The shooter’s interest in Buddhism sparks debate in the Buddhist community

Aaron Alexis had a gold Buddha in his bedroom, a regular meditation practice and a gun with him “at all times”, according to a friend.

At one time he aspired to be a monk. He liquidated a killer.

Of the many details that have emerged about Alexis in the aftermath of the Washington Navy Yard shooting, his interest in Buddhism is among the most surprising. The rampage that left 13 people dead, including Alexis, contrasts sharply with the stereotypical perceptions many Westerners have of Buddhists as serene, non-violent meditators.

Interviews, even with people close to Alexis, paint an incomplete picture of how the 34-year-old former Navy reservist and computer technician came to Buddhism and how much he practiced or believed in the religion Asian, which focuses on alleviating suffering. to enlightenment and does not focus on a god.

Alexis was heavily involved with a temple in the Fort Worth area, but his attendance dropped after about a year. He regularly drank alcohol and carried a gun, even though his temple forbade such practices. The Buddhist scriptures are full of condemnations of violence, anger and enmity.

Even so, some members of the Buddhist community see the tragedy as an opportunity to publicly reflect on difficult issues. To what extent is the image of the peaceful Buddhist rooted in reality? Do Buddhists and Buddhist temples deal directly enough with the subject of mental illness? And could Buddhism hold special appeal for people with mental illness?

With its emphasis on alleviating emotional and spiritual suffering and its perceived connection in the West to psychology, Buddhism is particularly appealing to “mentally unbalanced people who seek to right the ship of their lives, to -medicate, curb their impulses,” Clark said. Strand, editor of the Buddhist publication tricycle magazine and a former Zen monk.

The Navy Yard ransack has ‘started the conversation about Buddhists being human beings too’, with human flaws, said Reverend Danny Fisher, a lay Buddhist minister and blogger, who heads the chaplaincy Buddhist at Western University. “Which is good, we have to have that.”

Unanswered questions

The relationship, if any, between Alexis’ professed spiritual beliefs and his outburst remains a mystery. The basic details of why, when, and how Alexis became interested in Buddhism — in a small Fort Worth-area temple filled mostly with Thai immigrants — were elusive to his housemates and friends.

Alexis’ regular meditation practice at the temple in 2010, along with incense and the golden Buddha he kept in his room, alleviated what he described as post-traumatic stress disorder and hallucinations? Or did he ultimately feel disconnected from his adopted spiritual community, where evening worship and post-meditation conversations were conducted in Thai, a language he did not speak fluently?

How was he affected, if at all, when his close friend and roommate, a Thai Buddhist, converted to Christianity?

Alexis told his Buddhist landlord he wanted to be a monk, but his attendance at temple services fell from several times a week in 2010 to about once a month in 2011, before largely waning.

He was aware of the temple’s ban on alcohol and violence, but he considered Heineken beer his drink of choice and carried a gun “at all times”, said Oui Suthamtewakul, a friend and roommate of the temple.

Suthamtewakul and his wife, Kristi, run a Thai restaurant called Happy Bowl, where Alexis has helped out regularly for several years. Although they live and work closely with Alexis, the couple said they have few answers about how they came to Buddhism and what it meant to them.

For at least a year, Alexis was a regular member of the Wat Busayadhammavanaram meditation center in Fort Worth, where on many evenings he was one of five people who attended the hour-long silent meditation. (On Sundays the service was larger; about 20 people came.)

During a special service there on Tuesday evening, a monk in a deep golden robe told the group that no one can help suffering or growing old. Without specifying Alexis’ name, he offered hope that upon death, the fallen member of the community would find peace.

“I feel bad for the people who lost their lives,” said Kathy Saburn, who attends the meditation there. And she hurt for Alexis. “The man was obviously in hell,” she said.

Asian immigrants brought Buddhism to the United States in the 1800s, but countercultural figures, including writer Jack Kerouac, brought it into prominence in the years after World War II.

Celebrities who championed the cause of Tibet, including actor Richard Gere, raised the profile of Buddhism in the 1980s, and Americans continue to see Buddhist practices as a healthy alternative to American ambition.

From the beginning, Western Buddhism largely overlapped with the field of psychology. Many prominent American teachers of Buddhism were psychologists, and research shows that many people practice meditation to alleviate psychological stress.

“There are a lot of therapists who are Buddhist or who take materials from Buddhism,” said Charles Jones, professor of religion and culture at Catholic University.

He added: “Mental illness is largely a matter of suffering, of mental states that cause us to suffer. Buddhism is a religion that has made this a high priority.

A diverse community

Although relatively small, the American Buddhist community is the most diverse in the world. But it tends to cluster: Ethnic groups of Asians generally have their own temples, and other Buddhists with higher incomes and education tend to follow what Strand calls “the upper middle way.”

Thai Buddhists are part of the Theravada tradition, which is common across South Asia and Southeast Asia and claims to be the oldest and most authentic form of Buddhism, Jones said.

A feature of Theravada is the wide range of meditation techniques. “A quote you find in Theravada literature would look something like . . . “The Buddha is the physician who has the 84,000 medicines for the 84,000 diseases,” Jones said.

It is not known whether Alexis was able to access such teachings.

Non-Asian Buddhists in America, Jones said, tend to belong to the Theravada, Zen and Tibetan branches, but they are generally separate from ethnically Buddhist communities.

“He might have found real cultural barriers and a lack of understanding if he tried to practice there,” Jones said.

“Looking for a way to live”

Somsak Srisan, who was Alexis’ former owner in Fort Worth and knew him from the temple, said Alexis had spoken about quitting his job at a local Navy base, but not extensively. They also talked superficially about Alexis’ interest in becoming a Buddhist monk.

“He was looking for a way for his life,” Srisan said. “I’m looking for something that is a guideline for him.”

For some, the Navy Yard ransack raises difficult questions about Buddhism and meditation as ways to improve mental health, especially for people who dive deep into meditation but may not have a good understanding. development of the history and theology of Buddhism.

“Meditation alone may have no effect on morality and therefore on life in general,” Justin Whitaker, a Buddhist ethicist, wrote in his blog. American Buddhist Perspectives. “And it could also, as many people discover early in the process, open up deeper layers of pain, anger and guilt that have been effectively suppressed.”

The possibility that Alexis had tried meditation to ease his mental suffering prompted Strand to wonder if he might have sought Buddhism “as a last hope to avert this tragedy”.

“He may have been looking for some meditative discipline that would help him master that or learn to work with those voices to calm them down or give his mind something else to do,” Strand said, referring to reports. which Alexis was haunted by mysterious voices. “Buddhism tends not to be a magic bullet for this stuff.”

Leslie Minora in Fort Worth contributed to this report.