So, this morning, I did what I always do before the sun comes up: I read Tibetan Buddhist literature. Today, it’s Dzigar Kongtrül, and the book, It’s Up to You. Normally, what happens is this: one passage sticks, and as the day wears on, I can’t shake it. The passage sets up shop in my head for a good reason, I figure, and so most of the time, I try to figure out why. Here’s the passage for today that keeps returning:
The root cause of suffering is ignorance. Ignorance is the ground of all actions and experience in samsara. In the sense that it is universal, we can say that ignorance is impersonal. We’re all equally subject to the karma and suffering arising from ignorance. In this respect, we’re all innocents, really. We don’t need to blame ourselves—or anyone else—for our suffering. Instead we can blame ignorance.
First, a clarification: samsara is a big word in Buddhism, which means it’s hard to define. But for Buddhists, samsara has the ring of reality about it, and we all know the problems with defining reality. Right?
But typically samsara refers to the cycle of birth and death, the round of suffering that confronts us each day: it’s an equal-opportunity suffering that ranges from the subtlest cravings for the tiniest pleasures—like eating a French-fry we don’t need— to the most senseless human tragedy—like a two-month old shot dead accidentally by a parent.
We can’t escape samsara until we diminish the ignorance that keeps us tied to it, and so here’s the kicker: all the stuff we’re doing to make ourselves happy or create a better world—having a French-fry or trying to protect a two-month-old from a handgun—can easily mire us more deeply in samsara, if we don’t know how to eat a fry or stop a senseless murder without cultivating the very same conditions that made us eat the fry or allowed the baby to get shot.
Doing the right thing for the right reason—it’s a balancing act. We’re ignorant—in the Buddhist sense—and because we often do the right things for the wrong reasons, we never get exactly what we want. Then we get frustrated; then angry; and the cycle starts again; and then things go really wrong. Think Newtown, for example.
What does this have to do with reasonable gun control? That's what you're wondering, right?
In the campaign to bring this country toward a more reasonable relationship with firearms, Kongtrül’s teaching shows me how to move away from personalizing the radical disagreements that often surface in the gun debate. “In the sense that it is universal,” Kongtrül writes, “we can say that ignorance is impersonal.” If I can even momentarily envision my red-faced disagreements as the result of a shared ignorance, not as the conflict between my opponent’s ignorance and my good sense, then I believe new solutions will begin to reveal themselves—slowly at first, but reliably and more regularly. These will then be solutions based on a sense of community, a feeling of working together toward a common goal.
Can I really do this? Can I really move toward a vision of what Martin Luther King, Jr. and Sister Helen Prejean recognize as the blessed community? A place where tolerance and compassion work hand-in-hand with political action? I don’t know. I've watched the Dalai Lama do it with the Chinese for 35 years. I watched King do it with the American South, and Sister Helen do it with death-penalty advocates.
And I've seen the Tibetan monk, with whom I teach here at Arkansas, make a blessed community wherever he goes: kindergartens, primary schools, college classrooms (where I make my living), picnics, chance encounters.
Works for them. So this year, I’m going to try it.
I'll take notes and get back to you.