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By Gerry Stribling
Like the Samurai of ancient Japan, to whom archery was an expression of their credo and their beliefs, the shooting of firearms embodies elements of Buddhism, and the mental discipline practitioners strive to develop through their meditation practice.
Owning and shooting rifles may seem antithetical to identifying myself as a Buddhist. To those who recoil in horror at the thought of a Buddhist eating a bacon cheeseburger, drinking a beer, or shooting a gun, I can only say: the Buddha ate meat; the Fifth Precept is all about avoiding addiction; and that anything demanding total concentration adds to and enhances the Buddhist experience. In his youth, Siddhartha Gautama was a champion archer.
I’m not shooting squirrels or paint cans, I shoot at paper targets. I’m trying to place shots in an area the diameter of a baseball one hundred yards away. When I was 15 and shot in Junior NRA competition matches, the target was the size of a golf ball 50 feet away. When I was 19, the target was the size of a human being 700 yards away (it wasn’t a real human being, of course, it was a black silhouette shaped like a human being—I was in Marine boot camp).
Why would I recommend target shooting over other sports requiring concentration and accuracy?
There is an element to shooting that doesn’t exist in archery or throwing darts—surprise. In darts, you know when you throw the dart, and in archery, you know the exact split-second when you release the arrow. But with guns, the exact moment when the firing pin strikes the primer of the bullet must be a surprise. If it’s not, then you’re sure to miss.
It’s why the range instructors at Parris Island advised us to “squeeze the trigger like it’s your best girl’s titty.”
It ain’t the same as archery or darts or horseshoes or bowling. There is a big BANG involved, and depending on what you shoot (I’m into World War II battle rifles), the BANG is accompanied by the slam of a metal butt plate into the crook of your shoulder. You know it’s coming, it’s going to be really loud, and it’s going to hurt. So if you know exactly when it’s coming, you’re going to flinch. And you’re going to miss your target. But if it’s a surprise, your bullet has hit the target you’re aiming at before your body has time to react.
I can’t think of anything in my life that demands such total focus and concentration and mental discipline. Being a Buddhist has not sharpened my accuracy at the rifle range, but I became a Buddhist at age 50, and I competed in rifle matches when I was 14. However, the lessons I learned at the firing line made Buddhism make more sense.
Buddhism and shooting drive home a lesson many busy people are unwilling to accept: the human mind is incapable of thinking about two things at the same time. In other words, multi-tasking is impossible. No one can multi-task. You may be adept at switching back and forth from one thing to another, but you can’t do two things at the same time. Ask any actor or musician or surgeon or power-lifter or yoga slut what it’s like to be in the moment. Nothing else matters, nothing else exists, except for what you are supposed to be doing.
So, firing my M-14 rifle at the Parris Island rifle range, the last thing I was doing was actually imagining that I was squeezing my girlfriend’s breast. I was utterly, totally focused on keeping my sights aligned while waiting for the big, loud surprise and the punch in the shoulder.
I knew I did it exactly right if I didn’t blink until after the BANG.
In Noble Eightfold Path terms, it’s called Right Concentration. Developing Right Concentration is what meditation is all about. Meditation has nothing to do with zoning out, rather, it’s all about tuning in. When you meditate, you’re not trying to make your mind blank, you’re trying to think about only one thing.
Beginning meditators are frustrated when they can’t stop the random thoughts they inevitably have.
But random thoughts are only thoughts—they’re brain farts. They count for nothing and they’re nothing, certainly, to beat yourself up about. Meditation is a skill that’s remarkably like shooting. Meditation is a skill, and developing a skill takes practice.
You might not even hit the target the first time you shoot a gun. But, in gun parlance, you can learn to knock the eye out of a squirrel. You just have to shoot at a lot of squirrels.
But this is Buddhism.
I recommend starting with gallon milk jugs. There’s nothing more fun than watching a gallon milk jug full of water EXPLODE when you hit it dead-center with a hollow-point bullet.
Gerald “Strib” Stribling is the author of Buddhism for Dudes: A Jarhead’s Field Guide to Mindfulness (Wisdom Publications, 2015). His past incarnations have included farm hand, steelworker, U.S. Marine, elementary school teacher, and social services professional. Strib volunteered to teach English to children in Sri Lanka as a personal response to 9-11. There he studied with some of the most highly revered monks in Theravada Buddhism. During three of his seven months in the island nation, he actually resided in a Buddhist monastery.
He wrote Buddhism for Dudes as a not-so-subtle, basic examination of the essence of Buddhist philosophy. It’s short and funny and to the point. “Way too much Buddhist information is too complicated to wade through, and some of it is fairyland voodoo, full of metaphysical improbabilities. Buddhism isn’t a religion, it’s a way to live a happy life. This is not hard stuff to understand.”
Stribling writes a blog called Buddhism for Tough Guys. “There are lots of tough guy Buddhists out there willing to take a bullet for anybody. One of their mottoes is ‘Just because I am a person who loves peace doesn’t mean that I have forgotten how to be violent’.” He once broke up an assault with a little kitchen broom. “It’s my best story,” he says.
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