The subject I am about to discuss may be controversial, but I have been sitting with this for almost a week working it through in my own mind and heart. It had been nine days since the Newtown tragedy and I was fixing myself some dinner, listening to the evening news on NPR. The newscast switched to live reporting from an evening vigil taking place near a local Newtown church. My sad heart immediately moved with lovingkindness and compassion for the community and their suffering. The reporter said, “People have gathered in front of 26 large candles, burning brightly in memory of the victims.”
I felt my stomach turn… 26? 20 children and 6 adults… what about Adam and his mother? Yes, he was the perpetrator, but were they not also victims of this tragedy? Were they not lost community members? Did they deserve to be shunned and cast out in death? I felt blasphemous for asking myself these questions. Of course, I knew if they had been included it might have led to the assumption that forgiveness had been bestowed. And though it would have been an incorrect assumption, I was confident no one was ready to forgive such senseless, wanton violence. So what exactly was I expecting from this deeply wounded, traumatized, grieving community? Absolutely nothing. They were doing their best in an unbearable situation. The controversy existed in my mind alone and it was up to me to understand the discomfort I felt at the dismissal of two human beings, guilty of tragic and inescapable suffering.
Buddhist psychology teaches that the unwholesome roots of greed (lobha), hatred (dosa), and delusion (moha) manifest as afflictive mind states (kleshas). On the face of it one could conclude that the klesha of anger was implicated in every aspect of this tragedy: the planning and doing, the aftermath and resulting commentary. The Abhidharma states that ignorance (avidyā) is present in every instance of hatred (dosa). Therefore, according to Buddhist psychology, the main culprit in this tragedy is the pervasive conditioning of avidyā or primordial confusion with respect to the actuality of existence. Avidyā is a fundamental misconstruing of internal and external phenomena, and most importantly the self. It is the root of subject/object dualism—the illusion of separation between self and other. Avidyā makes it possible for the mind and heart to cling to feelings of hatred, anger, pride, jealousy, and greed—all of which, even though we all feel them, separate us from each other.
The dis-ease that arises from the delusion of separateness is the ultimate suffering of which the Buddha taught and is the root cause of every societal ill. At the heart of that misperception of reality is the inability to recognize the basic interconnectedness of all human beings, their society, and their natural environment. This web of interconnectedness is woven with the thread of all-encompassing compassion. All-encompassing means all beings are included in the compassionate embrace of vidyā, primordial wisdom: even the perpetrator and his misguided parents who had the power at some point to change this awful outcome. Compassion is not forgiveness and requires no agreement. It is the recognition of the existence of suffering in every human mind and knowing that we all have the same capacity to be free from suffering.
That night, my reaction was a compounding of discomfort that had been building inside my heart all week. Alongside shock and intense sadness I was agitated by the noticeable lack of compassion for this young man’s obvious intense delusion and suffering. The two missing candles represented the pervasiveness of avidyā, primordial confusion, and its power to keep us from awakening to the all-encompassing compassion that lives in every human heart and undergirds every human expression of wisdom, generosity and ultimately, forgiveness.