Quantcast

«

»

Aug 21 2013

The dark side of Buddhism

Those who have lived in majority Buddhist countries know that being a follower of that religion does not make one more peaceful. But people in the west have this image of Buddhists as meditative and contemplative people who do not resort to violence. But the Buddhists in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and Thailand seem determined to destroy that image and it looks like they are succeeding, as this NPR report suggests.

In the Western stereotype, Buddhists are meditating pacifists who strive to keep their distance from worldly passions. But last month, more than 40 people were killed in fighting between Buddhists and Muslims in the central Burmese town of Meiktila. Witnesses say some Buddhist monks joined in the violence, while others tried to stop it.

It seems like all it takes is a mere rumor of an insult to Buddhism to inflame passions.

This week also saw an escalation in violence in Sri Lanka with Buddhist mobs, sometimes led by monks, attacking mostly Muslim but also Christian places of worship, with the government not taking serious enough action to curb the violence and seemingly backing these groups. This follows earlier attacks and calls by a prominent Buddhist monk to “rise against the island’s Muslims”

Commenter steffp who lives in another Buddhist-majority country Thailand describes a similar situation arising there.

The justification by a Buddhist monk in Myanmar as to why he urges his followers to attack people of other religions is eerily similar to what some monks say in Sri Lanka too.

Wirathu acknowledges he’s a Buddhist nationalist. But he says he’s just defending his nation and his religion against attacks by outsiders.

“The Burmese race has been insulted,” he argues. “The Buddhist religion has been attacked, and our country has been trespassed. These are the origins of our nationalism.”

There is nothing more dangerous than a majority community feeling that they are the ones who are being somehow oppressed and victimized. Because majority religions tend to have state patronage, this feeling can cause them to lash out, knowing that the state will protect them and there will be little or no repercussions.

19 comments

Skip to comment form

  1. 1
    Jeffrey Johnson

    This just goes to show that when people align themselves with a religion, they are still human beings, weak, fallible, subject to confusion.

    I spent a some time studying Buddhism in the 90s, and became somewhat familiar with the main teachings of the Buddha. For a while I considered myself to be a Buddhist, but only in a philosophical sense. I didn’t practice with bells, incense, or by prostrating or circumnavigating, but I read, thought, and meditated.

    My wife is Mongolian, a Buddhist country, a religion they adopted from Tibet some 600 years ago. The word “Dalai” in Dalai Lama is a Mongolian word meaning “ocean”, and was given by one of the grandsons of Chinggis Khan.

    In the teachings of the Buddha there is no God, no theory of creation, and the practice is focused on calming the mind and overcoming the illusions that lead to unhappiness.

    But spending lots of time in Mongolia taught me that most people that are “born” Buddhist don’t even know the Four Noble Truths, which contain the primary insight of the Buddha. They have integrated traditional shamanistic beliefs and superstitions into a Buddhist symbology. They pray for health and wealth, and give gifts to the Llamas hoping for spiritual rewards. They replicate many of the practices found in other religions. They mindlessly repeat mantras or prayers with no real understanding of the philosophy of the Buddha.

    So there is in my experience a great deal of difference between Buddhism and most Buddhists in this world. This shocked me at first, but later I realized how naive I had been in my initial reverence toward Buddhists and their “spiritual” qualities.

  2. 2
    Reginald Selkirk

    In the Western stereotype, Buddhists are meditating pacifists who strive to keep their distance from worldly passions. But last month, more than 40 people were killed in fighting between Buddhists and Muslims…

    This is no challenge for us Western stereotypers. Obviously those Muslims must have started the trouble.

  3. 3
    Marcus Ranum

    Buddhism’s violent history has been carefully suppressed in the US, by the professional hippy-dippy americanized buddhism, which appears to be mostly oriented around a sort of Tibetanized general woo-woo popularized by Alan Watts and iconized with the dalai lama. Wikipedia’s history of the religion used to contain discussion of the eradication of various Tibetan sects but that’s all gone, now. And I also encounter the bizzare trope that buddhism is a “philosophy” not a religion. All I can conclude is that there are a lot of true faithful who are protecting themselves from the cognitive dissonance that comes from thinking they’ve liberated themself from mundane concerns like religion – by adopting another silly religion.

  4. 4
    ildi

    I was surprised to find out (PBS on history of Buddhism) that basically Buddha ran out on his wife and kid to “find himself”. Pretty sucky behavior for the founder of a major religion! Of course, Jesus gave similar advice to leave your family and come follow him, but his excuse was that he thought the Kingdom of God was right around the corner, setting the stage for all the end-time prophets from William Miller through Harold Camping.

  5. 5
    4oz of reason

    Well, to be fair, he ran off and left them in the imperial palace, so it’s not exactly like they were cursed to a life of hardship.

  6. 6
    jonlynnharvey

    Although I generally self-identify as a Buddhist, I entirely agree with this post.

    A depressing episode right here in American Buddhism was when the impeccably Buddhist-credentialed Clark Strand published an editorial in the Wall Street Journal lamenting the bad directions of American Buddhism, there were outraged letters to Tricycle magazine demanding he be removed from their editorial board. The “non-attachment to views”- how is that working out for you?

    The recent movement called “secular Buddhism” may help resolve some of these issues. It’s very new. Time will tell.

  7. 7
    Cynickal

    All I know about Buddhism I learned from Kung Fu movies.
    :-\

  8. 8
    flex

    I had a similar experience the first time I visited Thailand. The Buddhism as practiced there is quite different than in the various books by Alan Watts. The Buddhist priests performed the same functions of dealing with the supernatural as the Catholic priests in the western world, including exorcizing spirits from buildings.

    Then of course, there is the classic description of young Tibetan Buddhist monks from rival lamaseries in a pitched battle using their pen-cases as weapons in Kipling’s novel Kim.

  9. 9
    lpetrich

    Here is more-or-less the canonical biography of the Buddha. When he was conceived, his mother had a dream that an elephant had entered her side. When she gave birth, some soothsayers were invited to predict the baby Buddha’s future career. They predicted that he’d be either a great king or a great religious leader.

    His father decided to shield him from scenes of pain and suffering, so he’d grow up to be a good heir. But one day, he saw an old man, a sick man, a poor man, and a dead man. He tiptoed out of his home, leaving his wife and son behind, to try to learn the secret of suffering.

    He studied under various gurus, and for a while, he half starved himself to death. But one day, as he was meditating under a Bodhi tree, he got enlightened about suffering. He stated his conclusions as his Four Noble Truths:

    1. Life is suffering
    2. Suffering is caused by irrational craving
    3. Get rid of irrational craving and one will no longer suffer
    4. One can get rid of irrational craving with the Eightfold Way of eight things to work on

    I’ve scored him on the Lord Raglan hero-profile scale, and he scores fairly high.

    One of Buddhism’s doctrines is the “no soul” doctrine, which holds that the self or soul is not an irreducible entity but a bundle of thoughts and ideas. It’s presumably that which gets reincarnated. Some Buddhists are big on karmic debt, where your misfortunes in this life are punishments for sins in previous lives.

    Buddhism has gone a long way from the Buddha, it seems. It has two main branches, Hinayana (“lesser vehicle”) / Theravada (“way of the elders”), and Mahayana (“greater vehicle”). The latter includes lots of gods and the like. A common Mahayana doctrine is the Boddhisattva, someone who is just about to enter Nirvana but who had decided to help others before going in. A popular one is Kuan Yin.

    The Buddha’s biography reached the West in the Middle Ages in the form of St. Josaphat’s biography.

  10. 10
    2up2down2furious

    The “origin story” of the Buddhist religion has always been uniquely troubling to me. Basically, a rich and powerful person stumbles upon poverty and suffering and determines that desire is the cause of suffering. Not a lack of food, lack of political power, patriarchy, etc., but desire. Therefore, the elimination of suffering involves the elimination of desire rather than meeting human needs and creating a just society that allows people to flourish.

    Wouldn’t the modern-day equivalent being a hedgefund manager who, upon visiting Mott Haven, determines that the people would suffer less if they only wanted less stuff? I realize that Buddhists contextualize the story of the Buddha differently, but I can’t help but be disturbed by it.

  11. 11
    Henry Gale

    Thank you for this.

  12. 12
    Jeffrey Johnson

    You are under a common misconception, which is understandable because popular conceptions of Buddhism are mostly mistaken. Your cynicism is misplaced.

    First of all, the four noble truths don’t talk about desire, they talk about attachment. There is a pretty profound difference.

    The Buddha first tried to find the truth by following the ascetic path of self-denial. He finally realized that was an error, and he ended up advocating the middle way, which meant that one should neither engage in great self-denial or self-indulgence. He advocated taking care of basic physical needs first before trying to seek enlightenment. If he were alive today he would be a great advocate of compassionate policies of social insurance and redistribution so that everyone has basic needs met. He would not cruelly tell them they need to get rid of their desires.

    It is quite possible to desire pleasures and feel joy without becoming attached. It is the attachments, the fear of loss, the obsessive preocupations, the inability to let go of things that leads to suffering, not desire. And some of the issues you discuss, such as imbalances in wealth and power, are symptomatic of people’s attachments gone wild. A country of people actually adhering to the teachings of Buddha should be happy to part with enough income in the form of taxation to ensure that everyone’s needs for education, healthcare, allleviation of poverty, and providing opportunities could be met. The anti-tax and blame the poor mentality is the antithesis of Buddhist teachings of compassion and equanimity.

  13. 13
    Marcus Ranum

    The Buddhism as practiced there is quite different than in the various books by Alan Watts

    You may have it backwards. Hundreds of millions of people do it one way, and Alan Watts brought a highly edited version to the USA. What Watts taught might well be called “Wattsism”but the older buddhist traditions are what you describe. I don’t want to encourage sectarian wars between various flavours of buddhism – they’ve “been there, done that” just like every other religion, but if there’s a splinter group religion here it’s what Watts and Suzuki cooked up between the two of them.

  14. 14
    Marcus Ranum

    I was surprised to find out (PBS on history of Buddhism) that basically Buddha ran out on his wife and kid to “find himself”.

    Like with jesus, nobody really has a flippin clue what buddha did or did not do. There are stories about a guy, that were collected, collated, and edited a hundred years after his death. His teachings are what his students supposedly remembered and passed on to their students and so forth for a couple generations. Stop me if you’ve heard this one, before…

  15. 15
    Marcus Ranum

    Oh, and a tremendous number of the American buddhists I’ve met mistake Hermann Hesse’s novel “Siddartha” as somehow a biography of buddha. Hesse probably knew as much about the historical buddha as Ken Ham knows about the historical jesus.

  16. 16
    Marcus Ranum

    Here is more-or-less the canonical biography of the Buddha. When he was conceived, his mother had a dream that an elephant had entered her side. When she gave birth, some soothsayers were invited to predict the baby Buddha’s future career. They predicted that he’d be either a great king or a great religious leader.

    If I may channel David Hume for a moment, which is more likely? That the followers of buddha, 100 years or so later, added a few details to the story of his birth, or that that actually happened? Well, it’s not hard to predict that a child of wealth power and privilege may also grow up to be a great leader (or tyrant) or religious leader (especially given the historical overlap between the two)

    Of course you presented the americanized buddhist story, which is that this was all a dream, that contradicts other earlier versions that had the child actually coming out of the mother’s side while she stood up. So when you describe the above as a “canonical” biography of buddha, what you are actually doing is presenting an edited version; the edited version that was popularized by Alan Watts and other california mushbrains in the 70s. It bears as much resemblance to the prior versions of buddhism, which are accepted by vastly more people, as if someone offered a ‘canonical’(I don’t that means what you think it means) version of jesus’ biography in which he was a perfectly ordinary human being.

    The Buddha first tried to find the truth by following the ascetic path of self-denial.

    We have no way of knowing what he actually did or if he did anything of the sort. Other versions of the buddha myth have him being a successful general and leader. So perhaps there was a blood-fisted warrior who suffered from PTSD and gave up violence. None of us know. Although Hesse’s novelized version is closest to the popular American conception of the life of the buddha.

    He advocated taking care of basic physical needs first before trying to seek enlightenment

    That’s a pretty pat ‘philosophy’ to adopt when you are powerful and wealthy, isn’t it?

    If he were alive today he would be a great advocate of compassionate policies of social insurance and redistribution so that everyone has basic needs met. He would not cruelly tell them they need to get rid of their desires.

    And you are sure of this, how? For one thing you appear to have accepted the idea that he was able to completely change his mind about wealth and power once so why not twice or ten times? If he were alive today, he might be a Randian or a Libertarian. Or – whatever. You have no basis upon which to claim knowledge, especially since all the stories of this supposed character were compiled safely after he was dead and buried and couldn’t be an embarrassment anymore.

    It is quite possible to desire pleasures and feel joy without becoming attached. It is the attachments, the fear of loss, the obsessive preocupations, the inability to let go of things that leads to suffering, not desire.

    That sounds like it was lifted from Epicurus. It probably wasn’t. But that kind of obvious platitude has been served up by the upper class to the lower class as a way of keeping them docile since prehistoric time. It’s certainly not a great realization and not much of a philosophy. And, of course, we have no idea if buddha said that, or one of his followers said that as a way of calming down the peasants who were upset by his unseemly fondness for gold and village girls. I don’t know, and you don’t know. Seems like thin gruel upon which to base these profound statements.

    A country of people actually adhering to the teachings of Buddha should be happy to part with enough income in the form of taxation to ensure that everyone’s needs for education, healthcare, allleviation of poverty, and providing opportunities could be met.

    So I’m assuming you’d say that the Tibetan buddhist leaders, who live in beautiful palaces while dealing out the power of life and death over an ignorant and enslaved population … are not “true buddhists”? How can you tell?

    Of course the situation in Tibet has changed. I’m referring to what Tibet was like during the heyday of Tibetan buddhism, before the Chinese came in and threw the divine reincarnated platitude-spewer out on his ass whereupon he came to the US and got a job working for the CIA to agitate against China. Of course pointing out that Gyatso has feet of clay (try researching his attitudes about sex, if you really want a taste of enlightenment!) is similar to pointing out that Pat Robertson doesn’t seem to be a very good christian, either.

    Yes, that is the point.

  17. 17
    flex

    My apologies if I was unclear.

    I am aware that what Watts and Suzuki wrote does not reflect historical Buddhist practices.

    What I was getting at was that the education I received in an American high school concerning Buddhism, which consisted of a course entitled Zen and Emerson and reading Siddartha by Herman Hesse, was nothing like what I encountered when I traveled to Thailand.

    I found Buddhism to be far more human; with a great deal of depth and character; with both good and terrible events in it’s past; with a multitude of sects and disparate practices and beliefs. This version, the far more interesting version, does not show up in the sanitized version marketed to Americans.

  18. 18
    steffp

    I’m afraid there is no “Buddha”, but many different traditions referring to him. I have severe doubts that such a person ever lived, too divergent are the legends and sayings attributed to him. As for the “noble truths”, they lack the Abrahamic fixation on hierarchy, and call for criticism of greed and selfishness of people higher up in society. Alas, not that it ever helped.
    The problem being, as usual, the clergy, the sangha, the monks. I can’t say anything about historical living conditions in Tibetan monasteries, but I’ve met quite a few abbots in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand and Cambodia, and found they lived rather ascetic and frugal lives. Palaces, not so much. But monks often live parasitic lives, centered on their personal enlightenment. There are exemptions, especially in Mahayana Buddhism, but in general the approach is an individual one.
    In both Thailand and Sri Lanka, Buddhism is articulated by monastic orders, which are closely interwoven with the worldly powers, which means they are, like their Abrahamist colleagues, part of the state propaganda machine, and the politicos do lip service to the eight-fold way while ordering black market Lamborghini cars for their sons. And if said son cuts a Laotian migrant worker girl in half in a hit-and-run with the family Porsche, servile monks will negotiate the blood money (less than the repair costs of the darn car).
    I don’t mind if Buddhism is a religion or a (bad) philosophy. Adhering to it does not make bad people good. Nine monks chanting at the wedding does not make the marriage any more stable. Harmony as an official virtue works just as bad as “loving your neighbor”.
    In the time of colonialism – so I’ve been told – in a small town in (then) Ceylon the trees providing shadow for the marketplace caught a plant disease and withered. The British, as an attempt to improve relations, announced that they’d replace the trees at their cost. Everyone was happy, until the British announced that they’d plant phicus religiosa, the sacred Bodhi tree. Next day a delegation of the market vendors visited the governor and respectfully asked for a different planting. They explicated that, according to tradition, no one can lie or cheat under a Bodhi tree. But of course, some tactics in commerce might border to such wrongdoing. So, if coerced by Bodhi trees to absolute truthful behavior, their businesses might wither like the old trees.
    They finally settled on planting Myristica fragrans, Sattika.

  19. 19
    Mithun

    Well steffp if you do not believe there is no such person live on this world, called lord buddha why do you wast your time writing about him? As you do I never believe there is someone called jeasus, but I never tell any one until now, my believe is jeasus is just a myth, but do you……..?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>