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Buddhistdoor View: Finding our Humanity in a Time of Tragedy

Jacinda Ardern. Photo by Kirk Hargreaves. From
Jacinda Ardern. Photo by Kirk Hargreaves. From

In the wake of last month’s deadly mosque shooting, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has garnered widespread and well-deserved praise for her response, which has been described as stoic, heartwarming, and touching. Boston Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham calls her “the kind of leader every country deserves.”  

New York Times journalist Tina Brown observes: “As women across New Zealand emulated her gesture of solidarity by donning headscarves, the Arab world took note. A portrait of Ms. Ardern was projected across the world’s tallest building, Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, with the word “Peace” emblazoned above it in English and Arabic.”

What lessons can we garner from Ardern’s response, as well as the global reaction to it? To begin, it might help to call on the wisdom of Buddhist leaders to see where their words direct us.

The Dalai Lama quickly praised Ardern, writing, “I admire the courage, wisdom, and leadership you have shown in spontaneously declaring that the victims of violence belong to the family of New Zealanders, while the perpetrator of violence set himself apart.” He continued: “I applaud the way you and the people of New Zealand have reached out with compassion and support to members of the Muslim community among you. It is encouraging too that across the world, people of all faiths are visiting mosques in solidarity with Muslims after the Christchurch shootings.” (Tibet Journal)

Faces of victims of the Christchurch mosque shootings. From
Faces of victims of the Christchurch mosque shootings. From

The Dalai Lama’s conclusion turns us toward our individual cultivation of positive mental states and qualities: “Your government’s determination to reform gun laws will contribute to peace and security, but equally important is to resist hatred and fear by cultivating warm-heartedness as you have shown.” (Tibet Journal)

This echoes the Dalai Lama’s response to the terror attacks in Paris in November 2015, which took the lives of more than 130 people. At that time he observed: “Violence is a reaction by shortsighted, out-of-control people. At 81, I believe it cannot be resolved through prayers or government help. We have to begin the change at [the] individual level and then move on to neighborhood and society.”

In an open letter, which has received 260 co-signatures in under 10 days, the Buddhist Peace Fellowship continues this flow of inner cultivation to outward action. They write, firstly, that “as Buddhists, we bear witness to your suffering and grief, and offer prayers of deep metta to you across the world in the wake of the Christchurch massacre.” (Buddhist Peace Fellowship)

The letter continues by noting that any group, including Buddhists, is capable of violence rooted in the three poisons of greed, hatred, and delusion, saying, “We must work to uproot these poisons not just from within ourselves, but also where they sit in structures of oppression in society.” The letter concludes, “Taking refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, and joining movements for justice, may we continue to learn how to skillfully turn toward peace.” (Buddhist Peace Fellowship)

The Sakyadhita Australia Association of Buddhist Women added, “‘We represent kindness, diversity, compassion.’ The inspiring words of New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinta Ardern after the horrific Christchurch massacre. At Sakyadhita Australia we admire the active compassion she has displayed toward the victims and all those grieving. As Buddhist women we can only hope that her message of compassion, so central to the Buddhist teaching, resonates widely; that attitudes change; that actions of peace, love, and understanding will act as antidotes to all such violent acts of hatred. Sakyadhita Australia sends deepest sympathy and condolences to the victims of this horrific attack and their families.” (Facebook)

Whether one responds to this violence with a renewed effort to cultivate inner peace or to help alter the structures of violence around us, we can find lessons in the Buddha’s teachings. When wondering how to deal with a mass killer, we need go no further than the story of the Buddha’s encounter with Angulimala.

A depiction of Angulimala depicted chasing the Buddha at Wat Maisuwankiri, Thailand. From
A depiction of Angulimala depicted chasing the Buddha at Wat Maisuwankiri, Thailand.

Angulimala, whose name means “garland of fingers,” was perhaps the greatest mass killer in the lifetime of the Buddha. When he came across the Buddha one day, out of habit, he attempted to kill the peaceful monk, but he was unable to catch him. Puzzled, Angulimala called out, “Stop! Stand still!”

“I stand still, Angulimala!” replied the Buddha. “Do you also stand still?”

Angulimala could not understand the meaning of the Buddha’s words, so he asked him, “How can you say you stand still while running faster than me?”

I stand still Angulimala evermore,
For I am merciful to all living beings;
But you are merciless to living beings.
Therefore I stand still and you stand not still. (Buddhanet)

This answer had the power to turn the murderer’s mind just enough that he set aside his knife and, eventually, took refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.

Through his own peace, the Buddha was able to bring peace to this man. The Buddha recognized that beyond the actions that had defined him for some time as a murderer was the fact that Angulimala was a human being too, worthy of care and with the potential for goodness. For the Buddha, the answer for how to deal with the serial murderer was found in his humanity.

In turning this advice to a broader, social sphere, there are cases from the Buddha’s life as well as a famous treatise from Nagarjuna (c. 150 CE–c. 250 CE) called the “Precious Garland of Advice for a King.” There, Ven. Thubten Nyima tells us that “Nagarjuna not only instructs the king on profound Buddhist philosophical points but also advises him on how to rule the kingdom in accordance with the Dharma. In other words, Nagarjuna advocates for governmental policies based on Dharma principles.” (Thubten Chodron)

Nagarjuna. From
Nagarjuna. From

Continuing, Ven. Nyima tells us that, “Nagarjuna didn’t shy away from difficult topics. Again, this is an example for us in that our advocacy efforts should be free from animosity, and divisiveness and instead focus on building common ground and understanding among different groups of people.”

331: King, out of compassion you should always make your mind focused upon benefitting all beings, even those that have committed the most serious misdeeds.

332: You should particularly have compassion
for those that have committed the serious negativity
of murder; these ones who have ruined themselves
are indeed worthy of a great persons’ compassion.

333: Either every day or every five days,
Release the weakest prisoners.
And see that it is not the case that the remaining ones
are never released, as is appropriate.

334: From thinking that some should never be released
you develop [behaviors and attitudes] that contradict
your precepts. From contradicting your precepts,
you continually accumulate more negativity.

335: And until they are released, those prisoners
should be made content
by providing them with barbers, baths,
food, drink, clothing, and medical care. (Thubten Chodron)

Here, the great Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna likewise advocates for a social policy based in the humanity of even the murderer. Look always to our humanity, Buddhism has taught us time and time again. Those who propagate violence or exclusionary rhetoric separate themselves from humanity, even their own humanity. It is up to us to recognize this and not follow suit, but rather to reconnect with one another and reaffirm our interconnectedness.

“To the global community who have joined us today, who reached out to embrace New Zealand, and our Muslim community, to all of those who have gathered here today, we say thank you. And we also ask that the condemnation of violence and terrorism turns now to a collective response. The world has been stuck in a vicious cycle of extremism breeding extremism and it must end. The answer lies in our humanity,” Ardern proclaimed. (The Guardian)

For all those affected by this and other acts of violence, we close with the words that Ardern offered at the memorial for those killed in Christchurch: “Ko tātou tātou, As-Salaam-Alaikum” (We are one, peace be upon you).

See more

New Zealand’s prime minister is the kind of leader every country deserves (Boston Globe)
Dalai Lama Applauds New Zealand PM’s Courage & Leadership (Tibet Journal)
Dalai Lama, Tibetan PM express sadness over Paris attacks (
To Muslim Kin, From Buddhists in the Wake of Christchurch (Buddhist Peace Fellowship)
Sakyadhita Australia Association of Buddhist Women (Facebook)
Buddhist Advice for Ruling a Kingdom (Thubten Chodron)
Christchurch mosque shootings: Faces of the dead, missing and injured (New Zealand Herald)
The New Zealand Shooting Victims Spanned Generations and Nationalities (New York Times)
Jacinda Ardern’s speech at Christchurch memorial – full transcript (The Guardian)

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