May 23, 2013
Buddhists at War
Posted on Oct 8, 2010
Other essays in Buddhist Warfare are equally troubling. Stephen Jenkins describes an early Mahayana text that justifies “compassionate torture” as burning of the remnants of the victim’s past sins. Derek Maher describes the fifth Dalai Lama attributing the status of a Buddhisattva to his Moghul patron Gushri Khan, a war Lord who “realised emptiness”. The problem highlighted throughout Buddhist Warfare is the long history of the misapplication and misappropriation of Buddhist principles such as “emptiness”. Buddhist Warfare essentially holds contemporary Buddhist authors and scholars to account and demands that they interrogate these central principles in order to understand and prevent their misuse.
Dale S. Wright’s The Six Perfections could be seen as occupying Faure’s “high metaphysical or moral ground”. Wright’s book sets out a detailed method for cultivating the six virtues central to the Bodhisattva way of life: generosity, tolerance, morality, energy, meditation and wisdom. Each virtue is assigned its own chapter in an eloquent, earnest, almost pastoral way. Essentially, however, Wright reiterates mainstream Buddhist teaching and presumes that once the “wisdom of emptiness” is achieved, then it is impossible to enter into conflict, act violently or wage war. Wright does not see any potential for the notion of emptiness to be hijacked or possessed by power-seeking, destructive forces. Instead, he presents the concept in terms of “interdependency”. He affirms emptiness as the idea that nothing stands alone, nothing controls its “own being”, nothing is self-established or permanent. To be empty is to be wholly contingent, wholly dependent on external factors. It is to have no core or identity of your own. It is to know that you “depend in the most fundamental sense on other things”.
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
At first, emptiness appears to be a warm, communal principle of openness and shared need, but Wright also presents it as entailing a strong awareness of finitude. He argues that emptiness is the indisputable reality we find if we are ever brave enough to face up to what is really there. One of the six perfections outlined in Wright’s book is the perfection of tolerance. He defines tolerance as being “without fear”. Emptiness, he argues, is the reality we are all running away from: only when we “face the emptiness of all things”, ourselves included, without being frightened to the point of turning back, will we begin to be perfected. Emptiness, therefore, is not emotionally neutral – we will experience it as desolation, even horror. How can identification with “the void”, with that which we most fear, make us more peaceful?
Wright’s conviction is that if we can tolerate emptiness, we can tolerate anything, nothing will cause us to retaliate. He argues that if we identify with what we most fear, then we have nothing outside to fear. Therefore we cease to define or assert ourselves against anything. We are essentially pacified. Wright sees the denial of emptiness as the root of all violence. Conflict is born of ignorance of the emptiness of our true nature.
Unfortunately, as we have seen, we have the evidence of Takuan against Wright. Takuan clearly identifies with emptiness, but he is not pacified. His identification with emptiness allows him access to superhuman martial prowess. In his sword, emptiness acts like lightning. We have seen that emptiness is not always understood as a peaceful communal state of mutual interdependency, but it can manifest itself as pure will-to-power.
Wright’s analysis in juxtaposition to Takuan seems naive. He presumes that once emptiness is truly acknowledged, all power relationships fall away. There is no oppression. He does not seem fully aware that, in Suzuki’s text, for instance, emptiness itself is sometimes portrayed as cruel and blind as Nature.
The Six Perfections is at its best an insightful, psychologically astute narrative of Eastern-influenced literary introspection. But its analysis of emptiness does not address the overwhelming historical evidence of human evil set out in Buddhist Warfare. Wright’s ethics could be criticized for severely underestimating the depth and tenacity of human sin, our death instinct, if you like, our tendency to destroy everything that is both for and against us.
Wright also chronically overestimates the curative value of identifying with “interdependency”. This overestimation is so stubborn that it leads him to cut himself away from the greatest resource he has: traditional Mahayana. In traditional Mahayana, the idea of “interdependency”, or emptiness, is always moderated by that of karma, the principle that good always leads to good and bad to bad. Wright argues that contemporary Buddhism has no need for such an antiquated principle of systematic cosmic justice. He argues that the world view of modern physics excludes the possibility of karma. Wright’s essential ethical teaching, then, his cure of all evil, is that we must all identify with a concept of “interdependency” without justice.
Buddhist Warfare illustrates that emptiness can be anomalous – in traditional Buddhism, as in Wright’s reading, it is seen as emptying out aggression. However, Suzuki compared emptiness to the unconscious and, since Freud, the unconscious has been seen as the origin of evil. Wright ignores this tension. Underlying Wright’s ethics is the presumption that emptiness is essentially compassion. The Dalai Lama has said something similar: “We have no absolutes in Buddhism, except compassion”. But Buddhist Warfare raises the question whether identification with emptiness can always be trusted to lead to generosity, tolerance, morality, energy, meditation and wisdom.
Although the tone of The Six Perfections is always uplifting and edifying, overall the ethical system Wright is presenting does not fully acknowledge its reliance on certain unspoken axioms, and the abandonment of the principle of karma has many negative implications that are not properly scrutinized. Mahayana Buddhism is centred on paradox and the union of opposites: the precursor of Mahayana, Nagarjuna, stated that the world of suffering (Samsara) is Nirvana. But if all opposites are combined and the clear demarcation of good and evil in karmic theory is abandoned, then how, ultimately, can we discern the difference between Wright’s central aim of identification with emptiness and the fate of the sage Vakkali?
Katherine Wharton researches and coordinates interreligious dialogues for the Church of England. She completed her doctoral thesis, “Philosophy as a Practice of Freedom in Ancient India and Ancient Greece,” at the School of Oriental and African Studies in 2008, and has offered courses on Hindu and Buddhist philosophy for Birkbeck College, London. She is organizing a conference between Hindu and Christian leaders in Bangalore, India.
Previous item: How’s This for Poignant Social Commentary?
Next item: A Glimpse Into the Heart of a Rotten System
New and Improved Comments