December 2, 2010
Making Violence Buddhist
— Benjamin Schonthal
In a recent Sightings column Martin E. Marty drew attention to a feature of Buddhism that many Americans find startling: there are Buddhist texts that seem to legitimate war. Marty’s observation contravenes a commonly-held belief that Buddhism is exclusively a religion of peace, one whose tenets reject the use of violence. Yet, Buddhism hasn’t always enjoyed this reputation. Victorian-era Orientalists saw Buddhism as a religion of pessimism, self-denial, even life-abnegating rejection of the world. During World War II, Buddhism was identified by some as motivating Japanese kamikaze pilots.
More recently, Buddhism’s pacific nature has been impugned by followers of events in Sri Lanka who observe that, over the course of the island’s thirty-year civil war, Buddhist terms and themes were invoked regularly by hawkish Sinhalese politicians to call for more aggressive military action against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). For example, in an interview on the BBC in March 2009, Keheliya Rambukwella, the spokesman for the Sri Lankan Ministry of Defense described the government’s military campaign against the LTTE as follows: “Our exercise is noble because we need to eradicate the source of human suffering. When you are on a noble path there are certain sacrifices that we all do to uproot the cause of suffering.”
The quote is striking because it uses Buddhist idioms to describe military action. Rhetorically, the statement links the Sri Lankan army’s offensive to the core ethical doctrine taught by the Buddha in the Pali Tipitika, the four “noble truths” which Buddhists must follow to achieve enlightenment. Rambukwella’s statement equates the LTTE with dukkha, the phenomenon of worldly suffering which Buddhist practice aims to overcome. It links the course of military operations with steps along the noble eightfold path, the system of moral action and mental cultivation that the Buddha preached to his followers. In short, it describes the war with the LTTE as analogous or equivalent to the pursuit of Buddhist religious goals.
Does Rambukwella’s statement represent a distortion of Buddhist doctrine or one, among many, possible interpretations? To answer either way seems unsatisfactory. By dismissing the spokesman’s statement as illegitimate (a cynical, instrumental use of Buddhism), one exempts Buddhist ideas of any complicity in rationalizing or moralizing violence. By treating the spokesman’s statement as a bona fide expression of Buddhist piety, one normalizes a rather idiosyncratic, not to mention non-traditional, use of Buddhist concepts.
One solution is to bring human actors and religious institutions back into the picture. After all, it is not religion that acts. Humans map religious concepts onto violent actions through discourse. As Mark Juergensmeyer and others have pointed out, there is an undeniable convenience to so doing: religious concepts are suitable justifications for violence because war provides a congenial metaphor for piety. Buddhism is no different. Self-cultivation in Buddhism as in other religious traditions is conceived as struggle. Buddhist virtue is understood as defeating craving, desire, and ignorance. It only takes a short interpretive leap to homologize ethical struggle to physical conflict.
What distinguishes the Sri Lankan defense spokesman’s use of Buddhist ideas from, for example, that of the Dalai Lama is not the validity of his interpretation, but its relationship to authorized institutions through which Buddhist texts, practices and concepts are glossed, transmitted and (re)produced. We may thus say that Rambukwella’s translating of military action into Buddhist idioms may be interpretively valid, but it is not authorized by most Buddhist ecclesiastical institutions in Sri Lanka. Similarly, the September 11 hijackers mustered an interpretation of Islam which may have some valid scriptural referents, but which is not authorized by most of the world’s Muslim institutions.
Why then has Buddhism tended to be exculpated from links with violence in popular media while Islam has not? One difference lies in how Western media have depicted the two religions as institutions. Islam is routinely presented as a singular, unified, institutionally-coherent religion with the possible exception of the Sunni-Shi’a split. Buddhism, on the other hand, is presented as anti-institutional, a religion of individual, self-guided practitioners. Using these models, popular media interpret Muslims’ actions deductively, as reflecting the dictates of some monolithic Islam, while interpreting Buddhists’ actions inductively, as expressing the actors’ own, personal views about Buddhism. Media outlets thus allow Buddhists more interpretive diversity, making it more difficult for a single Buddhist to be seen to speak for Buddhism as a whole. Of course, this discursive binary is wildly inaccurate. But it has remarkable power and persistence in popular culture.
In thinking about religion and politics—and violence is politics continued by other means, as the saying goes—we must be cautious not to lose sight of the people who are acting, and to examine closely their relationship with complex and heterogeneous institutions of religious authority. We also must take seriously the speech act. Under what circumstance are actors permitted by audiences to speak for a religious tradition? To do so is to recognize that there are no predetermined links between Buddhism or Islam—or any religion—and violence. It is people who link them.
Benjamin Schonthal is a PhD candidate in History of Religions and a Martin Marty Center Junior Fellow.