America's Gun Culture is America's Culture of Death...


“Our guns will not lead to our liberation,” writes Zenzele Isoke following the May 14 mass shooting that killed 10 people and injured three in a racist attack at a supermarket in Buffalo, New York. Here, she calls on practitioners to challenge gun culture and “bring the precept of non-harming back into the very center of our ethics and our mindfulness practices.”

Lion's RoarOn Saturday, May 14, 2022, eleven African American people went to Tops Friendly Market in Buffalo, New York fully expecting to go home. Maybe they went to pick up a couple of fresh onions and garlic to season the Sunday dinner, buy some milk, cereal and snacks for the kids, or get a pound of butter and real vanilla extract for a fresh-baked dessert. Or maybe they were working at the grocery store part-time to eke out a living. Three of those people died in the parking lot before they ever reached the store, six of them were killed in the aisles, and one was killed in a shootout with an 18 year old domestic terrorist. Another survived with serious injuries, alongside two more victims. In total, 13 people were shot.

Today there are 120 guns for every 100 people in the U.S. I am scared.

Too many Black and Brown folks die from guns. Folks like me get shot by the cops, murdered by neighbors, friends, and family members, and targeted for execution by white supremacists.  In articles like the one I am writing now, authors use such tragedies as an opportunity to give a history or civics lesson to largely white readerships, effectively obscuring the real issue: mass death caused by the lethal cocktail of racial hatred and easy access to guns. Our tendency is to turn toward politics and analysis – intellectual bypass – instead of inward toward the enormous grief and deep fear that Black bodies hold as we try to live in a society in which racial animosity and violent extremism have been mainstreamed. Today there are 120 guns for every 100 people in the U.S. I am scared. And I know that I am not alone. I believe that this fear deserves our loving attention.

Three days later, I begin teaching my “Pleasure, Intimacy, Violence” college class with five minutes of breath and body meditation and two or three minutes of mindful movement. I always start this class this way. On that dazzling spring morning, I felt energized and optimistic, eager to plunge into a lecture and discussion of Akwaeke Emezi’s Freshwater, specifically the author’s piercing examination of Igbo worldview and Black queer spiritual existence. One of my students asked me if we were still going to have a quiz. “Oh, yeah”, I chuckled, “I had almost forgotten!” The students groaned. After our mindfulness practice, I administered a short quiz. When I went back to the office to review them, I noticed that three of my Black students, who are usually very well-prepared, had apparently not read the book. Frustrated, I kept asking myself why. And then it clicked: Buffalo. They were not only managing class, they were also managing considerable racial trauma as a result of that killing.

As practitioners, we have to feel if we want to heal.

Then it occurred to me: had I bypassed?  Had I treated the killing of my people in Buffalo like any other ugly headline – something to be quickly forgotten? In survival mode, did I neglect to feel into the pain and outrage that this moment called for? Had I shoved Buffalo into the back of my consciousness in order to happily function? Because I had neglected to offer just a few brief moments of remembrance, maybe I had also disallowed my students the space to process what may have emerged for them as a result of the shooting. Regardless of the answers to these tough questions, I know I did not honor the calamitous thunderbolt of shock and heartbreak that pierced my own spirit only days earlier. I had instead swallowed my pain, dis-remembered it, and modeled for others how to do the same. This, I think, was a mistake.

As practitioners, we have to feel if we want to heal. As teachers, if we want to model healing, we also have to model feeling. We have to be willing to feel what is hard to feel, and in our gun loving culture, say what is even harder to say. Failure to feel fully and to speak with an uncompromising sense of integrity might lead us toward a spiritual emptiness that can actually be exacerbated by mindfulness practice.  This may be one reason why in this unique era in which mindfulness practices have proliferated, so too has the culture of lovelessness that leads to the hoarding, trafficking and destructive use of easily accessible guns.

Black people are not the only ones targeted for racial hostility, although we are much more likely to experience it and have our experiences covered by the media and worked over by its industry of pundits. After the killing of George Floyd and the massive uprisings that followed, I became an active part of several community configurations made up primarily of African American, Asian American and Latinx meditators. We organized community gatherings, meditation protests, as well as weekly sitting groups that continue to this day in the name of racial justice. We wrote about our work and supported each other on Zoom during Covid.  In these groups, we held time and space to become familiar with and literate in each other’s racial traumas. As BIPOC practitioners, we sat together with the ways each of us have been impacted by anti-Blackness and other forms of racism– not just in the larger community, but also within our sanghas.

As a community, we can no longer afford to stay silent on guns. We must somehow find the courage to bring the precept of non-harming back into the very center of our mindfulness practices.

For a long time, much of the focus was on anti-Black racism, then came the 2021 Atlanta Spa massacre where eight people were killed – six of whom were Asian women – by another young white man with a gun.  As opposed to centering my own racial trauma, I had to learn how to sit in close proximity with the profound hurt, fear and anger of my dharma kin. In this space, I learned about the culture of silence surrounding Asian American racial victimization, a culture which works to preserve the myth of the model minority. I also had an opportunity to think about and talk about how I myself had both witnessed and participated in bullying against Asians as an elementary school student in California. I had space and time to feel into my own complicity.  None of us are innocent and none of us are alone.


In early spring of 2021, after a community action, a friend and fellow meditator shared with me that she was part of a gun club. After her sitting practice in the morning, she would take up target practice in the afternoon. To my surprise, she very passionately linked her participation in firearms training with her racial justice organizing.  As a Black woman, she said, it was her right to defend herself with a gun. I asked her: “In our racially diverse community, who do you think you will most likely end up killing if you ever had to use your gun?”


Then it occurred to me: how many other members of our large, overwhelmingly white meditation center which we both belonged to, are also actively participating in American gun culture? How many go to target practice before or after sittings and dharma talks? How many practitioners go out to hunt birds, squirrels, wolves and deer, or simply shoot at Black targets printed on large sheets of white paper? How many of us are sleeping with guns under our pillows or stashed in our glove compartments? How many of us, as Pema ChΓΆdrΓΆn might say, are adding to the culture of aggression?

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