Aaron Alexis was no Buddhist

Aaron Alexis, the former Navy Petty Officer and apparent murderer of 12 innocent people at the Navy Yard in Washington … Continued

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.

William Quinn
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  • RDutkowski

    You know, Dr. Quinn, I really have to question the authenticity and sincerity of your own so-called Buddhist practice. I would not expect to see such sweeping and harsh judgments from a “real” Buddhist. Even “real” Buddhists slip from the path. Even “real” Buddhists have mental breakdowns that can cause them to do horrific things to themselves and others. Your sanctimonious, self-righteous, and yes, pompous denial of this man’s dharma and descent into madness is far from anything I equate with the practice of Buddhism.

  • undercover_hon

    I got the impression he associated with Buddhists because he sought peace. Buddhism has promoted itself as the ultimate in calm, detached, life-loving acceptance. I figure that Mr. Alexis *aspired* to that, but it’s very hard to contend with voices coming from *inside* your head. It’s awful when your brain turns against you….it makes you question who “you” are.

    Anyone who blames Buddhism for Mr. Alexis’ actions is ill-informed. I blame the fact that he brandished guns and exhibited strange behaviors for YEARS and no one ever sent him to have his mental health properly evaluated.

    But how he acquired a security clearance – with this information out there – is BEYOND me.

  • 3vandrum

    Buddhists do not have to feel sorry for this one case. This man obviously had Paranoid Schizophrenia with auditory hallucinations ( hearing voices) not properly treated with medications even though he had made couple of visits to VA Medical center for treatment, he was still able to possess a gun and still more amazingly he had a valid pass to enter a military facility and he entered without any difficulty and killed 12 people. Let us focus on real issues here and stay away from Buddhism. There is no association between violence and BuddhiJst meditation techniques or Buddhist philosophy which is based on non violence. But it is a fact that religious preoccupation is one of the characteristic features of many mental illnesses including Schizophrenia, religious delusion is a type of cognitive phenomena well known to psychiatrists. This man was inadequately treated for a mental illness and he was still able to own a gun and kill people and he had a valid pass to enter a “well secured” military facility. He would have done the same thing whether he was a Christian ,Muslim or Jew with his mental illness.

  • muxu_san

    I ve lived many many years, with millions of Budhists. This man does not look act or sound like a Budhist.
    He sounds like an American. The Apple Pie version. Probably an Obamaphile.

  • Matthew D Martin

    Thank you for writing this. This was the message that people unfamiliar with Buddhism in the first place needed to hear when they heard that Alexis had attended a Buddhist temple.


    Bad behavior by self-described adherents has been used to stigmatize religion throughout history.

    Christianity has been blamed for evils from the wars of the crusades, tortures and burnings of the inquisition and reformation through the modern day abuses of pedophile priests and persecution of homosexuals.

    Islam has been vilified for the terrorism of self-styled jihadists and the inhumanities associated with sharia law.

    Now some are blaming Buddhism for the actions of Aaron Alexis. Because Buddhism, like Islam, is a mystery to most westerners, there is a danger that some may actually believe the accusations.

    To address these concerns, Dr. Quinn has written a clear and understandable explanation of Buddhist principles.

    From the facts he presents, it is clear that Aaron Alexis cannot be considered a representative of the Buddhist tradition.

    Dr. Quinn provides a valuable guide for recognizing whether or not any individual can be said to represent a given faith:

    “Buddhist is as Buddhism does”.

    When Jesus was asked, “how do we know whether a person is truly one of your disciples?”, he responded:

    “By their fruits ye shall know them”. Another way of saying the same thing.

    As for Dr. Quinn’s authenticity and sincerety, please do not fail read his concluding blessing:

    “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.”

  • randomreader1

    Thank you. I had the same gut reaction to this author’s unnecessary needs to slam other religions while defending his own. I hope he applies the same rationalizations to the next mass murderer who has attended any non-Buddhist religious service, while still exhibiting clear signs of mental illness. Because in those cases, it’s clearly the religious practice that is relevant.

  • randomreader1

    BTW, that was *sarcasm*.

  • oblivionville

    The best solution for all…keep your religion to yourself, and out of politics.

  • VanZandt9

    Don’t worry Quinn, most people are smart enough to know he killed because of mental illness and voices in his head not because Buddhist.

    But YES he was Buddhist, I do not believe this argument that if someone doesn’t act up to highest ideals of the religion he is suddenly not that religion, Remember.. religions are for humans not some perfect beings… and humans constantly fail their ideals…

  • Sandra19

    Aaron Alexis was one of the many, many untreated mentally ill people who fall through the cracks every day. Instead of wasting your precious “breath” distancing Buddhism from this tragedy, how about using your energy to help find a way to identify the next Aaron Alexis before something terrible happens? How about promoting a dialogue about how we can help the families of the mentally ill get access to treatment for their loved ones? How about not making this all about you and your silly fake non-religion religion and spending a minute thinking about the victims of the tragedy and how it actually happened, which never once had a single thing to to with stupid fake American-style Buddhism, okay?

  • Person7

    I agree that Alexis wasn’t a Buddhist in any meaningful sense – at least based upon the sketchy evidence provided so far. But the author should be careful (as someone else here pointed out) defining “real” Buddhists. One can draw too narrow definitions based upon the tenants of a particular sect – in Buddhism or any religion. If the criteria is too first attain some relative purity before one can be considered a follower of a religion, few people anywhere would likely pass muster ever.

  • karzengawang

    99.9999% of the 10,000 or so gun murders are committed by Christians .The media never talked about the faith of New Town or Aurora murders.

    The real reason is that in US you can buy GUN like a Bagel. While you may not qualify to drive a car to work because of XYZ reason but you can buy Guns so long as you have $$$.

    Moreover, US doesn’t have money to spend money on health insurance of 40 million uninsured Americans but has Trillions to spend on unnecessary war in Iraq, Afghanistan and planing to have one in Syria as US is winding it war in Afghanistan. .

    So long as Americans sells GUNS like BAGELS there will thousands of unnecessary deaths.

  • The Angry Pet Rock

    Ok, wait a sec. Now I’m completely on board with you when you say that Buddhism isn’t to blame for this tragedy However, to say that because he did something that didn’t coincide with Buddha’s teachings, he should be somehow excused or dismissed as being a Buddhist. He was making an effort at incorporating the teachings of Buddhism in his life, so as to help himself live a better one. When does one become an official Buddhist and why should the Buddhist faith be exempt to the war on religion? .

  • allandan500

    If a Catholic, or one who supposed he was Catholic, did what Alexis did we would be hearing about the “Catholic” mass murderer.

  • PoliticsAsUsual12

    Has there really been any outcry about Buddhism related to this incident? (Or ever?) The only reason his alleged religion was even reported was probably because nowadays everyone wonders if such incidents are related to extremist Islamic terrorism. That obviously doesn’t seem to be the case here, but I don’t think there’s anyone that blames Buddhism or Buddhists for the murders – so what’s the point of this article?

  • eddikon

    It is in my best interest to be selfless.

  • Bob Khan

    .”99.9999% of the 10,000 or so gun murders are committed by Christians.”

    Care to back up that statement with factual evidence?

    Then said Jesus unto him, Put up again thy sword into his place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword (Matthew 26:52, King James Version)

    Christ was a major advocate of using non-violent diplomacy to solve conflicts. Anyone that kills someone in the name of Jesus is not a real Christian.

    Your argument is invalid.

  • Daisytoo

    No point except to declare Buddhism above any and all other religious practices. Which is not a particularly ‘peaceful’ thing to do, but there you go.

    On another site, someone posted that Alexis identified himself as a Muslim on his FB page. Haven’t been able to verify ..

  • bayunus

    How does Dr. Quinn feel about Buddhists in Burma who are exterminating entire villages of Rohingya Muslims, similar to the genocide in Rwanda? Do these people, who live in the general region where Buddhism is most prevalent, including some Monks who have participated in these atrocities, also belong to the category of “Buddhists in name only”? Perhaps Buddhism has less to do with it than people want to think. Perhaps Islam has less to do with any “jihadist” extremists’ violence that people want to believe. Welcome to the world of the average Muslim in the west, who condemns violence, defends the peaceful nature of his/her faith, but is branded as a threat by nearly everyone around him/her simply because he/she chooses to practice his/her faith.

  • csintala79

    Alexis appears to have a tenuous hold on reality and likely had no clear idea of what it means to be a Christian, Muslim, Buddhist or adherent of any other religion. It probably struck him as exotic and esotreic to say he was a Buddhist.