By Stephen Prothero
When we think of Buddhism we don’t usually think of a man with a gun. We think instead of the Buddha sitting quiet and cross-legged, deep in meditation. Or of the Nobel Peace Prize winner the Dalai Lama, refusing to resort to violence in his struggle for a free Tibet. Yet today we are confronted with Aaron Alexis, who allegedly shot and killed 13 people in cold blood before being killed himself by police on Monday at the Washington Navy Yard.
Alexis was a government contractor and former Navy reservist. But was also a Buddhist who, according to news reports, chanted frequently, wore an amulet of the Buddha around his neck, and regularly attended services at Wat Busayadhammavanaram Meditation Center in Fort Worth, Texas. How are we to make sense of this anomaly — a follower of the Buddha who shoots to kill?
Our stereotype of Buddhists as peacemakers is not unfounded. The Buddha was by all accounts a man of peace, and ahimsa (non-violence) has long been a Buddhist value.
Consider the ancient Indian emperor Ashoka, who embraced Buddhism after winning a military campaign that claimed over 100,000 lives. Horrified by the violence he had unleashed, and at the bad karma he had accumulated, Ashoka adopted Buddhism as his empire’s unofficial state religion. On pillars he built across the Indian subcontinent are inscribed the so-called Ashokan edicts. Among these edicts is a series enjoining religious tolerance. “Whoever praises his own religion due to excessive devotion and condemns others . . . only harms his own religion,” one reads. “One should listen to and respect the doctrines professed by others.”
Today tolerance is a hallmark of the writings of the popular Vietnamese Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh, and of the activities of the Japan-based Buddhist organization Soka Gakkai International. “To the unique credit of Buddhism,” the Sri Lankan scholar-monk Narada Mahathera has written, “it must be said that throughout its peaceful march of 2,500 years, no drop of blood has been shed in the name of the Buddha.”
But Buddhism’s march has not always been peaceful. According to one Buddhist scripture, the Buddha in a previous life killed a bandit who was plotting to kill 500 merchants. According to another scripture, the Buddha killed a member of Hinduism’s priestly caste who was plotting to destroy Buddhism in India. Closer to our own time, Sri Lanka’s Buddhist majority engaged in a decades-long civil war that did not abate until 2009.
Despite their reputation as renunciants of worldly things, monks have not stood aloof from this violence. In China in 515 CE, a monk named Faqing led 50,000 soldiers into a war he described as a messianic battle against the temptress Mara on behalf of Buddhism’s Mahayana school. Any soldier who killed 10 enemies, he promised, would achieve enlightenment. “Warrior monks” were also active in medieval Japan, engaging in fierce inter-temple rivalries and otherwise acting as “the teeth and claws of the Buddha.” In 1959, a Buddhist monk assassinated Sri Lankan prime minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike. In Myanmar today, a monk enjoys the sobriquet “the Buddhist bin Laden” for inciting violence against that country’s Muslim minority.
I am not aware of any evidence that Alexis was quoting Buddhist scriptures while shooting to kill earlier this week at the Washington Navy Yard. Moreover, I do not know whether he thought he was acting for the glory of the Buddha. In fact, it could well be that he chanted and meditated in order to becalm his demons rather than to fire them up.
But 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 nuanced 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 nuanced by Buddhists who shoot to kill.
As Alexis has taught us, no religion, even the Dalai Lama’s beloved Buddhism, has yet discovered an antidote to the human propensity for violence.
Stephen Prothero is a professor in Boston University’s religion department and the author of The American Bible: How Our Words Unite, Divide, and Define a Nation.
Culled from: http://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2013/09/18/stephen-prothero-on-alexis-and-buddhism/2831189/