December 21, 2012

How Does Buddhism Help Us Respond to the Sandy Hook Tragedy? ~ Nikki Striefler

Photo: Josh Bartok

Buddhists accept what happens—but also know that how we work with a situation, what we do because of an event, is important.

When I picked up my twin first graders from elementary school last Friday, the energy of the children was beautiful—they had spent the last hours before the holiday break having a “Winter Celebration.” The noise level at dismissal time was twice what it usually is—a playground full of kids couldn’t contain their joy from having had a day of celebration, and now they were getting to hug their classmates goodbye and gleefully yell, “See you next year!”

I thought to myself how beautiful it was that they didn’t even know the day’s headlines. That they didn’t have the images of the crying children at Sandy Hook being escorted out of their elementary school by law enforcement officials replaying in their heads. They were innocent and joyful, as they should be.

The faces of the parents, however, told a very different story. Many parents had tears in their eyes and were speaking quietly to each other about the news. We exchanged common stories, saying that we had left work early to pick up our kids instead of sending them to an afterschool program that day, because the reality that Sandy Hook could happen anywhere is very real. Every parent hugged his or her child with a little more presence than we did the day before.

Personally, I also turned my focus to trying to find the best spiritual approach to dealing with this tragedy. I prayed for the children. I thought about how many hundreds of thousands of people will do the same, and what a beautiful thing that is. But I also know that, even for me as a spiritual being, it is not enough.

This tragedy deserves deeper contemplation, and action on the part of all us who are compassionate and spiritual, who believe that good can overcome evil.

If we look at this tragedy through some basic tenets of the Buddhist tradition, which teaches us to contemplate, rather than ignore, the reality and the meaning of death, and teaches us the idea of grounding one’s spirituality in both optimism and realism, we might find some small morsel of understanding, and a more progressive spiritual way to deal with another senseless school shooting.

Here are three Buddhist thoughts on dealing with death or tragedy:

1. Impermanence.

Buddhism reminds us that it is a certainty that all of us will die one day and that we do not know the time or place of that occurrence. When we come to understand that life is impermanent and unpredictable, that everybody is going to die, including ourselves, we can find some ground for developing greater wisdom around our fear of death, even when mourning the deaths of innocent children.

2. At the heart of Buddhism lies both realism and optimism.

Realism alone leads to despair. And optimism alone obscures the real work of a spiritual practice.

We can use realism as a conduit to an honest and unswerving recognition of the suffering and violence in our world. We can use optimism to recognize the potential for alleviating suffering and violence. And we can use our practice to remove from our hearts the toxic forces of greed, hate and delusion—replacing them with peace, loving-kindness and compassion.

So, in the Buddhist tradition, it is important to be both realistic and optimistic.

3. Karma.

In the face of unimaginable tragedy, violence and hate, Buddhists look at karma. Not necessarily to analyze the karma of the children or others who lost their lives (there could be many Buddhist interpretations for this) but to look at the collective karma of all of us witnessing this tragedy, and to contemplate how to turn what has happened into something that may be beneficial for our society.

Our life is related to our actions. Buddhists accept what happens—but also know that how we work with a situation, what we do because of an event, is important.

We can help the innocent children and all the victims of Sandy Hook (including the shooter) through arousing our compassion while engaging in prayers and religious practices (from any tradition). Our prayers should include a heartfelt wish that such a disaster will never occur again, and that all children could be shielded from evil.

But, our life is related to our actions, and prayer alone will not prevent another school shooting. It’s critical that we, as spiritual people, do get involved in politics, even if it is uncomfortable, or “feels toxic”—because we are not here to be spiritual zombies, praying away the darkness. We are here to be forces of good. And who better to stand up against evil?

“What’s done to the children is done to society.”
~ Buddha

It is time for all of us to stand together, contemplate the meaning of life and death, arouse our love, compassion and sympathy and send it to the 20 schoolchildren and six adults who departed last Friday, to their loved ones and friends who are suffering and even to the killer himself. And it’s time, too, for us to engage in the issues, demand gun control laws and create awareness of mental health issues.


Nikki Eisinger Striefler is the co-founder and editor of www.Glad.is, a website created to inspire people to live their fullest spiritual lives. She lives in Venice Beach, California, with her husband, twin seven-year-old daughters and her St. Bernard. Her personal journey included working on Fortune 500 advertising accounts for large ad agencies in New York, Frankfurt, London and San Francisco. She had the honor of working for Al Gore and Kevin Wall as Marketing Director of Live Earth, the single largest cause-related event in history. Her most challenging job was delivering newspapers in Fargo, North Dakota.


Editor: Jayleigh Lewis

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