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Oct 13
Sunday
Opinion Pieces
Even Psychopaths Need Love

photo by Claudelle Glasgow

photo by Claudelle Glasgow

on Buddhism and Guns
by Lodro Rinzler

Q: How do Buddhists reconcile with the idea that psychopaths (aka sociopaths, like Hitler, Manson, Bundy), may not be born with basic goodness, thereby shattering the tenet that all beings are born with basic goodness?

As unpopular as this view may be in today’s world, the Buddhist perspective is that everyone is born with basic goodness. Even Hitler. Even Manson. Even Bundy. Even those messed up people who go into schools and murder innocent people. They are all basically good. They are not inherently evil. They are so very confused. They deserve our compassion.

I believe that when people hear me speak of this topic, they think I am defending these individuals. I certainly am not. There are some people out there who have done some really horrendous things, things that break my heart. I am, however, defending the view that these people are basically good. During a leadership gathering Buddhist teacher Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche spoke about society and said, “What will determine our success is the ability to remain open to the universal message [of basic goodness] and to remain unequivocal in our trust of human nature.”

Traditionally we are asked to practice compassion for everyone. Everyone, in this case, includes that man who mugged you for drug money years ago, or the strung out man who barfed on your shoes last week. Everyone is people we love, people we hate, and people we don’t give a fuck about.

Compassion, in this larger context, means that you have to have trust in human nature, as the Sakyong points out. Even the sick individuals who kill or otherwise harm loved ones or children can be redeemed. You have to acknowledge that even those people are just that — sick — and still have a shred of basic goodness in their being. If you can, then you are remaining open to the universal message of basic goodness, and positively influencing society overall.

Last year I led a meditation workshop at Kripalu in Lenox, Massachusetts. The day participants arrived tragedy struck America; 28 individuals lost their lives in the Newtown, Connecticut shooting. One man shot and killed his mother, then went to the school where she worked, killed 20 first graders and six more of their teachers before taking his own life.

I feel now, like I felt then, that no words can really accurately describe this profound loss. These children will never grow up to meet their first loves, or make an impact in their chosen profession, or know the joy of being married or having kids of their own. The amazing educators who gave their life protecting the children are such heroes; they saw an opportunity to save precious lives and took it.

That night, I gave a short introductory talk to the participants. It was an overview on why meditation is helpful in today’s world. I felt such sadness in the room so I knew it would be best if we spoke of this tragedy openly. At the end, we each made an aspiration or said a prayer for the victims of the Newtown tragedy. The next day, we included them in our loving kindness meditation practice.

Halfway through the workshop one of the participants approached me privately. She explained that earlier that week she was at a mall in Portland when yet another deranged individual walked in and opened fire. She told me that if she had decided to get a hamburger instead of sushi, she would have turned right instead of left, and walked straight into the line of fire. She could have easily been killed. She was lucky to be alive, but was clearly traumatized.

After our loving-kindness practice she told me that she had a breakthrough. “I don’t forgive these shooters,” she said, “but I did find myself hoping that after a life of suffering they were finally at peace.” This woman’s breakthrough touched me deeply. Even if you cannot summon the same level of compassion and open-hearted affection for Hitler as you can for your mother, you can still wish these beings peace.

When you engage in compassion practices you have to be open to helping everyone. In talking about committing to the Mahayana path Pema Chodron once wrote, “Making the second commitment means holding a diversity party in our living room, all day every day, until the end of time.” You cannot choose who you invite to your compassion party. Your mother may show up, but so may Hitler. So may other people who are very confused, and who act out of that confusion and harm innocent people. You have to offer them all the guacamole dip and invite them to take a seat.

In offering compassion to everyone we are developing trust in basic goodness. The Sakyong, in that same talk to the leadership, said, “The result of trust is joy. Our effectiveness in helping others will be based in that trust in basic goodness. Shambhala is saying not just that humans are basically good but that society as a whole is basically good.”

Lodro RinzlerWe are all in this society together. We cannot close our hearts to psychopaths, or potential psychopaths. We have to be willing to help everyone. In fact, the potential psychopaths are the ones who need our help most of all.

From ‘Walk Like a Buddha’ by Lodro Rinzler, © 2013 Lodro Rinzler. Reprinted by arrangement with Shambhala Publications Inc., Boston, Mass.

To hear Lodro on NPR speaking about his new book, click here.

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5 responses to “ Even Psychopaths Need Love ”
  1. Emily Danies
    Oct 14, 2013
    Reply

    It’s much easier to feel compassion for victims than for the perpetrators of violence. As a criminal defense attorney I have worked hard on this issue. I deal with murderers and other violent felons. Such confused minds.. I also attended the Auschwitz Retreat with Bernie Glassman many years ago… I really believe we all have basic goodness but some people have a mind that is so tormented they are completely consumed by aggression. But yes, basically good… with actions that are basically horrific.

  2. Susan Rees Rosquist
    Oct 14, 2013
    Reply

    Thank you Lodro, very timely. Sorry I missed you in Durham this weekend.Blue skies!

  3. This is something very close to me. I am a teacher and am very aware of what can happen to my students and take precautions in my school. I also had a parent with severe psychosis and there was a lot of violence and abuse in my childhood directed at all family members. I have deep love for my parent and understand that the parent had no control or tools at times. Yet, I know Basic Goodness exists in all. People with mental illness are just that. People who are confused, have brain chemistry that needs to be addressed. It is sad that in this culture, people with mental illness are marginalized and stigmatized. That often prevents them from seeking appropriate help. (On the other hand we often label normal emotions as illness – which I think is a mistake.)

    Thank you for your posting. It is a reminder to us all. Much love and peace to you.

  4. Robert Bartlett
    Oct 14, 2013
    Reply

    The culminating point of Shambhala warriorship is wisdom, which indicates judgment. It’s too easy to see the goodness in a psychopath from a distance. It’s NIMBY compassion. Goodness includes the capacity to detect psychopaths and protect yourself from them. That is a very good trait of modern society. Once detected, a psychopathic person should be treated in a humane and compassionate fashion. How does this treatment proceed? In general, there are professional standards that ensure the compassionate treatment of the mentally ill. Our democracy’s capacity for developing and maintaining such standards is a very good development. Implementing these standards is very challenging. I do it for a living. Sometimes I feel that my employer runs a sweatshop. “How,” I wonder, “can they possibly think that a sweatshop will provide compassionate treatment for the mentally ill?” I’m actually being exploited by executives trying to profit from treating the mentally ill. Kind of makes you wonder about the definition of psychopath. Despite my employer’s exploitive tendencies, I am careful to refrain from directing resentment toward the disabled. That is a very good trait of me–it could be called judgment. Many other care providers, however, are not as disciplined as me. Their resentment comes through loud and clear. Real compassion, as it actually arises in the world, is a complex interconnected web of intentions, decisions, and actions: much more dynamic than branding the world good from the comfortable distance of a bar stool in an amiable upper class pub.

  5. Evan Lainhart
    Oct 17, 2013
    Reply

    Thank you for this article. For me, it speaks to why bravery and a warrior’s discipline are so fundamental to the Shambhala vision.


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