Thursday, March 10, 2011

Buddhist Warfare, the Introduction

A little more than a year ago I shared my knee-jerk outrage over a book of articles collectively titled “Buddhist Warfare.” My first blog post on the subject was prompted by the cover image on the soft-cover edition of the book, which I have scanned and provided with this post. I followed up with a second post further explaining my reaction to the book while at the same time admitting that I had not read the collection: rather, I had only read blurbs about the book as well as a description written by one of the editors.

I wrote the following in my first post: “The author (Michael K. Jerryson) 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.”

How interesting that a Westerner points out that the West has a “faulty perspective” about Buddhism in Asia, and that he and other Westerners are setting out to correct this “faulty perspective,” because by gosh, they know what they’re talking about. While one cannot be absolutely positive of one’s ethnicity based upon one’s surname, of the 11 writers contained in this anthology only one appears to be Asian. So what we have in this book is what is so common with European Anglo scholarship – white folk telling us how to understand the yellow folk’s culture and religion, all from a white folk perspective.

I accepted the not-always-so-subtle suggestions by some that perhaps I ought to read the collection before lambasting it and I vowed that I would. And I am. My intention was to write one post as a follow-up, but it’s become clear that, in my view, the content of this publication is much more complex than I originally surmised, so I’ve opted to write a post on each chapter. Having said that, I remain deeply troubled by the packaging and the presentation of this volume, a feeling reinforced when I saw the quote at the top of the first page of the introduction.

That’s right: I couldn’t even get past the first page of the introduction without heaving a great sigh of frustration.

In reading the first article in this book I realize that there is some extraordinary history that I am quite certain most Buddhists – whether Western, Asian, white or whatever – are simply unaware of. There’s good stuff here. But it’s beguiling because packaged together like this, one might reach the very unskillful conclusion that what passes as Buddhist doctrine today – or even hundreds of years ago during post-Buddha periods – is a bunch of hooey. And frankly, a lot of what does pass as Buddhist doctrine today is complete bullshit. Maybe that’s why I prefer to follow the so-called “lesser vehicle” because it is often the purveyors of the alleged “greater vehicle” who are handing out the most bullshit.(Don't misunderstand my bitch here. There's plenty of bullshit to go around)

I Tweeted recently that “I went seeking bullshit and I found bullshit, but the bullshit I found was not the bullshit I sought.” So it is with many things.

I frankly admit that headed into this venture I had a bias just as profound as what I accuse the authors’ of having. And I readily admit that these erudite ladies and gentlemen have spent a great deal more time in scholarly study of Buddhist texts and Buddhism, as well as Asian culture, than I have. Compared to their academic stature, I am a nobody. But one does not become a Buddhist merely by reading about or studying Buddhism, just as one does not become a surgeon by reading books about surgery. One is a Buddhist by practicing the Buddha’s teachings, and warfare is not among the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths, nor the Noble Eightfold Path. It’s simply not part of the practice. And yet, that does not protect the Dhamma from the Wrong View of others. So here goes.

Title and cover image

My first issue is with the title, “Buddhist Warfare.” Titles to any composition are important; they should reflect what the content is about. In this case, “Buddhist” is an adjective. By placing “Buddhist” ahead of “warfare,” it becomes the modifier of “warfare.” In other words, this isn’t about any type of warfare, but specifically about “Buddhist warfare.” This implies that “Buddhist warfare” is different from other forms of warfare in the same way that nuclear warfare is different from conventional warfare, that there is something about this type of warfare that makes it Buddhist. But when you read the contents of the book, you realize that is not what the book is about; rather it’s about Buddhists engaging in warlike activities, and how Buddhism has been corrupted to justify acts of violence. That makes the title inappropriate. “Buddhists At War,” or “The Violating of Buddha,” would have been much more appropriate, because such titles would also be connected to the general thesis of the works within the book, and that is to dispel the misconception that all Buddhists are pacifist; that a variety of Buddhists have twisted the Buddha’s teachings to justify violence and war, or merely to glorify their own knob.

My next issue is with the image on the soft cover edition. It depicts a novice holding a pistol. To me this is an obviously staged photo. The novice isn’t even holding the pistol properly. One could interpret from the image that the novice is in fact uncomfortable holding the weapon. But the photographer, one can easily presume, more than likely asked the novice to hold the gun for a photo. With the photo in hand, the publishers now have a “shocking” image to place on the book’s cover. I find such a scenario completely reprehensible. If I am incorrect in my conclusion, I would hope the photographer Brenda Turnnidge would clarify.


The introduction opens with a quote from 1891 attributed to Dutch Sinologist J.J.M. de Groot (A couple of brief bios about him can be found here and here). The problem with this quote is twofold. First, de Groot, like many 19th century European Christian ethnographers writing about Eastern religions, uses the Christian vernacular to describe Buddhism referring to the First Precept as a “commandment,” the violation of which constitutes a sin.

The second problem is with the quote’s context. De Groot comes off speaking as if he is revealing a dastardly lie of Buddhism in that despite the First Precept, there are Chinese texts that speak about monks who engage in warfare and killing, “leaving no room for doubt that warfare was an integrate part of their religious profession for centuries.”

It is reasonable for a reader to view these opening quotes as providing a sort of synopsis or insight regarding the theme of the chapter – what the point is. So it is reasonable to presume that with the introduction, the writer (in this case one of the editors) is laying the groundwork to show that Buddhist teachings make room for violence and condone it. This is evidenced by the two questions the writer establishes as critical to how a reader interprets the contents of the book: “How can Buddhist scripture be interpreted for warfare? And how is it interpreted for warfare?”

This, in my view, qualifies as a set of unskillful questions, questions that the Buddha would refuse to answer because attention to them diverts one from understanding the truth. It’s akin to describing one of those Texas or Louisiana Baptist snake cults and calling them representative of Christianity.

The writer I think astutely begins to speak of “Buddhisms,” recognizing that Buddhist traditions are quite varied and often incorporate rites and rituals indigenous to whatever region a particular variety of the “Buddhisms” arises. Understanding this regional variety is important, but what the author fails to impress upon the reader is that these various rites and rituals found in different geographic locations and which vary according to ethnicity of the practitioners isn’t Buddhism. In fact, the Buddha mostly ridiculed rites and rituals, approving of them only as a means to maintain social order and to develop mindfulness. On their own, rites and rituals are superfluous to following the path.

The author next brings up examples of how “Buddhisms” are involved in creating and fighting wars. But what is really being described here is Buddhists at war, not Buddhism causing or creating war. While there are many examples in Asian history of Buddhists fighting wars, most of these wars reflect ethnic and religious chauvinism, a state of mind that existed in those who wage the war, not a quality found within the religious system itself. (The obfuscation of what is really going on in Bangladesh recently is an excellent example of how religion is incorrectly identified as a causal factor for the current strife) If it is, it was added later by the particular group and does not represent the Buddha’s teaching. As the Buddha warned, unenlightened minds would corrupt his teachings. Just because an unenlightened Buddhist rationalizes an unskillful act doesn’t mean Buddhism justifies the act.

The example used by the author of how Aum Shinrikyo found inspiration in the Lotus Sutra to release poison gas in a Tokyo subway, killing many people, is suspect as well. Such a perspective would divert personal responsibility away from the actors and place it on the scripture; it would be like blaming the Beatles for Sharron Tate’s murder.

Despite this introduction and the apparent overall premise of the book, the individual articles are really interesting. However, they contain what I consider significant flaws as well. Which is why I will periodically address each chapter individually.

If you’ve read this book, I would welcome your comments, but please stick to the specific chapter I am writing about.


  1. Nice review Richard. I haven't read the book yet, so I don't have any judgement on that.

    My question, wasn't Aum Shinrikyo a syncretic religion, not a specifically Buddhist one? Wouldn't it be like saying Vodou is Christian? Or am I wrong?

  2. Richard - I think you can see why I dedicated so much time and energy in many posts to debunking much of what this book's editors were trying to convey. It is maddening that the entire premise of the book is built on post hoc ergo propter hoc, yet is filled with other well written descriptions of certain aspects of Asian history.

  3. @Adam, you are correct. But what the author states in the introduction is that the followers of Aum Shinrikyo found inspiration for their terrorist act in the Lotus Sutra. I quote from the introduction:

    "Buddhist messianic violence persists in contemporary times, with the latest violent outbreak occurring in Japan. In 1995, Asahara Shoko's Aum Shinrikyo unleashed Sarin nerve gas into the Tokyo subway, killing a dozen people and injuring many more. Part of Aun Shinrikyo's ideology is based on the Lotus Sutra, one of the most popular and influential sutras in Mahayana Buddhism."

    This is really a spurious connection. Besides my Beatles analogy over "Helter Skelter" and Charles Manson, it is like saying that Falun Gong is Buddhism because the founder of Falun Gong cites Buddhist concepts in creating his belief system. But no one in his or her right mind would call Falun Gong Buddhism.

    @Kyle, I will certainly link in future posts about this to your posts as well. I will need to look them up. There really is good information here, but whether real or imagined, there seems to be an agenda behind the entire book that gnaws at me like a persistent rodent.

  4. @Richard - Just wait til you get to what they cal the "afterward." It really is some of the most disturbing acedemic thoughts on Buddhism I have yet seen written.

  5. Great post :) novices do like pistols, waterguns, etc., though - he may have just been embarrassed to have been caught.

    The real point is that we shouldn't confuse the BS with the Buddhism, which you've well elucidated. Thank you.

  6. Thank you Bhante :) It's time for me to get another post out about this book before the end of the week.

  7. The topic surfaced in our San Diego USA sangha. Ignorance both among western and Asian practitioners. Homage to you and this fine critique.