Book review: When it comes to violence, Buddhism is no different than other religions

“Buddhist Warfare” by Michael Jerryson and Mark Juergensmeyer

Buddhism is a very diverse religion. It has so many different sects, cultures and leaders that are bind together solely by the teachings of the Buddha. The religion has no unifying canonical scriptures, and each tradition consist of unique set of practices and doctrines that are different from one another, with each version of Buddhism is deeply embeded into the local culture.

This, as an effect, make the subject of Buddhism and its violence a complicated matter and its analysis a monumental challenge. Which is why, perhaps, there are not that many books that cover the subject, and this in return make our basic perception of the religion become distorted by the peaceful image we see on the surface.

This book is the attempt to adress this misconception. It is written with the utmost respect for the religion, not for “exposing the truth” but to understanding the complete picture through reading the scriptures and analysing the impacts throughout history. Its world-class research are conducted by the experts on the field: 11 of the best scholars on the subject, with expert on Buddhism in Japan, Sub Continent, Sri Lanka, Tibet, Mongolia, Korea, China, Thailand and the rest of South East Asia. And the 8 chapters of their findings are a serious body of work that leaves no room for doubts that violence is truly a part of Buddhism, for better and for worse.

First there are the Mongolian Buddhist Khans, whom engaged in acts of violence such as the forceful replacement of Shamanism with Buddhism as state religion, and the implementation of harsh code of conduct to its conquered subjects with torture and death as the punishment. And then there are the many Chinese wars with Buddhist monks participating in the bloodsheds. The brutal cleansing conducted by Buddhists in Sri Lanka. Japanese zen-soldiers and Thai military-monks that blurred the line between state troopers and religious practitioners. And the Korean war where Buddhist monks were at the forefront of the battle against “Imperial America”, complete with its doctrine that demonised the US, a common practice in Buddhist warfare in de-humanising their enemies.

Indeed, a lot of violence are conducted by Buddhists in the name of the state, to first and foremost protect nationalist interest, with few selected scriptures are used to justify the conducts. Verses such as “if a king makes war or torture with compassionate intentions, even those acts can result in the accumulation of vast karmic merit” and “the Buddhist axiom is that everything is suffering… since life is suffering killing one’s neighbour is doing him a favor”, among many others, are often used to justify their violent acts.

If they sound familiar, it is because these kind of scripture-based justifications are also used by the likes of Christian Crusade in their “Holy War”, Jewish extremists in confiscating lands, ethnic cleansing by Hindus in the partition of India and Muslim Jihadists in their terror attacks, and this makes Buddhist violence no different than any other religious violence. In addition, as the first Christian rulers in Europe relied on Christianity to gain support and win their wars, similarly the barbarians in Northern China and in Japan initially adopted Buddhism to gain military advantage in their wars. And while Buddhist extremists are rare, the attack on Tokyo subway in 1995 where Sarin Gas killed a lot of people was conducted by Buddhist militants, in the same manner Al Qaeda launch their offensives.

Moreover, while some wars are conducted to defend a Buddhist community against “enemies” from different faith, there are also a lot of clashes between two or three different schools of Buddhism and traditions. The most eye opener example for me was the sectarian violence that occurred in Tibet during the life of the 5th Dalai Lama, where Tibet was actually divided before violence unite them together in such vicious manner, with the victor’s version of Buddhism eventually became the official religion in Tibet until now.

There are of course a lot more detailed examples written in the book, including the violent acts by Buddhists in everyday life outside the context of war, such as a forced self-mutilation on Chinese monks and the abuse on female Buddhist monks in chauvinistic sects. But this does not redirect our focus from the many majority of Buddhists that indeed live a very tolerant and peaceful life.

Hence, as far as the objective of the book is concern, it is a pretty successful one in describing the complicated world of Buddhist violence without tainting the true religion. And it serves to understand that when it comes to violence all religion are the same, that it’s almost always not about the religion itself but it’s more about power struggle.

For more reviews, please visit my book review page on Amazon