Did Aaron Alexis fall into a hole in 'American' Buddhism?

It's a sad comment on our age that, in the first tense hours after the Navy Yard shootings (just over a mile down 8th Street from my office), discussions about cause and motive kept circling back to questions about religion. Everyone was waiting for the shoe to drop, especially during the hours when mainstream media outlets were reporting that there might have been three gunmen.

One gunman? All kinds of causes leap to mind. Three gunmen? That's a different story.

Of course, information later began to bleed into public media about the background of Aaron Alexis, the Navy Yard shooter who was killed in this tragic attack. One of the most perplexing facts was that he was, at least at one point in his adult life, a practicing Buddhist.

Early on, many asked a fair question: Was this information relevant? If it was relevant, what did this faith connection mean? Would the information automatically have been relevant if the shooter turned out to be a Muslim from, let's say, Detroit? How about a true fundamentalist Christian from Kansas?

You can sense tense nerves in an early New York Times report:

In recent years, Mr. Alexis dated a Thai woman and began showing up regularly at Wat Busayadhammavanara, a Buddhist Temple in White Settlement, Tex., a Fort Worth suburb. He had Thai friends, adored Thai food and said he always felt drawn to the culture, said Pat Pundisto, a member of the temple answering the phone there. ...He was a regular at Sunday services, intoning Buddhist chants and staying to meditate afterward. On celebrations like the Thai New Year in April, he helped out, serving guests dressed in ceremonial Thai garb the temple provided.

At the temple, he met Nutpisit Suthamtewakul, who went on to open the Happy Bowl Thai restaurant in White Settlement in 2011, said the restaurant owner’s cousin, Naree Wilton, 51, in a phone interview. Mr. Alexis helped out at the restaurant in exchange for food and a room in Mr. Suthamtewakul’s house.

One of my first questions was this: Is there a rite or ceremony that officially signals that a person has "converted" to Buddhism? Journalists were saying that Alexis was "interested" in Buddhism, when the facts suggested that he was at one point actively practicing the faith and connections to a specific worshipping community were central to his life in Texas.

Next question: What happened when he moved to the Washington, D.C., area?

When writing about the connections between a given faith and a person who is -- for good or ill -- in the news, it is always wise to document, to the greatest degree possible, how this believer was linked to that tradition by facts on the ground. What congregation? Active in worship? Close ties to key leaders? Was the person following the work of particular writers or speakers?

As the religion angle was fleshed out, journalists began discussing another interesting angle: Aren't Buddhists committed to peace and non-violence? Veteran members of the religion team at the Washington Post produced an interesting story focusing on that angle. The top of the story is quite blunt:

In the aftermath of the Washington Navy Yard shootings, gunman Aaron Alexis’s interest in Buddhism seemed at odds with conventional Western stereotypes of serene, nonviolent meditators.

Buddhism scholars and bloggers were quick to note that Alexis’ spiritual profile -- he was involved with a temple in Fort Worth, although his attendance there dropped off after about a year -- didn’t fit with the image of someone unloading a gun and killing 12 innocents in a crowded military office building.

Some saw the tragedy as an opportunity to publicly air some difficult topics that Buddhists most often discuss only among themselves. Is the peaceful Buddhist an illusion? Do Buddhists and Buddhist temples deal directly enough with the topic of mental illness? And, in fact, might Buddhism hold a special attraction for people who are mentally ill?

“As Buddhism has spread in the West, it has put forth and maintained an image of being a peaceful religion,” Buddhist ethicist Justin Whitaker, author of the American Buddhist Perspective blog, wrote Tuesday. “This is a myth.”

That's strong stuff. The very next paragraph went even further.

Buddhism can seem particularly appealing to “mentally unbalanced people seeking to right the ship of their lives, to self-medicate, to curb their impulses, or to give them a firmer grip on reality,” Clark Strand, a contributing editor to the Buddhist publication Tricycle magazine and a former Zen monk, said in an interview.

Really? Buddhism is a faith that appeals to "mentally unbalanced people"? Really? That's a statement that many will want to debate. But think about this possibility: Is this Post story primarily about Buddhism or about the characteristics of AMERICAN Buddhism, the faith as it has been adapted and, yes, sold here in this highly materialistic culture?

I was reminded of something that poet Rodger Kamenetz, author of “The Jew in the Lotus,” told me nearly a decade ago:

“Let’s face it,” said Kamenetz, “one of the reasons Buddhism has become so popular, with so many Americans, so fast, is that people have stripped away all of the rules and the precepts and the work that has to do with how you are supposed to live your life. In doing so, they have stripped Buddhism of its ethical content.

“You are left with a religion that makes very few demands of you. Is that Buddhism?”

Good question.

Meanwhile, the Post story is packed with gripping details about how Alexis did, or did not, practice Buddhism during the final years of his troubled life. The result is a haunting series of questions, but these questions do not -- yet -- have answers.

Did Alexis’ regular practice of meditation at the temple in 2010, along with the incense and gold Buddha he kept in his room, ease what he described as post-traumatic stress disorder and hallucinations? Or did he feel ultimately disconnected in his adopted spiritual community, where worship and post-meditation evening chats were in Thai, a language he spoke, but not 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 slipped from several times a week in 2010 to about once a month in 2011, before largely fading altogether. He knew of the temple’s ban on drinking 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 from the temple.

Yes, it would have helped if the story had included some references to Buddhist movements in other parts of the world that are linked, to say the least, to the use of violence, including against believers in other faiths. What about the 969 movement in Burma, for example?

Still, it's hard to fit everything into one report and I appreciated the facts and sources assembled in this early effort. We can only hope that the Post religion team continues to chase this angle of the tragedy, which I am sure it will.

As for me, I am haunted by this section near the end of the report, which once again used the voice of the Buddhist ethicist quoted earlier:

To some experts, the Navy Yard tragedy raises difficult-to-ask questions about Buddhism and mental health. Whitaker posed this: Are there particular issues for people who delve deeply into meditation but may not have a strong or well-developed connection to Buddhism’s history and theology?

“Meditation alone may have no effect whatsoever on one’s morals and hence overall life,” Whitaker wrote in the blog post. “And it might also, as many people find out early in the process, actually open up deeper layers of pain, anger, and guilt that have been effectively repressed.”

Read it all.

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