Shooter’s interest in Buddhism prompts debate in Buddhist community
By Michelle Boorstein and Elizabeth Tenety,
Aaron Alexis had a gold Buddha in his room, a regular meditation practice and a gun with him “at all times,” according to a friend.
At one point, he aspired to be a monk. He wound up a killer.
Of the many details that have emerged about Alexis in the aftermath of the Washington Navy Yard shootings, his interest in Buddhism is among the more surprising. The rampage that left 13 dead, including Alexis, stands in stark contrast to the stereotypical perceptions many Westerners have of Buddhists being serene, nonviolent meditators.
Interviews, even with people close to Alexis, paint an incomplete portrait of how the 34-year-old former Navy reservist and computer technician came to Buddhism and how deeply he practiced or believed in the Asian religion, which focuses on easing suffering as the way to enlightenment and does not center on a god.
Alexis was very involved with a Fort Worth area temple, but his attendance dropped off after about a year. He drank alcohol regularly and carried a gun, even though his temple banned the practices. Buddhist scripture is full of condemnations of violence, anger and enmity.
Even so, some in the Buddhist community see the tragedy as an opportunity to publicly ponder some difficult questions. To what degree is the image of the peaceful Buddhist based in reality? Do Buddhists and Buddhist temples deal directly enough with the topic of mental illness? And might Buddhism hold a special attraction for people who are mentally ill?
With its focus on easing emotional and spiritual suffering and its perceived connection in the West to psychology, Buddhism is particularly appealing to “mentally unbalanced people seeking to right the ship of their lives, to self-medicate, to curb their impulses,” said Clark Strand, a contributing editor to the Buddhist publication Tricycle magazine and a former Zen monk.
The Navy Yard rampage has resulted in “the beginning of the conversation that Buddhists are human beings, too,” with human flaws, said the Rev. Danny Fisher, a lay Buddhist minister and a blogger, who runs the Buddhist chaplaincy at the University of the West. “Which is good, we need to have that.”
The relationship, if any, between Alexis’s professed spiritual beliefs and his rampage remains a mystery. Basic details about why, when and how Alexis became interested in Buddhism — at a tiny Fort Worth area temple filled primarily with Thai immigrants — were elusive to his roommates and friends.
Did Alexis’s 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 in which he was not fluent?
How was he affected, if at all, when his close friend and roommate, a Thai Buddhist, converted to Christianity?
Alexis told his Buddhist landlord that 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.
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.
Suthamtewakul and his wife, Kristi, run a Thai restaurant called Happy Bowl, where Alexis helped out regularly for several years. Despite living and working closely with Alexis, the couple said they had few answers about how he came to Buddhism and what it meant to him.
For at least a year, Alexis was a regular member of the Wat Busayadhammavanaram Meditation Center of Fort Worth, where many evenings he was one of about five people who attended the hour-long silent meditation. (On Sundays, the service was larger; about 20 people would come.)
At a special service there Tuesday night, a monk in a deep gold robe told the group that no one can prevent suffering or growing old. Without specifying Alexis’s name, he offered hope that in death, the community’s fallen member would find peace.
“I hurt for the people that lost their lives,” said Kathy Saburn, who attends meditation there. And she hurt for Alexis. “The man obviously was in hell,” she said.
Asian immigrants brought Buddhism to the United States in the 1800s, but counterculture figures, including writer Jack Kerouac, brought it to prominence in the years after World War II.
Celebrities who took up the cause of Tibet, including actor Richard Gere, raised Buddhism’s profile again in the 1980s, and Americans continue to see Buddhist practices as a healthy alternative to American ambition.
From the start, Western Buddhism has overlapped greatly with the field of psychology. Many prominent American teachers of Buddhism were psychologists, and research shows many people pursue meditation to ease psychological stress.
“There are many therapists who are Buddhist or who take materials from Buddhism,” said Charles Jones, a religion and culture professor at Catholic University.
He added: “Mental illness is largely about suffering, about mental states that cause us to suffer. Buddhism is a religion that has made that a large focus.”
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 educations 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 characteristic of Theravada is the huge range of meditation techniques. “A quotation you find in Theravada literature would be something like . . . ‘The Buddha is the doctor who has the 84,000 medicines for the 84,000 illnesses,’” Jones said.
Whether Alexis was able to access such teachings is unclear.
Non-Asian Buddhists in America, Jones said, tend to belong to the Theravada, Zen and Tibetan branches, yet generally they are separate from ethnically Buddhist communities.
“He might have found some real cultural barriers and a lack of understanding if he was trying to practice there,” Jones said.
‘Looking for some way for his life’
Somsak Srisan, who was Alexis’s former landlord in Fort Worth and knew him from the temple, said Alexis spoke about leaving his job at a local Navy base, but not in depth. They also spoke superficially about Alexis’s interest in becoming a Buddhist monk.
“He was looking for some way for his life,” Srisan said. “Looking for something to be a guideline for him.”
To some, the Navy Yard rampage raises difficult questions about Buddhism and meditation as ways to improve mental health, especially for people who delve deeply into meditation but may not have a well-developed understanding of Buddhism’s history and theology.
“Meditation alone may have no effect whatsoever on one’s morals and hence overall life,” wrote Justin Whitaker, a Buddhist ethicist, in his blog American Buddhist Perspectives. “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.”
The possibility that Alexis tried meditation to ease his mental suffering prompted Strand to wonder whether he might have sought out Buddhism “as a last hope to avert this tragedy.”
“It may be that he was seeking a meditative discipline that would help him to get a handle on that or to learn to work with those voices to still them or to give his mind something else to do,” Strand said, referring to reports that Alexis was haunted by mysterious voices. “Buddhism tends not to be a quick fix for such stuff.”
Leslie Minora in Fort Worth contributed to this report.