Religion & Philosophy

Et tu, Buddha? Rationalizing violence in Buddhism

Earlier last month, in a book review at Britain’s Current Intelligence titled The myth of “nonviolent Buddhism” — demolished once again, Vladimir Tikhonov wrote that according to Mahayana Buddhism, when it comes to killing . . .

. . . it is the intention and not the act in itself that is focused upon. . . . As some of the most influential Mahāyāna sūtras . . . suggest, “killing” is simply a meaningless misconception from an “enlightened” viewpoint (since neither the killer nor the killed have any independent existence) and may be undertaken if intended to prevent a worse misfortune, and done with the best objectives in mind.

That’s some world-class rationalization. Furthermore, writes Tikhonov, “the Buddhist emphasis on ‘good intention’ opened the door for a broad spectrum of violence legitimization, including both war and in criminal justice.”

One then feels compelled to ask: If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, is the road to heaven paved with bad intentions? Consider that your koan for the day.

The subject of the review is Buddhist Warfare (Oxford University Press) edited by American academics Michael K. Jerryson and Mark Juergensmeyer. It follows in the tradition of Zen at War, Brian Daizen Victoria’s 1998 book that explored how closely much of Zen Buddhism aligned itself with Japanese militarism leading up to World War II. According to Tikhonov, the new collection . . .

. . . persuasively argues that even though in theory Buddhism highlights the inescapably insalubrious [! — RW] karmic consequences of any violence, in practice it functions pretty much like any other religion: From its inception, Buddhism was integrated into a complicated web of power relations; it always attempted to accommodate itself with the pre-existent power hierarchies while preserving a degree of internal autonomy; and it inevitably came to acknowledge, willingly or otherwise, that the powers-that-be use violence to achieve their objectives.

If that’s not disillusioning enough for you, try this:

. . . the passive acknowledgement of the inexorableness of state violence further developed into active collaboration with state war-making or internal pacification — as long as state bloodletting was seen as also serving Buddhist religious interests.

At its most extreme . . .

. . . a very similar logic was also applied to the cruelest forms of criminal justice utilized by secular rulers in Mongolian society after the conversion to Gelug-pa Buddhism in late sixteenth century. Executions by spine-breaking and slicing into pieces [as well as torture, were] justified as long as they were conducted by “Dharma-protecting” authorities with the “compassionate” intention of purifying society. Violence ended up being justified as long as it was seen as the best way of realizing rulers’ good intentions in what was perceived as an inherently violent world.

“Good intentions” rears its now-ugly head again. Have you figured out the koan yet? Meanwhile, you may be surprised to learn that as Islamists take some of their cues from Muhammed leading followers into battle, the responsibility for Buddhist violence can be laid, in part, at the door of the “the historical Buddha and his disciples, since it was exactly their attitude of tacitly acknowledging state violence and accepting sponsorship from ruling-class personages directly or indirectly implicated in all sorts of violence.”

Among the most pernicious effects of “early Buddhism’s dichotomous view of society” is that it “gave Buddhists little reason to take risks by actively promoting antiwar views certain to alienate state rulers.”

Tikhonov’s powerful conclusion resounds. Much as he values Buddhist Warfare, he would still like to see . . .

. . . a broader and stronger contextualization of Buddhist violence as part and parcel of a more general tendency of practically all religions to be violent. Religions are symbolic systems that organize the universe in such a way as to make themselves central and powerful — and closing the distance between “power” and “violence” is only a question of time, however “compassionate” the axiology of a given religion might originally have been.

First posted at the Foreign Policy in Focus blog Focal Points.

7 replies »

  1. This won’t play so well with many American Buddhists, I’m sure. Especially those who live up near Boulder.

    I have come, more and more, to view religions the same way I do any other organization. To the extent that they seek influence in the world, they are ultimately political (and really, is there a more powerful political party on Earth than the Roman Catholic Church?), and in that they have a need, if they would survive and thrive, to acknowledge and engage the power dynamics of the society. That means getting people in line and keeping them in line, and THAT usually means violence.

    I wonder how Sam Harris would address this book? He devotes nearly all of his abuse to the Abrahamic religions, but what you note here aligns Buddhism with the same kinds of behaviors.

  2. Sam wrote:

    they have a need, if they would survive and thrive, to acknowledge and engage the power dynamics of the society.

    That’s exactly the theme of my recent reading about the history of Zen Buddhism in Japan and the United States! Re Boulder: Naropa founder Trungpa and his ilk are the subject of my next post.

  3. Buddha followed his own path so, by example, should we follow our own? In my experience, most religious people are not on any spiritual path, they are afraid of the consequences of the past, current, and planned behaviors.

  4. Vladimir Tikhonov grossly misstates Mahayana teachings on killing, which is not to say they haven’t been interpreted that way before, but it’s a minority view. But I take it Tikhonov has an Anti-Religion Agenda to promote, so he cherry picks his interpretations accordingly.

    Brian Victoria’s first book was accepted and even embraced by American Zen teachers when it was first published in 1998. I remember my first Zen teacher, John Daido Loori, saying that we should appreciate Victoria’s work and learn from it. And the Soto Zen establishment in Japan has acknowledged that most of what Victoria wrote was true. However, other researchers who went back to Victoria’s original sources have found errors and mistranslations on Victoria’s part that call part of his work into question. He just plain slandered D.T. Suzuki, for example, by taking a quote from an anti-war essay published in the 1950s out of context to make it sound pro-war, and then claiming the essay influenced Japanese militarism in the 1930s, two decades before Suzuki wrote it.

    The Jerryson and Juergensmeyer book likewise has been criticized for being corrupted by an Agenda. Jerryson in particular seems to suffer from what I call Innocence Betrayed syndrome; that is, he began with an impossibly naive and idealistic view of Buddhism as utterly mystical and otherwordly, but when he went to Asia to live with monks they didn’t live up to his rainbows and ponies ideals. So he took on the holy crusade of revealing Buddhism”s “dark side,” much of which was stuff that any aficionado of kung fu movies already knew.

    The idea that Buddhism is completely pacifistic appears to be a Western misunderstanding. For example, the original rules of the monastic orders (Vinaya-pitika) permit monks to defend themselves, even with deadly force, if necessary. Essentially, Jerryson and Juergensmeyer are attacking a straw man Buddhism of Western creation because it doesn’t live up to their arbitrary standards.

  5. While I do see Buddhist practice and philosophy as largely non-violent, I do concede that any organization is prone to this same epidemic of “groupthink” and violence. Organized religion, especially those embraced by a form of government is ripe for abuse and worse. The example of Soto Zen in Japan during WWII, for me, is a prime example of a religious group fearful of losing its status as “state-religion” and thus turning a blind eye towards events and movements that are contrary to teaching and compassion.

    As Barbara states, the “completely pacifistic” viewpoint of Buddhism is largely a misunderstanding. As with any group or person, the teachings are taken in different ways. While not a violent person myself, I do know I have the potential to be violent if needed. Any reader of Buddhist history will see that there are numorous examples of violence (of both the passive and not-so-passive type). If anything, the Buddhist stance on violence, is that we need to contemplate our own leanings towards it and examine our intent. At times violence is the most “skillful” choice. Although, I think it is still a rare event. Victoria’s book is a wonderful read and well recommended to anyone.

    What is not recommended is taking a philosophical base and applying it too strongly to an organizational or politcal base. The recipe is a dangerous one.