“We are Orlando”—the cry of solidarity has rung from crowds by the thousands in cities as disparate as Seattle, Dallas, and London. It connotes a mix of grief, anger, and defiant hope. The dead cannot return, it acknowledges; but they can be honored through our words and deeds.
Since early Sunday morning’s tragic events, the Buddhist community has lent its voice to this growing chorus. Buddhists, too, are Orlando.
Those who mistake the Buddhist tenant of equanimity (upekkha) for dull apathy may be surprised by the sentiments of Buddhist leaders, who have responded to the massacre with both forceful emotion and a direct call for civic and political action.
“I’m deeply saddened by what happened in Orlando,” wrote author and former Zen monk Stephan Bodian. “This level of violence, hatred, and bigotry is traumatizing,” observed mindfulness teacher Maia Duerr. Jack Kornfield, one of the founders of the Insight Meditation Society, put it simply: “I am filled with tears.”
Equanimity, after all, does not mean the absence of emotion. Rather it describes a mind that is responsive to events as they unfold, but is unshaken from its commitment to spiritual insight and ethical conduct.
By this definition, equanimity contrasts starkly with the eerily placid response of the killer himself who, police report, sounded “cool and calm” in conversations with hostage negotiators directly after the shooting. His bearing — that of a killer unmoved by his deeds — has become one the massacre’s defining details.
The Buddhist community instead grieves each of the 49 dead—all unfeelingly killed, it appears, on account of who they loved. Along with that grief has come a recognition that mere sentiment will not suffice.
“I see a lot of people posting on social media about what a horrific thing has happened, and how it’s time for us to see a change,” noted Shambhala Buddhist teacher Lodro Rinzler in the Huffington Post. “I see very few people getting involved beyond that point and actually committing to affecting that change.” He has announced his willingness to volunteer a few hours a week for a gun violence prevention nonprofit, and chosen to offer the classes at his meditation center, MNDFL, free of charge.
The Dalai Lama shared a similar sentiment, pointing out how he “is quite skeptical about the effects of prayer.” He added: “The real change, effect, comes through action.”
His remarks echo the sentiment of an online campaign that has criticized those members of Congress who failed to support gun control or LGBT rights legislation but have nevertheless extended their “prayers” to the victims.
“Politicians are not paid to *pray* for victims after tragedies,” tweeted meditation teacher and author Bodhipaksa. “They’re supposed to *act* to prevent more victims being created.” Putting the blame squarely on Republicans for their failure to help pass an assault weapons ban, Buddhist and novelist Kate Wheeler lamented those “elephants!” She then addressed them: “Your color should be red with embarrassment and shame.”
The question remains whether this time will in fact prove any different; whether the unique severity of this shooting—the most deadly since Wounded Knee in 1890—will bring about the federal gun control legislation that others could not.
President Obama, fairly equanimous in his own right, expressed “enormous. . . grief on behalf of the families that have been affected.” It was a statement he is tired of making. As he angrily admitted in the aftermath of a shooting at Oregon’s Umpqua Community College in October of last year, “Somehow this has become routine. The reporting is routine. My response here at this podium ends up being routine.”
He later concluded: “We’ve become numb to this.”
The Buddhist community has not. The next step is to ensure that something comes of it.
Buddhists can, for instance, call their congressperson and demand she or he vote for H.R. 4269, a bill that would ban semiautomatic assault weapons like the one used in the Orlando attack. They can also donate to or volunteer with local advocacy groups aiming to end gun violence, such as North Carolinians Against Gun Violence or Brooklyn’s Save Our Streets. Perhaps most immediately, they can attend a “We Are Orlando” solidarity event. A website has been created to help people find one in a city or town near them.
The numb cannot move. But those hot with feeling yet steadied by discernment can help lift this country to a place that, up till now, it has refused to go.