Dec 12, 2013
Buddhists at War
Posted on Oct 8, 2010
This review originally appeared in The TLS, whose website is www.the-tls.co.uk, and is reposted with permission.
Have you heard about Vakkali, the Buddhist sage who attained Nirvana while slicing his own throat? Of all the major faith traditions, Buddhism is often seen as the most peaceful, but Buddhist Warfare exposes its darker side. The eight essays in the collection describe twisted teachings on phenomena such as “Soldier-Zen”, and atrocities carried out by groups such as the Buddhist cult army of Faqing. In 515 AD, Faqing declared the arrival of the new Buddha and led more than 50,000 men to war. “When a soldier killed a man he earned the title of first-stage Bodhisattva (Buddha-to-be). The more he killed the more he went up the echelon towards sainthood ... the insurgents were given an alcoholic drug that made them crazy to the extent that fathers and sons no longer recognized each other and didn’t think twice before killing each other; the only thing that mattered was killing.” Buddhist Warfare forms an accurate history of violence in the name of religion. Its most shocking material is the studies of various sutras that justify killing with detailed reference to the Buddha’s central philosophical tenets. The book therefore presents a uniquely Buddhist “heart of darkness”.
In the afterword, Bernard Faure states that the aim of the collection was to press Buddhists and scholars of Buddhism to face up to the worst aberrations and silences within the tradition. Faure accuses many contemporary Buddhist apologists of taking the “high metaphysical or moral ground” rather than recognizing that in Buddhism, as in all the faiths, there is a constant struggle between light and darkness, between the promise of release and “the violence that lies at the heart of reality (and of each individual)”.
By Michael Jerryson (Editor), Mark Juergensmeyer (Editor)
Oxford University Press, 272 pages
The Six Perfections: Buddhism and the Cultivation of Character
By Dale Wright
Oxford University Press, 304 pages
Violent purges and insurgences have occurred in all eras, with or without religious incitement. Yet there is something uniquely chilling about religious texts that justify or even aim to cultivate murder. For instance, the seventeenth-century Zen Master Takuan writes as follows:
“The uplifted sword has no will of its own, it is all of emptiness. It is like a flash of lightning. The man who is about to be struck down is also of emptiness, and so is the one who wields the sword. None of them are possessed of a mind that has any substantiality. As each of them is of emptiness and has no ‘mind’, the striking man is not a man, the sword in his hands is not a sword and the ‘I’ who is about to be struck down is like the splitting of the spring breeze in a flash of lightning.”
This is an application of the central Buddhist teaching of no-self that sees no evil in killing. Brian Daizen Victoria’s excellent essay outlines the direct connections between Takuan’s writings and the philosophy of Soldier-Zen promoted as part of military training during the Asia-Pacific War. Should Zen itself be held responsible for the genocide of 20 million Chinese during this campaign? Brian Victoria does not just blame Takuan: he also directly implicates D. T. Suzuki (1870–1966), the most influential proponent of Zen to the West in the twentieth century. Brian Victoria asserts that Suzuki gave his unqualified support to the “unity of Zen and the sword”.
The first and finest essay in Buddhist Warfare, by Paul Demiéville, also criticizes Suzuki. Demiéville argues that Suzuki’s teachings rely too much on Buddhist texts that are influenced by Daoism. Daoism is founded on the direct identification with the raw forces of nature. Certain Chan Buddhist texts like the Treatise of Absolute Contemplation show a strong Daoist influence:
“Question: ‘In certain conditions, isn’t one allowed to kill a living being?’ Answer: ‘The brush fire burns the mountain; the hurricane breaks trees; the collapsing cliff crushes wild animals to death; the running mountain stream drowns insects. If a man can make his mind similar [to these natural forces], then, meeting a man, he may kill him all the same’.”
This influence of Daoism can be seen in Suzuki’s writing when he compares enlightened freedom to an untamed wilderness: “the saint must make himself as indifferent as the unconscious – innocent – forces of nature, while eliminating all personal and conscious thought”.
Should we blame Daoism for the glorification of violence in Takuan? What is it exactly that discriminates Buddhism from Daoism? Daoism presents identification with the law of Nature as the highest possible freedom and most perfect attainment of power. By contrast, Buddhism argues that identification with the principle “no-self” is the highest wisdom. Buddhism, therefore, is usually centred on the refusal of any kind of self-assertion, particularly the assertion of the assailant or the assertion of predator over prey. In Mahayana Buddhism, the refusal of assertion is called the “wisdom of emptiness”. However, we have already seen how this term “emptiness”, absent from Daoism, was inherited and asserted by Takuan.
Takuan’s militarism could be seen as an aberration, a late distortion of Buddhist teaching, but Demiéville presents similar examples from across the tradition. Most uncanny are the texts that directly reanimate the Buddha, often in slightly uncharacteristic and shocking situations. The Heap of Jewels sutra, translated into Chinese as early as 140 AD, presents the disciple Manjushri threatening the Buddha with a sword. The Buddha then praises him for this because “there isn’t any more of me than there is of anyone else. If Manjushri were to kill the Buddha it would have been a right killing”. Demiéville also refers to the ninth-century Chinese monk Yi-hiuan, who urged his hearers to “Kill everything you encounter, internally as well as externally! Kill the Buddha! Kill your father and mother! Kill your closest friends!”.
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