Saturday, March 19, 2011

Buddhist Warfare, Chapter 1

In the song, “With God on Our Side,” Bob Dylan sings of how peoples and nations rationalize war against each other, that their aggression is necessary and justifiable because they have God on their side. This notion of having God on your side is an important concept when looking at the first essay in “Buddhist Warfare,” a piece written by Paul Demiéville titled “Buddhism and War.”

Demiéville correctly points out how the Dhamma has been rationalized throughout the centuries following the Buddha’s death. One of the simplest rationalizations, he notes, is that life is suffering and if killing ends life, then it also ends suffering. This rationalization, Demiéville shows us, is at the heart of many Mahayana traditions that largely developed in China where a militaristic culture already existed and which was ready to co-opt Buddhist doctrine to lend legitimacy to its politics (kind of sounds like the Republican Party in the U.S.).

The author points out how China, Japan, Korea and other parts of East Asia already had well-established warrior cultures that were largely supported by Confucian thought. The rulers and warlords adopted Buddhism to gain a military advantage, rationalizing and altering the teachings to show that their actions were right and good and their enemy’s actions were wrong and evil. At the same time, Buddhist monks were looking for political favoritism and weren’t shy about re-interpreting the Dharma to please their kings. Even the Buddha walked a delicate line regarding this issue (which is covered a bit more in the next article in the book).

During the first thousand years CE in China, for example, we see may Buddhist cults arise each with militaristic behaviors and practices led by charismatic monks who professed to have supernatural powers. This made these monks very attractive to the rulers and warlords who saw befriending and supporting such monks and their followers as politically astute.

However true this may be, I am troubled by the way Demiéville portrays these histories as being “Buddhist,” laying the groundwork for the assertion that Buddhism itself is at fault for the arising of these warlike doctrines. These histories are no more “Buddhist” than Cromwell’s attacks were “Puritan” or even “Christian,” despite the fact that religious beliefs and doctrines played a key role in Cromwell’s war mongering. Demiéville’s citing the rise of the Shaolin and other warrior monks is not evidence of “Buddhist violence,” but rather evidence of people who identify as Buddhist being violent.

Demiéville also makes a few really weak assertions by drawing connections so vague as to be rightly ridiculed with uncontrolled laughter. For example he writes: “We know that the Boxers who rose up against foreigners at the end of the nineteenth century, and besieged the Peking delegation in 1900, were part of a secret society with more or less Buddhist origins.” Italics are mine. When I read that, I was like, WTF?

What I really found interesting was Demiéville’s mentioning of Yi-hiuan, a ninth-Century Chinese monk who is credited with the ubiquitous phrase, “Kill the Buddha.” It was revealing enough that he would cite the founder of the Lin-tsi sect to lend credence to the concept that Buddhism inherently lends itself to the arising of violent doctrines; but what really caught my eye was all the attention this part of the book garnered on the Internet. When you Google “Yi-hiuan” the results are dominated by a review of “Buddhist Warfare” by Katherine Wharton. Her referencing this particular item in Demiéville’s article was in turned referenced multiple times by many others, including an article by Marin E. Marty in The Christian Post, whose comments also get reprinted all over the Web. Kyle at The Reformed Buddhist had plenty to say about Wharton’s review, thanking Barbara O’Brien for her dissection of Wharton’s review and sophomoric conclusions.

I found this discussion interesting because of how it reflects something the Buddha warned Ananda about just before his death. Ananda asks the Buddha who will lead the Sangha after the Buddha dies, to which the Buddha replies that there will be no successor because there is no position to be succeeded. He directs Ananda and the others to be “islands unto yourselves, refuges unto yourselves, seeking no external refuge…”

It is worth pointing out that transmission of the Buddha’s Dhamma was initially oral. The Buddha knew that writing down the Dhamma would present problems and he cautioned against those that would come in the future and change his teachings. And when things get written down, they can suddenly take on an undeserved credibility.

This seems to be what happened with Katherine Wharton’s review, which if you read it closely seems to suggest that the only part of “Buddhist Warfare” that she read was the chapter penned by Demiéville. Her words get picked up by others, such as Marty, and are spread about the Web and get read widely despite the suspect nature of her conclusions.

Even Demiéville shows how this happened with the development of Zen in Japan, which began as a very well-cultured and educated school of Buddhism that required strict discipline in the practice. These very traits were used by militaristic individuals, including Zen priests, to train soldiers in the correct use of weapons. This is cited as another example of the alleged warlike nature of Buddhist doctrine. These elements of Zen were in turn bifurcated into other schools and doctrines. Ryogen encouraged the preservation of the “real law,” or Mahayana, against the lesser counterfeit laws of the Lesser Vehicle, or Hinayana, that of the pratyeka-buddha, which he likened to be weed-like akin to underbrush that cannot rid itself. Nichiren advocated ignoring the precepts because if an action is protected by the Greater Vehicle, it was justified. Ergo, we see the development of the line of thought that killing and war can be justified as means to reach a higher, nobler end.

In the end, what Demiéville demonstrates are numerous fine examples of how individuals twisted the Dhamma to create their own lineage and to justify the elimination of enemies. These efforts were rewarded and protected by the rulers and the powerful of the times. But to use these examples to support the assertion that Buddhism condones violence, that it rationalizes violence, is in my opinion just plain wrong. Yes, there are “teachers” and those who founded new schools of Buddhism long after the Buddha’s death that advocate, condone and rationalize violent behavior, but to suggest that these new lineages are correctly interpreting the Buddha’s guidance on such matters is weak.


  1. While I feel it is beneficial to bring these things to light, I agree with you that it is lamentable that someone would misconstrue incidents of violence in Buddhism’s history as evidence that violence is somehow condoned. For instance, during one period Buddhist violence in Japan was particularly acute, but I think it had more to do with human nature than Buddha nature.

    One small point about writing down the dharma: It is my understanding that in India at that time they lacked either writing utensils or something to write on, I forget which. I might be misinformed about this, yet I think the bottom line is that for some reason, writing the dharma down was not an option for the Buddha.

  2. Wharton, also, if you didn't already know, is employed by the church of England as an expert on Hinduism and Buddhism. The Archbishop of Canterbury has sent Wharton on "good will" missions, to South and South East Asia, which has really been part of the Church's newest push to convert these demographics.

    Wharton's book review was slanted before she even opened Buddhist Warfare, and indeed, had written numerous college papers which significantly denigrates these religions to some rather ugly conclusions. In one paper, she compares Hindu and Buddhist mothers as inferior in child rearing to Western Christian mothers, because, as she argued, Hindu and Buddhist mothers acted as religious teacher first, and mother secondly. And that's really just the tip of the Wharton iceberg.

  3. @david, you may be correct. Buddhist monks began writing the Tipitika about 100 BC, which was well after the Buddha's time, although there was written forms of Sanskrit and other languages of the region going back well before the Buddha's time. So I think he was likely aware of writing.

    @Kyle, I recall you writing in your blog about this. It funny, but I think this type of bias held by Christians can be traced back to T.W. Rhys Davids, who was one of the earliest Westerners to write about Buddhism for Western readers, and his writing is filled with insertions of Christian vernacular to explain Buddhist concepts.