Buddhism & Violence

That combination of words sounds jarring–we are not accustomed to seeing any kind of violence attributed to that tradition.  However, there is a new book out that discusses the presence of violence within the Buddhist tradition.  The title:  Buddhist Warfare , a collection of essays by various Buddhist scholars, edited by Mark Jerryson and Mark Juergensmeyer, two scholars of comparative religions.  There is also an intriguing review of this book that first appeared in the Times Literary Supplement(UK) by another Buddhist scholar, Katherine Wharton.  The review was also available through truthdig.com and here is the link:

 

http://www.truthdig.com/arts_culture/item/buddhists_at_war_20101008/

 

 

It seems to be an uneven book, and the review even more uneven.  There are a number of problems and questions of interpretation.  But first of all one must acknowledge the sad but undeniable historical record of actual violence by proponents of Buddhism.  To those of us in the “Abrahamic religions”: Judaism, Christianity and Islam–well, we are accustomed to the presence of violence in our various traditions, but most Westerners had looked on Buddhism as not being tainted by that kind of thing.  This book does show that is not quite the case.  On another website, in a personal account, Mark Jerryson, one of the editors, tells us why he took up this research.  Here is that website:

 

http://www.religiondispatches.org/books/2158/monks_with_guns%3A_discovering_buddhist_violence

 

Mark spent a year in Thailand studying Buddhism and was jarred to discover monks with guns.  He knew he had to look into this.

 

 

In any case, the book details both ancient and modern instances where people who identified themselves as Buddhists carry out or condone or somehow support violent activity.  Japanese Zen seems to come out very badly in this regard.  In Japan Zen seems to have been associated with the warrior class(the samurai, etc.) quite a bit–it made them better warriors.  In this regard there is at least some ambiguity in some of the things that even the great D.T. Suzuki wrote.  And here we come to some questionable things in the book and even more so in the review–apart from the historical record, there is the problem of how to interpret certain words and expressions in Buddhism.  It seems that what some of these scholars are saying–and especially the reviewer–is at the very least very questionable if not outright wrong.  It may be arrogant on my part to say so, but there is also the historical record of many Westerners, scholars and religious folk, who have definitely “missed the boat” in evaluating Asian religions–either idealizing them and projecting their own constructs, their own needs into them or else painting them in such a negative way as if there was nothing of value there.  So it is not, alas, impossible.

 

First of all, what these authors say about the Buddhist notions of “no-self,” and “emptiness” seems very wrongheaded.  To attribute  these as a cause of the presence of violence in Buddhism is a misreading.  Yes, one can see how a shallow or distorted understanding of these profound notions can lead one seriously astray. But in their essence these are very deep teachings that actually lead one in the opposite direction when correctly grasped.  Thus the importance of a true teacher because Buddhism is primarily learned from a teacher and not from texts.  There are several comments after the book review by various kinds of people and most of them are superficial, but there are at least two comments by informed Buddhists who make this very point.

 

Another terrible misreading is blaming Taoism for the justification of violence in Buddhism.  Here Taoism is seen as “identification with the raw forces of nature.”  Wrong!  Absolutely wrong.  Sometime soon we will have to discuss Taoism at length.  Needless to say both Zen and Taoism have been used to justify various hedonistic and antinomian ways of life that may include violence–also including a superficial spontaneity.  To name names: Alan Watts came close to this in his books in the 1950s and 60s, and he was very popular in his time.

 

Another problem both in the book and in the review is the lack of sensitivity to the many-layered nuances of the language in this tradition(and actually in all religious traditions).  Even in American “pop Buddhism” to say “kill the Buddha” is clearly not seen as an invocation to violence.  It refers to a ceasing of objectification, of trying to find a Buddha outside one’s self.  There is a certain amount of this kind of language in Buddhist literature, and we must grant that this kind of language is problematic today.  It can also be found in the other great traditions.  Afterall, the Bhagavad-Gita takes place in the middle of a battlefield, the Jewish Psalms used in Christian worship are filled with language about “smiting the enemy,” etc., etc.  One has to find a way around this language and get to the meaning behind it.  But like the good commentators on the review point out, one also has to look at some very fundamental Buddhist teachings that call one to compassion, to doing no harm to anyone, etc.  And as for D.T. Suzuki, well, he once did say that the essence of enlightenment was to feel the pain of another as one’s own.  Whatever else he might have said, that’s pretty good!

 

Whatever the failings of this book may be, whatever the problems with the review of the book, they both do remind us that there is a “dark side” in every religious tradition.  Whether this be a misinterpretation of a teaching, or a misappliction, or a cultural distortion of a perfectly good doctrine, whatever be the case, one has to be alert.  Just because something is labeled as “religion” or “spiritual” does not mean we set aside our critical faculties and deny what’s right in front of our noses.  Christians have been doing this for centuries!  Buddhists, welcome to the club!

 

 

 

 

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