108 - Buddha's Teachings 14: The Five Skandhas as Focus for the Practice of Not-Self (Anatta)
110 - How Understanding Impermanence Can Lead to Great Appreciation

What does Buddhism have to say about mass shootings? Of course, traditional Buddhism doesn’t say anything about mass shootings per se, but it does present teachings on human nature, behavior, and choices. In this episode I discuss the Buddhist of view of how and why people do horrible things, pointing out how Buddhism is realistic but also optimistic, and how a Buddhist view can help relieve some of our fear and despair.



Quicklinks to Content:
Why Do People Do Horrible Things Like Mass Shootings?
The Original Buddhist Answer
The Mahayana Buddhist Answer
How Can the Buddhist View Help?
From the Scary “Other” to the Fellow Human Being


Why Do People Do Horrible Things Like Mass Shootings?

Last week, there were three mass shootings in the United States, resulting in the death of at least 34 people. I was camping over the weekend and didn’t hear anything about the two shootings that happened within a 24-hour period, but when I emerged from the woods and heard the news, I was deeply saddened, but – like most of the world – not surprised. Then I was furthered saddened by the fact that mass shootings have become so commonplace in America, I wasn’t surprised.

Explaining why people do horrible things is one of the main functions of religion, along with giving you some sense of what to expect after death. Almost no one who ends up committing heinous acts looks, from the outside, like someone capable of heinous acts. Everyone was once someone’s child. What leads someone to massacre strangers, including children, just because they feel like it? Are human beings flawed or rotten at the core, such that we need to be tightly disciplined and governed to prevent violence? If we’re fundamentally good, how do we explain mass shootings? Is there something inherently different and horrible about the shooters?

These are obviously complex and profound questions, and they can be approached from many different angles: Psychological, societal, political… I’ll just give you the traditional Buddhist answer to how and why people do horrible things. That’s not to say all Buddhists are going to have this view, just that this is the basic answer according to Buddhist teachings.

The Original Buddhist Answer

Actually, come to think of it, there isn’t a single Buddhist answer to why people to horrible things, there’s really two answers – one based in original Buddhism, represented in modern times by Theravada, and one based in Mahayana Buddhism, a later development. I’ll start with the original Buddhist answer, which is basically that people are the way they are due largely to their karma – how they were formed by past causes and conditions, primarily their own choices and actions. In the present, every person has at least some degree of choice about how they act, and can chose actions of body, speech, and mind that perpetuate greed, hate, and delusion, or actions that cultivate clarity, calm, wisdom, and ease.

As I discussed in Episode 59, greed, hate, and delusion are called the three poisons in Buddhism. Like poison, they’re seen as dangerous elements that can be hard to overcome once they’ve been introduced into a system. The poisons are also seen as more or less self-perpetuating; once we’re under their influence, it doesn’t take much to keep making harmful choices, while it takes quite a lot of determination to change course.

Yet, fundamentally, from the Buddhist point of view there is nothing stopping a person from changing course from negative to positive actions in any given situation. Sure, the likelihood that someone deeply embroiled in greed, hate, and delusion is going to instantly and completely mend their ways is low, given the influence of their past karma. But it’s important to contemplate the significance of a view of human nature that refuses to write anyone off as a lost cause, even without the redemptive power of a deity’s forgiveness and grace.

The original Buddhist view of human evil may best be illustrated by the story of Angulimala from the Pali Canon. Angulimala was a bandit and brazen serial murderer alive at the time of the Buddha. In the Angulimala Sutta, he’s described this way:

“[Angulimala was] brutal, bloody-handed, devoted to killing & slaying, showing no mercy to living beings. He turned villages into non-villages, towns into non-towns, settled countryside into unsettled countryside. Having repeatedly killed human beings, he wore a garland (mala) made of fingers (anguli).”[i]

It happened one day that the Buddha was walking along a road that was going to lead right by where Angulimala operated. People warned the Buddha numerous times to stop, explaining that Angulimala had easily dispatched groups of ten, twenty, thirty, even forty men before, but the Buddha kept going. Eventually Angulimala, amazed at his luck, took up his weapons and set out after the Buddha – but no matter how fast he went, he couldn’t catch up, even though the Buddha appeared to continue walking at a normal pace. Finally, Angulimala called out for the Buddha to stop. The Buddha replied, “I have stopped, Angulimala. You stop.”[ii]

This answer intrigued Angulimala, and he asked the Buddha the meaning of his response. The Buddha replied:

“I have stopped, Angulimala,
once & for all,
having cast off violence
toward all living beings.
You, though,
are unrestrained toward beings.
That’s how I’ve stopped
and you haven’t.”

In other words, the Buddha has stopped the flow of the three poisons, while Angulimala has not. Upon hearing this, the murder experienced an epiphany. Right then and there he renounced evil, threw his weapons off a cliff, bowed at the feet of the Buddha, and asked to become a monk. Much to the chagrin of the general population, the Buddha granted Angulimala’s request – but the former criminal stayed true to his intention and proved himself to be an exemplary monk, earning the trust and respect of the Buddha’s supporters. Angulimala ended up achieving arhatship – complete spiritual liberation – but eventually gets stoned by an angry mob still resentful of his past actions. When facing this retribution, Angulimala was told by the Buddha to “bear with” the situation, because it was simply his past actions bearing (painful) fruit. Shortly afterwards, the former murderer achieved complete unbinding (nirvana) as he passed away.

The moral of this story is that there is nothing preventing anyone from taking the path of peace – but there is also nothing preventing anyone from taking the path of greed, hate, and delusion. From the perspective of original Buddhism, human beings can go either way, and the way we go is entirely up to us. However, the very fact that the Buddha discovered a way of practice that leads to liberation – and that path has been taught and passed on through space and time – is a reason for joy, gratitude, and optimism. No one is doomed to remain under the influence of greed, hate, and delusion.

The Mahayana Buddhist Answer

The Mahayana Buddhists, which include Zen Buddhists like me, take a more positive and affirming view of human nature. We don’t deny the efficacy and basic legitimacy of the original Buddhist view – your choices matter, and you can allow greed, hate, and delusion to dominate your life, or not – but we see beings as fundamentally good. This “good” isn’t a contrived or moral stance, it’s simply the result of everything and everyone being completely and utterly interdependent. Everything is empty of inherent, independent, enduring self-nature; ultimately boundless; dependently co-arisen with everything else; ultimately not-two. I am not actually separate from you, and therefore I can’t hurt you without hurting myself – and we’re basically hard-wired not to hurt ourselves. Even when people kill themselves, they are usually doing it because they perceive it as the less painful option at the time.

And yet, of course, people do hurt others, and themselves. From the Mahayana point of view, harmful actions are due – as the Buddha taught – to greed, hate, and delusion, but especially to delusion, or ignorance. Specifically, people cause harm because they are ignorant of the true nature of self and reality. They imagine they can gain something by hurting, cheating, stealing from, lying to, oppressing, reviling, even killing others, but this is not the case.

Even if someone may temporarily appear to get away with harmful actions or even profit from them, their actions will inevitably bear painful fruit in the future. Even in the moment, despite all appearances to the contrary, perhaps in ways they are unaware of, their inner state is fraught with repercussions of their harmful actions, such as alienation from others, fear of being found out, fear that others will take advantage of them, rigid dependence on a worldview that justifies their self-centeredness, or an inability to enter into true intimacy with other beings and with life itself. From the Mahayana point of view, we’re all one body, and if the hand feels triumph when it cuts off a foot, it’s caught up in a painful delusion with serious consequences.

Angulimala, the murderer-turned-monk from the sutta I quoted earlier, was for most of his life an unrepentant and even self-aggrandizing criminal (remember, he wore a garland of fingers around his neck). But the verses he spoke upon his enlightenment reveal that his life was dark before he renounced violence:

“Who once was heedless,
but later is not,
brightens the world
like the moon set free from a cloud.

“His evil-done deed
is replaced with skillfulness:
he brightens the world
like the moon set free from a cloud.”

It can be difficult to feel any sympathy for perpetrators of evil actions, and in a way that’s not the point of this teaching. What’s useful is to realize perpetrators of evil actions are suffering whether they appear to be or not, and that being caught up in greed, hate, and delusion is a sad state that can never lead to lasting peace and happiness.

How Can the Buddhist View Help?

To bring this back to the example of mass shootings as tragic human actions, how do either of these Buddhist views of human nature – that of original Buddhism, and that of Mahayana Buddhism – help us maintain our sanity? I have to admit, the teachings aren’t obviously comforting, but, then again, they weren’t designed to be. Buddhism doesn’t promise a new world order or a permanent escape to paradise after death. It observes that greed, hate, and delusion have been driving forces in the world since time immemorial. We have no beneficent God who is, for some mysterious reason, allowing mass shootings to escalate. Instead, it makes perfect sense to us that, given technology that has multiplied many times over the amount of damage any one person used to be able to do, our beginingless cycle of greed, hate, and delusion is wreaking more and more havoc on the world.

Still, when I first encountered Buddhism, I did feel better able to face the evils in the world. The teachings helped me make some sense of what was going on. Previously, while I had a belief that almost all people were fundamentally good at their core, I could only conclude perpetrators of heinous crimes were different – unpredictable, unknowable, black boxes of evil about whom little could be done. That is, you couldn’t understand them, relate to them, help them, or protect yourself from them. What they did was completely irrational and incomprehensible. They presented a scary and fatal flaw in my view of a relatively good, orderly, meaningful world.

Buddhism helped me conceive of those who committed terrible acts of violence and harm as being more or less like me, but suffering from a woeful and tragic degree of delusion. The mass shooter doesn’t think of his actions as wrong or evil, he sees them as morally inconsequential or even righteous, because he’s intoxicated with a view that lets him see his victims as less than human. Or he sees his actions as justified, because he perceives his victims as belonging to a class of people who have treated him poorly and therefore thinks of them all as sharing responsibility for his sense of alienation, humiliation, or pain.

While I believe in the existence of psychopaths, who lack empathy and are capable of harming others without feeling any remorse,[iii] such people are extremely rare, and this condition can’t account for most mass shootings or the many other acts of senseless violence that plague our society. The vast majority of people who do horrible things are fundamentally no different from me and you, they’re just in the powerful grip of greed, hate, and delusion. Just to be clear, this does not in any way, shape, or form excuse their actions, and it’s not an argument to let them off the hook for their crimes. After all, when the Buddha saw Angulimala suffering punishment for his past crimes, he simply told Angulimala to bear it.

From the Scary “Other” to the Fellow Human Being

Why can it help to think of someone who does something violent and terrible as being similar to you in some way? Maybe it helps you and maybe it doesn’t, but I think for many of us, there is something terrifying about the “other.” When someone seems utterly different from you, such that you can’t feel any connection or empathy with them, you can’t understand them or predict them, and their actions seem foreign and irrational to you, you’re likely to see them as a threat.

In contrast, it’s when we see how other people are like us that we feel empathy, connection, warmth, and our defensiveness decreases. A way of communication instead of conflict opens up when, for example, we’re able to see past the ways someone is different from us and recognize how they too feel love, care for their family, like to snuggle with their dog, get pleasure from cooking a nice meal for people, and have fears but also hopes and dreams.

In addition, if the vast majority of people just want to do the right thing and be happy, safe, loved, and connected to others, we have a place to start when we’re trying to solve problems in our society like mass shootings. People would not commit heinous acts of violence against one another if they weren’t suffering from the poisons of greed, hate, and delusion. Through Buddhist practice we can know, from personal experience, how the influence of greed, hate, and delusion can be stopped. We know anyone, even a hardened criminal like Angulimala, can choose the path of peace. In the meantime, we can do all we can to help more people feel happy, safe, loved, and connected to others – and therefore make them much less likely to fall into the delusion of separateness that makes it possible to commit acts of violence against others.

I don’t mean to suggest this “Buddhist view of why people do horrible things” should be enough to put our hearts and minds at rest. Actually, this is all rather philosophical, as opposed to practice-oriented. There’s still the questions of how we can take care of our society better, and how we should attend to and take care of our responses to tragic and traumatic events (for some ideas about that kind of thing, see Episode 65 – Dealing with Fear, Anger, and Hatred as a Buddhist). Just adopting a Buddhist point of view about things may be of limited use if you’re experiencing strong emotions, or are at a loss for how best to respond. However, the way we view the world really does matter, and hopefully this presentation of a Buddhist way of explaining why people do horrible things helps, at least a little.



[i] “Angulimala Sutta: About Angulimala” (MN 86), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.086.than.html . Also https://www.dhammatalks.org/suttas/MN/MN86.html
[ii] Ibid
[iii] https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/wicked-deeds/201801/the-differences-between-psychopaths-and-sociopaths


108 - Buddha's Teachings 14: The Five Skandhas as Focus for the Practice of Not-Self (Anatta)
110 - How Understanding Impermanence Can Lead to Great Appreciation