The Norwegian mass murderer meditated to numb his emotions. The effect of any practice depends on our values
this was written as a Guardian Comment is Free post. See the Guardian CIF discussion here
Meditation makes you calmer and clearer and encourages empathy and kindness … right? Not if you are Anders Behring Breivik who has told psychiatrists that he used meditation to “numb the full spectrum of human emotion – happiness to sorrow, despair, hopelessness, and fear”. He still practises it behind bars to deaden the impact of his actions.
Breivik uses meditation as a form of mind control – a way to focus the mind and exclude responses that get in his way. You could argue that he is meditating wrongly, but I think his testimony shows that the effect of any practice, meditation included, depends on the ends to which it is recruited. Breivik’s aims were determined by his racist beliefs and meditation didn’t challenge them.
We’ve been here before. Breivik likened himself to a Japanese banzai warrior seeking satori – Japanese Zen enlightenment – to harden his heart. Samurai, inspired by Zen teachings, often used meditation to develop their skills and overcome fear of death. Zen’s long association with the samurai bushido ethos culminated, after the Meiji restoration of 1868, in the support of virtually the whole Zen establishment for the military expansion that culminated in the second world war. Japanese Buddhists rejoiced that the Pearl Harbor attacks had occurred on 8 December, the day when they mark the Buddha’s enlightenment; and leaders insisted that fighting was a patriotic and a Buddhist duty.
Established religions commonly support a nation’s war effort, but the Zen enthusiasm for Japanese militarism strayed so far from the Buddha’s nonviolent teachings that it raises more fundamental questions. After the war a group of Japanese Zen scholar-priests (the Critical Buddhism school) investigated how their branch of a seemingly pacifist tradition had ended up affirming war. They concluded that Zen’s reinterpretations of early Buddhism had obscured its fundamental tenets.
The first Buddhist precept is not killing living beings. As the Buddha says: “All men tremble at punishment, all men fear death; remembering that you are like them, do not kill” (Dhammapada 119). But Mahayana Buddhism, from which Zen evolved, teaches that all phenomena are mysterious and ungraspable – empty of any fixed essence. So what should we relate to everyday reality in which, the Buddha stressed, actions have consequences and ethical considerations apply? The various Mahayana schools have different answers, but Zen teaches that the ultimate perspective should inform everything.
That elevates a non-dual state of mind over ethical distinctions. The 17th-century master Takuan told his samurai students: “The uplifted sword has no will of its own, it is all of emptiness. The man who is about to be struck down is also of emptiness, and so is the one who wields the sword.” Later, the self-sacrifice of kamikaze pilots was hailed as an expression of enlightenment.
Westerners learned of Zen’s tarnished history through Brian Victoria’s Zen at War (1997), but few western Zen practitioners have seriously re-evaluated their tradition. Many like Zen’s anti-intellectualism, feeling that doctrines and ethical precepts smack of rigidity, dogma and rules. But the Buddha made right understanding the first item in his eightfold path because he knew that everyone is guided by a worldview and underlying beliefs. His teachings seek to reshape those views so they eliminate attachment and support liberation. Ultimately, that includes attachment to doctrines, but discarding them too soon means that pre-existing beliefs and prevailing opinion go unchallenged.
Zen’s non-dual philosophy obscured Buddhism’s ethical teachings; Breivik used meditation to serve the murderous objectives of his racist ideology. Meditation, or any other practice, is just a technique. Its effects, for good or ill, depend on the system of values that guide how a person uses it.