Like many former residents of
(Are Buddhists Violent? by
In response to the recent political upheavals in
In essence, Osborne has difficulty squaring the recent political violence in
Buddhist violence--or violence committed by Buddhists, more properly speaking--is a strained concept for us, to put it mildly. I can easily imagine being assaulted by an infuriated Christian or by a hysterically outraged jihadist, by a Zionist even, at a pinch--but by a Buddhist? What would you have to say to get him mad? Deny transmigration?
Despite the rather amusing reference to transmigration, there’s a serious point here: Buddhism, unlike the other religions that Osborne mentions, does not cling to its doctrines as unquestionable & sacred truths that must never be contradicted. Whereas in Islam, for example, extremist Muslims might behead you for challenging their Koran-centered view of existence, and a fundamentalist Christian may well kill you for aborting an unwanted child, it is almost unheard of for Buddhists to support Buddhism with violence. This is, of course, because at the heart of Buddhism lies the teaching that violence is both unwise & uncompassionate, and therefore against the basic principles of any devout Buddhist. But, herein lays the crux of the matter: what do we define as a devout Buddhism? Indeed, are our conceptions of the words “Buddhism’ & ‘Buddhist’ too restricted or just plain wrong?
Buddhism is traditionally summed up in the practice of the Noble Eightfold Path, which details how Buddhists should conduct themselves to develop wisdom & Compassion, among many other qualities, which lead to enlightenment. One aspect of the Path is Correct Action, which includes being non-violent to others, whilst another part of it is Correct Speech which discourages Buddhists from uttering confrontational words. Even the mind itself is covered in the Eightfold Path’s coverage of violence, for in the guidelines on Correct Attitude, three kinds of thoughts are encouraged: thoughts free from lust, free from ill-will, and free from cruelty. Thinking of committing violence is certainly not part of Correct Attitude, either! Having written all of this, however, most Thai Buddhists seem to be ignorant on these teachings, so it’s unrealistic to expect them to follow the Eightfold Path that closely.
I confess that I rather like the idea of an ax-wielding Buddhist thug. It would prove, at least, that stereotypes are stereotypes. Ever since America switched on to Zen, that exceedingly odd variant of Buddhism propagated by the tireless and slightly loopy Japanese writer D. T. Suzuki, among others, we have thought of Buddhism as being inseparable from an exemplary nonviolence.
Being a fan of D.T. Suzuki – although admitting that not everything he wrote is to be taken on face value, like all words, in fact – I wasn’t too sure of why he calls him ‘slightly loopy’, unless the enlightened & enlightening perspective from which he wrote appears ‘loopy’ to the unenlightened mind, that is! Anyhow, Osborne’s main point in this segment is that stereotypes are often inaccurate ways to view the real world. And in this light we might ask, “Are all Buddhists peaceful anymore than all Muslims are suicide bombers, or all Americans are materialist gluttons?” The answer would be, “Of course not.”
Taking this idealized representation of Buddhism as a guide as to what every day Buddhists get up to isn’t a particularly wise course of action. For, the thing about the writings of D.T. Suzuki, and many other Buddhist authors, is that they are not written about what Buddhism has evolved into, under the corrosive influences of the world, but from an idealist viewpoint of how things can be, if we awaken ourselves to the truths of Buddhism. According to Osborne, this ideal of Buddhism is the cause of a gross misunderstanding of what Buddhism and Buddhists actually are, as opposed to what they could or should be:
Our popular idea of Buddhism is little better than Madonna's unhinged vision of the Torah, a "spirituality" gutted of context and complexity. Moreover, Buddhists in
Dear western readers, are you middle class and economically comfortable? (It’s interesting that whilst Osborne decries stereotypes of Asian Buddhists, he seems most content to describe their western counterparts in such judgmental terms.) Surely the context of someone’s spiritual practice is the context within which they live, east or west, rich or poor. Comparing American & European Buddhists with Madonna seems more of a cheap shot than a serious point, with all due respect to the Kabbalist singer. By associating Western Buddhists with someone regularly ridiculed in the media for her religious beliefs would appear to be an attempt to lump them together, insinuating that Westerners with an interest in Buddhism are merely playing around. Are you playing around with the Buddhadharma, dear reader?!
That many of us in the West are converts to Buddhism is widely known; that we are spiritual consumerists that have shopped around for the religion that suits us best, or makes the best sense to us, isn’t such a bad thing, is it? It’s certainly an improvement on forced conversations and blind acceptance of one’s ancestors’ faith. Regarding Osborne’s remark that occidental Buddhists don’t have to run countries like thir oriental counterparts, there’s a simple reason for that. It is because Buddhists are a tiny minority of the populations of western states that they do not run governments and other traditional national institutions. Given the call to governance, some would probably be only be too glad to try to introduce some compassion & wisdom into their governments. Perhaps one day…
Pursuing as we do happiness, that improbable Moby Dick of an idea, we think Buddhism can make us happier by controlling our egos and our anger. Maybe it can. But did Buddhism ever think of the world as "happy" as we'd like it to be? Does it think of us as individuals, as we'd like ourselves to be? Does it comprehend political identity as we understand it, or as even Thais understand it now?
Here, Osborne asks some philosophically interesting questions regarding the core teachings of Buddhism. The assumption appears to be that the popular western ideas of happiness are the same as that of Western Buddhists. Osborne is suggesting that the ego-centered happiness of the masses is the same as the kinds of happiness aimed for by Western Buddhists. He believes that we are not in search of Nirvana (enlightenment), as traditionally taught in Buddhism, but are seeking a hedonistic vision of bliss that satisfies the personality rather than transcending it. Is this so?
Returning to events in the
Last November, I was caught at Suvarnaphumi airport as an army of "Yellows" swarmed through the terminals screaming "Martyrdom!" and brought the place to a standstill. Masked, carrying sticks and piping, the merry Yellows were not a very Buddhist-looking lot, at least according to our sentimental conventions,
Now, it's the turn of the "Reds," who have stormed
When excited, and Thai people can get very excited on occasion, people’s enthusiasm may well get the better of them. People shouting “Martyrdom!” has to be seen in context. No one at these rallies in
Since writing the above, Sondhi Limthongkul, a prominent yellow-shirts leader has been shot, along with his driver, in an apparent assassination attempt. This shows that the situation is volatile and the likelihood of further isolated incidents of violence are probably on the cards. Following on from the suppression of the red-shirted protests, one of the movement’s leaders, who is in hiding, has promised continuing resistance to what he sees as an illegal government, with the threat of possibly violent acts. At the time of writing, the situation seems to be calm, but as we all know, things change. There are more twists and turns down the road to political stability for the
As Osborne mentions below, there has been a much more violent and deadly conflict going on for several years down in the south of the country. Not all of the deaths caused by this conflict have been at the hands of Muslim insurgents, either. The Thai Army has been accused on numerous occasions of unnecessary killings, torture, and the general harassment of the local Muslim population. No doubt, again in the heat of a volatile & dangerous situation, the Thai military has acted in ways that cannot be justified by Buddhist standards of behavior. But, is this the result of most of the military personnel being Buddhist? Osborne observes that:
The Islamic insurgency in
This war has dragged on semi-secretly for years, with many thousand deaths, cities living under curfew and fear regnant. What effect, I wonder, has it had upon the rest of the society? And we can hardly forget the dozens of coups that the country has suffered over the last hundred years, which have not been extraordinarily bloody by world standards but which have not been peaceful either. Is this Buddhist politics too?
Are army-led coups ‘Buddhist’? Well, if not out of compassion for the people, no. Buddhist teachings are clear that leaders as well as ordinary citizens are expected to behave compassionately towards all beings. The example of the ancient Indian king monarch King Ashoka is cited as an example of how to rule with both compassion & wisdom. Many army coups and other controversial military conflicts have occurred in the history of
Nevertheless, the last army coup, it must be remembered, involved no loss of life. How many army coups can boast of such a peaceful path to power? Perhaps we should be open-minded enough to recognize that democracy is not necessarily always the answer to every country’s problems. Focusing on the issue of Thai Army’s violence, whether committed against Muslims, Buddhists, or others, however, it is important to remember that when soldiers are ordered to open fire, it’s not after consulting the teachings of the Buddha on such matters. In fact, it is direct contradiction of them. Osborne broadens his appraisal of
The country has a high homicide rate for crimes of passion but is paradoxically one of the safest in the world for street crime. Its national sport, muay thai, or "Thai boxing," is exquisitely brutal, and I might add very much to my taste, but where else are manners more considerate and intelligently designed to abate violent personal conflict? Where are strangers treated better, and where is tolerance of a certain kind more pragmatically enjoined? It can hardly be far-fetched to think of these as in some way Buddhist virtues. Outside of politics, the Thai vibe is summed up by a single common word: Sanuk, the principle of enjoying life.
Crimes of passion & Thai boxing are widespread in
In comparison to
What, then, to make of this new spiral downward into chaos and confrontation? Of course, to expect ordinary people who happen to be Buddhists to be moral supermen is absurd. All peoples are violent, and they are torn by the injustices inherent in human life.
Much to his credit, I think Osborne finds the answer at the end of his article. Here he acknowledges that Thais are people, and ordinary people at that; most Thais are by no means enlightened beings. Neither are many Thais, by the way, devout Buddhists. They may well be Buddhist by birth, and follow Buddhism as part of their (very strong) national identity as Thais. This means that they are neither enlightened beings nor particularly up to scratch on Buddhist teachings and practices. This is true of many peoples around the world, of course. It seems reasonable to remark that just as most British people couldn’t describe Jesus’ life & teachings in much detail, so most Thais couldn’t do the same for the Buddha. (The author has much personal experience in
And here lies the answer to Osborne’s questions regarding Buddhist violence. We do seem to have both misconceptions about what a country with a Buddhist history would be like, and we overestimate the level to which most people take their involvement with Buddhism. Furthermore, to get a Buddhist mad one simply has to do something that offends that particular individual so much that they break their usual friendly façade. There are as many different kinds of Buddhists as they are Buddhists; each one is different and has their own breaking point. Even enlightened Buddhists, who presumably have no breaking point as such, are not clones. They have different cultures, histories, trainings, etc, and will express the Buddhist teachings very differently from reach other.
It’s not that Buddhists are violent because they are Buddhists; it’s despite the fact that they are Buddhist, or at least despite the fact they’re born into predominately Buddhist societies. Being aware of, and thereafter following, the Noble Eightfold Path leads to the letting go of violent thoughts, words, and deeds, but how many Buddhists actually adhere to this Way? Moreover, Buddhists, along with the rest of humanity, are battling to overcome (or let go of) the three poisons of greed, hatred, and delusion. In this, we are all in the same boat, and recognizing this fact, and sharing our ideas of how to overcome the challenges that we face as individuals and societies can only help us to cease from creating more suffering.
To read the original article by Lawrence Osborne, please click the following link:
Are Buddhists Violent?