Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Have We All Been Subject To Buddhist Propaganda?

by Hattie Hammans

After working through a succession of unsuccessful ideas for my blog post this month, I was texted by a friend: ‘Why don’t you investigate violence in Buddhism?’

This message surprised me. I’m no expert, but having studied Buddhism and read a book written by the Dalai Lama, I felt I could reasonably say that Buddhism = Peace.

Typing very bluntly ‘Violence in Buddhism’ into Google, I came across a few articles that shocked me. One example was from 2012, a claim that Buddhists had been oppressing Muslims in Burma, repeatedly trying to block humanitarian aid. The article was accusing these Buddhist monks of fuelling ethnic tensions in the country. For me this was particularly resonant after the very recent attacks in France, having raised questions about religious violence worldwide.

And it made me think: these incidents of Buddhist violence seem to have slipped past unnoticed in the West (judging by my reaction of surprise and horror).

And, even more importantly, I found an act of violence that took place in Japan by the terrorist group Aum Shinrikyo to have been founded upon Buddhist ideas and scriptures. The Buddhist rationalisation of taking the lives of "less spiritually advanced" beings in order to advance them towards salvation seemed horrifying, as my aforementioned perceptions of Buddhist morals were shattered. Reading on, I was pleased to see that these incidents were few and far between, and many Buddhists would be doubtful that this terrorism could be even labeled as an offshoot of their religion.

However, my innocence had been tainted. Was this ideal religion, the one I had so brazenly claimed ‘had never caused any war’ not what it seemed? 

I found some explanation in the blogging of Professor Michael Jerryson, author of the book ‘Buddhist Warfare’  (eight essays that consider Buddhist violence and how, throughout history, their philosophy has justified this). Professor Jerryson claimed that Thai monks, subject to living in constant fear and violence during the South Thailand insurgency, had resorted to carrying guns. This was for survival and, to a Westerner such as Professor Jerryson, it seemed to reject their peacemaking ideals.

And this is where I suggest we have been holding a romantic view of Buddhism. We are held in a Western ignorance of Buddhist history; Buddhist tradition is just as familiar with violence as the three Abrahamic faiths of Christianity, Judaism and Islam: for example, the long history of feuds between Buddhists in Japan, the Tibetan monastic assassination in 841 of King Langdarma, supposedly justified although the early texts condemn the mental states that lead to violent behavior. 

However, within these texts it is also possible to find examples of Buddha killing Hindu people for insulting a Buddhist sutra. As Professor Paul Demieville recounts,We are told that the first reason [to put the Brahmins to death] was out of pity [for them], to help the Brahmins avoid the punishment they had accrued by committing evil deeds while continuously slandering Buddhism.‘Compassionate Killing’ is something deemed acceptable, even honorable, in this instance. Within these scriptures, it has been noted that killing an ant causes you bad karma, but murdering an infidel who ‘has only emptiness’ has no more karmic return than ‘destroying the wind’.

Since the 1900s, Buddhism has become increasingly popular in the West, initially sparked by the influx of Chinese missionaries in the United States. It became a popular escape from the perceived complexity of Western life by the Hippie generation of the 1970s. 

I’m not saying that the first missionaries intentionally deceived us, but somewhere along the way we have forgotten that Buddhists too, are human; which, sadly, as history has shown, seems to include a tendency to engage in violence. I think maybe the inaccessibility of the Buddhist scriptures has played a part in our ignorance. At least, they aren’t readily available at the click of a button over the internet.

To call it propaganda is possibly too accusatory; I am simply trying to shed the belief that Buddhism rises above other religions by refusing to engage in violence. And I can say it no better than this writer: 

"No major world religion is vastly different from the other when it comes to its propensity to inspire violence. Instead of using religious violence to demonize particular faiths we should hold in our hearts a continuous candlelight vigil to end inter-religious violence–holding hands with Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus–and start seeing each other as fellow human beings."

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