Monday, November 22, 2010

When did the Buddha stop beating his wife? (More on "Buddhist Warfare")

I have already posted some of my own thoughts on the book Buddhist Warfare, co-edited by Michael Jerryson and Mark Juergensmeyer (see links at the bottom).

My take is that whatever value there might be in the previously published academic papers slapped together to make up this "book" is more than offset by the crudely propagandistic packaging and promotion that transforms the end product into nothing more or less than an anti-Buddhist polemic that will be most at home in the libraries of good Christian militants preparing for their next mission trip to Asia.

Anyone who thinks I am exaggerating the agenda-driven nature of Buddhist Warfare should read co-editor Michael Jerryson's unhinged rant at the website, with the very subtle title Monks With Guns. Therein one can behold for oneself Jerryson's affected outrage at the sight of Buddhists defending themselves against terrorism, and his delusional accusation that the Dalai Lama has devoted his life to misrepresenting Buddhism (and the even more delusional claim that he, Michael Jerryson, is just the guy to expose the "Buddhist propaganda" of His Holiness).

And if Jerryson's diatribe doesn't convince you, the publisher's website makes it clear that the intention of book is to insist on a hamfisted moral equivalence between Buddhism and the religions that gave the world Inquisitions and Jihads: "Buddhist Warfare demonstrates that the discourse on religion and violence, usually applied to Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, can no longer exclude Buddhist traditions."

I am coming back to all this now, briefly, because there has been a new flurry of interest in Buddhist Warfare. In particular I want to draw attention to some reviews that have appeared quite recently.

But before getting to those reviews I want to first once again emphasize the importance of Matthew Kosuta's 1997 paper on The Military in the Pali Canon. Kosuta's paper is well known to anyone with the slightest interest in the historical relationship between warfare the Buddhist religion (although it is not mentioned once in Buddhist Warfare). Kosuta traces this relationship back to the earliest documented history of Buddhism, by way of the sacred writings that are traditionally believed to contain the verbatim teachings of the Buddha himself.

Kosuta finds that no matter how far back one goes in the Buddhist canon, one never finds a purely pacifist teaching. Instead one finds "an apparent contradiction": "[A]fter the introduction of Buddhism into the now Theravada countries, Sri Lanka and Buddhist Southeast Asia (excepting Vietnam), a strong military tradition has continued in these countries, remaining side by side with the Buddhist pacifist ideal. The coexistence of a pacifist ethic and a military tradition creates an apparent contradiction."

At the beginning of his article, Kosuta states that "My working hypotheses were as follows: strong ties even inseparable ones can exist between a pacifist religion and the military; the canon must in some way, support military action; and a pacifist religion has no real means of affecting the military."

At the conclusion, Kosuta writes "This study has shown that the Pali Canon indeed forms an explicit opinion on the military. The Canon recognizes that, in a mundane perspective, the military is ever present, of high prestige, and even necessary in some circumstances for the protection of Buddhism."

Even a little knowledge of Asian history, in fact, tells us precisely the same thing that Kosuta's thorough research in the Pali Canon confirms: the Buddhist religion, even, so far as we are able to ascertain, going back to the Buddha himself, has never called for the abolition of the military, nor questioned the necessity "in some circumstances" of waging war. King Asoka did not disband his armies when he embraced Buddhism. Nor did the Mongols, the Chinese, the Japanese, the Koreans, the Vietnamese, etc. Therefore, there is no justification, whatsoever, for the simplistic view that Buddhism demands (or has ever demanded) adherence to the modern, western notions associated with the word "pacifism."

But now, on to the reviews.
  • Over at, Buddhist blogger Barbara O'Brien has written two posts critical of Buddhist Warfare:
    Thoughts on Religious Violence (October 23)
    What Do You Mean By Buddhism? (November 1)

    In the first post, O'Brien correctly points out that the main thesis of the book is "something of a straw man" since "Buddhism has never claimed to be absolutely nonviolent." O'Brien also very sensibly points out that "I agree that Buddhism has been romanticized in western popular culture of late, but from what I see, practicing western Buddhists are as much annoyed as gratified by this. And the antidote to over-romanticizing is not over-demonizing." In the second post, O'Brien goes after what she sees as Jerryson's misrepresentations and misunderstandings of Buddhism itself, beyond just the issues related to violence.

  • At the PreciousMetal blog there is Nate DeMontigny's review, posted on Nov. 21. Nate says, among other things, "I did feel like this book was more of an attack on Buddhism than it was an exposè on violence in the Buddhist realm." And also: "Not that I am a believer in any sort of violence or war for that matter but I tell you what, if someone came into my house and attacked my family or myself I would kick the snot out of the person (or try my best). Here’s the shocker though folks, I am a Buddhist . . . . Even the Dalai Lama says ”If someone has a gun and is trying to kill you, it would be reasonable to shoot back with your own gun.” (quote from May 15, 2001 issue of The Seattle Times)

  • At Kyle Lovett's TheReformedBuddhist blog there is a post from October 26 titled "Religion, Violence, and Historical Fallacies." This is a follow-up to an earlier review that had already appeared on that blog (on Oct. 16): "Crooked Deduction by Academic Ambiguity." Both of these posts are worth reading closely. One point that Lovett makes is the following: "One key problem with Mr. Jerryson’s thesis is a belief that people in the West view Buddhism as a non-violent and pacifistic religion, yet shows little in the way of evidence to support writings, media or popular culture references where this pacifistic ideal is propagated."

  • It should come as no surprise that Jerryson's efforts at anti-Buddhist propaganda are greatly appreciated in some corners. Writing for the Christian Century, where he is executive editor, David Heim (whose theological influences include "Baptist piety" and "Lutheran theology"), has penned a mini-review under the title If you meet the Buddha, in which he shares how terribly "shocking" it was for him to read about what Jerryson luridly calls Buddhism's "dark side."

  • David Heim's very brief Christian Century review, linked to above, in turn links to a much more in depth, or at least much longer, review by Katherine Wharton at The Times Literary Supplement (Sept. 29): "The dark side of what is often thought to be the most peaceful of religions." Katherine Wharton, it turns out, is a missionary for the Church of England who specializes in the conversion of Buddhists and Hindus to Christianity. This, I think, places things in their proper perspective, especially the way in which Dr. Wharton approvingly proclaims: "Of all the major faith traditions, Buddhism is often seen as the most peaceful, but Buddhist Warfare exposes its darker side."

  • Writing for the Tricycle magazine blog, Sam Mowe provides a useful, if brief, Buddhist response to Wharton's apologetics: Emptiness: Violent or Compassionate?

  • Finally there is a very disappointing review in the most recent (Fall 2010) issue of Buddhadharma by David Gray. Gray mostly offers empty, "me, too", praise coupled with book-report style chapter summaries (in his defense, this is a pretty standard boilerplate for academic reviews). In the full article (but not in the online excerpt), Gray does manage to challenge some of the more extravagant excesses in Brian Victoria's predictably sanctimonious contribution to the anthology.

Other relevant posts from this blog: