Buddhist community ponders apparent link between their faith and Navy Yard shooter

In the aftermath of the Washington Navy Yard shootings, gunman Aaron Alexis’s interest in Buddhism seemed at odds with conventional Western stereotypes of serene, nonviolent meditators.

Buddhism scholars and bloggers were quick to note that Alexis’ spiritual profile — he was involved with a temple in Fort Worth, although his attendance there dropped off after about a year — didn’t fit with the image of someone unloading a gun and killing 12 innocents in a crowded military office building.

Some saw the tragedy as an opportunity to publicly air some difficult topics that Buddhists most often discuss only among themselves. Is the peaceful Buddhist an illusion? Do Buddhists and Buddhist temples deal directly enough with the topic of mental illness? And, in fact, might Buddhism hold a special attraction for people who are mentally ill?

“As Buddhism has spread in the West, it has put forth and maintained an image of being a peaceful religion,” Buddhist ethicist Justin Whitaker, author of the American Buddhist Perspective blog, wrote Tuesday. “This is a myth.”

Buddhism can seem particularly appealing to “mentally unbalanced people seeking to right the ship of their lives, to self-medicate, to curb their impulses, or to give them a firmer grip on reality,” Clark Strand, a contributing editor to the Buddhist publication Tricycle magazine and a former Zen monk, said in an interview.

Unanswered questions

The relationship, if any, between Alexis’s spiritual beliefs and his rampage remains a mystery. Even the basic details about why, when and how Alexis came to dabble in Buddhism — at a tiny Fort Worth temple filled primarily with Thai immigrants — were elusive to his roommates and friends.

Did Alexis’ 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 he spoke, but not fluently?

How was he affected, if at all, when his close friend and roommate, a Thai Buddhist, converted to Christianity?

Alexis told his Buddhist landlord 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 altogether.

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. Kristi Suthamtewakul, a Christian, said she used to speak often with him about religion, but she was unspecific on what.

“I was trying to understand Buddhism a lot more,” she said Tuesday. “I was trying to reach out to him.” Her husband became a Christian a couple years ago.

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 for the hour-long silent meditation (on Sundays, the service was larger: about 20 people would come).

At a service there Tuesday night, members chose to remember the peaceful Alexis, the man who once knelt on the oriental rugs and aspired to be a monk. A monk in a deep golden robe shared the lesson that no one can prevent suffering or growing old, according to a member of the temple who spoke fluent Thai. He told the group that they would not live forever, so they must do good for others in this life. Without specifying Alexis’ name, the monk offered the hope that in his death, the community’s fallen member would find peace.

‘Looking for some way for his life’

Thai Buddhists are part of the tradition called Theravada, or “the way of the elders.” It’s common across South and Southeast Asia and claims to be the oldest and most authentic form of Buddhism, said Charles Jones, a religion and culture professor at Catholic University.

A characteristic of Theravada, Jones said, is its huge range of meditation techniques for different personality types. “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,’” he said.

Whether Alexis was able to access such teachings is unclear.

Somsak Srisan, Alexis’ former landlord, who knew him from the temple, said Alexis spoke with him a little bit about leaving his job at a local Naval base, but not in depth. They also spoke superficially about Alexis’ interest in becoming a monk.

“He was looking for some way for his life. Looking for something to be a guideline for him,” Srisan said. “I think it was like that. But I didn’t deal with him much, he was just working for the temple. He’d ask: ‘Do you need some help? Do you need me to move something, clean up?’”

Non-Asian Buddhists in America, Jones said, tend to be Theravada, Zen and Tibetan, 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 of Alexis’ experience in Fort Worth.

Strand remarked how unusual Alexis’ choice of temple was. While small, the American Buddhist community is the most diverse in the world. But it tends to cluster people by ethnicity, groups of Asians in their own temples and then separate worship spaces for what Strand calls “the upper middle way” — a Buddhism that has tended to appeal to Americans with higher incomes and educations.

Buddhism and mental health

To some experts, the Navy Yard tragedy raises difficult-to-ask questions about Buddhism and mental health. Whitaker posed this: Are there particular issues for people who delve deeply into meditation but may not have a strong or well-developed connection to Buddhism’s history and theology?

“Meditation alone may have no effect whatsoever on one’s morals and hence overall life,” Whitaker wrote in the blog post. “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.”

Others noted the huge overlap in the West between the culture of Buddhism and that of psychotherapy.

“There are many therapists who are Buddhist or who take materials from Buddhism,” said Jones. “Mental illness is largely about suffering, about mental states that cause us to suffer,” he adds. “Buddhism is a religion that has made that a large focus.”

The possibility that Alexis tried meditation to ease his mental suffering in meditation prompted Strand to wonder whether he may 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.