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Letter To Adam Lanza, from Brother Pháp Lưu of Plum Village

Amidst a chorus of contested calls for greater gun control, better access to mental health care, and renewed attention to dysfunctional constructions of masculinity (each of which have their place, and debate about which can be educational), this powerful letter via Parallax Press adds a non-pathologizing dimension of compassion.  Would love to hear your thoughts, BPFers.

—Katie

Brother Phap Luu, a monastic at Plum Village, grew up in Newtown, Connecticut. He has written an amazing, heartfelt letter to shooter Adam Lanza, that you can read here:

Saturday, 15th of December, 2012
Dharma Cloud Temple
Plum Village

Dear Adam,

Let me start by saying that I wish for you to find peace. It would be easy just to call you a monster and condemn you for evermore, but I don’t think that would help either of us. Given what you have done, I realize that peace may not be easy to find. In a fit of rage, delusion and fear—yes, above all else, I think, fear—you thought that killing was a way out. It was clearly a powerful emotion that drove you from your mother’s dead body to massacre children and staff of Sandy Hook School and to turn the gun in the end on yourself. You decided that the game was over.

But the game is not over, though you are dead. You didn’t find a way out of your anger and loneliness. You live on in other forms, in the torn families and their despair, in the violation of their trust, in the gaping wound in a community, and in the countless articles and news reports spilling across the country and the world—yes, you live on even in me. I was also a young boy who grew up in Newtown. Now I am a Zen Buddhist monk. I see you quite clearly in me now, continued in the legacy of your actions, and I see that in death you have not become free.

You know, I used to play soccer on the school field outside the room where you died, when I was the age of the children you killed. Our team was the Eagles, and we won our division that year. My mom still keeps the trophy stashed in a box. To be honest, I was and am not much of a soccer player. I’ve known winning, but I’ve also known losing, and being picked last for a spot on the team. I think you’ve known this too—the pain of rejection, isolation and loneliness. Loneliness too strong to bear.

You are not alone in feeling this. When loneliness comes up it is so easy to seek refuge in a virtual world of computers and films, but do these really help or only increase our isolation? In our drive to be more connected, have we lost our true connection?

I want to know what you did with your loneliness. Did you ever, like me, cope by walking in the forests that cover our town? I know well the slope that cuts from that school to the stream, shrouded by beech and white pine. It makes up the landscape of my mind. I remember well the thrill of heading out alone on a path winding its way—to Treadwell Park! At that time it felt like a magical path, one of many secrets I discovered throughout those forests, some still hidden. Did you ever lean your face on the rough furrows of an oak’s bark, feeling its solid heartwood and tranquil vibrancy? Did you ever play in the course of a stream, making pools with the stones as if of this stretch you were king? Did you ever experience the healing, connection and peace that comes with such moments, like I often did?

Or did your loneliness know only screens, with dancing figures of light at the bid of your will? How many false lives have you lived, how many shots fired, bombs exploded and lives lost in video games and movies?

By killing yourself at the age of 20, you never gave yourself the chance to grow up and experience a sense of how life’s wonders can bring happiness. I know at your age I hadn’t yet seen how to do this.

I am 37 now, about the age my teacher, the Buddha, realized there was a way out of suffering. I am not enlightened. This morning, when I heard the news, and read the words of my shocked classmates, within minutes a wave of sorrow arose, and I wept. Then I walked a bit further, into the woods skirting our monastery, and in the wet, winter cold of France, beside the laurel, I cried again. I cried for the children, for the teachers, for their families. But I also cried for you, Adam, because I think that I know you, though I know we have never met. I think that I know the landscape of your mind, because it is the landscape of my mind.

I don’t think you hated those children, or that you even hated your mother. I think you hated your loneliness.

I cried because I have failed you. I have failed to show you how to cry. I have failed to sit and listen to you without judging or reacting. Like many of my peers, I left Newtown at seventeen, brimming with confidence and purpose, with the congratulations of friends and the approbation of my elders. I was one of the many young people who left, and in leaving we left others, including you, just born, behind. In that sense I am a part of the culture that failed you. I didn’t know yet what a community was, or that I was a part of one, until I no longer had it, and so desperately needed it.

I have failed to be one of the ones who could have been there to sit and listen to you. I was not there to help you to breathe and become aware of your strong emotions, to help you to see that you are more than just an emotion.

But I am also certain that others in the community cared for you, loved you. Did you know it?

In eighth grade I lived in terror of a classmate and his anger. It was the first time I knew aggression. No computer screen or television gave a way out, but my imagination and books. I dreamt myself a great wizard, blasting fireballs down the school corridor, so he would fear and respect me. Did you dream like this too?

The way out of being a victim is not to become the destroyer. No matter how great your loneliness, how heavy your despair, you, like each one of us, still have the capacity to be awake, to be free, to be happy, without being the cause of anyone’s sorrow. You didn’t know that, or couldn’t see that, and so you chose to destroy. We were not skillful enough to help you see a way out.

With this terrible act you have let us know. Now I am listening, we are all listening, to you crying out from the hell of your misunderstanding. You are not alone, and you are not gone. And you may not be at peace until we can stop all our busyness, our quest for power, money or sex, our lives of fear and worry, and really listen to you, Adam, to be a friend, a brother, to you. With a good friend like that your loneliness might not have overwhelmed you.

But we needed your help too, Adam. You needed to let us know that you were suffering, and that is not easy to do. It means overcoming pride, and that takes courage and humility. Because you were unable to do this, you have left a heavy legacy for generations to come. If we cannot learn how to connect with you and understand the loneliness, rage and despair you felt—which also lie deep and sometimes hidden within each one of us—not by connecting through Facebook or Twitter or email or telephone, but by really sitting with you and opening our hearts to you, your rage will manifest again in yet unforeseen forms.

Now we know you are there. You are not random, or an aberration. Let your action move us to find a path out of the loneliness within each one of us. I have learned to use awareness of my breath to recognize and transform these overwhelming emotions, but I hope that every man, woman or child does not need to go halfway across the world to become a monk to learn how to do this. As a community we need to sit down and learn how to cherish life, not with gun-checks and security, but by being fully present for one another, by being truly there for one another. For me, this is the way to restore harmony to our communion.

Douglas Bachman (Br. Phap Luu)
who grew up at 22 Lake Rd. in Newtown, CT., is a Buddhist monk and student of the Vietnamese Zen Master and monk Thich Nhat Hanh. As part of an international community, he teaches Applied Ethics and the art of mindful living to students and school teachers. He lives in Plum Village Monastery, in Thenac, France.

Comments (9)

  • Lionel Riley

    This expresses all of the feelings of compassion I have for not just the victims, but for Adam as well!

  • Patrick Cole

    A voice of compassion, a voice of sanity. Thank you Brother Phap Luu!

  • David Nelson

    Deep and lovely expression of truth and fearlessness. I’ve know Phap Luu many years as a fresh and wise monastic. His wisdom a continuation of our teacher Thich Nhat Hanh. His words challenge not only our view of this horrible act, but the more mundane, everyday and personal. Can I forgive my parents for their unskillfulness in how they raised me? Can I forgive myself for living with fear due to my wrong view of my home, and living in this society? Can America ever recognize it’s immense suffering and come back home to itself and truly forgive and heal? From my personal experience, I know healing is possible. But it takes time, diligent practice and supportive conditions. Can we support each other to forgive and heal?

  • Sue Escobar

    I enjoyed reading this letter to Adam Lanza. In the wake of these senseless murders, I too reflected, and even reacted, with a bag of mixed emotions: deep sadness, with sobbing and tears, anger and frustration aimed at Adam Lanza, the gun industry, all those who defend the 2nd amendment, the world. I attempted to engage in what I thought was in-depth, insightful conversation with some folks on Facebook, but eventually slipped away in more sadness and frustration. I have found that conversations about serious issues such as mass murder, gun violence, gun control, among others frequently devolve into anger-filled, unconscious platitudes directed at folks who do not even know one another. This is another reason why I stay off of most discussion board, especially those associated with the regional newspaper. But this feels different,and I sense that more thoughtful conversation can be, and is, reflected here.

    As I read the letter to Adam Lanza, I became filled with love and hope which partly had been lost in that tragedy. Most of the tears I had shed around this mass shooting were not entirely for the people who were killed but for all of humanity and what we, individually and collectively do to each other on a daily basis. Sure, there are not mass killings in the U.S. or even the world on a daily basis, thankfully, but there is an awful lot of violence in general and violence on a more ethereal level: verbal, psychological, emotional, socioeconomic, religious, and so on. I often pray for a global awakening, that one day, we humans will ALL wake up to our Divine Truth and really absorb what we are doing to each other. It saddens me, but this letter by Phap Luu gives me hope.

    I realize more and more that peace and love begin with me and with each person. We can change the world, one person at a time. In the meantime, I will continue to do what I can to help others who are suffering in their loneliness, in their addictions, in their abusive relationships, in their own mental suffering. I wish each person in our world only the best; I wish us all peace, love, joy, compassion in our hearts and minds, and kindness in our souls as we interact with others. Thank you for reading. I hope to participate more in these discussions, as this venue seems quite welcoming, open at the top, deeply engaging and insightful. Namaste and happy holidays, Sue

  • Beatrice Gee

    Brother Phap Luu’s letter is a reminder that we can each play a role in our communities by recognizing those who may be suffering and trying to reach out to relieve some of their lack of connection. However, it requires us to overcome our own fear and aversion and risk becoming entangled in the problems of others. We can choose to try to help now, or deal with the consequences later. Every troubled person is someone’s family member, loved one, and community member.

  • Monika Winkelmann

    Dear Brother Phap Luu,

    while reading and breathing in you words, your letter, I feel reminded to the first precept “I am not separated from any existing being.” No, I am not. I am not separated from you, dear Brother, althought I might think that I am already not as wise as you and so create a gap between us. I am not separated from that young man that shot his mother, his mates, himself. He is a part of me. He shows me one possiblity to react or act out or cry desparately and without hope for help and at the same time not allow anybody to help. Yes, Adam must have been lonely, very lonely, and he is asking me and everybody to really connect with the moments of our our own loneliness and shame and fear to show our vulnerability and needyness. – We are called to embrace and heal the Adams in ourselves and the communities.

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