The dark side of Buddhism in practice

In a post yesterday I discussed the fact that although Buddhism did not have many of the absurd philosophical baggage of other major religions, its philosophy had some negative aspects that warranted concern but usually don’t get as much attention.

Another argument that is put forward in favor of Buddhism is a more practical one, that its philosophy of detachment from the world and seeking personal enlightenment as opposed to material goods is less likely to lead to conflict with others. Also it does not have the drive to proselytize, which has been the cause of so much strife down the ages. These qualities are what give it its reputation as a peaceful religion.

All this sounds good on paper but the true test of a religion’s commitment to peace and tolerance is when it is dominant in a country and has access to state power. In the case of two countries (Sri Lanka and Burma) where followers of Theravada (also known as Hinayana) Buddhism form the overwhelming majority, we see that Buddhism can be as ugly as any other religion and its commitment to non-violence and tolerance is not what it is cracked up to be.

In the case of Sri Lanka the Buddhist clergy and their most militant followers have long been at the forefront of attempts to make Sri Lanka a Buddhist country that treats all others as second class. Governments have repeatedly pandered to these hardline elements, giving in to their seemingly insatiable demands for special privileges. They were in the forefront of preventing successive governments from negotiating political agreements with the Tamil/Hindu minority and instead pushed for a brutal military solution. And now that that victory has been won, these Buddhist groups seem to have become even more triumphalist and turned their attention to suppressing the Muslim minority as well. The militant Buddhists seize on any slight, real or manufactured, to attack the Muslims and the government does little to protect them.

Then we have the clashes in Burma where armed Buddhist mobs have attacked Muslim communities, killing people and burning mosques, and driving thousands from their homes.

People in the west encounter Buddhists as an exotic minority. Naturally these Buddhists will preach the virtues of non-violence, tolerance, and peace because they are at the mercy of the dominant Christians. The true nature of a religion is how it treats others when they are dominant and we see that Buddhism can be as bad as the rest and its followers as cowardly as those of other religions who attack others only when they cannot fight back.


  1. jws1 says

    White Christians, particularly Americans, encounter all those not them as “exotic minorities,” it seems to me. They appear, at least, to believe that they are the “default” type of human from which others are deviants.

  2. ollie says

    People are people. That is why I get a bit amused at some of the America bashing I see here. The US behaves the way it does because that is what leviathans do; actually we behave better, much better in fact, that previous leviathans though we still do too many bad things.

  3. MNb says

    “seemingly insatiable demands for special privileges.”
    Is there, besides pastafarianism and discordianism, which sounds fun too, any religion that doesn’t if give the chance?
    Your final sentence is a classic. I am going to steal it at the first opportunity.

  4. Mano Singham says

    Comparing the behavior of countries is tricky. Which previous leviathans do you have in mind that were worse than the US and why?

  5. Miss Anthrope says

    There’s also this which describes how the landed Buddhist theocracy exploited the tenant farmers in Tibet. It’s a far cry from the Shangri-La image portrayed of pre-occupation Tibet.

  6. Vincenzo says

    In short: one can similarly talk about the dark behavior of physicists in practice, and draw similar conclusions. The long argument. Buddhism is not a religion properly since it is agnostic as to the existence of god(s), although it is also clear that many followers do behave as if it were. Buddhism is better understood as an (ancient) philosophical system. Buddhists of the real variety (not the religious types) adhere to various moral principles that inform their behavior in practice. Naturally, Buddhism is not the only philosophical system. Another one could be termed (for lack of a better term) scientism or maybe positivism, which holds the primacy of reason and of science. The scientists adhere to various principles that inform not only their work but also their behavior. Although scientists probably do good most of the time, they sometime behave badly, and create atomic bombs and other similar devilish contraptions. Since science and Buddhism are both found under the heading of “philosophy” (not religions!), and since their respective adherents follow ideal principles that inform their behavior in practice, then it follows that if one talks about the dark side of Buddhism in practice, than one could also talk about the dark side of physics in practice, and draw similar conclusions. Such as for example that physicists have willfully created devices to blow the whole human race into oblivion. However, the dark side of physics does not detract from the noble endeavors of the science, except in that it is good to know about a dark side and watch out for it. Similarly, the dark side of Buddhism does not detract from the philosophy, except that it is good to know about it.

  7. ollie says

    Great Britain for one. They had colonies and had some brutal oppressions that make us look like humanitarians. The USSR is another. The Roman Empire was still another.

    Of course, one can argue (as Pinker does in Better Angeles of our Nature) that our actions reflect a general world wide climate in which violence has dropped (per capita) and human rights are considered important.

  8. Mano Singham says

    I don’t think a country that used the atomic bomb twice, used chemical weapons and other massive forms of bombardment on Vietnam and Indo-China that killed more than a half a million people, has a huge number of invasions of countries in its history, and raided the continent of Africa in order to bring vast numbers of their people back as slaves can claim the label of humanitarian even in comparison to those countries.

    I liked Pinker’s book but as I noted in my review, he seemed to treat the US very gently.

  9. Mano Singham says

    Western people may see Buddhism as a pure philosophy and not a religion but in Sri Lanka, the vast majority of people practice it with all the trappings of a religion, with worship and prayers and the works. They have a clergy with a hierarchy whom people bow down to. They firmly believe in rebirth and other things that are as lacking in evidence as the beliefs of other religions. Say something even mildly derogatory about the Buddha and the reaction is similar to what you would get if you disparage the deity of other religions. Buddhism as practiced in Sri Lanka will leave any observer in no doubt that what they are seeing is a religion. Buddhist intellectuals in Sri Lanka dislike this but they are hopelessly outnumbered.

    But even granting the point that Buddhism is a purely a philosophy and stripping it of all its supernatural trimmings, I find the comparison with science unconvincing. If your point is that all people can be good or bad, that is of course true. What scientists have wrought in terms of nuclear and other lethal weapons is terrible. But those are faults of scientists not of science.

    It is not clear that there is much similarity between Buddhism and science. Buddhism calls upon its followers to be peaceful, non-violent, and show compassion towards others. So when Buddhists go on rampage of killing and destruction, they are going against what they profess of Buddhism. Science has no such philosophy. When scientists build a lethal weapon, they are not going against the foundational principles of science.

    The violence being committed by Buddhists in Sri Lanka and Burma are by people in the name of Buddhism who claim they are doing it either to protect Buddhism or as acts of vengeance against what they see as slights to their religion. Scientists do not build weapons and use them against others because those people insulted science. When scientists do evil things, they are not doing it in the name of science, to defend the honor of science.

    One could of course make the case that anyone who behaves in a manner contrary to the philosophy of Buddhism is not a true Buddhist but that ‘no true Scotsman’ argument results in hardly anyone meriting the label. But a scientist who builds lethal weapons is still a scientist and could even be a ‘good’ scientist because ‘good’ in that context is not a moral judgment. No one denies that Edward Teller was a good scientist even though he was a key figure behind the hydrogen bomb, and that goes the same for all the famous scientists who were involved in the Manhattan project.

    So I don’t think the comparison of Buddhism with science holds up.

  10. jamessweet says

    Speaking very broadly…

    One can make a reasonable case that the atrocities committed by white Europeans in the past half millenium, and by Americans in the past couple of centuries, are no different in kind than the atrocities committed by humans for our entire history, and are different in scale only as a result of capability. If the vanguard of the Bantu Expansion had had cluster bombs at their disposal, do you think they would have hesitated to deploy them against the Khoisan? Please…

    On the other hand, the scale of those atrocities is absolutely unprecedented, and those responsibile must be held to account. While it may be true that the only reason America was the only nation to use an atomic bomb against civilians is because we were the first to develop it, that does not at all wash the blood from our hands: We are still, nevertheless, the only nation to use an atomic bomb against civilians, and — if I may modulate my tone here a bit — that’s some serious motherfucking shit right there.

    From a broad sociological perspective, we should perhaps not be too surprised that the US has behaved the way it has, given its “fortuitous” opportunities. But from a practical perspective, and especially as US citizens, we cannot use this to excuse anything. Would pretty much any group of humans have done the same in this position? Perhaps. But it’s still fucking awful, and those responsible must be held to account.

  11. ollie says

    Why was the a-bomb use any different than, say, what the British did to Hamburg or what the Japanese did to Nanking….or for that matter what we did to Tokyo?

  12. Mano Singham says

    The point was not that the British did not do awful things. They did. The point was that by no stretch of the imagination could the US come close to being describable as humanitarian, however much we compare ourselves with others.

  13. kural says

    Buddhism is one among many offshoots of mainstream tradition around 1000-500 BCE, which in the millennia following, has now become Hinduism. Some of these offshoots -- like yoga- after an independent existence returned to Hinduism. Others traditions such as the Jaina, and the Pali (now Buddhism) became distinct. While the Pali Canon itself recognizes six heterodox streams of thought -- heterodox compared to Buddhism -- mainstream Hindu texts refer to 64 heterodoxies -- which may be an exaggeration to give an idea of the vigorous ebate that existed then. Of these heterodoxies, the most formidable was that of Sanjaya Belatthaputta, who counted future Buddhists among his disciples, who utlimately left him. The Jain tradition, which is probably a few centuries older than the Buddhist claims Sanjaya as its own. Of the two, Buddhism is much more of a formalised and institutionalised tradition. While Jaina tradition is prescriptive about everyday habits, diet and profession; Buddhism is prescriptive about how one must think. The influence of Buddhism on th eprecursors of institutionalised Christianity cannot be ruled out. Much of the misogyny in mainstream Christian thought can be found in Buddhism too. While the Jaina tradition in th earliest period was sustained by traders and itinerant business people, Buddhism is a Kshatriya or warrior/nobles led tradition. Buddha himself, as Siddhartha Gautama, is claimed to have been born in the Ikshavaku dyasty, the one that birthed Rama, the prince of Ayodhya. Buddhism has always thrived in the presence of official patronage and requires supporting a large parasitic monastic class.

  14. yong leong says

    I thought Shangrila was just a hotel. Was it Hilton the guy who invented this story that made people think of tibet as a sort of fairly land. The Polynesian islands were Shangrila until the white came along and screwed them all up.

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