Monday, April 25, 2011

Buddhist Warfare, chapters 2, 3, and 4

I know that I said that I would write a post about each chapter in “Buddhist Warfare”, but as I am reading the collection, I’m realizing that I’ll never get through it if I stick to that. So there will be times, such as this one, when I combine various chapters into one post and others when a post will be devoted to a single chapter.

One of the book’s editors, Michael Jerryson, mentions in the Introduction two key questions 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?”

Chapters 2, 3 and 4 readily follow this line of thought by focusing in rather specific ways. Of course, the danger with such specificity is that the argument gets lost in the larger context: do the examples cited in these chapters represent fairly the core teachings of the Buddha? In my opinion, they most certainly do not.

Chapter 2, by Stephen Jenkins, is titled “Making Merit through Warfare and Torture According to the Ārya-Bodhisattva-gocara-upāyyavisaya-vikurvana-nirdeśa Sūtra,” which means the conclusions of this chapter are based entirely on this single sutra. It is essentially a sutra filled with rationalizations, but it is worth pointing out the connection this sutra has with earlier writings in the Pali canon.

This sutra presents the dialogue between an ascetic named Satyavaca Nirgranthaputra and a king. Satyavaca also appears in the Majjhima Nikaya as the ascetic Saccaka. Jenkins says the two suttas in the Majjhima Nikaya in which Saccaka appears describe him as “a clever and aggressive anti-Buddhist debater.” When he engages the Buddha in debate, Saccaka asserts that his material form is self, perception is self, formations are self, and consciousness is self. The Buddha’s reply to Saccaka shows the connection to the later Mahayana sutra, which is to ask Saccaka if a king has the authority to execute those who ought to be executed; Saccaka replies that a king has this type of authority.

However, the Buddha asking this question doesn’t necessarily mean that the Buddha agrees that a King should exercise that authority. He is merely developing an argument using terms familiar to Saccaka to refute the ascetic’s assertion that body is self, that perception is self, that formations are self, and that consciousness is self. The trick gets Saccaka to agree that a king has such power, but then the Buddha asks Saccaka whether he has such power to control or determine his own form. Saccaka is silent and remains silent despite the Buddha repeating his question three times. The Buddha even warns Saccaka that to refuse to answer results in one’s head being split into seven pieces, whereupon a thunderbolt-wielding spirit shows up with the obvious intent of doing just that if Saccaka fails to reply.

Is this then an example of the Buddha forcing Saccaka “under threat of death,” as Jenkins suggests, to admit that a king has the power of execution? Or was the Buddha seeking to have Saccaka realize that his body is not self because he doesn’t have the authority of a king to demand what form he shall take? That he has no control, like a king, to direct his feelings, etc.? And is not the language used by the author of the sutta, written well after the Buddha’s death, reflective of the imagery associated with rural south Asia at the time? Was there really a thunderbolt-wielding spirit threatening to split Saccaka’s head open? Or was this colorful language added to add drama to the sutta?

Granted, run-of-the-mill people at the time, and to a large degree today still, believed these spirits to be real entities capable of interfering with their lives. To suggest that the presence of such language is evidence of a violent nature within Buddhism is more than a bit of a stretch in my view, however.

Jenkins then goes on to extrapolate from the later Mahayana sutra evidence of how a king is guided in the proper method of war and use of violence. There are some fairly twisted rationalizations here in my view, particularly the concept of “compassionate killing,” which Jenkins notes that the Buddhist scholar Michael Zimmerman writes is “incompatible with basic Buddhist ethics.”

The conclusion of this essay is particularly problematic. It starts with, “General conceptions of a basic Buddhist ethics broadly conceived as unqualified pacifism are problematic. Compassionate violence is at the very heart of the sensibility of this sutra.” (italics mine)

With this paragraph, Jenkins makes a broad statement and backs it up with one sutra, a sutra that in fact is not considered authentic in the Theravada tradition despite the effort Jenkins took at the start of his essay to describe the sutra’s history, influence and importance within Mahayana.

Chapter 3 is filled with some very interesting history about Tibet and Mongolia. In “Sacralized Warfare: The Fifth Dalai Lama and the Discourse of Religious Violence,” Derek F. Maher examines the historical writings of the Fifth Dalai Lama and shows how they were constructed to support the violent war mongering of Gushri Khan. I don’t doubt for a minute the historical accuracy of the essay. What I doubt is its suitability as evidence of an innate violent nature to Buddhism.

This chapter details quite excellently what happens when politics is mixed up with religion - you get a holy mess. Because that’s what you have with Tibetan Buddhism for the most part: religious leaders who are also political leaders. And the fact that certain Tibetan schools fought wars against other Tibetan schools only demonstrates how rampant religious chauvinism was in Tibet; it by no means offers credible support that the Buddha’s teachings allows for such militaristic behavior.

In fact, the Buddha was quite clear just before his death when Ananda asks him who will lead the sangha after his passing. The Buddha said he would name no leader because there was nothing to lead. Buddhism is all about examining and knowing oneself, controlling oneself, of being harmless so that one can attain release. It's about being a better person so other living beings can be at ease. It was never about becoming the top dog school or sect and waging war against contrary opinions. But people are people and humans have a penchant for violence.

Buddhism, however, does not.

Chapter 4, “Legalized Violence: Punitive Measures of Buddhist Khans in Mongolia,” provides more evidence of the politicization of the dhamma. As Vesna A. Wallace clearly states in this essay: “By legislating social and ritual practices that were in accordance with Buddhist teachings and monastic rules and by introducing penal measures for the infractions of both monks and laypeople, Mongolian legislators converted Buddhist teachings and practices into state law.”

This isn’t evidence of a violent nature to Buddhism; rather, its evidence of how a theocracy was established in Mongolia around Buddhism. Wallace also provides examples of class division within Mongolian culture.

“The Russian ethnographer Pozdneyev, who visited Mongolia in the late nineteenth century, mentions a case in which a Mongol noble punished one of his serf’s sons for not making adequate progress in his studies as a Buddhist novice by tying him naked outside the tent during a winter night. When the boy died as a consequence, the nobleman was merely fined eighteen animals.”

Mahayana writings such as the Golden Light Sutra were seized upon by rulers because they provided an excuse for ruthless rule. “The Golden Light Sutra is perhaps the most adamant about the king’s duty to destroy evil deeds and inflict penalties on the evildoers in conformity with their crimes. If a king were to ignore any evil deed and neglect his royal duty, lawlessness and wickedness would increase, unfavorable asterisms and planets would rule, meteor showers would fall, evil demons would arise, and natural disasters, diseases, and foreign armies would ruin his kingdom.”

Now, if I were and king and that was my spiritual guidance, of course I would do what I thought would prevent evil demons from arising and foreign armies ruining my domain! And I, as such a king, would also like the ambiguity of the Golden Light Sutra, as it would allow me wide interpretation.

“(I)t leaves room for multiple interpretations concerning the degrees of punishments the ruler may implement in his task of upholding the law. It indirectly suggests that punishment enforces not only the law of a given society but also the laws of nature. For these reasons, the Inner Mongolian author Rashipuntsag referred to the Golden Light Sutra in his work ‘Crystal Rosary,’ declaring that Dharma laws do not prevent one from punishing criminals. He argued against Confucians who claimed that the state could be ruled only by means of secular laws because the law of Dharma was too weak to punish criminals, because it advocates compassion.” (Italics mine)

I’m looking forward to writing about the next chapter, because in that one, the author flatly states that any sect of Buddhism that justifies violence in any way is a false teaching and a corruption of the Buddha’s words.


  1. Thank you for being so clear.
    not related:
    Can I straighten your temple in the right column?
    Every time I see it, I keep thinking I've had a new stroke. :)

  2. :) I've come to realize that I have a bad habit of when composing a photo that I don't always hold the camera level with the image, so often I take photos in which the image is a bit off kilter.

  3. Send it to me, and I'll straighten it and send back.

  4. Leave me your email as another comment and I will not publish, but will send.

  5. Heya Richard - have a listen to this: (Ajahn Sujato gives background to the whole 'head-splitting' idea in Buddhist/pre-Buddhist thought). I'm still working on a blog post about this, but figured I'd give you a head's up given how slowly I'm going :)