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

Two more must-reads on Buddhism and Aaron Alexis/the Navy Yard Shooting September 22, 2013

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:

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