You Cannot Think Those Thoughts!

A scholar co-edits a collection of essays on Buddhist warfare and “touches a nerve” to put it mildly.

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.

Setting immigrant Buddhism (Japanese, Vietnamese, etc.) aside, most Americans’ view of the Buddhism comes from intellectuals like D.T. Suzuki or various elite teachers, roshis, etc.

We Americans never saw Buddhism(s)  in its original cultural contexts.

As I recall, some medieval Japanese monasteries used to send out armed monks to fight in various political struggles, just to name one instance.

17 thoughts on “You Cannot Think Those Thoughts!

  1. Apuleius Platonicus

    This book is nothing more than a string of straw-man arguments. The idea that Buddhism is a pacifist religion is a fantasy dreamed up by western practitioners and scholars. Buddhism has been one of the major religions of Asia for 2500 years, and it has never, during that all that time, promoted pacifism. The fact that Buddhist nations have engaged in warfare is news only to people who have never known anything about the history of Asia in the first place.

    When they first gained political power, the first order of business of Islam and Christianity were to systematically extirpate all other religions, an endeavor in which they had great success (although not as great as they would wish). Buddhism has never been responsible for the extirpation of a single religion. Not one.

  2. Rombald

    When I lived in Japan for 10 years, I got friendly with some Korean students, and was invited to their temple on numerous occasions. The parishioners were mainly working-class Japanese-Koreans, and the atmosphere was the opposite of the hippyish, koan-quoting Western image of Buddhism. In fact, it was rather like a church in a down-at-heel corner of a British city.

    I think issues like whether violence is justified have been debated, along pretty similar lines, in Christianity and Buddhism.

    However, although I don't really have much time for Buddhism, its record, though far from perfect, isn't as bad as Christianity. Ashoka tried to encourage Buddhist values without pushing Buddhism itself down anyone's throat, whereas Constantine was a monster. I think maybe the difference is that Buddhism teaches reincarnation, so people don't all have to have the right beliefs this time round.

    Apuleius: I've come across your comments a few times. You strike me as trying to force every situation into a narrow ideological framework. Kind of like an Evangelical Christian, in fact. Oh well.

  3. Pitch313

    Right you are–Buddhism in the West is not like Buddhism in the East.

    I think that a key difference has to do with avenues toward and into alternative spiritualities. Buddhism in the West came as an alternative and a minority spirituality. In the years following WW II, Buddhism served as an experimental and avante garde spirituality for those with an anti-militarist and anti-war outlook. They probably would not have taken up any sort of war-themed Buddhism.

    I'm not liking your charging teachers of Buddhism in the West with being "intellectuals" or "elite."

    So we should have picked up our Buddhism from unintellectual and un-elite teachers?

    What's that?

    Better Buddhism comes from badder teachers?

    Sure, my early exposure to Buddhism came from folks like Alan Watts, D.T. Suzuki, SF Renaissance and Beat writers and artists, KPFA, Shinryu Suzuki, and stories of war in Asia from WWII veterans.

    Somehow I recognized the teachers as good and the teachings as worthy. Offering alternative outlooks on living in the world.

    Why would I have wanted less qualified and able teachers? Of Buddhism? Of anything else?

  4. Apuleius Platonicus

    Rombald: Religious violence and religious intolerance are inseparable issues. And both must be approached by way of comparisons between different religions and cultures. As a westerner and a Pagan I use the history of the "interaction" between Christianity and Paganism as a point of reference. I don't know why you find that puzzling.

    In fact, the primary reason why people are interested in the issue of religion and violence is the murderous violence that has been associated with Christianity and Islam.

    Buddhist scholar Bernard Faure writes something very interesting in the "Afterthoughts" section of Jerryson's book. Faure cites several specific examples of religious persecution associated with Buddhism in China and Japan, but then says "these cases are the exceptions that prove the Buddhist rule, and they underscore the contrast with the practice of Inquisition in Christianity." [p. 218]

  5. Apuleius Platonicus

    Those who read "Zen at War" should know that the leaders of the Meiji Restoration, that is, the people most directly responsible for the horrors described in that book, not only were not Buddhists but were anti-Buddhist and wanted to suppress Buddhism.

    The Japanese Buddhists, to their shame, responded by cravenly bending over backwards to make themselves good nationalists. They did not want to be left out of the party of Japan's rise to greatness.

    What Japanes Buddhists, including many Zen Masters, did during the Imperial period is in no way excusable. But it is completely different from the evil alliance between Christianity and Imperialism, and also the alliance between Christianity and Fascism, found in the West.

  6. Rombald

    To say that Meiji leaders were anti-Buddhist is an oversimplification, but broadly true. There were two broad streams within Meiji: (i) those who revered Japan's ancient past, and wanted to establish the "pure Shinto" that had been revived/developed earlier in the century by Motoori, etc.; and (ii) modernisers, who wanted Japan to Westernise and industrialise, and tended to be functionally materialist, although some were Christian, and some advocated modernised, "Protestant" Buddhism.

    There was a brief, desultory persecution of Buddhism round 1869, but to say that all Meiji leaders wanted to suppress Buddhism is not true (a few were Buddhists). The motives for the persecution relate to the above two parties: the Romantic Shintoists thought that Buddhism, a foreign religion, had corrupted the pure soul of Japan, whereas the Westernisers thought that Buddhism was backward and Asian.

    What eventually happened was that Buddhism was separated from Shinto. This was an artificial separation, as the two religions had welded together over 1,000 years, and many priests had to suddenly declare whether the religion they had been practising was Buddhist or Shinto.

  7. Rombald

    "completely different from the evil alliance between Christianity and Imperialism": Debatable.

    Certainly, there was no attempt to force anyone to convert to Buddhism, as in the Spanish Empire. The analogy with the British Empire is closer, as Christianity was entangled with, but had an ambivalent relationship with, British imperialism. However, Japanese imperialism was much worse than British imperialism during the same era.

    Also, "Zen at War" shows that much of the most gratuitous cruelty had roots deep in the Zen tradition.

    Personally, as a Pagan, I find the involvement of Shinto in Japanese imperialism and fascism more troubling than that of Buddhism. However, State Shinto was largely an invention of the 1870s, an attempt to harmonise the two Meiji parties that I mentioned.

  8. Rombald

    Christianity and Buddhism have striking similarities:

    1. Religions for all peoples, places and times.

    2. Aim for individual salvation, rather than collective welfare, etc.

    3. Advocate idealistic ethics (eg. pacifism), and then dramatically fail, or make little attempt, to live by them.

    As I said, though, Buddhism's record is not as bad as Christianity's. I suspect that's because of belief in reincarnation.

  9. Apuleius Platonicus

    I think that as long as we agree that "Buddhism's record is not as bad" that is a very good starting place.

    But in my opinion the next question must be "how much better is it?", and this has to lead to asking such questions such as:

    How many religions have been suppressed to extinction or nearly so by Buddhism?

    How much has Buddhism relied on forced conversion for its spread?

    How many Buddhist Temples have been built on top of previously existing Pagan temples as an intentional act of desecration?


    Answers for Buddhism: zero, not at all, none.

    Answers for same questions put to Christianity: hundreds (at least), almost completely, thousands (at least).

  10. Rombald

    Certainly, Buddhism's record is nothing like Christianity's but I doubt whether it's true that Buddhism has never wiped out any other religion.

    In places that are solidly Buddhist, an earlier religion must have been replaced. In Thailand, the earlier religion was Hinduism, which was completely replaced, but survived elsewhere (assuming that Thai and Indian Hinduism were the same religion – opportunities for semantic debate warning!). What about the pre-Buddhist religions of Sri Lanka, Burma, Cambodia, Laos?? I honestly don't know the histories of those countries.

    Rather than hard persecution, Buddhism has more of a tendency towards soft persecution, defining other religions as training for, or preliinaries to, Buddhism, rather than as valid religions in their own rights. This is what happened to Shinto in Japan (Kasuga Shinto, Shinbutsu Shugo, etc.) and Bon in Tibet. Again, I suspect this is linked to belief in reincarnation.

    Leaders of the Shinto Revival, around 1800, like Motoori Norinaga and Hirata Atsutane, railed against syncretism with Buddhism, insisting on the distinctness nad superiority of Shinto.

    I strongly sympathise with the Shinto Revivalists, except that their thought was the main underpinning of Japanese fascism and imperialism – that, to me, is far more troubling than the non-pacifism of Buddhism.

  11. Rombald

    Also: Tribal peoples in Asia have had their cultures destroyed by expanding states, and, as with tribal peoples in the West, it is difficult to separate economic, political and religious motivations.

    The Thai hill-tribes used to be non-Buddhist. Thailand is a highly nationalist, centralised state, with its legitimacy closely tied to Buddhism, and the Buddhist hierarchy has been closely implicated in oppression of tribespeople.

    In Japan, the Ainu suffered a worse fate, similar to the Native Americans. Buddhism, Confucianism, State Shinto and Westernisation were all involved in this process.

  12. Apuleius Platonicus

    "I doubt whether it's true that Buddhism has never wiped out any other religion."

    The great thing about Christianity is how they remove all doubt about such things. They gloat about it. They write about at length in self-congratulatory paroxysms of pride. They sings hymns of praise thanking their God for the destruction of other religions.

    Religions come and go. That is part of the natural flow of things. But Christianity engages in systematic spiritual clear-cutting, followed by spiritual monoculture. That is completely different from the organic ebb and flow of cultures, empires, migrations, etc.

  13. Apuleius Platonicus

    Rombald, Why are you so obsessed with defending Christianity? They do a fine job of defending themselves.

    I am not claiming that Buddhists or other non-Christians, are perfect, pacifistic beings unblemished by greed, violence, etc.

    A mindless recitation of terrible things done by Buddhists proves nothing. What you are doing is like trying to claim that the United States is just as bad as Nazi Germany on the basis of the fact that hundreds of religious hate-crimes (according to the FBI) occur in the US every year.

    The very real faults of Buddhist societies are not a reflection of a penchant for violence intrinsic to Buddhism itself. But the history of violence and persecution associated with Christianity does reflect a systemic, institutional problem with that religion. This does not mean that all non-Christian religions are perfect, just that they aren't perfectly evil.

  14. 108maya

    Actually, the question should really be: why are you, Apuleius Platonicus, obsessed with defending this idealistic viewpoint of Buddhism (and tearing down this book).

    As I noted on your own blog– you went and attacked a book before you even read it. Then, after two posts, in which you written numerous contradictions which I tried kindly to point out, you then claim to have read two chapters (Intro and Conclusion), and when you posted on it, misrepresented the authors and the book.

    If anyone is doing a "straw-man" argument, it's you. You have done nothing to substantiate Jerryson's point, but only talk about how absurd it is.

    One last point– in the volume, not one of the contributors makes the claim that Buddhism is "more violent" than other religious traditions. I think that's a good thing. It's ludicrous to travel down that path of trying to weigh "what is violence" and quantitatively then show which religious tradition might be more.

    The point of the book was to debunk the idea that Buddhism is a completely peaceful, pacifistic religion. Jerryson writes that Buddhism is misidentified as such by many people in the United States.

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