Friday, 28 June 2013

More on "Buddhist" Violence

This excellent piece is by Barbara O'Brien, who we quoted from in a previous post on the subject.

Following up the last post, about Time magazine's "The Face of Buddhist Terror" cover -- terrorism and violence attributed to religious/spiritual traditions is, to me, a fascinating subject that no one seems to be addressing intelligently. (And for purposes of this discussion, I'm calling Buddhism a religion. If you want to argue the point, go somewhere else.)

It seems a lot of people are quite certain there is a direct cause and effect between religion and violence/terrorism/oppression, and that much evil would pass from the world if all religion were eradicated. I don't think it's that simple, especially in modern times. It's more often the case these days that religious institutions become infected with the local social pathologies. And then the infected institutions easily are co-opted into providing a moral "cover" for immoral actions. But take away religion, and the social pathologies would just find another way to express themselves.

People entering religious institutions don't lose a lifetime of cultural conditioning as soon as they put on robes or vestments, you know. For example, in some parts of Asia Buddhist institutions are planted in strongly paternalistic/misogynist cultures, and the men who become monks and abbots there are products of that culture. And the institutions reflect that. However, this is much less true in other parts of Asia where women enjoy a higher status and more autonomy. And western sanghas often are brimming with strong feminist sensibilities.

I believe this pattern of infection and co-option is what is happening in Burma. I believe it isn't so much "Buddhist terrorism" as it is "racist and jingoistic terrorism that has co-opted part of the sangha." I suspect something similar happened in Japanese Zen institutions in the 1930s, causing them to support whatever the Japanese military was doing, however ugly. This is pretty much the pattern of so-called religious violence around the world in at least the past century or so, seems to me.

The degree to which any violence might accurately be labelled "Buddhist" or "Christian" or "Muslim" depends on a number of factors. Would the violence have happened anyway, without the support of religious leaders? That may be hard to determine. It may be that some would have been violent anyway, but others would not have turned to violence without the "permission" of clergy.

If a religious "container" were not present, would another container have served as well? We saw in the 20th century that patriotic/political movements can do just as good a job at directing fanatical bigotry and rage toward violent ends.

And then there is the phenomenon of the charismatic sociopath who becomes a cult leader -- e.g., Jim Jones, Asahara Shoko. Is the violence they perpetrate caused by religion or sociopathy?

Because religion so often deals with mysteries and things unseen, it can easily become a canvas upon which people project all kinds of craziness. Religions also easily become objects of fanaticism. Religious institutions can work to discourage fanatical attachment, or they can encourage it, in which case they must bear some responsibility for whatever ugliness grows out of the fanaticism.

I suspect that if religion were to disappear tomorrow, the same people perpetrating "religious" violence today would just re-organize under some other banner. But it's a complicated matter.

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