Last month, Steven asked me to have a look at an circulating email reporting that "Buddhism wins best religion in the world award." After searching through the web, I found that the report was published by beliefnet.com on 15th July 2009 (in case beliefnet.com took it down, you can still read it here). Subsequently this report is posted on Buddhist's websites like Dhammacitta, Mingkok Buddhistdoor and Dhammaweb. The news was also announced at formal events like the 3rd convocation seminar, held at Penang's Than Hsiang temple, by the Pro-Vice-Chancellor and a Chair Professor in Geotechnical Engineering C. F. Lee in the presence of 250 participants.
Buddhist like dhammaprotector has checked up the news and advised Buddhists from circulating this news without first verifying it. "It may be a hoax and it looks like it at the moment," he wrote.
It is a hoax. The organization International Coalition for the Advancement of Religious and Spirituality (ICARUS) which was reported to award the accolade does not exist. Even the name of the organization sounds wrong. It should be 'International Coalition for the Advancement of Religion and Spirituality' or 'International Coalition for the Advancement of the Religious and Spirituality'. The word 'religious' is an adjective that does not make sense by itself. Either it needs an attached noun (eg. religious community) or a definite article (eg. the religious) to be intelligible.
We don't know who started this unverifiable news. What we do know is that the Buddhist websites, Prof. C. F. Lee, the 250 participants at the 3rd convocation seminar at Than Hsiang, and others who thought this news is true are simply duped. Nonetheless the rumor carries an important characteristic of Buddhism known popularly in the public: its supposedly non-violent history.
The probably fictional Director of Research for ICARUS, Jonna Hult, said "It wasn't a surprise to me that Buddhism won Best Religion in the World, because we could find literally not one single instance of a war fought in the name of Buddhism, in contrast to every other religion that seems to keep a gun in the closet just in case God makes a mistake. We were hard pressed to even find a Buddhist that had ever been in an army. These people practice what they preach to an extent we simply could not document with any other spiritual tradition."
Is it true that confessional Buddhists practice non-violence and there is no violent history related to the religion? Is Buddhism's non-violent public image, which is often used by its followers to vindicate its own stature among other religions, valid? Not true and not valid.
Katinka Hesselink has pointed out that,
"The great military conquests of the Sinhalese kingdoms in Sri Lanka, for instance, have been conducted in the name of the Buddhist tradition and often with the blessings of Buddhist monks. In Thailand the tradition called for those who rule by the sword as kings to first experience the discipline of Buddhist monastic training. They had to be “world renouncers” before they could be “world conquerors,” as the Harvard anthropologist Stanley Tambiah put it.A recent book titled Buddhist Warfare (USA: Oxford University Press, 2010) examines this topic in more detail,
… Like Islam, the great expansion of Buddhism in various parts of the world has been credited in part to the support given it by victorious kings and military forces who have claimed to be fighting only to defend the faith against infidels and to establish a peaceful moral order." (Mark Juergensmeyer, Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence [USA: University of California Press, 2001], p.114)
"The eight essays in this book focus on a variety of Buddhist traditions, from antiquity to the present, and show that Buddhist organizations have used religious images and rhetoric to support military conquest throughout history.Michael Jerryson, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Eckerd College, who is also one of the editors of Buddhist Warfare, posted an article on this matter with testimony about his encounter with Buddhist monks who carry guns in Thailand. He states that the current prevalent non-violent public image of Buddhism is the result of a "very successful form of propaganda" initiated by Walpola Rahula (this fella reminds me of my Theravadic Buddhist friend & conversation partner 'Rahula'), D. T. Suzuki, and Tenzin Gyatso (current Dalai Lama) since last century. Jerryson also mentioned that his edited book "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." This does sound like an Augustinian anthropological enterprise.
Buddhist soldiers in sixth century China were given the illustrious status of Bodhisattva after killing their adversaries. In seventeenth century Tibet, the Fifth Dalai Lama endorsed a Mongol ruler's killing of his rivals. And in modern-day Thailand, Buddhist soldiers carry out their duties undercover, as fully ordained monks armed with guns. Buddhist Warfare demonstrates that the discourse on religion and violence, usually applied to Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, can no longer exclude Buddhist traditions.
The book examines Buddhist military action in Tibet, China, Korea, Japan, Mongolia, Sri Lanka, and Thailand, and shows that even the most unlikely and allegedly pacifist religious traditions are susceptible to the violent tendencies of man."
There are also other studies such as Brian Victoria's Zen War Stories (UK: Routledge, 2002). "Victoria reveals for the first time, through examination of the wartime writings of the Japanese military itself, that the Zen school's view of life and death was deliberately incorporated into the military's programme of 'spiritual education' in order to develop a fanatical military spirit in both soldiers and civilians. Furthermore, that D. T. Suzuki, the most famous exponent of Zen in the West, is shown to have been a wartime proponent of this Zen-inspired viewpoint which enabled Japanese soldiers to leave for the battlefield already resigned to death."
This book built on his first book Zen at War (USA: Rowman & Littlefield, 1997; 2nd edition, 2006) that shows the imperial Japanese military's fanatical ideology has its foundation in Zen Buddhism. Perhaps not dissimilar with how Hitler used certain form of Christianity for his cause.
We have examples of violence incited by Buddhists in our current times as well. For example, in May 2006, Buddhist monks led mobs to attack three churches in Sri Lanka.
Hopefully this post may contribute in little ways to help clarify the spreading rumor that Buddhism won the best religion award as well as its public image of non-violent tradition. None of current major religions are stainless, and hence all need to continue to strive to be. So, "What shall we conclude then?," drawing from the question that apostle Paul aptly asked in Romans 3.9. With emphasis and in solemnity, the apostle answered, "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God..." (Romans 3.23)