Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Everyday Suchness of Death

There is already too much commentary on the mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, so I hate to add my two cents. One thing that struck me in President Obama’s comments right after the incident is when he recited the litany of places where recent shootings have taken place, he included “a street corner in Chicago.” Maybe the national attention is easily drawn to an event such as the Newtown school shooting, but for us in the Chicago area, we can’t ignore the daily news of gun violence. Just about every day there’s a shooting and someone is killed or severely injured. Many of the victims have been children – just like the school kids in Newtown, they had their bright futures taken from them. But besides shootings, children die in our Chicago area in other violent ways such as fires, hit-and-run drivers, abusive adults etc. And most of these children you hear about in the news were living in poor black or Latino neighborhoods. So I can’t help feeling people are misdirecting their charity when they send money and gifts to a well-to-do community such as Newtown when there are so many needy families who don’t have benefits like health insurance to pay for trauma counseling.


Looking back with each year, I tend to brood on the losses of family members and dear friends. The Buddhist story of Kisa Gotami reminds me that all of us are touched by death. Even if it’s not the news-worthy violent sort, death rarely comes as a completely peaceful passing as I saw from my father’s and sister’s physical and emotional pain when struggling with cancer.

For me, it’s hard to get excited about my nieces and nephews to a degree that surpasses my sense of grief over those I have lost. At the temple I’m happy to meet newcomers, many of them young adults and their children, but it doesn’t make up for how much I miss the long-time members who’ve died. The most I can hope for is that somehow I can help those who will carry on into the future that I will be absent from.

At least for our temple, continuing into the future means being there to bring the Buddha’s teachings to those who are mourning, those who are facing their own mortality and those seeking ways to overcome the violence in our world. In the Newtown tragedy it is easy to feel sorry for the victims and their families, but the perpetrator is the one who serves as a mirror to the darkness in our own hearts. It’s important to acknowledge that there must have been mental health issues afflicting him, but in much of his mind-set he was no different from any of us. It doesn’t take much for us to feel threatened and want to lash out at those who would take away the things we think we cherish (a loved one’s attention, freedom to do whatever we want, a sense of self-worth etc.). That is our ego-driven thinking which for most of us only leads to non-criminal actions (passive-aggressive “getting even” with strangers and loved ones), but any cutting off of ourselves from other lives is committing “murder” in the spiritual sense. To break out of the thinking that leads to violence, I hope others will join me in continuing to learn from those who’ve transcended the frightened, vengeful self – Shakyamuni, Shinran, Kiyozawa, Akegarasu, Rev. Saito et al.

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