Fearless Compassion in the Face of Violence

The willingness to face suffering can give rise to compassion.

The school shooting at Marshall County High School in Kentucky was our nation’s 11th this year. It happened on January 23rd. And now our hearts break again with the horror of yet another school shooting in Parkland, Florida.

I remember when school shootings were rare. Now, it seems we have become numb to these kinds of unthinkable events.

There is a well-known Buddhist story of a ruthless murderer, Angulimala. When he grew up, he was quite well behaved, studious and intelligent. He went off to study and became his teacher’s favorite student. The other students became jealous and plotted against him, telling the teacher that he was out to get him. His frightened teacher, trying to get rid of him, gave him an assignment to bring him 1000 human fingers.

Due to the bullying and other factors, Angulimala’s darker tendencies emerged and he began a horrible killing spree. If you can imagine this—he wore a necklace strung with the fingers of all the people that he had killed.

Such a person would seem irredeemable.

However, in this myth by virtue of the power of the Buddha’s compassionate presence, Angulimala manages to see what he’s done, repents, changes his life, and is redeemed.

Perhaps we can only imagine in our mind’s eye, or in our heart’s eye, encountering a person who would have such a powerfully good heart that just being in their presence would inspire us to change our lives. Such a thing may seem impossible, that you would encounter a person that suddenly sees your life, and on that occasion, you would be sincerely willing to change your life completely. But it is not.

Compassion arises as a direct and appropriate response to suffering.

Now, there is no shortage of human suffering in our world. Disease, war, famine, poverty, fear and now school shootings. Each of us experiences pain. And, so it is reasonable to ask: if compassion arises as a response to suffering and there is so much suffering, why isn’t there more compassion?

Perhaps because we rarely allow ourselves to actually face the suffering directly. We are “masters of distraction”. To a great extent, this is our primary human practice. A large portion of our day is consumed with activities that are attempts to protect ourselves from discomfort, pain, and suffering.

Compassion has a direct and integral relationship with suffering. No contact with our suffering, not much compassion.

The willingness to face suffering can give rise to compassion. Sometimes then, reading the newspaper is an act of compassion.

We usually only learn of the devastation caused by school shootings. And this is the most common outcome. For me, it is one of our worst national horrors. Still, I have made a point of reading the reports of the incidents—all that I can find.

Back in 2006, Jencie Fagan, a Nevada gym teacher, risked her own life to stop a fourteen-year-old boy who came to school one day with a handgun. He walked into the school and fired three shots. The first bullet struck another boy in the upper arm. A girl was hurt when the second bullet ricocheted off the floor, burying itself in her knee. The third shot thankfully did not hit anyone.

Jencie calmly approached the boy, walking right up to face him and his gun. After talking with him for a while, she persuaded him to drop his gun. This is where the courage of the warrior would have stopped with an undeniably brave act, and one that almost certainly saved lives.

But Jencie demonstrated the courage of the strong heart when she then surprised everyone by hugging the shooter. She reassured the young boy that she would not leave him alone. She would accompany him to the station and throughout his legal process to make sure that he was safe and to ensure that the police didn’t hurt him.

Later, when asked why she had acted so compassionately toward the shooter, Jencie, who is a mother herself, replied, “I think anybody else would have done it. I look at the students as if they’re my own.”

Another shooting incident happened at Taft Union High School outside Bakersfield, California. One student was shot and is in critical condition. But a 40-year-old teacher named Ryan Heber stood in the classroom face-to-face with his 16-year-old student, who was holding a shotgun. Ryan had no idea whether the student—whose pockets were filled with ammunition—would put the gun down or pull the trigger. Eventually, the teen released the gun, and police took him into custody.

The teacher’s father, David Heber, was interviewed after this incident. This is what he said about his son, Ryan. “Because he knows the boy and the boy knows him … I attribute that to why the boy talked to and listened to my son. It’s all about kindness. It’s all about my son being kind and caring about his students.”

“Because he knows the boy and the boy knows him.”

Legislation for gun control and better mental health services are absolutely essential. We need to provide support rather than stigmatizing and further isolating those at risk for dangerous behavior. (Read this story shared with me by the editors of Spirituality & Health. It’s about how a teacher found a way to reach out.) People are foolish if they believe that these measures are not necessary. So is fearless compassion a necessity. So is knowing our neighbors and our neighbor’s kids and how they are hurting and why they are hurting.



Frank Ostaseski is the founder of the Metta Institute and cofounder of the Zen Hospice Project and author of The Five Invitations: Discovering What Death Can Teach Us About Living Fully. www.fiveinvitations.com

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