Buddhism and Violence -- Sightings

Last night the Troy-Area Interfaith Group held it's annual Thanksgiving Service at the local Hindu Temple.  It was good to gather together and affirm our common humanity, which transcends our religious and cultural differences.  One of the values of gatherings such is this is that they allow us to get to know each other as human beings, recognizing that each religious tradition has its positive and negative attributes.  In today's Sightings column, Martin Marty takes note of something pointed out in the book American Grace, which I myself am currently reading with great fascination.  As the title of the posting suggests, it has to do with Buddhism.  Robert Putnam and David Campbell in comments, which I've yet to come upon, note that Americans don't have very warm feelings toward Muslims, Mormons, and Buddhists.  The last might seem surprising since most Americans deem Buddhists a fairly peaceful group.  But then, they don't know much about them.  But, in the interest of having a balanced understanding of our religious professions, Marty notes that there is evidence that Buddhism also has a dark side -- just as Christianity, Judaism, and Islam do.  So, I invite you to read and respond.


Sightings 11/22/2010

Buddhism and Violence
- Martin E. Marty

Buddhism and Islam came off as the two “faith communities” to whom other Americans feel least warm, according to a Faith Matters survey of 2007. Robert Putnam and David Campbell ponder this in American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, which Sightings has visited twice before. Mormons come in third as a stimulator of “least warm” feelings among others. The authors comment that negative media attention hurts Mormons and Muslims, but “Buddhists do not get the same negative media attention” as do those two. So something else must account for the negative ratings of Buddhism.

Reach for your search engine, Google or otherwise, and ask “which religion is most peaceful?” Once you get past the answers of apologists—of course, Muslims think Islam is, and Christians think Christianity is—it’s clear that Buddhism is seen as most peaceful. What gives? Read on in the polls and interviews and you will find that Buddhists are kept at a distance by some because they are at a distance from others. Buddhists profit from their distance. If familiarity breeds contempt against Muslims, unfamiliarity also does not help them or Buddhists. Despite this picture derived from those polls and interviews, one still has to ponder: Jews, Christians, and Muslims suffer in the media because their texts and traditions are often so warlike. Ask your friend who practices Buddhism why it does not suffer? Answer: Because its texts and traditions breed peace.

As an equal opportunity admirer and critic of the “faith communities” on this subject, I also have wondered how Buddhism gets its peaceful reputation. A review by Katherine Wharton of two books, Buddhist Warfare and The Six Perfections illuminates. Buddhist Warfare, says Wharton, “forms an accurate history of violence in the name of religion,” and cites sutras which shock, since they “justify killing with detailed reference to the Buddha’s central philosophical tenants. The book therefore presents a uniquely Buddhist ‘heart of darkness.’” Brian Victoria’s essay in The Six Perfections brings the issue to modern times: D. T. Suzuki (d. 1966), “the most influential proponent of Zen to the West in the twentieth century . . . gave his unqualified support to the ‘unity of Zen and the sword.’” Between ancient and modern times, as another contributor to these symposia finds and cites, was Chinese monk Yi-hiuan, who urged his hearers to “kill everything you encounter, internally as well as externally! Kill the Buddha! Kill your father and mother! Kill your closest friends!”

In the eyes of many apologists and observers, the Buddhist concept of “emptiness” is, from a distance, a guarantor of peace, over against the fullness of Warrior-God texts in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. But Wharton is convinced by these books that “emptiness” can and does also promote violence, and is not by itself the solution.

Now, why does Sightings, which keeps track of celebrations of peace and reconciliation, so often point to violence in texts and traditions? To give aid and comfort to “the New Atheists,” who solicit our aid in killing all religion(s) to assure peace? Hardly. To suggest that condemning Muslims (or specific others) because of the violence of some among them is unfair? Partly. Most important it is to provide a basis for hope for those who work on ecumenical or interfaith grounds and to point to the reconciliatory texts and work on the basis of them, but without illusions. Respondent publics agree that the religious texts point finally to shalom, peace, reconciliation. Their final promise deserves attention all along the way. The final word might come first.


David E. Campbell and Robert D. Putnam, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010).

Michael K. Jerryson and Mark Juergensmeyer, editors, Buddhist Warfare (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).

Katherine Wharton, “Buddhists at war: The dark side of what is often thought to be the most peaceful of religions,The Times Literary Supplement, September 29, 2010.

Dale S. Wright, The Six Perfections: Buddhism and the Cultivation of Character (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).

Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.


Editor’s Note: Sightings will take a break for Thanksgiving and will return on Monday, November 29.


Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.


Glenn said…
Religion is the perfect vehicle for transforming the human tendency for US vs. THEM thinking into a tremendously potent source of violence. After all, in what other subject besides religion are we excused from the reasonable demand to support our strongly held beliefs with verifiable evidence? And if you really believe your eternal happiness (or eternal suffering) hinges on addressing your God by the correct name then it shouldn't be surprising that people are willing to die and kill for such high stakes.

Buddhism at it's core, despite the fact that most Buddhists practice it as such, is not a religion. And while there are certainly dogmas that have developed within Buddhism over the centuries that rival the Christian virgin birth in implausibility, it's wisdom is based in science. You begin with the hypothesis that attending (meditation) in the prescribed way and avoiding or engaging in specific behaviors (ethics) results in wisdom and psychological contentment (enlightenment). If it doesn't then Buddha himself said that his teaching should be rejected. It's empiricism at its best.

So, the old koan about, "If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him", has nothing to do with justifying the sword and everything to do with the unfortunate human tendency to choose violence over wisdom. It speaks about the absurdity of turning the Buddha into a religious fetish and thereby missing the essence of his teachings. It is precisely this type of perversion by self described Buddhists that has resulted in most non-Buddhists perceiving Buddhism to be a religion.

I see nothing more dangerous and polarizing then certainty without evidence. In order for people to stop killing and start talking to each other, they need to be willing to have a dialogue about universal concerns like ethics, spirituality and human suffering without insisting on adherence to faith doctrines that are all too often irrational at best.
Brian said…
Thank you Glenn. You stated it well.

The notion of "killing the Buddha" is largely about killing our perceptions and attachments to religious ideas. We should say, "If you meet the Christ on the road, kill him". Unfortunately we don't. We (Christianity) tend to get uncomfortable looking beyond our constructs. (Idolatry anyone?)

Frankly, I wish Dr. Marty would not have written this piece. I'll take him at his word regarding his intention, but what is underneath the need to lift up negatives of another culture's religion? (Of course it is pure coincidence that the cultures are not white.)
Brian said…
Just realized my post sounds angry. Not intended. Buddhist and Taoist perspectives have blessed me much over the years. The piece "pushed my buttons" as they say.
David said…
Excellent comments here.! All these religions have been bastardized by adherents and competitors alike.
David said…
Oops, I used the term religion too loosely, right Glenn?

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