Monday, April 27, 2009

Violent Buddhists

Some 'devilish' Buddhists on the rampage!

Like many former residents of Bangkok, I have been watching the country's slide into virtual civil war with a mixture of incredulity and tetchy disillusion. It is hard for us to think of one of the world's only truly Buddhist states descending into a chaotic thuggery that would, alas, be less remarkable elsewhere. But why? Is it because of misperceptions we have about Buddhism?

(Are Buddhists Violent? by Lawrence Osborne, Forbes, April 14, 2009)

In response to the recent political upheavals in Thailand, the author Lawrence Osborne has written an interesting article that explores the relationship between Buddhism & violence. His main focus is on Thailand, but the implications of what he writes can be applied to all Buddhists living across the globe. Osborne has some challenging things about Western Buddhists, too, which we will come to shortly.

In essence, Osborne has difficulty squaring the recent political violence in Thailand with the popular idea of peace-loving Buddhists. In addition to the above quotation, he further writes:

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 America and Europe are mostly middle class and economically comfortable. Theirs is a religion of consumerist choice, individual and private, not one of national inheritance and governance, and their form of Buddhism doesn't have to get its hands dirty by running an actual state.


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 Land of Smiles, Osborne refers directly to the political unrest involving the yellow-shirted and red-shirted protesters in Thailand. What is noticeable is that while there have been violent acts at some of these protests over the last few years the vast majority of people taking part have been peaceful. Focusing on a small number of incidents and trying to suggest that Thailand is on the verge of a bloodbath, if not out and out civil war, is stretching credibility, to be honest. Not that Thais are incapable of violence: they are human beings with the frailties that we all posses. But, it does seem to someone living in the midst of the present political turmoil that things are a hell of a lot worse in many, many other countries across the globe.

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 Bangkok and caused the Asian summit in Pattaya to be aborted. They are also devout Buddhists, but they are not in an especially nonviolent mood. A protester has finally been shot dead. Thaksin has cryptically commented that the death toll is far higher, though nobody seems to know. That it will rise, and that the violence will come to the streets, seems tragically likely.


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 Thailand strapped on a bomb and blew themselves and their opposite numbers to smithereens. Quite the contrary; most of the protests were broadcast hour by hour on Thai television, showing happy, smiling people waving flags and peacefully listening to speeches. Sometimes things got more heated, but then that’s only natural when people are passionately protesting against those they believe to be ruining their country.

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 Kingdom of Thailand.

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 Thailand's southern provinces, which are predominantly Muslim, presents us with a grim and in some ways ironic spectacle: Virulent Islamic insurgents inordinately fond of decapitating monks facing down a Buddhist army that has itself committed atrocities.

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 Thailand (and other so-called Buddhist nations such as Sri Lanka, Cambodia, and Vietnam). This is in spite of what Buddhism has to teach on the matter, however.

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 Thailand and its Buddhist heritage in the following paragraph:

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 Thailand, as are the peaceful manners cultivated in traditional Thai society. This seems only natural, however. It is inconceivable to imagine that the Thai psyche has not been influenced by centuries of Buddhist practice, but Thais remain humans, with all the shortcomings that are common to Homo sapiens throughout our recorded history. Therefore, whilst politeness & friendliness may well be the result of Buddhist influence, there are bound to be aspects to Thai psychology & culture that are apparently un-Buddhist in their characteristics.

In comparison to Thailand, for example, can we say that every aspect of American culture derives from the Christian faith of that nation, or that every kind of behavior found amongst Iranians is the direct result of their Islamic history? Societies are surely a complex mixture of different and competing influences, constantly in a flux that creates and recreates the common psychologies of their peoples. Therefore, while a people may conform to the ideals of their main traditional religion in some of its teachings, they may well fall short with regards of other principles.

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 Britain & Thailand that backs this assertion up.)

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 fa├žade. 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?


Nathan said...

Thanks for doing all the work on this! It's really interesting, and I think important for everyone to reflect on issues of violence and religion. I personally believe that too many of us have simply made an easy leap from violence in the here and now to it being a manifestation of religion x, y, or z. Although which religion or religions we choose to condemn often is a matter of prejudice, and a belief that whatever tradition we belong to is superior to all others. Thus the lack of outcry from conservative and even some moderate and liberal Christians when it comes to the string of mass murders and terrorist bombings like the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 that were committed primarily by people who either claimed to be Christian, or attended churches at some point in their lives. And yet, when anyone remotely linked to Islam is involved in similar behavior, hordes of people make an almost instant connection between the act of a tiny group, or individual, and a religion that is centuries old. I would be very interested to see the author of the Forbes piece discuss the gun violence here in the U.S. over the past 10-15 years, and see how he handles the religion aspect of the issue.

Like you said, the cultures of any place are complex and cannot be tied to any single belief system, no matter how much that system has influenced the society. In my view, every religious and spiritual tradition has, throughout history, been hijacked at some point and used to defend acts that go against the very grain of that tradition's teaching. But if we make the leap from here to a view that the teachings in question are to blame, we'll end up throwing out everything.

Thanks again and I hope others comment on this piece.


G said...

You have some important insights here regarding religion & violence, Nathan. Basic human nature will impel certain people at certain times in history to misuse religion to justify their own actions and prejudices. Thank you for the reflection.

Ah, while I'm here: My wife & I are off to the beach for a few days, so please be patient if you leave a comment & don't hear from me for a while.

Be well in the Dharma,

JD said...

Great article Gary. It's so much information and brings up some nice points. I think Buddhism is the only major religion out there that abhors violence in all it's forms. This is a strength and a weakness and I'll get to that part in a moment.

It's a strength because it's truly a beautiful thing when you think that there are absolutely zero justifications for violence under the banner of Buddhism in any Buddhist scriptures.

It means that to become a Buddhist is to take up a serious challenge when the ways of the world have historically included violence and wars as a means to stay in power or to gain something.

This is it's weakness. Unlike Islam which by it's nature is a religion of conquest and spreading it's dogmas by subjugation and violence, Buddhism doesn't have any means for that at all. It's religiously justified within Islam to kill nonbelievers, deceive people and to make non belivers a sort of second class citizen in Muslim conquered lands. In short, Islam is well equipped to survive and thrive in the world because it is not a religion that abhors violence the way Buddhism does.

It's not just Islam that is ok with warlike actions and violence, it's pretty much every other culture as well. Or maybe it's just political culture. Either way, the world is not a nonviolent place and violence isn't going to stop just because the Buddha said we would be better to allow ourselves to be sawed to pieces then to even harbor a thought of ill will.

The weakness of Buddhism in the world is it's nonviolence. I think people feel this, either that or they are just regular folks who are trying to do what is right and they have not reached the stream or higher.

I feel for them because it's a struggle to be a good Buddhist and be a part of the world. I'm a right wing guy on the level of personality so I see why people are willing to fight against Islam, communism or unlawful regimes. That is why Obama makes me so uncomfortable, I get the impression that he naively thinks he can make peace with anyone when any glance at history will show that his approach will fail miserably. But that is just my personality view talking.

I don't believe world peace is possible, yet I'm still a Buddhist. I would hope that I would be willing to die rather then to act out violently but unless I'm really secure in my practice who knows?

I think many folks are like me in that they find it hard at times to reconcile the total peace of Buddhism with the harsh realities of life in the world.

Even though I feel that the nonviolence issue is a weakness it is only a weakness as far as the world is concerned. If Buddhism were a worldly religion I think the Buddha would have allowed violence the way Islam does.

Islam is a worldly minded faith, concerned with marriage and the running of a state. Communism is about running a secular state. Even democratic states like the USA are simply concerned with the world. The world needs armies and people who are willing to fight even though Buddhism is not for this sort of thing.

The world goes one way, the Dhamma another. You get this impression throughout the Canon when reading it.

The Buddha taught that nonviolence was worth it in every aspect of our personal lives so much that he considered you not his follower if you held ill will towards someone who was sawing you into pieces. It means he was serious about the dangers of violence and I believe he wasn't just talking about this world, I think he meant that violence made birth in a bad destination possible. But that is a hard bargain for people, myself included at times.

The world is a difficult place isn't it? Better to practice and try to find enlightenment since the Buddha said no one can do it for you. Hope I wasn't too long here Gary. I wish you well.

It's beach weather here too. I haven't been a while so maybe I'll follow suit. Have fun.

Wave255 said...

Thanks you for commenting on this article. I am American and find that when my fellow Americans hear about spritual practice that falls outside of their scope of experience, they express a tendency to bring things back to what they know...

As as a summary to what we "know" about religion here in the west is that while spirituality is great and maybe life changing, we still will fail for our entire life. There is no way out of suffering. People are just people. People are flawed. And that is just how it is...

I've had countless conversations by those interested in Buddhism who were seemingly trying to find the "angle" upon which they can work it into their already existing opinions. Whether to discredit or entertain within the framework of their experience is usually dependent upon the openmindedness of the individual.

This may be more of a human thing rather than a culturally American thing, but I live in America :)

Trying to wrap one's head around "nothingness" leads to confusion and assumptions similar to some of the views expressed in this article.

I am glad to see a rebuttal for those wondering about these topics however!

They call him James Ure said...

I'm with the opinion that this article betrays a view of Buddhism that Hollywood and idealistic searchers expect to be perfect.

I agree too with the idea that violence is a human thing--not a Buddhist thing. It is humans who happen to be Buddhist who engage in violence. It's not Buddhism itself that is wrong or weak in my view. It is we that are weak until we have realized enlightenment.

As for Western Buddhists being middle-class and wealthy? No my wife and I at all. We are solidly in the lower class and live paycheck to paycheck. Nor do we have Phds, Volvos and can afford to shop at organic grocery stores.

I think we all have idealised views of people from all religions, organizations and cultures that don't always measure up to our expectations. I think it says more about our attachment to the self than accurate, enlightened views.

Lansao said...

interesting article and very insightful reflection uncle!

G said...

Your messages are never too long, Justin, because they are so well thought out. You show a deep appreciation of the Buddhist ideal of living without violence in our thought, words, and actions, and it's highly commendable that you do so.

To be fair, there are other religions that teach pacifism, such as Buddhism's 'sister religion' Jainism, as well as several Christian sects, such as the Amish, Mennonites, Seventh Day Adventists, and Jehovah Witnesses. In addition, some branches of Hinduism, Sufism (mystical Islam), and Daoism also promote non-violence. (Whether any of these are classified as 'major religions' is up to interpretation, I guess!)

It's important that you emphasize the Buddha's teachings on not harboring hateful thoughts, let alone acting upon them, Justin. This gives us all food for thought!

Be well in the Dharma,

G said...

"I've had countless conversations by those interested in Buddhism who were seemingly trying to find the "angle" upon which they can work it into their already existing opinions."

Markus, this is such an important point that it needed repeating! If we are serious Buddhists, we at least have to do the reverse and see how we can fit our existing opinions into a Buddhist framework. In fact, we really need to completely let go of our opinions into the void at the heart of our being and realize the Dharma as it is, free of opinions. How far we are from this is how far we are from truly living the Buddha Way.

Thanks for a great comment,

G said...

"I think we all have idealised views of people from all religions, organizations and cultures that don't always measure up to our expectations. I think it says more about our attachment to the self than accurate, enlightened views."

Nuff said.


G said...

Thank you Lansao!

Hope you haven't met any violent Buddhists over there in the UK!

Be well,

muzuzuzus said...

I remember watching a documentary about the 'war on drugs' as it is practised in Thailand and was VERY shocked. There was shown posts where people 'selling drugs' had in the past been tied and then machine gunned---you could see blood around

Another part of the docu.--in the very Far Eastern looking scenario of those turned-up roofs we see a Buddhist monk slowly walking very Buddhis-like. He was the last person the condemned 'drug dealer' has contact with. The monk is for helping the prisoner's 'karma'. Apprently when questioned the monk had no qualms of his role in this brutal 'war on drugs' Thialand style.

We also say large groups of young men who had been involved with drugs all congregated in a large area and made to line up and basically grovel before the military might holding them captive.

So it then is no surprise when we see the militarized police shooting people protesting an un-democratic government

So what do I think problem with Buddhism ias (and I also see problems with the other patriarchal religions J-C-I and Eastern religions which have caused the caste system etc)--it is bascially a world-denying religion. Its goal is escape from 'the wheel of birth and death---typically patriarchal. it is against entheogens, and as is known by indigenous people, and free thinking modern people in the consciousness movement etc--it is entheogens used respectfully which are sacred and can also hel;p people ghet over harmful habits.

if then the argument in justification for violence against 'drug dealers'--well without DEMAND there is no supply. WHY do people WANT to take drugs---? Are they oppressed?? AND most importantly what about the States role in drug dealing?! For when you look into this you find that the ruling nations are into this big style--THEY are the main drug dealers, but rather than they their little people are the ones killed, and imprisoned. it is all corrupt and needs exposing and I dont see any Buddhists doing that.

G said...

Buddhism teaches that people want to take drugs because of greed, hatred, and delusion. The delusion of being a separate self causes greed for positive experiences and the hatred (or dislike) of states we don't like. In meditation, we learn to see the other side of the coin, and to use a word you introduced to me in your erudite comments, Muzuzuzus, it is in the experience of entheogen ('God in us' - or 'Buddha in us', for that matter) that we are truly freed from the egoistic delusions that cause all manner of awful behaviour.

Ethneogenic drugs, on the other hand, can be only a short term answer, for they are conditioned phenomena interacting with other conditioned phenomena. It is the realization of that which is unconditioned that we achieve true freedom from all kinds of oppression - those that come from outside us, and those that come from within. None of this, of course, justifies the murder of drug users and dealers, and the Thai authorities show themselves to be truly unenlightened when do such things.

Thanks again, Muzuzuzus, for your well thought out comments.