New Media Project: Calm, Peaceful, Serene: The Buddhist Stereotype

Posted on December 2, 2013 by

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When most Westerners hear the word Buddhism they think of silent, peaceful monks meditating in a temple or something along those lines. At first before studying Buddhism further in depth I had the same picture and idea of Buddhism that many Westerners have. After looking into Buddhism and their culture and customs I now know that most Western countries have a skewed and false belief of what Buddhism really is. They believe in a fake reality and stereotype Buddhism through the media. Buddhists are normal, everyday people just like the rest of the world; just because one is Buddhist does not mean he or she is peaceful and passive.

The media in Western countries, especially the United States has brainwashed the public into believing whatever they tell or show them. Many TV shows like Family Guy and The Simpsons stereotype Buddhism which results in its viewers believing the same stereotype that is portrayed through these shows. News programs also do not cover other religions, such as Buddhism, very extensively and their stories are often biased and almost fun-loving because it is a different practice than what most Americans are accustomed to. I saw one story on a group of monks in China that a news team visited and it was about kung-fu and their lifestyle, but soon it became more about a NBA player that was there rather than the monks themselves. It is as if news stations do not take Buddhism seriously and when there is a story on it, it is just for entertainment, there are not too many hard hitting stories that involve Buddhism, and so Westerners begin to think that Buddhism doesn’t need to be taken seriously and that they will never harm anyone. While reading some articles about Buddhism I could sense an undertone of bias or criticism of Buddhism, the reporters all held the similar idea that Buddhism is a “good” religion, and that it doesn’t need as much attention. Stories on the news focus many times on monks and the leaders of Buddhism and so we only see that side of Buddhism which skews our idea of it and what it is. However, they do not show the common Buddhist people that practice Buddhism and what they are like, we just assume they are like the monks in that they are calm, nonviolent, and meditate for most of the day. This stereotype of them is not accurate and after the Navy Yard shooting this issue was finally recognized and brought to the attention of the Western audience.

Aaron Alexis worked as an IT expert for the Navy yard in Washington D.C. and was reported to have “routine performance issues”. On the morning of September 16, he entered the Navy yard building and killed 12 people, including himself. Many coworkers said that there were no signs of anything wrong with Alexis and that this could not have been seen coming. Many people know about the shooting, but little know about his religious connection to Buddhism and the surprise it drew from different communities when this event took place. My parents even believed that he was Muslim just from the usual stereotype that surrounds Muslim people today because of previous terrorist attacks and 9/11; people automatically assume that any shooting or act of terror is caused by a Muslim or Muslim group. No one would think that a Buddhist would do such a horrendous act because when people think of Buddhists, it is not of shootings and violence, but peace and harmony. This is the wrong stereotype of Buddhism; just because a person may be Buddhist does not mean they are an “angel” and passive, nonviolent person.

According to many reports, Alexis was indeed a Buddhist and practiced it very regularly until the weeks leading up to the shooting when he went to the temple and services less and less. He kept a gold Buddha in his apartment as an icon to worship, just like many Buddhists have statues or icons in India and China. Alexis was very much a Buddhist because it was also said by one of his friends that he one day aspired to become a monk. This image of monk is not one of violence and death, but rather of meditation and peace and tranquility. From our study of Buddhism in class I now know that Buddhist scriptures condemn any sort of violence, drinking, or anger, but Alexis did not follow those rules very strictly at all. He was said to drink a lot, and had a gun in his room at all times. However, Alexis did meditate quite a bit, either in his apartment or at a temple nearby his home. Meditation is the number one topic that comes to mind when someone thinks of Buddhism or monk, including me. It is true that meditation is an important part of the Buddhist lifestyle and Alexis seemed to follow that practice continually. Becoming a Buddhist did not change Alexis’s life or values and morals, he was still the same person, and just because he was a confirmed Buddhist did not make him impervious to violence and aggression. I don’t believe that a certain religion can change someone’s morals and personality, they are still who they always were. Religion aims to change behavior in a person and make them a better person, but it doesn’t affect values much. The stereotype that if a person is Buddhist then they are calm and peaceful is not always true, especially not in the case of Aaron Alexis.

However, Alexis did have a mental health problem that also contributed to the horrible shooting. He complained of hearing voices and thought the only way to end it was by death so he went on his shooting rampage. Buddhism is appealing to people with mental health issues because it seeks to ease emotional or spiritual suffering, perhaps this is one reason why Alexis decided to convert to Buddhism. Apparently Buddhism did not cure his emotional and spiritual problems because Alexis still decided to choose death as his way out. Buddhism does not do much to help with mental illnesses and no matter how much meditating one does it is probably not going to cure a mental disorder. I don’t think Buddhism tries to help at all with mental health issues, but focuses more on one’s life as a whole and maybe they believe that if one suffers in this life then they will have a better life when they die and are reincarnated. Some Buddhists may believe that a disorder like this could be bad karma for something they did earlier in life. In the end, Alexis had many issues regarding his mental state that Buddhism couldn’t fix.

Overall, Buddhism is not a cure for mental illness, anger, aggression, or violence. If someone converts to Buddhism they are not automatically cleansed and free of their past life and bad behaviors, Buddhism is a religion just like every other one; it is not better nor worse than any other religion either. Buddhists are believed to be peaceful and serene because the American and Western media makes them appear that way. They do this through movies, TV shows, and news segments. It always seems like when I’m watching the news that the bad, violent acts are focused on Muslims, while the lighter, peaceful stories center on Buddhism. We need to realize that one religion is not scapegoat for all the bad things that happen in the world. The Buddhist stereotype needs to change and I think that this event is the catalyst will spark the debate about Buddhism and how it has been misrepresented all these years.

A simple google search between Buddhism and Islam in the news will show that many words associated with Buddhism sound “good” and make Buddhism appear like a peaceful and all-knowing religion. On the other hand, words that are connected with Islam focus about the bad things happening with it. The word “protest” was used quite a bit for Islam while “helping” and “virtuous” were words I saw associated with Buddhism. Most of the media sources look down on Islam so they make it appear worse than it is in the news, while they lift up Buddhism and its great contributions to the poor and elderly. Westerners need to recognize that Buddhism is not exempt from criticism and publicity because it’s seen as a good and wholesome religion; Buddhists are prone to commit crimes and heinous actions just like every other person in the world, they are not above the rest of us and are no different and we need to start realizing that and stop stereotyping a religion and its followers.

Buddhists Ponder Navy Yard Shooting, Richmond Times-Dispatch, 29 Sep. 2013 Michelle Boorstein & Elizabeth Tenety

Shooter’s Interest in Buddhism prompts debate in Buddhist community, Washington Post, 18 Sep. 2013Denise Lavoie

Aaron Alexis Spent the Night at Buddhist Temple in Massachusetts, Huffington Post, 19 Sep. 2013)

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Posted in: Buddhism