Review: Buddhist Warfare

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By Michael Jerryson

The publication of Buddhist Warfare, a book I co-edited with Mark Juergensmeyer, is a bittersweet experience as it marks the culmination of a journey that began with an exploration of the peaceful aspects of Buddhism only to end up chronicling portions of its dark side. This journey, which consumed much of the last six years of my life, began in 2003 when my wife and I spent a little over a year in Thailand. It was then that I began to research Buddhist social activism which was going to be the topic of my dissertation.

Rather than look to archives, I decided to speak with Buddhist monks and nuns on the ground. I interviewed monks protecting the forests from big business and villagers from dangerous pesticides; I met and began to chronicle the activities of the first fully ordained Thai Buddhist nun, Dhammananda Bhikkuni; and I met with Thai Buddhist monastic intellectuals.

Military Monks

Then in January 2004, violent attacks broke out in the southern provinces of Thailand, some of which were directed at Buddhist monks. These attacks and the numerous ones to follow shocked the country. But, since contemporary issues and my research interests seemed to be converging, I thought: what better way to study Buddhist activism than to observe Buddhist monks engaged in peacemaking?

Unfortunately, I found very little of this.

During my visits between 2006 and 2008, southern Thai monks shared the challenges of living in their fear-infested communities. All but a few concentrated on survival; peacemaking was the last thing on their minds.

The constant fear and violence took a toll on them. Monks talked about the guns they had bought and now kept at their bedsides. Others spoke heatedly about the violent militant attacks on Buddhist civilians and monasteries. Although the cause of the violence is multilayered—owing much to corruption, drug trade, and corporatization—many monks also felt Islam was to blame. In their minds, the conflict was anchored to the larger discussion of religious violence: Muslims against Buddhists.

One day after teaching an English class for Buddhist novices at a monastery a young monk came over and pulled back the folds of his robe to reveal a Smith & Wesson. I later learned that he was a military monk—one of many covert, fully ordained soldiers placed in monasteries throughout Thailand. To these monks, peacemaking requires militancy.

Since my initial realization in 2004, I began to look critically at my earlier perspective on Buddhism—one that shielded an extensive and historical dimension to Buddhist traditions: violence. Armed Buddhist monks in Thailand are not an exception to the rule; they are contemporary examples of a long historical precedence. For centuries monks have been at the helm, or armed in the ranks, of wars. How could this be the case? But more importantly, why did I (and many others) hold the belief that Buddhism=Peace (and that other religions, such as Islam, are more prone to violence)?

Buddhist Propaganda

It was then that I realized that I was a consumer of a very successful form of propaganda. Since the early 1900s, Buddhist monastic intellectuals such as Walpola Rahula, D. T. Suzuki, and Tenzin Gyatso, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, have labored to raise Western awareness of their cultures and traditions. In doing so, they presented specific aspects of their Buddhist traditions while leaving out others. These Buddhist monks were not alone in this portrayal of Buddhism. As Donald S. Lopez Jr. and others have poignantly shown, academics quickly followed suit, so that by the 1960s U.S popular culture no longer depicted Buddhist traditions as primitive, but as mystical.

Yet these mystical depictions did not remove the two-dimensional nature of Western understanding. And while it contributed to the history of Buddhism, this presentation of an otherworldly Buddhism ultimately robbed Buddhists of their humanity.

Thupten Tsering, the co-director of “Windhorse,” encapsulates the effects of two-dimensional portrayal in a 1999 interview with the New York Times. “They see Tibetans as cute, sweet, warmhearted. I tell people, when you cut me, I bleed just like you.”

In an effort to combat this view and to humanize Buddhists, then, Mark Juergensmeyer and I put together a collection of critical essays that illustrate the violent history of Buddhism across Mongolia, Tibet, Japan, China, Korea, Thailand, Sri Lanka, and India.

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.

Although the book only arrived at bookstores last month, it apparently touched some nerves in the academic community before its release. Some have objected to the cover [image right], which they feel is not an appropriate subject for Buddhism. Ironically, that is the very reason this collection of essays is so important: to address the apparent and widespread inability to acknowledge the violent side to religious traditions. It is this inability that robs its adherents of their humanity.

In a way, I wish I could return to that dream of Buddhist traditions as a purely peaceful, benevolent religion that lacks mortal failures and shortcomings. But I cannot. It is, ultimately, a selfish dream and it hurts other people in the process.

Buddhist Warfare certainly contributes to the broader discussion of religious violence, but on a more intimate and local level, I hope this collection will effect some significant change in the way Buddhism is perceived in the United States. Only time will tell.


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13 Responses to Review: Buddhist Warfare

  1. The author says:

    Ironically, that is the very reason this collection of essays is so important: to address the apparent and widespread inability to acknowledge the violent side to religious traditions. It is this inability that robs its adherents of their humanity.

    In a way, I wish I could return to that dream of Buddhist traditions as a purely peaceful, benevolent religion that lacks moral failures and shortcomings. But I cannot. It is, ultimately, a selfish dream and it hurts other people in the process.

    I cannot help but transport this insight into our own religion, GVism. The author speaks of a “violent side to religious traditions”. Unlike Bhuddhism, our tradition does not hide its call to arms when and if it believes the need for such arises: “Rise, Arjuna, and fight!” is there in the Bhagavad-gita for all to see and learn. Yet our tradition hides other, more insidious types of violence. As Michael Jerryson says here, the inevitable consequence of these little family secrets is that ultimately the adherents of a religion are robbed of their humanity. His conclusion is quite apt: that the personal idyllic projections we force on our religions are ultimately selfish and trespassing of others’ rights.

    The key developing aspect of a religion, it seems, is in its capacity to approach its ideal without sacrificing its human roots in the process.

    • The key developing aspect of a religion, it seems, is in its capacity to approach its ideal without sacrificing its human roots in the process.

      While there are aspects of our humanity that should be nourished by religion, there are other aspects of our humanity that should be uprooted. Lust and greed for example are an integral part of the human animal, and they need to be uprooted with the help of religion. But you have written that religion itself has human roots that must not be uprooted in pursuit of its ideal. I find this confusing. Is religion rooted in humanity and thereby merely an aspect of it, or is it rooted in transcendence and thus capable of uprooting us from our human weaknesses.

      • “Is religion rooted in humanity and thereby merely an aspect of it, or is it rooted in transcendence and thus capable of uprooting us from our human weaknesses?”

        If a religion is actually rooted in transcendence then certainly it is capable of uprooting our anarthas. If it’s foundations are man-made then obviously it is rooted in humanity and arguably it is ineffective in expelling material desires from the heart.

      • It is not confusing really (and as a spiritual guide you know this – you merely test me) in that human actually means the border between material and divine consciousness. Sometimes animal-like consciousness is predominant, sometimes higher consciousness prevails, then perhaps it gets covered over again for some time due to circumstances. But eventually the fixed spiritual nature of the self takes over and it is very much like human in that it is driven by emotion; transcendental, perfected emotions. (Or better stated, human consciousness is very much like the divine, we are made in God’s image). This struggle for perfection is indeed where the Supreme Being takes the greatest pleasure, for it is when God and the jiva finally meet that the Divine too is stirred emotionally. Its the Deity’s lila.

        Krishna says, “abandon religions altogether”. My understanding of this is that obviously religion in itself is just a tool which is not to be taken as the goal. Its material aspect must be left at bay. We must not miss the forest for the trees, as the saying states. We abandon those aspects of humanity which are unfavorable to bhakti, i.e., the calculating, reason driven and therefore ultimately impersonal structures of religion. We must trust, we must hope for faith, we must surrender – saranagati. Follow our nature.

        Thus fight, as the Buddhist monks must at times, even apparently against their own reasoning, is not what is wrong with religions. According to GV perception, the error is in fighting on the wrong side.

  2. Simply identifying violence amongst people who are a member of a religion does not automatically mean that the religion is the cause of the violence. Violence and falsity are visible everywhere religion or no religion. Just because “the dark side” is found amongst members of religious institutions does that automatically mean that the religious teachings and practices have a “dark side”? I think that a simpler and less biased explanation might be that some of the practicioners are just not living up to the teachings. The teachings of Bhuddism certainly don’t support violence.

    • Actually, the teachings of Buddhism promote the ultimate violence of non existence. Under that kind of pressure, the soul eventually fights back with equal force. Bhaktiprajna Keshava Maharaja, the sannyasa guru of Srila Prabhupada, took upon himself the specific task of demonstrating that the mayavada of Sankara is nothing but Buddhism in disguise. But not the Buddhism of Visnu avatar, but rather the Bhuddhism of Sakhya Sinha Buddha, a materialist in essence. Whether Keshava Maharaja’s enthusiasm for the argument was grounded in facts or not, what is true is that the soul does not know a state where it does not act. The idea of a land where there isn’t drama and consequent related tragedies is, in actuality, only a projection. And, ironically, violence in this world can sometimes be precisely the result of such immature conception of the ideal world.

      • The idea of a land where there isn’t drama and consequent related tragedies is, in actuality, only a projection.

        I think you are wrong here. At least within Vaisnavsm in some forms of santa rasa such a land exists.

        • Yes, all possibilities are there. But even in santa rasa there must be awareness. This imply action. The action of santa rasa is in choosing to be less affected by intense transcendental emotions. But the closer to the center of the ideal, the more action the soul will experience. The lila of the Lord is multi layered and infinitely interactive.

          • Santa rasa is very different from the prakrti nirvana of Buddhism, a reality nonetheless. But there are similarities. Santa rasa is characterized by lack of action on the part of the soul. I do not agree that in santa rasa one chooses to be less affected by intense transcendental emotions. It is more of a choice in sadhana to be still and a witness to the wonder of the Absolute without actively participating in the drama of lila. At least this is the case for meditators in Vaikuntha.

  3. I said in my previous post that the greatest pleasure for the Deity is when the Divine finally meets with the jiva. Technically, the greatest pleasure is in the meeting of the Divine Couple. So this can be said in two ways: 1)The jiva is given the opportunity of assisting in the greatest pleasure; 2) The Divine is enhanced by that assistance, hence the meeting of the jiva and the Divine generating the greatest of pleasures.

  4. I think that many religious people are tempted to force their beliefs and social norms on others, using violent means if need be. Their excuse for such action apparently comes from a desire to ‘make others into a better people’. Religious leaders often adopt the motto: “End justifies the means”, which invariably leads to serious abuse of power in the name of religion, and subsequent reaction in the form of anti-religious sentiments among people in general.

    Our own tradition is not immune to such temptation. Srila Prabhupada spoke to his disciples about forcing people to adopt Krsna consciousness and even killing ‘the demons who oppose our efforts’, of course only ‘once we become powerful’.

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