Wednesday, September 18, 2013

An Uncomfortable Meditation on a Buddhist Killer

In the immediate aftermath of the shooting at the Navy Yards which killed twelve innocent NAVSEA employees and the shooter, people tried to make sense of the tragedy and instill a sense of calm.  Some chose prayer.  Others invoked the knee jerk reaction to grab guns.  It was also tempting to point to a sick society as manifest by violent video game, a societal devaluation of the worth of human life or the rash of untreated mental illness circulating throughout society.

As more details about gunman Aaron Alexis  became public, a contradictory character sketch emerged.  There were plenty of reports of the shooting having having a series of serious mental health and anger management issues.  But this mercurial mien was contrasted by the fact that Alexis allegedly also became a Buddhist.

The Washington Post published a provocative meditation on this intellectual congruity which sought to grapple with the notion of a Buddhist mass murderer.   Clark Strand, a former Buddhist monk, noted Buddhism can seem attractive 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.”

One can speculate that the nascent gunman turned to Buddhism for coping meditation techniques but did not delve deeper into the spirituality.   The Daily Beast reports that Alexis was into Buddhism for the Thai women.    Alexis was reportedly dumped by a Thai crush when he traveled to Thailand in April 2013 and asked for a woman's hand in marriage. 

Obviously, killing contravenes the Eightfold Path, but the acquaintances from the Buddhist Meditation Center in Fort, Worth, Texas noted that  Navy Yard killer also had issues with theft, drinking and having too much sex.  It would be safe to say that Alexis was a bad Buddhist. But short of seeing a manifesto from the shooter, we will never know the depths of his Buddhist religious journey. 

Buddhist Ethicist Julian Whitacker postulated that   the meditation opened up a deeper level of pain which had been effectively repressed. This state seems to mirror  the desolation phase of the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises. 

In the Catholic tradition, Jesuits have the Spiritual Exercises which traditionally involved a thirty  day silent retreat which one meditates by placing oneself with scriptural reflections and discerning what God is telling you.  These meditations are punctuated with daily meetings with a spiritual director.  It took a cannonball injury for St. Ignatius of Loyola to develop this form of meditation, which stemmed from his prolonged convalescence from wounds on the battlefield.  

After Vatican II, the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) heeded the call to rediscover their roots and shared the Spiritual Exercises more with the laity on Annotation 19 Retreats in Daily Life, which can occur over a week or over the course of a year.  St. Ignatius structured the Spiritual Exercises somewhat like a boot camp, so the first “week” breaks a spiritual solider down and really reminds them of their sinfulness.  This is why meditation along with a spiritual director in this tradition is key. Eventually, a retreatant learns to discern what gives desolation (takes one away from God) and consolation (what draws one towards God).   Many have proclaimed that these meditations transform their lives as they realize the depths of the Lord’s love for them and how they can put their revitalized faith into practice.

An anonymous member of the Wat Busaya Dhammavanaram Buddhist congregation in Fort Worth said in regards to Alexis after his killing spree: 

Wat Busaya Dhammavanarm congregation in Fort Worth Texas (photo: Tim Sharp/Reuters)

If it’s a person we knew and we loved, we pray. I have a sadness for what happened. But he wasn’t open enough. If he had talked more about [his problems], we could’ve helped him. The monks could have helped him.

The spokesperson from the Wat Busaya Dhammavanarm Buddhist Center underlines the point that making one's spiritual journey in conjunction with others, particularly when it is filled with suffering and agony, can help.

It will take time to discern the causes of the Navy Yard shooting and what courses of corrective action ought to be taken. The Washington Post meditation on a Buddhist killer is an interesting data point.  It is a reminder that religion is important touchstone for spirits in the material world, but it is not a panacea for mental illness.  Religion can lift spirits and help a soul to think beyond oneself, but it should not be a total substitute for mental health treatments.  

h/t: The Washington Post
  The Daily Beast 

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