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Navy Yard shooting suspect's Buddhist past raises questions

Published: Thursday, Sept. 3 2015 6:00 p.m. MDT

This booking photo provided by the Fort Worth Police Department shows Aaron Alexis, arrested in September, 2010, on suspicion of discharging a firearm in the city limits. The FBI has identified Alexis, 34, as the gunman in the Monday, Sept. 16, 2013 shooting rampage at at the Washington Navy Yard in Washington that left thirteen dead, including himself.

 (Uncredited, Associated Press) This booking photo provided by the Fort Worth Police Department shows Aaron Alexis, arrested in September, 2010, on suspicion of discharging a firearm in the city limits. The FBI has identified Alexis, 34, as the gunman in the Monday, Sept. 16, 2013 shooting rampage at at the Washington Navy Yard in Washington that left thirteen dead, including himself. (Uncredited, Associated Press)

Alleged gunman Aaron Alexis’ interest in Buddhism has raised questions throughout the Buddhist community this week.

Alexis, who is accused of killing 12 people at the Washington Navy Yard in Washington, D.C., on Monday, spent time studying and practicing Buddhism.

Bloomberg released a story after the shooting when details became available about his identity. The article said that a “contradictory picture” emerged of the suspect, which alluded to his connection to spiritual practices and his interest in violent video games.

“He meditated at a Buddhist temple yet spent hours playing assault-themed video games. He didn’t strike friends as violent, yet was arrested for firing his gun in anger,” Bloomberg’s article read.

So some are wondering what went wrong with Alexis that led to his alleged shooting spree in a secure military facility in the nation’s capital. Two reporters from USA Today said this question was raised after it was discovered that Buddhism was a temporary refuge for Alexis.

Friends of Alexis told USA Today that they “don’t recognize the man who went on a shooting rampage."

Once a good friend of Alexis, Nutpisit Suthamtewakul said Alexis was a “good guy to me.” The two met at a Buddhist temple in Forth Worth, Texas, where Alexis worked at a naval air station. While working at the station, he would meditate and study Thai.

Somsak Srisan, who was a friend and landlord of Alexis, said he told him in the past that he wanted to become a Buddhist monk some day. While living in Srisan’s rented apartment, Alexis attended temple and meditated with other worshippers for about an hour two or three times a week, he told USA Today.

To go along with the story on Alexis’ Buddhist past, The Huffington Post ran a slideshow of photos of Wat Busayadhammavanaram, the Buddhist temple where Alexis studied. Some of the photos include friends of Alexis and monks who currently work there.

But was his association with Buddhism about spiritual understanding or something different? The Daily Beast talked to a friend of Alexis who offered insight into Alexis’ habits and other interests.

“He liked Thai women,” said Michael Ritrovato, 50, who remembered Alexis as his “brother from another mother.” “He was very much into Asian women. But especially Thai women.”

Both Ritrovato and Alexis, who met during a Thai festival at a nearby Buddhist temple, shared this interest and bonded over attempts to pick up women, according to the article.

Buddhist community members are also questioning the link between their faith and Alexis, according to The Washington Post. Some Buddhists “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?” the article asks. “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?”

The American Buddhist Perspective blog further analyzed Alexis’ affiliation with Buddhism. The article’s author, Justin Whitaker, said that “a great deal of violence has been present in Buddhist societies.” He also said Buddhism is not entirely nonviolent.

USA Today published a similar column Wednesday that offered thoughts about how Buddhism isn’t necessarily a religion of peace.

“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.”

Email: hscribner@deseretnews.com

Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company