One of the most striking facts about contemporary American society is the frequency of mass murder. It seems that every week brings news of another enraged person going on a shooting spree. This week there were two such incidents: a 6-year-old shot a classmate with whom he had scuffled on the playground, and a black man shot whites at a fast-food restaurant. The most notorious incident of this sort occurred several months ago in Colorado, when two high school students killed about fifteen classmates.
In many of these incidents, the perpetrators seem to have been inspired by the media — by a movie, for example, or by a computer game. What a commentary on modern media! Instead of inspiring behavior of a positive kind, it inspires shooting sprees! Not surprisingly, some people have argued for government censorship of the media.
There are always a few people who are psychologically disturbed, and who vent their feelings through criminal action. The Unabomber, for example, who sent mail bombs around the U.S., became psychologically disturbed while an infant, after being isolated from his parents for an extended period. I suspect that many of today’s disturbed individuals could have been salvaged by a different society, by spiritual and social surroundings that were friendlier, healthier.
When I first heard about the Colorado shootings, I felt that if there were one perpetrator, it could be ascribed to a psychological problem. Once I heard that there were two perpetrators, I felt it wasn’t caused by madness, it was caused by nihilism, by a sadistic lust for murder that stepped in to fill a spiritual void, a sadistic lust for murder that was fueled by the media. Society, with the help of culture and religion, should be able to control the anti-social, sadistic impulses that lurk in the human heart. But modern society, instead of controlling these impulses, stirs them up and nourishes them.
During medieval times, cathedrals were built with large stained-glass windows. Nowadays, such windows must be bricked-up, or covered with wire, because modern man is so filled with anger and alienation, that he can’t resist the temptation to throw a rock at any window he sees. Isn’t this anger and alienation due, in large part, to the lack of religion, the lack of a belief-system that makes sense of life?
I recently saw the much-talked-about movie, American Beauty. It’s all there: sex, violence, nihilism, the lack of any sort of faith or culture that gives meaning to life. At times, it was painful to watch. Yet it’s considered the best movie of the year.
I asked myself recently, do I have a religion? Is Zen my religion? When I began practicing meditation, about eight years ago, it was an exercise, a spiritual exercise. I subscribed to the Nietzschean, Freudian view that religion is only for the ignorant masses. Now, however, after practicing meditation and yoga for eight years, and after studying the history and theory of Zen, I’ve come to believe that Zen is my religion. Three characteristics of a religion that apply to my attitude toward Zen are