Et Tu, Buddha? Rationalizing Violence in Buddhism

Earlier last month, in a book review at Britain’s Current Intelligence titled The myth of “nonviolent Buddhism” — demolished once again, Vladimir Tikhonov wrote that according to Mahayana Buddhism, when it comes to killing . . .

. . . it is the intention and not the act in itself that is focused upon. . . . As some of the most influential MahÄyÄna sÅ«tras . . . suggest, “killing” is simply a meaningless misconception from an “enlightened” viewpoint (since neither the killer nor the killed have any independent existence) and may be undertaken if intended to prevent a worse misfortune, and done with the best objectives in mind.

That’s some world-class rationalization. Furthermore, writes Tikhonov, “the Buddhist emphasis on ‘good intention’ opened the door for a broad spectrum of violence legitimization, including both war and in criminal justice.”

One then feels compelled to ask: If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, is the road to heaven paved with bad intentions? Consider that your koan for the day.

The subject of the review is Buddhist Warfare (Oxford University Press) edited by American academics Michael K. Jerryson and Mark Juergensmeyer. It follows in the tradition of Zen at War, Brian Daizen Victoria’s 1998 book that explored how closely much of Zen Buddhism aligned itself with Japanese militarism leading up to World War II. According to Tikhonov, the new collection . . .

. . . persuasively argues that even though in theory Buddhism highlights the inescapably insalubrious [! -- RW] karmic consequences of any violence, in practice it functions pretty much like any other religion: From its inception, Buddhism was integrated into a complicated web of power relations; it always attempted to accommodate itself with the pre-existent power hierarchies while preserving a degree of internal autonomy; and it inevitably came to acknowledge, willingly or otherwise, that the powers-that-be use violence to achieve their objectives.

If that’s not disillusioning enough for you, try this:

. . . the passive acknowledgement of the inexorableness of state violence further developed into active collaboration with state war-making or internal pacification — as long as state bloodletting was seen as also serving Buddhist religious interests.

At its most extreme . . .

. . . a very similar logic was also applied to the cruelest forms of criminal justice utilized by secular rulers in Mongolian society after the conversion to Gelug-pa Buddhism in late sixteenth century. Executions by spine-breaking and slicing into pieces [as well as torture, were] justified as long as they were conducted by “Dharma-protecting” authorities with the “compassionate” intention of purifying society. Violence ended up being justified as long as it was seen as the best way of realizing rulers’ good intentions in what was perceived as an inherently violent world.

“Good intentions” rears its now-ugly head again. Have you figured out the koan yet? Meanwhile, you may be surprised to learn that as Islamists take some of their cues from Muhammed leading followers into battle, the responsibility for Buddhist violence can be laid, in part, at the door of the “the historical Buddha and his disciples, since it was exactly their attitude of tacitly acknowledging state violence and accepting sponsorship from ruling-class personages directly or indirectly implicated in all sorts of violence.”

Among the most pernicious effects of “early Buddhism’s dichotomous view of society” is that it “gave Buddhists little reason to take risks by actively promoting antiwar views certain to alienate state rulers.”

Tikhonov’s powerful conclusion resounds. Much as he values Buddhist Warfare, he would still like to see . . .

. . . a broader and stronger contextualization of Buddhist violence as part and parcel of a more general tendency of practically all religions to be violent. Religions are symbolic systems that organize the universe in such a way as to make themselves central and powerful — and closing the distance between “power” and “violence” is only a question of time, however “compassionate” the axiology of a given religion might originally have been.