Yes, that image disturbs me as well. And the content associated with the photo is disturbing too. But first let me clear the air. The photo with this post is of a boy monk in Bhutan, and the gun he is holding is a toy gun, according to the source of the photo. It was taken in 2008.
I found this image in a blurb at the Web site Religion Dispatches about a book that is expected to be released this year. The summary paragraph of the article says it all:
“The co-editor of a new book on the history of Buddhist violence and warfare explains how the notion of a purely mystical and otherworldly Buddhism—promoted by some of the great interpreters of the tradition—denies its adherents’ humanity.”
The article’s title gets to the point as well: Monks With Guns: Discovering Buddhist Violence
When I saw this, my inner Lost in Space robot immediately went into action! Danger Will Robinson! Danger!
Doctor Smith is not going to sooth my concerns with his unctuous tongue this time, as there are a number of serious problems with this item from a writing point of view. In addition to being a practicing Buddhist, half of my 20-plus years in journalism were spent as an editor, so I think I’m qualified to critique this. But I must make clear – the book has not been published, so I am only responding to the article at Religion Dispatches, and I know nothing about what kind of Web site this is.
First, the disclaimer about the photo. The authors are presenting a case that Buddhism isn’t the peaceful, warm, fuzzy religion that the Buddhist propagandists have been asserting. But in proper professional form, it is noted that the boy monks (there’s another photo that appears to be the book’s cover photo) are carrying toy guns. This begs the question, why are they toy guns? How did they obtain them? There is nothing in the article to dissuade me from concluding that the boys were handed the toy guns for a photo op.
The author spent a few years in Southern Thailand where he witnessed firsthand the long-standing tensions and all-too-frequent violence that erupts in that region of the country, more often than not instigated by members of the Muslim majority there (Thailand is overwhelmingly Buddhist, but not in the south where it borders Malaysia). He thought it would be a good opportunity to observe Buddhists making peace, but, “Unfortunately, I found very little of this.”
I’m not surprised. There has been ethnic violence going on in that region of Thailand for a while, something that Marcus has commented about and written about at his blog. In March of 2003 I traveled through that region, although it was peaceful at the time. The Maoists in Nepal have been brutally violent with the Buddhist population there, and one can’t ignore the ongoing civil strife and violence in Sri Lanka that pits Buddhists against the Tamils.
“The constant fear and violence took a toll on them. Monks talked about the guns they had bought and now kept at their bedsides. Others spoke heatedly about the violent militant attacks on Buddhist civilians and monasteries. Although the cause of the violence is multilayered—owing much to corruption, drug trade, and corporatization—many monks also felt Islam was to blame. In their minds, the conflict was anchored to the larger discussion of religious violence: Muslims against Buddhists.”
The author states that the West has a faulty perspective of who Buddhists are in Asia and the daily struggles they face, and in response to these struggles, sometimes violence is employed by even the most meek.
“In an effort to combat this view and to humanize Buddhists, then, Mark Juergensmeyer and I put together a collection of critical essays that illustrate the violent history of Buddhism across Mongolia, Tibet, Japan, China, Korea, Thailand, Sri Lanka, and India.
“Our intention is not to argue that Buddhists are angry, violent people—but rather that Buddhists are people, and thus share the same human spectrum of emotions, which includes the penchant for violence.”
Problematic phrase here: “…that illustrate the violent history of Buddhism …”
That statement leaves one with the implication that Buddhism’s history is a violent one, rather than presenting what may have been the intended implication that Buddhism’s history has not been free of violence. Maybe I’m being too picky, but then the author makes the big switch.
He sets the stage using an example from Thailand, but then proceeds to cite sources from the Tibetan traditions, as well as other Mahayanists from China and Japan. This rather strikes me as asking a Southern Baptist in Alabama to comment on the former violence between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. If I had been his editor I would have suggested he support his premise using a Thai source who practices Theravada.
There is something else that rubs me the wrong way about this book, but I can’t quite put my finger on it. But I keep thinking of some horrible revisionist history in holocaust denial, a book called “The Pink Swastika,” that drew the conclusion that the Nazi party became so violent because it was run by homosexuals.
But I guess what really offends me is that I can’t shake the notion that the photos of the boy monks with the toy guns were completely staged.
I'm a content director for a television company, guiding content on Web sites. I'm an avid listener of Frank Zappa and a practicing Buddhist who follows the Theravada vehicle. I'm an insatiable traveler who calls Chicago home.