God, The Buddha, and The Joker

Generally speaking, I’ve not used this blog as a forum for the discussion of current events. However, the recent massacre at an Aurora, Colorado screening of the new Batman movie – and the religious and spiritual questions that it raises regarding how and why such a tragedy could occur – so obviously falls within the purview of a blog that calls itself “an exploration of spirituality and the human condition” that not writing about it strikes me as a far more glaring omission than writing about it might appear ‘out of character.’ The emotions associated with these killings will be raw for quite some time. Be forewarned, then, that this post might be a more challenging read than many of my others.

God, The Buddha, and The Joker

I’m usually not into seeing violent films. However, I did make an exception in the case of The Dark Knight – the first in this modern Batman trilogy – for a couple of reasons. First of all, I’d heard that Heath Ledger had done such a phenomenal job playing that embodiment of pure evil, The Joker, that I simply “had” to go see his performance for myself. Second, I’d heard that the plot encompassed a very timely and important exploration of how we – in our self-righteous zeal to eradicate evil – risk sinking into the very depths of evil ourselves. No doubt, Ledger’s performance is a chilling one, bringing to life with incredible realism his character’s embrace of chaotic violence for the sheer love of chaotic violence itself. The most chilling moment for me, however, occurs the second time we hear The Joker “reveal” to a prospective victim how it was that he’d obtained his jagged scar of a smile. On the first occasion we might be inclined to feel at least a little bit of sympathy for an individual who’d been so deeply wounded as a child – thereby explaining, at least in part, how he’d become the wretched individual that he’d become. Ah, but when we hear him tell an entirely different story the second time around, we come to see with stark clarity the dark depths of The Joker’s coldly manipulative mind! It is then that we “know” that he is pure evil, unconditioned – without cause and without cure.

Heath Ledger as The Joker in The Dark Knight


It is at times such as this, after the murder of 12 people and the wounding of 58 others by a copycat Joker at a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises (the final film in the Batman trilogy) that we are reminded just how bizarre this world can be – filled with beauty and love in one moment, brutality and heartache the next. How do we even begin to make sense of a tragedy such as this? If only there were some rhyme or reason to it all…, if only we could point to something in particular that could have made each of those people “deserving” of such a fate (as if anyone can possibly deserve such a fate)…, if only we could learn what it was that led a reportedly quiet young man to meticulously plan out such an act of violence and mayhem, then maybe we could find some measure of solace. Quite to the contrary, it is the seemingly random nature of life and death that has us plumbing the depths of our being and gazing up into the heavens in search of meaning. To think that our world could really be so cold and chaotic is almost too unsettling to contemplate. And so it is that each of us comes to construct a worldview – one that incorporates our lived experiences and whatever presumed metaphysical reality makes sense to us – one that allows us to advance through this human existence with some sense that our life matters, that it has value in ‘the grand scheme of things,’ that it will not be snuffed out for absolutely no reason whatsoever.

But, how can such killings ever make sense? What worldview can possibly incorporate such a violent and cold-blooded and heinous act as this without us screaming at the top of our lungs that something is wrong? Indeed. Sadly, though, if you think that this happened because we’ve turned our back on God, then you’ve already begun to make sense out of senselessness. If you think it happened because some force of evil exists “out there” in the world that is forever in dynamic conflict with the force of good, then these killings will likely make some semblance of sense to you. If you think this all happened because the unknowable plan of some higher power is being acted out from moment to moment on this earthly plane, or because the victims had some karmic debt to atone for, then this massacre presumably makes just a little bit of sense. If you think that these killings occurred because there are just too damn many guns in the hands of undeserving people, or because there are simply not enough guns in the hands of deserving people, or because violent movies and video games are driving people to act out in real life the digital slaughter contained therein, or because our mental health treatment system is so underfunded and disconnected and inadequate that it can’t possibly provide the safety net that it should when mental illness manifests as florid psychosis, then you’ve already made some sense out of what is otherwise utterly incomprehensible.

Despite the efficacy of these various worldviews in helping their respective owners go out and face a brand new day, they’re either so clearly not held by any super-majority, or they’re so clearly incapable of being acted upon in any positive way, that they would seem to be of no real use whatsoever – save for the very personal utility that they provide. And so it is that we remain locked in this bizarre cycle in which senselessly violent acts seem to be perpetrated with ever-increasing frequency and severity, but nothing is ever done about it beyond our collective hand-wringing and our news-cycle spanning period of national mourning. Nothing is ever done about it because our various perceptions of reality are too firmly rooted in our irreconcilable worldviews for us to ever come to agreement regarding how we might best proceed. Has there ever been a time in all of history when it was so routinely the case that two people could look upon the same color with one calling it red and the other blue? Perhaps that fact alone is evidence of how very far we’ve strayed. Ah, but what have we strayed from? Well, that depends upon your worldview!

As I began to make “sense” of the news that I was hearing of the Aurora, Colorado massacre, a very different worldview than any that I’ve previously mentioned came into focus within my mind. As it happens, it was the worldview of someone coming into spiritual awareness in the years leading up to the start of World War II:

When we went back to New York, in the middle of August, the world that I had helped to make was finally preparing to break the shell and put forth its evil head and devour another generation of men…. All this was obscure to most people, and made itself felt only in a mixture of disgust and hopelessness and dread. They did not realize that the world had now become a picture of what the majority of its individuals had made of their own souls. We had given our minds and wills up to be raped and defiled by sin, by hell itself; and now, for our inexorable instruction and reward, the whole thing was to take place all over again before our eyes, physically and morally, in the social order, so that some of us at least might have some conception of what we had done.  (pp. 269-271)

Some of you, I’m sure, will recognize this passage as coming from Thomas Merton’s autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain. But will you be surprised to learn that, with only a modicum of interpretive flexibility, this Buddhist shares the worldview of that young man who would one day become a Trappist monk?

Do I believe in souls? No, but I do believe that we are a seamlessly integrated collection of ‘selves that are not other’ – each of us working in some way toward creating the entirety of the world in which we live. Have we “given our minds and wills up to be raped and defiled”? In myriad ways I believe that our living in this modern world has us doing just that. For instance, I recall feeling rather disoriented for some time after seeing The Dark Knight. It’s how I often feel after seeing very violent films. And yet, despite my knowing that to be so, I went and saw The Dark Knight, anyway. I brought that upon myself and now it has become me. Do we not allow ourselves to be so defiled on umpteen occasions on any given day? I think we do. We Buddhists are just not all that inclined to consider it sinful when we do. But let’s not get all hung up on that word, sin, simply because it reminds us of a religion that we might have left behind. Indeed, to a Christian, sin refers to a separation from God, but it might also be meaningful for a Buddhist to think of sin as separation from their True Self.

Allow me, please, to make this next point in no uncertain terms. Yes, I believe in karma. Yes, I believe we’ve each played some role in creating this violent world. Sure enough, our contribution might be a small one – a minor act of commission or perhaps one of omission – but it is a contribution, nonetheless. That notwithstanding, I still emphatically contend that those who were murdered or injured or traumatized in that Aurora, Colorado theatre were no more responsible for their fate than you or I. Karma simply refers to habit energy – patterns of thought, emotion, and behavior. Yes, we have our individual habit energy – the karma of the self that is not other. Far more applicable in this case, however, is our collective karma – the habit energy of our social order, our nation. No matter how much we might purify our own patterns of thought, emotion, and behavior, we are still living in community. We cannot escape our collective karma, and, unfortunately, it reeks of violence.

Think of the violence that we perpetrate against the farm animals in our care, for instance. We kill them indiscriminately – not out of necessity, not because we need to eat so much meat in order to survive. Rather, we do it because we want to, because we enjoy the taste of their flesh. We kill them not with any sense of gratitude, but with a sense of entitlement – a sense that they exist only to fulfill our needs. But the violence is not merely a matter of killing them in numbers far surpassing that which is necessary. There is violence as well in how we force them to live out their lives in torturous factory farming conditions until such time as we do see fit to kill them. And it’s not even a matter of us not being able to afford to treat them humanely; it’s just that we want what we want on the cheap.

Then with our bellies full of mindlessly eaten meat we retire to our living rooms where we immerse ourselves in reality television shows that glorify our most petty of self-interested desires and celebrate those who can manipulate others more skillfully than anyone else. We play video games in which we engage in virtual fights to the death in which living things are unceremoniously blown up, ripped to shreds, and incinerated. And, yes, we go to the movies where we revel in blockbusters chockfull of gunfights, explosions, mayhem, and annihilation.

Speaking of annihilation, how many generations have now grown up with the specter of nuclear annihilation hanging over their heads? We raise our children not with the idea that such massive violence is inconceivable, but with the idea that it is very thinkable indeed. In fact, it is so eminently thinkable that we can even incorporate it into a strategy – one of mutual assured destruction – the strategy under which most of us have now lived our entire lives. But even conventional war has become so much more thinkable. We don’t just engage in it because of any sense of life and death necessity. We go to war in order to protect our interests. War is no longer a last resort; it is something that we engage in so as not to be inconvenienced.

But I think that even the most ardent believer in the rightness of our government to wield such incredibly violent power secretly harbors the fear that that power might one day be used against him or her. And so we stockpile weaponry of our own while harboring dark fantasies of black helicopters dropping jackbooted government soldiers into our back gardens. We gleefully contemplate what actions we’ll take if anyone even tries to step foot in our household. Yes, the second amendment has become our most sacred creed, and the gun has become our talisman.

I could go on, but I think I’ve said enough to convey that if there was any merit at all in what Thomas Merton was thinking during the years prior to World War II, there is certainly merit in those thoughts today. Yes, Merton’s thoughts are but another worldview, and so are mine. But I think that they are both worldviews that transcend surface appearances and cut straight to the heart of the matter. Besides, if a Trappist monk and a Buddhist can somehow find common ground, perhaps all of us can find it as well!


Merton, T. (1948, 1976) The seven storey mountain: An autobiography of faith – Fiftieth anniversary edition. A Harvest Book. Harcourt, Inc..

Image Credits

Heath Ledger as The Joker by Danel torres via:

Copyright 2012 by Maku Mark Frank


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