Aaron Alexis, the former Navy Petty Officer and apparent murderer of 12 innocent people at the Navy Yard in Washington D.C. on September 16, is reported to have been a Buddhist. For those of us who are in fact practicing Buddhists and loyal to the Buddha’s teachings, being at their core the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path, these loathsome facts together with this assertion of Alexis’s “Buddhism” is virtually impossible to reconcile. If by his being a Buddhist one means that Alexis recently spent several months in Thailand learning the language and culture, worked in a Thai restaurant, and regularly attended the Thai-oriented Wat Busayadhammavanaram Meditation Center in White Settlement, Texas, then perhaps he was a Buddhist. Evaluated, however, by Buddhism’s own spiritual and ethical standards, quite another conclusion about Alexis’s “Buddhism” forcefully emerges.
Alexis’s alleged Buddhism raises an important question for the average citizen of the United States and equally important for those who practice Buddhism regarding their views and perspectives on non-Western religions. While perhaps changing, we still live in a time in this country where the average citizens’ understanding of religions, other than those familiar denominations that can be gathered under the traditional Judeo-Christian umbrella, is negligible. Among other examples, this is seen most transparently in the widespread Islamophobia in the United States. This attitude is understandably generated largely by the bloody and indiscriminate violence of a minority of Muslims who belong to Islamic extremist and jihadi groups, between whom many Americans draw few distinctions as to more peaceful and moderate Muslims. Unfortunately, it can as easily be argued that the average citizens’ understanding of their own religion, especially Christianity, is equally negligible, since its core teachings of universal love, charity, and compassion for the dispossessed are far from evident among many if not most self-proclaimed Christians. It is a peculiarity of the Bible and the Koran that their fundamentalist exegetes have ample opportunities to selectively identify verses and surahs that can be used to support violence, bloodshed, and murder in order to advance their religo-political agendas.
At least in this regard, Buddhism differs from these religions, and this should be made crystal clear to the average citizen. Alexis would have been hard pressed to find and reference any Buddhist sacred scripture that supported his mindless actions at the Navy Yard. But does the average citizen understand this about Buddhism? Probably not. Or does the average citizen, due to his/her negligible understanding of non-Western religions, now assume that because Alexis was allegedly a practicing Buddhist, that Buddhist doctrine could somehow be interpreted to support this behavior? Maybe. But Alexis’s act should now be used profitably as a teachable moment. That is to say, Buddhism cannot condone, nor can any Buddhist scripture be found that would allow, this type of deplorable bloodletting. Even to become a Buddhist, one must formally take the pancha sila vow, sometimes known as pansil or the “Five Precepts,” in which one agrees to refrain from killing, stealing, lying, sexual misconduct, and using intoxicants. So, was Alexis, who is also reported to have been a “hard-core drinker,” a gun-lover with previous gun violence arrests, and a murderous killer, a Buddhist? In name only, based on these facts. And based solely on the observance of the basic Buddhist tenets described above, and other such tenets as metta, or loving-kindness, Alexis cannot accurately be defined as a Buddhist. This is because, simply put, Buddhist is who Buddhism does. However, that having been said, Alexis was still a sentient being who suffered his own demons, and for this reason, real Buddhists will extend to him, or to his memory, the compassion and loving kindness that all beings deserve.
Dr. William W. Quinn has a doctorate in religion from the University of Chicago and is a practicing Buddhist.