Two more must-reads on Buddhism and Aaron Alexis/the Navy Yard Shooting

As with any human tragedy of this kind, there are countless angles or perspectives from which to view and discuss the shootings earlier this week. In this post and the next I’ll highlight four that I found particularly useful. The first two draw our attention to our religious stereotyping of both Buddhism and Islam:

  1. Navy Yard shooting puts Buddhism in spotlight: Column by Stephen Prothero. Prothero is a professor in Boston University’s religion department and author of several books on religion (see below). 
  2. Yes, the Navy Yard Shooter Was a Buddhist by Joshua Eaton. Eaton recently completed an MDiv at Harvard and is currently an independent journalist covering religion and politics, human rights, and social movements.

Buddhism and Violence

My own first writing on this (The First American Buddhist Terrorist?) has sparked intense discussion, often revolving around the title itself. Can the words “Buddhist” and “Terrorist” be put together? As it turns out, the act has not been officially labeled “terrorism” (hence the question mark), so the question may be moot in this instance. However, it is one worth pondering and discussing if only to better see our own cultural stereotypes around Buddhism as a “religion of peace.” After discussing several historical instances of  Buddhists engaged in violence and the use of Buddhist concepts for justification, Prothero writes in his article:

…it is simply not the case that Buddhism is a “religion of peace.”

Like Christianity and Islam and every other religion that has endured for more than a few centuries, practitioners of Buddhism know how to do both war and peace. If the face of Islam today in American popular culture is Osama bin Laden with his trademark AK-47, then that image needs to be balanced by Muslims who fight only for peace. And if the face of Buddhism today is the Dalai Lama with his trademark grin, then that image needs to be balanced by Buddhists who shoot to kill.

Joshua Eaton similarly states:

In the popular imagination, Buddhism is a religion of peace and Islam is one of war. We may wonder how a Buddhist could commit such an atrocity—despite Buddhism’s history of violence in places like Burma, Japan, Tibet and Sri Lanka [see: Monks With Guns: Discovering Buddhist Violence, by Michael Jerryson in RD]. However, when the perpetrator is a Muslim we assume, as a matter of course, that religion was their primary motivation—despite the verses in the Qur’an that say murdering a single innocent person is the same as murdering all of humanity….  Buddhists do not commit violence, it seems, therefore no one who commits violence can be a Buddhist.

What do you think? Do we need the Dalai Lama balanced by “Buddhists who shoot to kill” to form a fair and realistic picture of Buddhism?

As a scholar and educator I found these notions of balance  helpful. When something awful like this happens, we should ask what we can learn from this. Confronting our stereotypes (aka myths) about religion is essential if we are to grow as individuals, sanghas, and societies in an ever-more cosmopolitan and religiously diverse world. The fact that the shooter was a Buddhist allows a teaching/learning moment. It doesn’t mean we condemn or blame Buddhism in its ideal form or to suggest specifically Buddhist motivations behind Alexis’s actions (and in reading many comments this seems to be the implication some people are drawing), but rather that we learn to see the tradition(s) more clearly, historical/human warts and all. 

On reporting Buddhism: is this relevant? Yes.

Concerning the Washington Post article where I am quoted (along with Rev. Danny Fisher, Charles Jones, and Clark Strand), most scholars have thought it was an acceptable story, while the comment section there (as with Prothero’s and Easton’s above) was filled with very strong degree of dislike and disagreement (to put it mildly).  

To get a handle on how the press should cover these stories, we turn to the Patheos blog on the media and religion, “Get Religion.” Discussing this topic and the Washington Post article in particular, they state:

So long as religious affiliation isn’t treated as the end of the discussion — as opposed to an important angle to a complex story — you see that it can help readers and news consumers desperate to understand the latest tragic shooting that has left Americans dead and their families and friends in mourning.

None of the stories I have read treated Alexis’s religious affiliation as “the end of the discussion.” Instead they do us a service in breaking down the stereotypes about Buddhism that have led some to question whether Alexis was a Buddhist at all.

Books by Prothero include:

  • Dion Peoples

    I feel this discussions are missing many points. Obviously, “Buddhist monks” are ideologically forced into non-violence… which leaves violence for the lay-people to manage: armed forces for national defense… –but the antagonist says: “if people are really, “really”, REALLY Buddhist (which means: Buddh-istic, or Buddha-like)… or like a Buddha, then no one would be violent. I’m being forced into opinions by my pushy Burmese students, demanding remarks from me… – which means: leave the violence for the lay-people. Monks = non-violent world renunciates. Lay-people manage the affairs of the world. The guy was “Buddhist”… but face-it, how often are “we” supposed to be exploited by others… keep letting it happen to us, keep letting it happen to us… keep letting it happen to us… –when will people stop doing bad things to Buddhists (troubled people trying to to good things against opposition)…? Maybe he needed a real friend. I feel this story on many levels. Myself, ex-military… Buddhist… been a Buddhist monk, now a professor of Buddhism (PhD in Buddhist Studies)…. I’m contemplating as a sociologist, the potentially INEFFECTIVENESS of Buddhism to address these concerns in society. Be well, Justin, there is a deeper part of this story that can no longer be told. :-(

    • justinwhitaker

      Big thanks, Dion, for the comments and adding your own experience to the conversation. What I post tomorrow will just barely touch on some of this, but it is in many ways comments like this that I very much want to draw out. Too much of the conversation has had the subtext of, “ignore it and move on or change the subject.” For one, we all should be very grateful for our mental stability – to whatever degree we have it, and to the resources that may be available should that stability slip for whatever reason.

      Indeed a real friend or a more knowledgeable family member (with access to needed mental health services) might have been all Alexis needed.

      I’m not real clear on your earlier points though. Are Buddhist monks really forced into non-violence? Prothero mentions one who led an army, some of those involved in Burma’s recent violence were described as wearing monks’ robes…What kinds of things are your Burmese students demanding from you? Is there a way to educate them around this? My only similar (perhaps) experience has been dealing with some heavily anti-Muslim students and my pushing them to check their facts AND check there sources usually helps *unwind* some of the wound-up prejudice in them. With Buddhism our problem is the opposite – too many “rose colored glasses” and too little information about the history of violence in the religion. Can we help take off those glasses without being labeled as trying to destroy the religion?

      One of my premises in all of this is that when people see the faults in their own religion they are more able to accept the faults in others. Idealizing one’s own faith/practice and demonizing others’ are two sides of the same coin.

  • 無門 Mumon7

    “Do we need the Dalai Lama balanced by “Buddhists who shoot to kill” to form a fair and realistic picture of Buddhism?”

    Just what do you mean by “balanced,” Kimosabe?

    Do you have any knowledge of what happened with respect to the Dalai Lama’s organization and the CIA in the 50s and 60s?

    • justinwhitaker

      Shadow Circus? I’ve seen the doc and met one of the OSS officers who first entered Tibet post WW II (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frank_Bessac). I can’t think of what in particular I’ve read in relation to it, but yes, I have knowledge ;)

  • Mikels Skele

    I’m perplexed that no one seems to find the whole Japanese budo culture – the quintessentially Buddhist samurai – irrelevant to this question. Or is this to be dismissed as not “real” Buddhism? Too often reprehensible acts by religionists are dismissed as not being the “real” religion, thereby losing the opportunity to see where in these religions such motivations are to be found. In this case, there’s no indication the act was perpetrated in the name of the religion, but still…

    • justinwhitaker

      I think that’s a good addition to the discussion, Mikels. Part of the problem is that when I or other scholars or, I suppose, a lot of other people, talk about “Buddhism” it is understood that we are talking about a socio-historical tradition (or traditions).

      In that sense, the Buddhist samurai are part of Buddhism.

      But for some -perhaps many – Buddhists (including some scholars, no doubt), the term “Buddhism” might refer to the Dharma, or some similar ahistorical, perfect, peaceful, unsullied by violence, thing.

      In that sense, the Buddhist samurai… to whatever extent that they are violent, are not part of Buddhism.

      • Mikels Skele

        Sorry, but where does it say dharma is non-violent? Isn’t the distinction illusory?

  • justinwhitaker

    A good post and comment section discussing the relevance of Buddhism in the story that I didn’t include in my post can be found here at The ID Project Blog: http://www.theidproject.org/blog/nancy-thompson/2013/09/18/dharma-connect-meditation-and-mass-murderer

  • Karze

    Joshua Eaton may also be assuming that nuking Hiroshima and Nagasaki is compassionate act while Tibetans defending against the onslaught of Chinese occupation and oppression is violent.

    While Chinese rise is termed as peaceful so that American stores are filled with cheap Chinese goods.

    This is not only good for corporate America but also for American consumer. So they used all kind to malign Tibetan or Buddhism so that it works in favour of China. People who prop up China get handsomely rewarded by Beijing.

    There is no dearth of Americans from politicians to businessman of all American have joined the ranks of Henry Kissinger to lie on behalf of China.

  • Duck_of_Death

    Getting back to Alexis, here’s a guy who dabbled in Buddhism. Lots of people do. Was he a “Buddhist”? If so, in what sense? As has been pointed out elsewhere, many people who have mental problems of suffer from depression are attracted to Buddhism in one form or an other – at least briefly. I don’t see this guy as a “Buddhist”, even though that term may be a little hard to define. He was a “dabbler”. That’s probably a more accurate definition.

  • Tom

    I have only one question. Did Mr. Aaron killed others in the name of religion or he has mental disorder? That should clear all our doubt or finger pointin….


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