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Book Review

Buddhists at War

Katherine Wharton
Reviewer
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…
Katherine Wharton

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)”.

book cover

Buddhist Warfare

By Michael Jerryson (Editor), Mark Juergensmeyer (Editor)

Oxford University Press, 272 pages

Buy the book

book cover

The Six Perfections: Buddhism and the Cultivation of Character

By Dale Wright

Oxford University Press, 304 pages

Buy the book

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!”.
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”.

book cover

Buddhist Warfare

By Michael Jerryson (Editor), Mark Juergensmeyer (Editor)

Oxford University Press, 272 pages

Buy the book

book cover

The Six Perfections: Buddhism and the Cultivation of Character

By Dale Wright

Oxford University Press, 304 pages

Buy the book

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.

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