Sunday, January 24, 2010

"Buddhist history does not show the kind of fanatic excesses familiar in the histories of Christianity and Islam."

What were Michael Jerryson and Mark Jurgensmeyer's goals in putting together a collection of scholarly articles under the title Buddhist Warfare? Jerryson explains in his Introduction that
The motivations for this volume are many, but chief among them is the goal of disrupting the social imaginary that holds Buddhist traditions to be exclusively pacifistic and exotic.
If you do a google search on "imaginary noun" the very first hit is an essay on "Critical Terms To Be Lined Up Against A Wall And Shot" by Associate Professor of English at Wesleyan University Sean McCann. McCann states, bluntly, that
My current vote for most annoying bit of lit-crit jargon is the ugly and omnivorous use of “imaginary” as a noun--especially in the currently familiar phrase “national imaginary.” What is up with that? It’s never been clear to me how imaginary in this usage differs from imagination--except, well, that it’s newer and more, um, problematized. But more importantly, it’s not clear to me at all how the term “national imaginary” (meaning, so far as I can tell, something like a nation’s psychic template) avoids the problem of imputing collective consciousnesses that has long been a problem for literary study. If you say a nation has an “imaginary,” you’re pretty much of necessity saying that it has a collective mind in which that imaginary operates. Why exactly would you want to do that?

I have my suspicions. But for the moment I just want to grumble about the way the critics who use this terminology--critics, I think it’s safe to say, who regard themselves as scrupulously skeptical of received ideas and popular mystifications, particularly of the kind that ascribe false group identities--recussitate in this usage one of the hoariest and most pernicious legacies of literary romanticism. It’s dumb. Nations don’t have imaginaries. There I said it.
As McCann correctly points out, Jerryson's invocation of a "social imaginary" requires that some social entity exist, and that this entity be in possession of a collective consciousness, and that within this collective consciousness the "imaginary" in question operates. Jerryson, however, adds to this "imagining" and even goes so far as to "imagine" himself (a white knight on horseback complete with crusader's cross painted on his shield?) in the role of self-appointed "disruptor" of this pernicious "imaginary" in question.

In a previous post (Attacking Buddhism in the Name of "Peace") I showed how Jerryson's quest is not really so much about "disrupting the social imaginary that holds Buddhist traditions to be exclusively pacifistic and exotic" as it is about the desire to drag Buddhism down to the level of Christianity and Islam, the religions that gave us the words Inquisition and Jihad. More specifically, what Jerryson wishes to "disrupt" is the Enlightenment Critique of Christianity.

Even more specifically, Jerryson would like to "disrupt" the contrast that has been sharply made, going back at least to Voltaire and David Hume, between religions that are inherently intolerant and violent (with Chritianity chief among them) and those that, in Voltaire's words are not "sullied with the same inhumanities" as Christianity.

Bernard Faure (was invited to write his "Afterthoughts" for the volume Buddhist Warfare, this taking the place usually occupied by a "Conclusions" section. One wonders if Jerryson and Jurgensmeyer got more than they had bargained for, unless of course what they had in mind was a scholarly anthology in which the "Afterthoughts" directly contradict the main argument of the "Introduction"!

Faure begins his "Afterthoughts" by delicately pointing out that the contributions to Buddhist Warfare "rarely deal with actual cases of Buddhist violence," and instead focus almost exclusively on "certain forms of discourse -- textual or oral, representing canoncial dogma or extracanonical doxa."

But toward the end of his "Afterthoughts" (after dutifully summarizing each chapter), Faure gets down to business (see page 218):
The claim that Buddhism is a tolerant religion is based on the fact that Buddhist history does not show the kind of fanatic excesses familiar in the histories of Christianity and Islam. Opponents of the Buddha may have been labeled as "heretical masters," but (in part for lack of an ultimate authority) the accusations of heresy rarely led to physical purges.
Faure then goes on to list several specific cases of intolerance and even of violent persecution that have occurred in the course of Buddhist history, only to state categorically:
But these cases are the exception that proves the Budhist rule, and they underscore the contrast with the practices of Inquisition in Christianity.
In other words, the notion that there is a fundamental "contrast" between Buddhism and Christianity with respect to violence is not some "social imaginary", but is, rather, based solidly on historical facts. Therefore, those who would obscure this very real distinction are not adding to our understanding of Buddhism, or to our understanding of the relationship between religion and violence. Instead they are conducting their own "propaganda" campaign, aimed at misrepresenting Buddhism.

[In addition to the post Attacking Buddhism in the Name of "Peace", already mentioned above, also see my other post on this subject: "Buddhist Warfare": Is Buddhism a "Religion of Peace"?]


108maya said...

I think if you are going to attack the word "imaginary" you're going to have to go out on a crusade against quite a few notables, such as Jacques Lacan or the more recent philosopher, Charles Taylor. You should probably read up on what it means, instead of reading critiques of it:

But as to the content-critique, you think Jerryson and Faure are at odds and that Jerryson is whipping together some sort of fanciful propaganda to slander Buddhism?

Why then does Jerryson have Faure's chapter in the book? You give the quote yourself by Jerryson in the introduction, he thinks the problem is framing Buddhism as "exclusively pacifistic and exotic." I don't get how this contradicts what you quote from Faure.

Furthermore, if you are going to create "propaganda" that pushes a false premise, why would you include dissenting points of view? Jerryson does so, which he acknowledges in the Introduction with the inclusion of Brian Victoria, (or even Kent's chapter).

One wonders what is motivating you to write so vitriolic on this one book...

Apuleius Platonicus said...

Buddhism has never claimed to be "exclusively pacifistic". The Pali Canon explicitly accepts the legitimacy of the military as a social institution, and even accepts a role for the military in protecting the Dharma.

Jerryson & Co. would have a case if they tried to systematically trace the development of western misperceptions of Buddhism as a pacifist religion. But they don't do that. They attack Buddhism for not living up to their own fantasies about it.

Faure is somewhat stuck in the middle here. He has in the past voiced similar criticisms, but in a much less hamfisted manner.