Mea culpa? On “Buddhist Terrorist?” and Reactions

In blogging, as in academia, and in life, one of the great things we have is the opportunity to have our mistakes pointed out to us and the ability to try to make them right.

So, about that last post

Buddhist Terrorist?

First, I should say that the post came together over an 18 or so hour timeline, which is common enough for blog posts. But because our understanding of the situation changed slightly in those hours, the post ended up a bit disjointed. It started with an observation by a Buddhist academic on a list-serve with the title virtually identical to the one I used, “The First American Buddhist Terrorist?”

His post pointed to one of the early reports that the shooter was/might be a Buddhist. That’s all.

So, Monday afternoon/evening I started the post, which would have been something short and sweet citing a couple news reports discussing the possibility that this may be a terrorist act and that the shooter was Buddhist.

Whether or not the act is finally deemed terrorism or whether Alexis had some strange interpretation of some sutta/sutra that he felt might justify his action is yet to be seen. Either way, as a scholar, it’s an interesting question and one that should be asked in the coming days/weeks: can Buddhism condone violence? Have Buddhists used doctrines or texts to condone violence in the past? Could they in the future in instances such as this? I have no definitive answers to those (well, the second one is yes for sure) but these are issue that scholars and, indeed, members of the media and the public, should at least have basic literacy about.

Mental Illness, a.k.a. the Real Issue

But then, with that post and some of the stuff about Buddhism and violence written (about 250 words), it came out that the shooter was probably suffering from mental illness, which is what led into what for me was the most important part of the post: first the critique of meditation pulled out of its context(s) and problems we have with mental health awareness and treatment in our society and in our sanghas.

The last 3/4 of the blog post is about this, as I see it, very important and overlooked issue. As I wrote:

So what does this tell us about Buddhism’s role in the actions of Aaron Alexis? Not much. As with the two Muslim men who killed the British soldier in London last May (see Buddhism, Islam, and a serious talk about fundamentalism) other factors are clearly more important than religion. The role that Buddhism played is, if anything, a diversion from other issues, specifically Alexis’s mental illness…

And a call for empathy and thoughts toward a solution:

If knowing that the shooter was a Buddhist allows us to empathize just a tiny bit more with him, all the better. It is too easy to dehumanize him, to other-ize him in ways that conveniently leave us disconnected from his actions. But while I may have some connection with him through his religion, I find a much easier wellspring of empathy when I see him as a traumatized young(ish) man trying to get by in America, a nation that leads the world in mental illness but lags far behind in help for those who are ill.

Yes, let’s talk about Mental Illness issues in America and our Sanghas!

Or no, let’s not. Let’s follow Melvin McLeod, Editor-in-Chief of the Shambhala Sun and Buddhadharma magazines, in excluding Alexis from Buddhism based on his actions. He writes, “when it comes down to it, he wasn’t a Buddhist, no matter what he called himself. If he really were, he couldn’t have done this.” (bold is mine) Scholars have had different ideas about how to define a Buddhist, especially in the West, but for now Charles Prebish’s definition of anyone who self-identifies as a Buddhist is widely accepted. Prebish writes in his latest book on American Buddhism:

My solution in 1979 tried to simplify the problem as much as possible. I am convinced that it remains correct and workable today, although some additional problems can now be noted, as we shall shortly see. If we define a Buddhist as someone who says “I am a Buddhist,” when questioned about their most important pursuit, we not only abandon our attachment to ritual formulas like the three jewels or five vows of the laity, that are neither workable nor even uniformly followed, but we also provide more than a little freedom for American Buddhist groups – a freedom in which they can develop a procedure that is consistent with their own self- image and mission. In other words, what appears initially as an outrageously simplistic definition of Buddhist affiliation serves the double purpose of providing a new standard and a simple method of professing Buddhist commitment while at the same time imposing a renewed sense of seriousness on all Buddhist groups. It also acknowledges that not all of these “self-styled Buddhists” necessarily join Buddhist communities. Some might practice their entire lives in isolation as solitary Buddhists. Equally, it doesn’t suppose to judge or evaluate the quality of an individual’s religious membership in a specific Buddhist community or even their commitment to the Buddhist tradition. These latter points, though, do have profound implications for an individual’s Buddhist practice, as we will see in the chapter on Buddhist practice.

Buddhists themselves, however, will often debate the limits of right-practice and right-views, which is perhaps what McLeod is engaged in along with Karen Maezen Miller, another Buddhist teacher, who simply comments “Amen” to his short piece. This is common in all major religions, the claim that one must do x or believe y to be a “true” member. It can take the form of an ad hoc and even has a name on the list of logical fallacies: the “No True Scotsman” as Bodhipaksa pointed out in his piece on the tragedy.

Sadly, most of the comments I’ve read didn’t heed Bodhipaksa’s advice or, it seems, read beyond the title and first couple hundred words of my post.

A last note: we (bloggers and scholars alike) do talk about “Buddhist rappers” and “Buddhist actors” and even that “Buddhist golfer” (some of this does filter ‘up’ into academic articles/books) – both when they’re doing things we applaud and when they are not. Should it be different when we find out that a mass-killer is a Buddhist?

I realize (now more than before, certainly!) that this is a hot-button topic for many Buddhists. One of my friends, who earned her Ph.D. a few years ago commented regarding Danny Fisher’s recent piece, Misogyny and Sexual Assault are Still Missing Links in Conversations about Sangha Scandals, to the effect that many convert Western Buddhists see their newly chosen practice as not just better than, say, Christianity, but in some sense perfect, thus leading to all manner of rationalizations whenever all-too-human problems rear their ugly heads.

Deny, distance, deflect?

Or, deal with it. Alexis by all means seems to have been a Buddhist. A Buddhist who had a mental illness and did something terrible. Joshua Eaton’s tweets (reposted here) are especially prescient in this regard:

  • Buddhists sometimes do awful things. Meditators sometimes do awful things. Even pious Buddhists and good meditators! #AaronAlexis
  • I’m not worried about people blaming #AaronAlexis‘s rampage on his Buddhism; I’m worried about people saying he’s wasn’t a “real Buddhist.”
  • My main point is that we shouldn’t think of Buddhism as something immune to the problems every other human creation faces. #AaronAlexis
 So… Can we talk about how we deal with mental illness now?

  • 無門 Mumon7

    But Buddhism is better than Christianity, in its major credal forms.

    • Thomas Armstrong

      Hard to create precise rankings for what’s better, but I sheepishly agree with you Mumon. [Of course the Christers would think me more of a goat than a sheep.]

  • Ambaa

    I thought your article yesterday was excellent.

    These issues with American Buddhism are so similar to issues with American Hinduism too. (Particularly the converts who are so ready to see Hinduism as perfect and not suffering from any of the perceived failings of their birth religion).

    It’s interesting how our preconceptions about religions come into play. When a Muslim kills people, the media focuses on the person’s religion. Lots of people say, “Look, this is what Islam is like.” And the Muslims saying “No, no, this person doesn’t represent Islam” get ignored. With this it is the opposite!

    No one says, “Because this person killed people, he must not be a Muslim.” But lots of people are saying “Because this person killed people, he must not be a Buddhist.”

    Because the American narrative is that Islam is violent and Buddhism is peaceful.

  • Nathan G. Thompson

    I agreed with much of your original post, and went so far as to suggest that Alexis could turn out to be a great Buddhist teacher if we collectively dig deep in the wake of his murderous act. The provocative nature of the title you offered yesterday I feel was useful in rattling the “Buddhists are peaceful” narratives, and as such, I supported its use. I get the sense that a lot denial is going on. Not only about the Buddhist identity issue, but also about intimate we all are with things like mass shootings. Wanting to divide the world, and our sanghas into the “good” and the “bad” is really tempting. And ultimately foolish.

  • mufi

    Well said, Justin.

    If you don’t mind a tangent, thanks for sharing that Prebish quote. It would seem to resolve a difficulty with Secular Buddhism, given what a radical break that “school” (for lack of a better term) makes with certain traditional doctrines (rebirth being the one to get the most attention).

    Not sure how many traditionalists accept that definition, however.

    • justinwhitaker

      Yep; the definition is from a scholar of American Buddhism to solve the problem of “who is a Buddhist” in America/the West. It could be said that the answer itself reflects American individualist culture in a way that, as you point out, many traditionalists would disagree with. – Cheers, jw

  • Alyosha

    Thanks for the mea culpa — I believe that it was warranted given the provocative content and title of the original post. The truth, as anyone who has lived at a dharma center can testify, is that Buddhist teachings and practice attract people who are suffering. A very small but noticable minority of these people suffer from severe mental illness.
    I, for one, think we should treat Mr. Alexis as one of our own and accept that joining a Buddhist community is not solution to severe mental illness.

  • ianlogsdon

    I thought of the no true Scotsman thing precisely when I saw a few of the “not a Buddhist because he committed an act of violence” comments around the web. I thought, as I often do, of the many Buddhists I’ve encountered in my life who eat meat. Who smoke cigarettes. Just because something violates the tenants of your religion, doesn’t remove your religion from who you are, it’s just a contradiction.

    Even moreso, as someone with a family that’s experienced its fair share of mental illness, I find it insulting to look at someone who clearly was crying out for help in numerous ways and claim he can’t be part of “our club” because he did something aberrant. We don’t know his state of mind or what Aaron thought he was seeing or doing. A buddhist did harm, just like countless others throughout the history of Buddhism. Only by acknowledging this can we learn from it. And if Aaron wasn’t identifying as a Buddhist at the time of his crimes, should that stop us from examining how we can deal with sick people better? Hardly.

  • Thomas Armstrong

    I think that anyone who self-identifies as a Buddhist is a Buddhist.

    I also think that Buddhists should have a wider net of interests that Burma and Tibet, say, in trying to understand how Buddhism can positively affect people’s consciousness. And, sure, we should worry, too, about ways that Buddhism might negatively impact people.

    As for Aaron Alexis, it is uncertain if he thought himself a Buddhist at any time proximate to when he went on his killing rampage. He was a complicated person will qualities that can easily be seen as many being very very positive and many being very very negative and dangerous.

    I am saddened by what Alexis did and the suffering of those he hurt and killed. I don’t pay attention to everything that goes on in the world, but I am saddened, too, by the suffering at the Boston Marathon, at the Twin Towers, at Newtown, et al. Alexis was A PERSON, FIRST. All those killers and those hurt or killed were PEOPLE, FIRST

    I don’t consider Buddhism to be my delimiting tribe. It is not MY TEAM that I root for, hoping for other teams to lose such that MY TEAM is that much more glorified.

  • Tonjia Rolan

    “Anyone who self identifies as a Buddhist” is an extremely dangerous precedent and goes against all the wisdom of every Buddhist teaching I have ever read. I’m not saying he wasn’t a Buddhist. I’m simply saying that any religion or philosophy that wishes to maintain any degree of integrity must vet its members and weed out the imitators. Otherwise Buddhists will end up with Judeo-Buddhism, like unwise Christians wound up with Judeo-Christianity and you will have self proclaimed Buddhists committing all sorts of crimes in the name of Buddha.

    • Thomas Armstrong

      Kalama Sutta ~

      “Any teaching [said the Buddha] should not be accepted as true for the following ten reasons: hearsay, tradition, rumor, accepted scriptures, surmise, axiom, logical reasoning, a feeling of affinity for the matter being pondered, the ability or attractiveness of the person offering the teaching, the fact that the teaching is offered by “my” teacher. Rather, the teaching should be accepted as true when one knows by direct experience that such is the case.”

      “Direct experience” means knowing directly via correct meditation. Most seem satisfied with intellectual understanding or what passes for reasoning and common sense.

      Tonjia, I read that as Buddha saying (among other things) that the person him- or her-self makes the determination what he/she accepts. So, do you REJECT this snippet from the Kalama Sutta, not only for yourself but for the whole of humanity as contrary to an inviolate BUDDHISM?

  • Kevin Osborne

    Anyone can hear voices. All you have to do is listen. If you are hearing a voice you don’t want to hear and believe yourself trapped in that space and people are accusing you of being mad because you are partially aware of something they are not, and you had military training and ethos, maybe you’d do something about it that would seem strange to humanity.
    That all makes sense to me. When you begin pulling back the curtain, best be prepared for anything to show up.

  • Mike Liggett

    This whole conversation is silly in my opinion. Not to say that those having it are silly or ignorant or anything but that the conversation itself is silly.

    Buddhists are getting defensive but they have nothing to defend against here. I know it’s been said elsewhere and repeatedly but this kind of soul searching is not forced upon Christians when a church-goer gets violent; despite how open to violence conservative christian types generally are!

    I think this is because American Culture has a level of cognitive dissonance when it comes to religious freedom. Though it is true legally, we don’t have religious freedom in American culture. You can be a part of whatever faith you want but you have a lot more explaining to do when it’s not Christian-based. All non-christian faiths have some measure of self-loathing forced upon them as a result. Members of those faiths have to justify themselves and explain things from which Christians are exempt.

    In logical reality, Buddhists don’t have anything to explain here. A sick man did a horrible thing. If he was into comic books would comic book fans suddenly have to defend their past-time?

    The individual is responsible for his own actions. We aren’t responsible for his actions.

    • Thomas Armstrong

      Alexis constantly had a gun with him. His signs of mental illness weren’t addressed as they should have been by others. Each of us is a network of responsibility. It takes a village — our whole lives long.

  • Kenneth Low

    I read an article that was highlighted in Google news and found that it was referencing your original article, but taking a lot of points out of context. Go figure as the was a publication put out by the latter day saints.

    I find the original article thought provoking and I think gets to the crux of the matter : state of the mental health of Alexis. The fact that he was trying to seek refuge was a first step and his efforts to fix his mental state via meditation was inadequate to prevent him from going over.

    While I don’t condone violence but I can’t imagine the suffering he had gone thru to the last hours of his life.