Wednesday, January 13, 2010

War in the name of Buddha? Name one

It eventually occurred to me what it was about the article I wrote about previously that troubled me so. At first, I couldn’t put my finger on it, but then it became clear.

The problem is with the way the article described the book’s premise and assertion that Buddhism – the religion – is not as peaceful as it is portrayed. This is completely wrong. The premise ought to be that Buddhists are not immune to violence, both in terms of being victims as well as users of violence, and share a commonality with practitioners of any religion in that respect.

However, Buddhism per se is a non-violent religion. No where does the Buddha advocate violence. I know of no such instance in the Tipitika where the Buddha tells someone to go and start a war in his name. But it won’t take me long to find several such instances in the Bible.

Rather than condone war or any kind of angry response, the Buddha was explicit in his condemnation of anger and behavior motivated by anger.

In the Dhammapada, the Buddha said: “All beings fear death and they all fear the pain of a club. Think: How do they make you feel? Then do not kill and do not club; live peacefully with all beings and do not add to the violence of this world. Harm no one here and you will pass your next life in peace.”

That’s pretty clear. And yet, in the Bible there are numerous passages that blatantly condone violence, such as “An eye for an eye.” And there are histories within the Bible that relay how God commanded his followers to wipe out entire cities because the residents there didn’t worship him.

History documents numerous wars fought in the name of God or the name of Allah, but name one fought in the name of Buddha. Granted, individual Buddhists, and even Buddhists collectively have banded together to defend themselves and are continuing to do so today in areas like Southern Thailand, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Myanmar. And they have been victims of violence at the hands of Western influences, some of which was so eloquently revealed by Kyle at The Reformed Buddhist. But these practitioners that the authors of this new book write about – even if some of them are monks – are not acting out of anything the Buddha said. They have not one shred of Dhamma to back their decision to take violent action against anyone, even an aggressor.

This is really sophomoric logic, the idea that an individual member of a religious group becomes representative of that religion’s doctrine by virtue of the combined factors of his or her behavior and the fact he or she is a cleric within that group. To conclude that Buddhism is violent, or has a violent side, because some monks are involved in violence would be the same as asserting that Catholicism is a prurient religion because some priests molest children. When you get down to it, this line of reasoning is what sustains such abhorrent notions such as racism, anti-Semitism and homophobia.

I am not denying that Buddhism has been affected by violence, nor am I saying that all Buddhists behave peacefully. But when it comes to the assertion that Buddhist doctrine – that Dhamma – is violent and that Buddhist monks who engage in violence do so because of prompting by the Dhamma, to even suggest that is a mendacity I cannot tolerate.


  1. In many cases Buddhists are simply defending themselves against Islam's implacable unprovoked thousand year long jihad against Buddhism:

  2. Just a suggestion but perhaps it would be better to read the book before working yourself up into such a self-righteous lather.

  3. @Was Once - You're welcome :)

    @seanrobsville - I visited your blog post and found it rather disturbing. You are making a blanket assertion about Islam that will not be born out by facts. It was the Taliban that destroyed the Buddha statues in Afghanistan, not Islam. And those statues were there for nearly 2000 years before the Taliban decided to destroy them.

    @Gerontion - I will read the book. But my blog post is about the article (which was written by one of the book's authors) and the language it used and the impression it gave me. Is it not reasonable to conclude that, if the article written about the book by one of the book's authors is carelessly written, the book itself may also be carelessly written?

  4. The only reason that the statues survived was that Islam lacked the technical ability to destroy what the Buddhists had created. Actually the Taliban did not destroy the statues, even they hadn't the ability. They had to call in help from Pakistani and Saudi government demolition experts. Google for 'Swiss documentary n Afghanistan Pakistani, Saudi Engineers helped destroy Buddhas'

  5. @seanrobsvill - Again, you are saying "Islam lacked the technical ability," rather than Islamists or Muslims. And by virtue of your reasoning, one would have to say that the Taliban were not responsible for all the deaths in the wars they fought because they lacked the ability to manufacture weapons and had to purchase the weapons from some place else.

    The Buddha taught that a wrong action directed by another creates kamma for the person who directed the action. In other words, if I persuade someone to steal, I also am guilty of theft.

    It is safe to presume that had the Taliban not sought help in destroying the Buddha's they would still be there.

  6. @Gerontion "Just a suggestion but perhaps it would be better to read the book before working yourself up into such a self-righteous lather."

    So you agree with the author's portrayal of Buddhists in his little press release? I shampoo's in a self-righteous lather last night and it felt soooooo good.

  7. More-or-less, yes, I do. Buddhism, has a fine old tradition of violence, both within states and between states. That's not - or shouldn't be - a particularly shocking statement to anyone. What I disagree with is the claim that the original article/press release claimed, directly or indirectly, that "Buddhist doctrine – that Dhamma – is violent and that Buddhist monks who engage in violence do so because of prompting by the Dhamma". What it does say is "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." That seems remarkably innocuous to me and I can't for the life of me understand where all the indignation comes from.

  8. "I visited your blog post and found it rather disturbing."

    "Rather"? You're using the word in a seriously non-standard sense there, though I suppose there's no particular reason why Buddhism should be exempt from Islamophobia or other variants of racism. It's telling, though, that such a clear precursor to violence should appear on this thread.

  9. @ Gerontion - "What I disagree with is the claim that the original article/press release claimed, directly or indirectly, that 'Buddhist doctrine – that Dhamma – is violent and that Buddhist monks who engage in violence do so because of prompting by the Dhamma'."

    Well, let's start with the title of the book: "Buddhist Warfare." "Warfare" is the noun and "Buddhist" is being used as the modifier of "Warfare." As in, warfare, what type of warefare? Buddhist warfare. Now, it seems that normaly warfare is describe in terms of the tactics employed or the weapons employed, such as nuclear warfare, or geurrilla warefare. But the title of the book is introducing a concept that warfare can be categorized by a theology, the implication being that Buddhist Warfare is different from other types of warfare. This strikes me as specious.

    The title of the article carries the same connotation by speaking to "Buddhist Violence," as if violence by Buddhists was different from violence by Muslims or Christians. It also implies that the violence is doctrinally based.

    Granted, the author does say the intention is not to argue that Buddhists are angry or violent; but if that is the case, if the authors are sincere about that, why aren't they payting attention to the words used in the title of their book and the title of their article?

  10. Well written Richard, and a point that needs to be made.

  11. Hi Richard. I want to thank you for this thoughtful response to the article about the book. (Talk about a meta-discourse.)

    I'd like to point out a couple of things. Whereas the Buddha may not have ever said, explicitly, "let's go start a war," we don't really know that. Apart from the obvious fact that we weren't there, we haven't read the full Buddhist cannon. At least, I haven't, and I'm guessing that most folks here haven't either.

    That's not to say that buried in the Pali somewhere is some lost little refrain by the Buddha advocating violence. That's not at all what I'm suggesting. I'm merely opening the door for a question -- what did the Buddha say? He said a great many things, and we would be remiss to claim that we know, definitively, everything he said without years of study.

    Secondly, I have not read this book either, but I have met one of its contributors, Steven Jenkins. He gave a talk at the Institute of Buddhist Studies in Berkeley last April. And while his talk is a bit long, I'm betting that you and your readers will be able to digest it faster than the book (and it's free!)

    I only offer it as something a bit more detailed or deeper than a "press-release" type article, a way of continuing conversation rather than merely presenting my own opinion on this subject.

    Thanks again for your post and for furthering discussion on a difficult topic.

  12. 'Buddhist Warfare' could be understood in a variety of ways, one rather obvious one simply being warfare conducted by Buddhists and in this sense, it is rather obviously different from warfare carried out by Christians or Muslims or Hindus. As for doctrine, it's pretty obvious that Buddhist thinkers have justified violence - in Japan, most obviously. But even if one knew nothing at all of Buddhism, it would be astonishing if a religious practice which had enjoyed such success, both geographically and historically, hadn't at some point accommodated "the human penchant for violence" (surely one of the most deep-seated and longest enduring features of humanity). There's surely nothing very revelatory about that. But I don't see that this implies that there's some necessarily violent component of Buddhism or that the author's claim that this is the case. I suspect instead that the book is an historical or sociological account of how Buddhism has mutated as a cover for violent activities. If that is the case - and again, this is all being carried out in an almost perfect vacuum of knowledge about the book in question - what's the problem? "People use religion for distinctly non-religious end" is a decidedly dog-bites-man story.

  13. @ djbuddha,

    Thanks for the link.

    I find some of his assertions rather incredible. I am at a disadvantage because my familiarity with the Mahayana shastras and sutras is minimal. I am much more familiar with the Pali canon.

    I believe he is on solid ground when he states that there is no concrete or given consequence for any act, even acts of violence because as I understand kamma, it's impossible to understand kamma and how it specifically works with a specific person in a specific situation, including my own.

    Context is key.

    Which is why I say it is better to simply refrain from violence altogether.

  14. @Gerontion,

    Thanks for your patience with me. My fixation on diction comes from years of being a newspaper reporter and editor (although I could still use a proofreader to catch my typos; even editors need an editor). Which is why I remain stumped by the first half of your response. You state that "Buddhist Warfare" could simply mean warfare carried out by Buddhists. If I grant you that (which I won't), you comment that said warfare is "rather obviously different from warfare carried out by Christians or Muslims or Hindus." How so? Is not warfare just warfare, regardless of who carries it out? It's still greed, hatred and delusion combined all into one great big shitball.

    But I concur with the second half of your comment. I have often told others that Buddhism is like a sponge; it soaks up cultural practices and other ethics from whatever environment it is in. But all that soaked up stuff is not Buddhism. It's not Dhamma. It's just culture, a fabrication.

  15. If I'm a Christian and I want better to understand the Christian tradition, I'm going to be rather more interested in the history of Christians going to war than I am in Zoroastrians going to war. In just this way, a book about Buddhist warfare will, for Buddhists, be significant in a way that a book about war in general, or Hindus at war, or Muslims at war, or nuclear war won't be. That's what I meant by its being different. As to exactly what the publisher's intentions were in giving the book this particular title, I can't say. Is my understanding of the title right? Dunno but it seems like a fair interpretation.