Monday, December 29, 2014

"Buddhist Warfare": Is Buddhism A "Religion of Peace"?

This post is now almost five years old, but it is still one of my all-time favorites. Original post-date: Jan. 1, 2010.

Uh, compared to what?
When Muhammad and his Companions succeeded in their military conquest of what is today Saudi Arabia, they commanded that the practice of all non-Muslim religions would be henceforth forbidden. Polytheistists, Christians, Jews and anyone else who refused to convert had to leave or be killed. This policy has been continuously in place in the land of Islam's foundation ever since, by the express order of the founder of that religion. To this day, by law all citizens of Saudi Arabia must be Muslim. [See, for example, Tolerance and Coercion in Islam by Israeli scholar Yohanan Friedman, especially chapter 3.]

Prior to the Islamization of Arabia it had been a place where Pagan polytheists lived side by side with Jews and Christians. Here, religion was debated freely, and individuals were free to make their own religious choices, and free to change their minds. It was precisely this freedom that gave Muhammad and his Companions the opportunity to spread their new ideas.

Centuries earlier Christians had gained political power in the Roman world in the early 4th century AD with the ascension of Constantine to the throne. Immediately, they sought to impose their religion by force on the entire population of the Roman Empire, which at the time may have comprised as much as 1/4 the human race. Respected historians have described the violent intolerance of the early Christians in the harshest possible terms, such as the following:
[T]he determination of the Christian leadership to extirpate all religious alternatives [was] expressed in the silencing of pagan sources and, beyond that, in the suppression of pagan acts and practices, with increasing harshness and machinery of enforcement.
[Ramsay MacMullen, Christianity and Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries]

Persecution was an unavoidable consequence of Constantine's act in adopting Christianity. Two of the chief points in which this faith differed from the Roman State religion were its exclusiveness and the vital importance which it assigned to dogma. The first logically led to intolerance of pagan religions, the second to intolerance of heresies, and these consequences could not be averted when Christianity became the religion of the State.
[J.B. Bury, History of the Later Roman Empire]
Edward Gibbon, in his The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, famously attributed the success of Christianity first and foremost to "the inflexible, and if we may use the expression, the intolerant zeal of the Christians." But Gibbon, and the same is true of Bury and Macmullen as well, emphasized not only the intolerance of the Christians, but the tolerance of the Pagans whose religions the Christians sought to (and largely succeeded in the attempt to) extirpate.

Gibbon explicitly contrasted the "intolerant zeal" ushered in by the triumph of Christianity, with the prevailing "religious harmony of the ancient world" that preceded it. This "harmony" often exceeded mere toleration, in fact, so that "even the most different and even hostile nations embraced, or at least respected" each other's religious traditions. J.B. Bury puts it like this: "The purpose of the official cults in the pagan State was to secure the protection of the deities; these were liberal and tolerant lords who raised no objection to other forms of worship; and toleration was therefore a principle of the State."

Ramsay MacMullen, in his Paganism in the Roman Empire speaks of the "accommodation, fraternal welcome, courteous referral, or punctilious deference" that was shown by Pagans to each other (that is, to Pagans of widely different cultures and nations, often worshipping very different Gods in very different ways). MacMullen points out that this terrestrial good behavior was a reflection of what ancient Pagans assumed was a similar harmony in the Heavens: "until Christianity introduced its own ideas. Only then, from Constantine on, were Gods to be found at war with other Gods." [p. 93]

Michael Jerryson: From Clueless Dupe to Self-Righteous Debunker
I apologize for the above brief history lesson. The problem is that many highly educated people are either completely unaware of the historical record when it comes to the violent intolerance of Christianity and Islam, or they feign such ignorance when they find it convenient to do so. A case in point is Michael Jerryson, co-editor of a recent scholarly anthology on Buddhist Warfare.

Until quite recently (2006 or thereabouts) Jerryson apparently had been suffering under the delusion that Buddhism is an otherworldly religion whose hundreds of millions of adherents were all committed pacifists. The surprising thing (not really, though, if you have ever met many western "Buddhist scholars") was that Jerryson had acquired this ridiculous conception of Buddhism while supposedly "studying" the religion as a graduate student!

Jerryson's eyes were opened, though, in 2006 when he traveled to a region of Thailand where a series of deadly attacks against Buddhists by Muslim terrorists had recently taken place. Jerryson had been excited when he heard of these attacks because he was sure that this would provide a wonderful demonstration of the miraculous powers of Buddhist "peacemaking" against those nasty Jihadis. However, when Jerryson arrived on the scene he was mortified to find Buddhists actually -- horrors -- defending themselves!!

As soon as he recovered from the deep swoon that must have resulted from the initial, terrible shock, Jerryson immediately knew what had to be done. The world had to be told the truth: Buddhim has a dark side!! Jerryson simply could not stand the thought that there might be others who did not know the terrible, hidden secret that he had just discovered first hand: that Buddhism is not a pacifist religion after all.

Jerryson himself tells this story, with a straight face, in a literally self-promoting entry by him at the website (dated January 12, 2010), pushing his book. The article breathlessly claims that whereas previously "some of the great interpreters" of Buddhism have engaged in an outrageous fraud by promulgating "the notion of a purely mystical and otherworldly Buddhism", Jerryson will now reveal the sordid "history of Buddhist violence and warfare." He does this, naturally, not to bury Buddhism, but to "humanize" it.

Jerryson claims that he was the unsuspecting victim of "a very successful form of propaganda" being propagated by Walpola Rahula, the Dalai Lama and D.T. Suzuki. I will get back to those three great Buddhist teachers in a moment, but first I want to point out that Jerryson's stupidity and lack of intellectual curiosity are obviously no one's fault other than his own. Even worse, all he has done is trade in one fairy tail, that Buddhism is a purely pacifist religion, for another one: that Buddhism is just as violent and intolerant as Christianity and Islam.

Jerryson claims that there was a "Buddhist propaganda" campaign throughout the 20th century and into the 21st, to convince people of the terrible lie that Buddhism is a "religion of peace". The star witnesses that Jerryson calls are all certainly well-credentialed. But have they ever said what Jerryson claims they have said?

Walpola Rahula (1907-1997) wrote the following in his most famous book What the Buddha Taught:
This spirit of tolerance and understanding has been from the beginning one of the most cherished ideals of Buddhist culture and civilization. That is why there is not a single example of persecution or the shedding of a drop of blood in converting people to Buddhism, or in its propagation during its long history of 2500 years. It spread peacefully all over the continent of Asia, having more than 500 million adherents today. Violence in any form, under any pretext whatsoever, is absolutely against the teachings of the Buddha.
[What the Buddha Taught, p. 5]
The above quote might at first appear to lend some credence to Jerryson's claim, but that would only be true if critical reading skills are no longer being taught (or, better yet, required for admission) in graduate schools, or at least at UC Santa Barbara. The first and last sentences in the above paragraph are statements of opinion, whereas the middle two sentences are statements of historical fact.

Moreover, the first three sentences in that paragraph are all very specifically concerned with "tolerance", "understanding", "persecution" and most specifically with the lack of any reliance on violence in the spread of Buddhism throughout Asia. The last sentence, by contrast, makes a sweeping statement about Buddhism's view of all violence whatsoever. It is certainly a leap to go from (1) the claim that Buddhists preach and practice tolerance and understanding and do not engage in violence in the name of religion, to (2) the claim that "Violence in any form, under any pretext whatsoever, is absolutely against the teachings of the Buddha."

Any critical reader will note that the examples given by Rahula in the first three sentences do not prove the sweeping claim of the final sentence. It should also be apparent that even if the final sweeping claim were proven false, that would not amount to disproof of the far more limited claims of the first three sentences.

In fact, taken by itself, this one paragraph is not sufficient to tell us what Rahula's position on "violence" is. There are other places where he reiterates his conflation of Buddhism with pacifism, as when he states that "It is too well known to be repeated here that Buddhism advocates and preaches non-violence and peace as its universal message, and does not approve of any kind of violence or destruction of life. According to Buddhism there is nothing that can be called a 'just war'."

But Rahula also makes frequent, and always approving, mention of "the great Buddhist Emperor Asoka of India" who set a "noble example of tolerance and understanding." In fact that is taken from just a half page or so prior to the four sentence paragraph quoted above. Rahula explicitly states than an absolute commitment to "non-violence, peace and love" did not interfere with Asoka's ability to "administer ... a vast empire in both internal and external affairs."

There is no evidence, nor has anyone, including Rahula, ever claimed, that Asoka disbanded his armies altogether, or in any other way renounced the basic right of national self-defense. Rather, Asoka renounced conquest, which is a very different thing!

Over 12 years ago Matthew Kosuta produced a thorough study of "The Military in the Pali Canon", in which he documented that while there is a "pacifist ethic" in Theravada Buddhism (of which Walpola Rahula is a modern representative), this "ethic" has always "coexisted" with "a strong military tradition ... side by side with the Buddhist ideal."

Kosuta's conclusion is that the Pali Canon (which is as close as one can get to the "original" teachings of the historical Buddha) "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." Kosuta tries to have it both ways by also claiming that "ultimately ... the military is not conducive to Buddhist ethics." But the facts Kosuta presents speak clearly: there was nothing new, or in any way "propagandistic", about Walpola Rahula's statements concerning non-violence. Whatever contraditions there might be in Rahula's position on violence have always been intrinsic to Buddhism's relationship to the "real world"!

What of the Dalai Lama? The message of non-violence that he has promoted is different from that of Walpola Rahula in two important ways: (1) His Holiness does explicitly renounce Tibet's right to military self-defense, and (2) this aspect of the Dalai Lama's message of non-violence is at variance with historical precedent in Tibetan Buddhism. But, nevertheless, the Dalai Lama's statements on non-violence do not support Jerryson's bizarre claim of propagandistic deception.

The Dalai Lama has not sought to mislead people about the historical position of Tibetan Buddhism with respect to self-defense. In fact, much of the Dalai Lama's argument concerning non-violence has always been directed precisely at his fellow Tibetans, many of whom believe that Tibet should fight against the Chinese just as Tibetans have always fought against foreign threats in the past. One of the most prominent critics of the Dalai Lama's pacifism was his own older brother, Taktser Rinpoche, who participated in military resistance to the Chinese occupation of Tibet in the 1950's and 60's.

Anyone with any real interest in Tibetan Buddhism will quickly learn that Tibet, which has been a Buddhist country for over a thousand years, has never been a pacifist nation. Tibet is far more accurately described as a warrior nation, and this did not change all that much when it became a Buddhist nation. That is not necessarily something that Tibetan Buddhists brag about, but it is the historical reality. But rather than bothering to study the history of Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism, it appears that the sum total of Jerryson's knowledge of the subject is simply what he has gleaned from the "santaclausified" version of the Dalai Lama in the mainstream media, which merely demonstrates Jerryson's own incuriousness.

Finally, the Dalai Lama himself has at times conceded that even his pacifism is not absolute. In particular, on the question of terrorism His Holiness has on multiple occasions since the September 11, 2001 terrorists attacks, indicated that a purely non-violent approach is not sufficient to respond to and protect against terrorism.

So once again there is no basis for Jerryson's claim to have been duped by the Dalai Lama, any more than he was tricked by Walpola Rahula. But what about D.T. Suzuki (1870-1966)? This is surely the weakest of Jerryson's "witnesses". Anyone at all familiar with Suzuki's writings knows that he was an ardent admirer and proponent of "Samurai" style Zen, of the Rinzai school variety. Only a moron could possibly make the claim the D.T. Suzuki engaged in "Buddhist propaganda" to convince the world that Buddhism is pacifistic. In fact, only an abject fool could for a moment believe that modern Japanese Zen is in any way pacifistic.

Of course there were a great many abject fools studying Japanese Zen during the 60' and 70's. Many of them are today among the most well known Zen teachers in the West. It is one of the great mysteries of the 20th century how it came to be that apparently none of these Zen students ever bothered to ask, "What did you do during the war, Roshi?" But whether or not they did ask such questions, and regardless of the answers given if they did, it was an open secret that if there had been any Japanese Zen Masters who openly opposed their government during the period of Empire and War they did not live long, certainly not long enough to travel to California after the war.

Here is what D.T. Suzuki wrote under the heading "Zen and the Samurai", which is the title of Chapter IV of his Zen and Japanese Culture:
It may be considered strange that Zen has in any way been affiliated with the spirit of the military classes of Japan. Whatever form Buddhism takes in the various countries where it flourishes, it is a religion of compassion, and in its varied history it has never been found engaged in warlike activities. How is it, then, that Zen has come to activate the fighting spirit of the Japanese warrior?

In Japan, Zen was intimately related from the beginning to the life of the samurai. Although it has never actively incited them to carry on their violent profession, it has passively sustained them when they have for whatever reason once entered onto it. Zen has sustained them in two ways, morally and philosophically. Morally, because Zen is a religion which teaches us not to look backward once the course is decided upon; philosophically, because it treats life and death indifferently. This not turning backward ultimately comes from teh philosophical conviction; but, being a religion of the will, Zen appeals to the samurai spirit morally rather than philosophically. From the philosophical point of view, Zen upholds intuition against intellection, for intuition is the more direct way of reaching the Truth. Therefore, morally and philosophically, there is in Zen a great deal of attraction for the military classes.
Much more could be said. But this is already much more than enough time and effort wasted on such foolishness.