’t work every time. It didn’t work last week when I received a few particularly galling accusations about the motivations behind my positions on gun-control. But most of the time it works well enough. On a good day, I can explain nonviolence and compassion and how our legal structures can work fruitfully to embody these virtues while still preserving our American rights.
Still, to be clear—I can explain my position to the radical gun-groups, but I can’t understand it for them. After all, some can understand and will agree with me; and some can and won’t. Both camps, if reasonable and civil, are fine by me.
But some can’t understand my position, period. It is this last community that reacts with violence and hatred to reason, compassion, and nonviolence, and this story helps me remember that these folks fall at the far end of the triage line. Or my triage line, at least.
Maybe others, more capable than I, will pick up the slack.