Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Buddhism and its non-violent public image

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.

… 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)
A recent book titled Buddhist Warfare (USA: Oxford University Press, 2010) examines this topic in more detail,
"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.

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."
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.

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)


Rahula said...

1. It is a hoax. This had also been mentioned by Shravasti Dhammika.

While the hoax was spread by well-meaning Buddhists, Buddhists themselves too, have been quick to notice that it is a hoax. In fact, a part from the name of the organization as pointed out by Sze Zeng, the name of the Burmese monk mentioned in article also suggest that it’s a hoax.

Christians too, are guilty of spreading similar hoax. One example is “BACK FROM THE DEAD The Remarkable Testimony of a Buddhist monk in Myanmar (Burma) who came back to life a changed man!” It is only when it was pointed out by Buddhists (I was one of them) that several website came up to rectify the mistake.

Another hoax spread by Christians is known as “Sutrapridot”.

2. There are criminals from all walks of life, Buddhists, Muslims, Christians etc. A number of followers of a certain religion being criminals (violent) do not mean the rest are criminals (violent). Jerryson put it well when he wrote, “.......Buddhists are people, and thus share the same human spectrum of emotions, which includes the penchant for violence."
The Buddha accurately described his teaching as “going against the flow” (Ariyapariyesana Sutta, MN 26)

3. In the Pali Canon, there is no example of the Buddha ever praising war, encouraging war, or going to war himself. The same thing cannot be said about the Bible (especially the Old Testament) and Quran. Passages suggestive of supporting of war are plenty. How one interprets them is another issue.

While my expertise is not in Mahayana, I remember two occurrences in Mahayana literature that may be used to support violence.

There is a declaration attributed to Bodhisattva Ksitigarbha, “If I do not go to hell to save others, who will”. However, I don’t remember reading Ksitigarbha making such declaration in the Ksitigarbha Sutra.

Another one is a story that relates that in a former existence, the Buddha then captain of a ferryboat with 500 merchant -bodhisattvas on board, undertook to murder a pirate who planned to kill everyone in order to steal the cargo. The captain, a bodhisattva himself, saw the man's murderous intention and realized this crime would result in eons of torment for the murderer. In his compassion, the captain was willing to take hellish torment upon himself by killing the man to prevent karmic suffering that would be infinity greater than the suffering of the murdered victims. The captain's compassion was impartial; his motivation was utterly selfless. [Bodhisattva Warriors (2003), Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche; Words of my Perfect Teacher (1998) Patrul Rinpoche [Shambhala; Revised edition , page 125]

Rahula said...

4.Coming to Sri Lanka, one must not forget what Jerryson wrote, “Buddhist are people......”

Here, we are not in the court of law, talking about evidence or in the universities, talking about academic stuffs. Here, we are dealing with people, emotions etc. So, naturally the question is why those Sri Lanka do those things? Are they unprovoked? I remember debating with a Muslim regarding the crusades, where I took the Christian sides, and argued that Christians was provoked first.

In Sri Lanka, many of terrorist leaders are Christians (eg. Prabhakaran, Balasingham etc.). Then there is the issue of unethical conversion. Then, there are cases where Buddhist monks who brought up the issue of unethical conversion were murdered, as well as cases of attempted murder. Cases where female minors who are forced to make accusation against certain monks of sexual misconduct (and later proven untrue, but forced to do so by parents/relatives who are Christians). These are only a few examples. Remember that here we are talking about emotions, what the Sri Lankans feel. Retaliation would not be surprising (I am not saying retaliation is right). By the way, I have read reports (probably untrue) that even some of those government leaders are actually Christians, but pretended to be Buddhist to enter politics.

Let’s take another example. Look at Korea. Many Buddhist temples are burnt down by Christians. Now, the President of South Korea is a Christian. Buddhist clergy have been bullied many times, and the President under pressure, was forced to apologise. Would retaliation be suprising? (I am not saying that they should)

5. "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God..." (Romans 3.23). In the context of the topic, your quotation seems to be misplaced. Not all Buddhists (neither are all other religionists) are agreeable and supportive of violence and war.

Rahula said...


I must clarify that I am not trying to point finger at any party.

There is a saying, "There is no right or wrong in a war".

Both sides are as guilty. Imagine if the Axis had won the war. The Allies would have been seen as the bad guy.

Best wishes,

reasonable said...

One good way to compare religions on the issue of violence is to compare the respective essential scripture (especially since the respective followers often failed to meet the standards of their own religions).

It is much easier to find many instances of God in the scripture of the major monotheistic religions telling directly or indirectly, explicitly or implicitly, his people to use physical violence on others than to find Gotama Buddha in the 3 Baskets (Buddhist scripture recognised by all Buddhist schools) telling people to use physical violence on others (I suspect extremely few such examples, if not none, and I think probably none). In the sense, the Buddha of Buddhist scripture (I refer only to the Tipitaka) does not have encourage his followers to resort to any physical violence when compared to the God AS PERCEIVED by the writers of the major monotheistic religions' scripture (of course, whether or not those fallible writers perceived God correctly and wrote correctly about God is another matter).

reasonable said...

"Imagine if the Axis had won the war. The Allies would have been seen as the bad guy."

I do not think so. Human reasoning is not that weak. The current Burmese government has won in politics, yet many Burmese do not view the losers as the bad guy.

Rahula said...


I agree with most of what Anonymous wrote.

On Burma.

1. I don't think the goverment won the election. I thought they lost. Correct me if I am wrong.

2. Even if they, there is nalways a possibility of cheating.

3. A few Burmese that work with me (here, in Malaysia) told me that they don't know why there is so much opposition against their government (in their own country).
[I guess there are pro- and anti- government people everywhere]

On Allies & Axis

1. I don't think we will be able to tell. Perhaps, you are right.

2. Japanese occupation of Asia, and particularly Malaysia, was supported with similar propaganda used by the British, when they came to occupied Tanah Melayu.

Rahula said...


A typo. Anonymous should have been read Reasonable.

I am sorry, Reasonable.

reasonable said...

Hi Rahula,

No worry about names :)

Care to come over to the homosexuality post and give your Buddhist perspective on a few things a guy Clement claimed about Buddhism?