Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Good, the Bad, and the WTF?

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.


  1. Of course they are staged, and even the book's cover shot which brings in question their real intent. I am not saying Buddhist have never waged war, but I don't see how can they use this for a cover image except to sensationalize.

  2. Part 1
    This publication has some concerns for me as well.

    I've looked it over at Amazon. They use a piece by Brian Victoria on the Zen situation. His work has been hotly disputed due to use of bad translations (particularly regarding Kodo Sawaki Roshi), historical inaccuracy and other major oversights. If the other articles are as inaccurate as some examples of Victoria's work I wonder why Oxford U. Press would publish it. It sounds like a new wave of Orientalism to me.

    They also use the Aum Shunrikyo group in Japan as a messianic"Buddhist" group and make comments about that. It was a cult clearly and anyone who's done research on it knows they took a lot of Shintoism and old Japanese Fascist Nationalism as part of their platform as well as the psychopathic ravings of the leader. To label this as representative of Buddhism is more than misleading.

    They also, from the introduction available on-line, present the "Buddhisms" which in some ways is a valid reflection but I got the impression by the language used that it's a very shallow sort of presentation based a lot more on diverse cultural elements rather than on doctrine.

    As well Bernard Faure, a well known Buddhist scholar is mentioned and writes the afterward. I have some issues with him as I am currently reading his book Unmasking Buddhism in which he sets out to set the record straight about misunderstandings on Buddhism. Such things as popular concepts and misconceptions like:

    -Buddhism is a philosophy, not a religion
    -The belief in karma leads to fatalism
    -Buddhism is the cult of nothingness

    and about 20 more. His presentation is decidedly scholarly so the average reader will drop it just in the introduction. And I find his take on Buddhism rather odd. He understands the mechanics but not the meaning.(But that is my criticism about a lot of Buddhist scholars in the West). He also is coming from certain western cultural preconceptions that he tries to shove Buddhist concepts into. It's awkward.

    So if this one on Violence is anything like that, and it sounds like it is, then it will only further contribute to misunderstandings.

    to be continued...

  3. Part 2
    As for violence in south Asia, the child monks like the rest of the population in Nepal had been coerced by the Maoist insurgents there for many years. There are small factions of these Maoist insurgents that come into my state in Uttarakhand too. They are vicious and will wipe out whole villages of unarmed people who don't co-operate with them. They also have taken children to become soldiers. At present the reformed elements of the Maoists run the gov't in Nepal, elected, but they still have the same undercurrent. They are trying to expand into north India in a big way and in the NE are becoming successful. The situation there is tense as the recent visit of HH Dalai Lama demonstrated. Security had to be extreme because of all these insurgent factions (Maoists, Naxalites, organized criminal elements, drug lords, etc)

    If kids there, monks or not, have toy guns or even real guns it is due to political coercion by these insurgent forces. And fear.

    In Thailand the Muslim insurgents are doing exactly the same thing.

    It's not a pretty place often and these hothouse flowers in their ivory towers need a dose of reality from their theories and pontifications.

    There is so much disconnect between "Western" Buddhist scholarship (8 of the 9 authors associated with the book have "Western" names) and socio-political realities on the ground that it is hard for me to take such a work as any kind of authority.

    It is not as though Buddhism has not been associated with violence or fighting. But the violence has in most cases been politically motivated and sustained. The only exception I can think of at the moment is the Shaolin monks and their martial arts training.

    Much of the example they give in China has as a lot to do with martial culture there (Sun Tzu kind of thinking) as well as the influence of Confucianism. None of these influences seem to be accounted for.

    Of course Buddhists have been violent in the past because duh! when you live in a Buddhist society and the politicians or some factions decide to go to war well the war is on your doorstep or even in your house. People who've never lived in a religious society just don't get that. I think these "thinkers" are just realizing that Buddhists live in a broader context than just some rarified utopia and are trying to deal with that piece of reality and their own anger at the delusions they've been laboring under. Like I said Duh!

    Sorry to write an essay here.

    I'll read the book anyways and deal with my biases when I make a blog post with my opinion.