As Catholicism morphed from the Church militant to the Church mindless after Vatican II, criticism of Buddhism, one of the world’s largest half-baked religions, dissipated. These days it is commonplace to hear priests babbling nonsensically about the benefits of Buddhism and see nuns twisting themselves into meditative postures at retreats. David Chase, the creator of The Sopranos, poked fun at this pathetic phenomenon when he had a flirting priest on the show give the mob boss’s troubled wife a “book on Buddhism.”
Under the I’m OK, You’re OK pontificate of Pope Francis, such silliness is likely to continue if not increase. But Pope Benedict XVI and Pope John Paul II, while adopting a diplomatic tone and acknowledging certain half-truths, made it clear that they considered trendy Buddhism to be absurd and dangerous.
Joseph Ratzinger called popular versions of Buddhism “autoerotic spirituality” that offer “transcendence without imposing concrete religious obligations.” He boldly predicted that “Buddhism would replace Marxism as the church’s biggest foe by 2000.” He was wrong on that score — Islam proved the bigger threat by that year — but he had a point: as a more cushy false religion than Islam, Buddhism was sure to snatch more western souls over time.
In Crossing the Threshold of Hope, Pope John Paul II said that “Buddhism is in large measure an atheistic system” and tends to make people indifferent, not holy.
“The ‘enlightenment’ experienced by Buddha comes down to the conviction that the world is bad, that it is the source of evil and of suffering for man. To liberate oneself from this evil, one must free oneself from this world, necessitating a break with the ties that join us to external realities existing in our human nature, in our psyche, in our bodies,” he said. “The more we are liberated from these ties, the more we become indifferent to what is in the world, and the more we are freed from suffering, from the evil that has its source in the world. Do we draw near to God in this way? This is not mentioned in the ‘enlightenment’ conveyed by Buddha.”
So what does any of this have to do with Aaron Alexis? More than one might think. CNN, among other media outlets, expressed shock that a Buddhist like Alexis could be responsible for the Navy Yard massacre. “When I learned he was a practicing Buddhist, when I learned he spent so much time vacationing in Thailand, it was not the profile of who I expect to pick up a weapon and kill 12,” offered CNN host Ashleigh Banfield. Fellow anchor Chris Cuomo chipped in that “You know, it is a very defined philosophy. And being someone who has a violent tendency and appetites does not square with the philosophy involved there.”
Their prattle assumed that Buddhism is a religion of peace and rationality. But if one follows the argument of John Paul II that it violates human nature and denies God, one can see that it is really not.
While far less flagrantly violent than Islam, Buddhism is plenty capable of more subtle forms of it. What other religion, for example, produces monks who set themselves on fire? A religion that permits self-immolation is not a religion of peace.
Besides ignoring the violent strands of Buddhism in Thailand — where clashes with Muslims occur regularly — Banfield, in clinging to her Oprah-like understanding of it, failed to engage the solipsistic and negative character of the religion, which would appeal to a self-centered fiend like Alexis.
This is not to say that exposure to Buddhism radicalized him. He was obviously wicked and twisted before joining it. But at the same time Buddhism lacked the power and substance to civilize him. As a non-judgmental, navel-gazing religion, it asks little of its adherents and accommodates all sorts of wild contradictions, producing not a holy fear of God but sometimes just emboldened self-indulgence and a frantic search for fulfillment through willy-nilly negation. There is a reason why nihilistic and hedonistic Hollywood stars love Buddhism.
It appears to have appealed to Alexis not in spite of his world-hating aggression but because of it. As G.K. Chesterton pointed out, it is a religion particularly well-suited to a modern world on the verge of mental collapse: “He who does not climb the mountain of Christ does indeed fall into the abyss of Buddha.”