Guns and Engaged Buddhism

Death Engaged Buddhism Human Rights Sumeru Books

This excerpt is from my recently-published book, BODHISATTVA 4.0: A Primer for Engaged Buddhists. It's one of 108 topics. This one is about guns, and it comes from the section of the book on violence. In all, the book has more than 500 online resources for deeper study and networking.


“On an average day in America, seven children and teens will be shot dead.” Gary Younge, Another Day in the Death of America

There is no Buddhist justification for guns. There is no way to “normalize” gun violence. There is no karmic upside to the business of making and selling guns, and yet it goes on and on.

More than 1.5 million American civilians have died from gun violence in my lifetime. That is a staggering number and it doesn’t even begin to consider injuries or deaths on foreign soil. Saying “guns don’t kill people/people kill people” is a specious argument.

Since it is unrealistic to expect an end to mental illness or criminal intent any time soon, making people safer by removing access to guns is a moral imperative. All you have to do to see that it works is to look at a graph of gun deaths comparing the USA with other countries where guns are banned, not glorified.

If you surf television channels, you’re pretty much guaranteed to see a gun at least every three minutes; guns are central plot device in many shows, movies and video games. The toy department is full of Nerf guns, water pistols, and six-shooters. Paintball is a national pastime, an industry generating more than a billion dollars a year, and growing. Our gun culture is so ingrained we barely question it.

We lament the latest mass shooting tragedy (a school, a nightclub, a mosque or synagogue here or there, some unarmed person caught living while nonwhite), but it seems nothing changes; the cultural momentum is overwhelming.

Survivors still have no lawmakers willing to take down the National Rifle Association lobby. I live in Canada, where relatively few people own guns, but we have a thriving armaments export industry and weapons still saturate our media.

Mass shootings are statistically insignificant compared to the everyday mayhem of murder, injury and suicide by gun. However, they make for great political and news media theatre. Like reporting on a bus crash on the other side of the planet, they are there for their “entertainment” or propaganda value, not their news value. They instrumentalized.

Sending thoughts and prayers, or standing with victims, is simply not enough. These are merely spiritual slacktivism. We need street protests, class action lawsuits, divestment, and creative ways to shift the conversation.

I would be very curious to know how many Buddhists in America actually own guns.

One of the most interesting initiatives I discovered while researching this topic is an organization called LeadToLife. They melt down donated guns, turn them into shovels, and use them to ceremonially plant sacred trees in communities ravaged by gun violence.

The web has no shortage of material on Buddhist explanations for the emotional roots of violence, Buddhist ways to make sense of gun violence (as if that is even possible, and seems to me to be only another way of normalizing it), or Buddhist statements calling for gun control. You can read the Joint Statement by the Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii’s Office of the Bishop and Committee on Social Concerns on Gun Violence and Mass Shootings, or the SGI-USA Statement on the Mass Shootings in Las Vegas to get a sense of what these sound like.

However, finding evidence on the web of specific actions, outreach and endorsements was much less fruitful. Katie Loncke of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, Ven. Thubten Chodron from Sravasti Abbey, and Joan Halifax Roshi from the Upaya Zen Center have been stand-outs in participating in non-Buddhist organizations like LeadToLife and DecemberSabbath.

Nine local Buddhist organizations participated in the New York March for Life in 2018. But…Faiths United (a religious anti-gun coalition of more than 50 faith traditions) has zero Buddhist supporters! Ditto for CeaseFire and HeedingGod’sCall, both anti-gun coalitions of faith groups.

We need a sustained commitment to anti-gun activism as part of our Bodhisattva Vows. We need explicit anti-gun proclamations on Buddhist centre websites. And we need a much less insular stance from Buddhist leaders when it comes to joining in mass social movements for peace and nonviolence, in solidarity with the traditions of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar and Dr. Martin Luther King. More yang and less yin please.







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