Orlando and The Buddha’s Four Ennobling Refusals

Adapted from a talk at Zen West five days after the Orlando mass shooting

We offer the merit of the Chant of Boundless Compassion this evening to:

All those who lost their lives in the Orlando massacre

To their loved ones and the Orlando community who suffer in its wake

To communities threatened by hate and delusion embedded in the dominant culture

Particularly our brothers and sisters who identify as lesbian, gay, bi or trans, Latino or Muslim

May we meet as one heart across this empty divide

End the path of violence as a means of solving our differences

And embody the path of awakening without fear together.

When I came back to the farmhouse from our Wednesday night sitting, I was surprised to find my husband up late in front of the computer watching CNN. As I moved closer, I saw the senator from Connecticut imploring his fellow legislators to consider the impact of not responding to the Orlando mass murders. In reverent silence, we sat watching some of this 15 hour filibuster to press a vote on gun control. The bullets from Orlando continue their path right into our lives here as we listen to the names of those killed by mass shootings that have become a norm in our country. They say, Wake up! Wake up! How grateful I felt for this earnest senator’s courage to stand up and speak.

It seems incredulous that only a few months ago we were at the Oak Street zendo and I was giving this same talk after the Roseburg shootings. Here we are again trying to clear a space where we can simply be with the unfathomable event in a very honest human way with all our mixed reactions, thoughts and feelings, hopes and fears. The same basic question is asked — What is our response? How are we guided by our practice?

Where you go to find out the answer to that makes all the difference.

As we begin studying Master Uchiyama’s talks, the first thing he says is that the purpose of zazen is to clarify life in the face of death. So here we are tonight, clarifying our life in the face of mass death, listening for the right response.  Whenever we come across an event that threatens to overwhelm us, I am aware of two levels of response — a direct visceral reaction that is unedited and close to the bone, and a secondary reaction that tries to make sense of the first and fit it into the known world. The first calls for compassion, and the second, our wisdom.  I offer the following as a way to help us practice with our primary and secondary reactions to Orlando and take heart from what I am calling “The Buddha’s Four Ennobling Refusals.”

To open our hearts and make room to be with our first gut response to this event without judgment is vital. It means being compassionate with what is hard to feel as we come to know the particulars of the horror Saturday night at Pulse — the fear, anger, confusion and sorrow, listening to each experience with its own wisdom to teach us and wake us from our slumber. Our culture leaves little room to be with our messy contradictions in a moment of not-knowing. It seems we cannot be left with a single moment of silence but must keep talking and making sense, making something.

What was it like for you tonight as we called upon the spirit of Kanzeon, the bodhisattva who hears the cries of the world? Connecting with this energy as our own heart right here generates the capacity to be awake with the threat to our comfortable and unsustainable individual bubbles. Slowing down and listening in zazen to the name of each person who died at Pulse, what did you notice?  We can make room for everything, there is no right or wrong.

As we gain some distance from our first direct experience, however, we should be careful about our secondary response that often becomes deeply confused with delusion. It is this secondary response that tries to fit what’s happened into our known world. Here we have some opportunity to refuse what makes us smaller by noticing the basis of thought in a separate self with conditioned beliefs about the world in which we live. This is the way the world is now. There’s nothing I can do. Americans will never give up their guns. People are crazy and hateful. It will only get worse. If we want to become people of practice, recognizing the seduction of helplessness and hopelessness is a clue that we have taken Mara’s bait and forgotten our true nature. We should deeply explore and know these states of mind.

As an inoculation against this tendency, I offer a modern reading of how we can join Buddha’s awakening in light of this tragedy and take our stand, not from a separate self, but from compassion and wisdom with all beings.

The Buddha’s Four Ennobling Refusals

1. The Buddha refused to be identified as a fundamentally violent being. Although Shakyamuni taught that the mind of clinging is characterized by greed and hate, he did not teach that this is who we are at our core. Instead, the very purpose of a path of practice points to a heart-mind at our center that is bright, open, responsive and loving. When we clarify delusion, this is what emerges in all beings. Though we see many examples in the media of our violent action, it is a radical act to refuse to lose sight of our fundamental being as awakened.

2. The Buddha refused group entitlement as a path of fulfillment. Born into wealth and privilege, Guatama Buddha left his palace to find another route to answer the question of how to live life in the face of universal inevitability of old age, sickness and death. We live in a time of increasing tensions between different identities and gross inequalities in power in our communities fueled by fear and ignorance. Orlando places this cultural divide squarely on the table and asks us to take responsibility for our part. Those of us with privilege are particularly called upon to stand in solidarity with those with less power. It is a radical act to refuse to invest in systems that oppress whole groups of people based on sexual orientation, religion, or race.

3. The Buddha refused to live in fear and hatred of one another. Guatama Buddha was not always surrounded by appreciative admirers but faced many threats including his murderous brother-in-law, Devadatta, who plotted to kill him, warring tribes that were the norm at the time, and the taunts of Mara, the embodiment of delusion. The Buddha did not denigrate Devadatta or run in fear, but instead, he predicted that he too would eventually reach buddhahood. Mara was not controlled with violence, but met with steadfast clarity. Shakyamuni refused to be drawn into identification with him. It is a radical act to refuse to be seduced and like the Buddha says, I see you Mara. I see you for what you are.

4. The Buddha refused the seductive positions of helplessness and hopelessness. Mara taunts the Buddha under the bodhi tree and whispers familiars we all know, “Why bother?” and “Who do you think you are to be awakened?” Although helplessness and hopelessness may visit us all at one time or another in this life, we can refuse them as untenable positions that keep us stuck based in misunderstanding of our true nature. In Zen we learn there is always a right response, no matter where we are, under all conditions. Hopelessness comes when we are attached to particular outcomes and lose sight of what is possible in this moment based on truth and willingness to engage life on life’s terms. Helplessness comes when we think we imagine we are alone. We only need look up and what is before us is the way. It is a radical act to refuse to indulge helplessness and hopelessness and always return to our seat of practice, listening for the response right from the heart.


The Buddha way is not a passive endeavor that avoids conflict and engagement. Alongside the milk of kindness from the mind of Kanzeon, we also have the mind of Manjushri, wielding his sword. Manjushri does not attack living beings with his weapon, but boldly cuts through delusion itself. Both sides are needed.

Please, let us join together in the Buddha’s refusal to identify with delusion and instead  act in accordance with our deepest nature, whether this brings us to filibuster, reaching out to another, or filing a petition. This is the way we answer those who lost their lives in Orlando.

With palms together,


1 thought on “Orlando and The Buddha’s Four Ennobling Refusals”

  1. Carmelita Thomson

    Seido, Thank you for this……a beautiful and thoughtful response and reminder that this our place of practice, in the midst of the chaos and violence…..that our practice is not resignation but action. Carmelita {Jun-e}

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