Friday, November 30, 2012

Violence and Buddhism

One of the Buddhist precepts is: abstention from killing of living beings. Another is: abstention from taking the non-given. Another is: abstention from covetousness. Another is: abstention from hatred.

Now these precepts are suggestions from the enlightened one, as handed down by the tradition, on how to move towards enlightenment. Can you be a Buddhist if you're not trying to move towards enlightenment? Perhaps you just want to make merit by supporting the monks. In America, the lay/monk split doesn't play as well, and seeing merit literally seems wrong. But perhaps you can be a Buddhist if you try to be kind to people, and try to be mindful, even if you don't have the confidence or resources to actually try for enlightenment. In the TBC going to refuge to the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha is seen as the defining act of Buddhism. Now there are levels of going for refuge, which I don't want to go into. But someone can see themselves as a cultural Buddhist or a nominal Buddhist because the just adopt the local culture, which is Buddhist.

I thought Genghis Kahn was a Buddhist, but it seems he was more of a waring and political beast, who consulted with many religions, and grew up in a Buddhist Mongolia, though it's by no means a monolithic culture. That was when I first got involved and saw anyone who might be labeled a Buddhist as really being Buddhist. Also I didn't know that much about Genghis Kahn, who it turns out, after his death, had begun what would be the largest empire on earth. Did you know that? But I digress.

So what does a Buddhist do with a history of violence by Buddhists? I have not read Buddhist Warfare. Nor have I read Buddhism and Violence (Publications of the Lumbini International Research Institute, Nepal). The first one is new and in print, but these books don't seem to be about spirituality, more about history and culture.

I don't know if reading about Buddhist culture moves you on the path towards enlightenment, but I think an understanding of causes and conditions is never wrongheaded. If I was enlightened, I think this blog would be different, but since I'm not, I do write about culture. A way of keeping me in the game sometimes is to just do anything buddhisty, even if it's tangental.

Obama was in Myanmar and said recently, "What we’ve learned in the United States is that there are certain principles that are universal, apply to everybody no matter what you look like, no matter where you come from, no matter what religion you practice.” In Myanmar they have pushed out ethnic Muslims for fear of Islamization. This has been going on for a while. This seems to go against the Buddhist precepts listed in the first paragraph. I believe in religious freedom and tolerance.

A state or culture can't prescribe one's spirituality. And yet what do you do when someone says their child can't have a simple operation because it's against the family's spiritual belief? There are limits. I would force the family to accept an operation that saves a child's life even if it goes against a religion, though I wouldn't do it lightly or easily, and there might be some rather negative consequences to that course of action. There are many complicated issues here.

But what would I do if someone told me I couldn't be a Buddhist? What if the price to be a Buddhist was too high? There's lots of books about that kind of situation, horrifying novels, history and memoirs. There is also subtle ways of prejudice and are just as unacceptable to me, and yet I've said negative things about other religions. I confess to hatred and false views (ie lack of tolerance). I hereby wish to move forward with religious tolerance.

You can read about violence done by nominal cultural Buddhists, and you don't want to tell someone what their designation is, but then again you can be wrong about what you think you are. It's possible you think you believe in creationism and evolution, but if you understand them both, it's impossible to believe in both (DARWIN'S DANGEROUS IDEA: EVOLUTION AND THE MEANINGS OF LIFE). And yet when I took an informal survey at the school I worked at, the majority of the people claimed to believe both. So what do you do with a group who sees themselves as Buddhists, but doesn't really follow the teachings of the Buddha? Do we say they are not Buddhist by virtue of the violence?

My solution is that a nominal or cultural Buddhist can commit violence, but that anyone moving past a superficial level of Buddhism can not engage in violence. And a self proclaimed Buddhist did some violence, the would see in meditation, reflection and discussion, that it wasn't the way towards enlightenment. I have agonized over my own personal mistakes, confessed them, done pujas to them, and in general work to evolve past them, with admittedly mixed results at times. Violence is not a way to become enlightened. Now you can concoct some weird scenario where you have to kill one person to save millions and billions (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine nailed that.). Even then it's not a slam dunk, that it's obvious.

The dean in the school I once worked in said he thought there would always be war. And I think that it's pretty much evident that war is constantly happening on this earth, and to say it's not happening is a weird kind of digging your head into the sands. But the idea that we can't, as a species, evolve past it, is a kind of pessimism. Maybe you'll see aggression in the playground of children, but there's always adults there to break it up. We have violence inside us, maybe that will always be there till we get into the higher evolution. I hope we can evolve past state violence, at least, even if, like Spock, it takes a while to master our turbulent emotions. Even if you're not a Buddhist, a world without state violence is an appealing idea.

1 comment:

Stephen Bell said...

I just stumbled onto these two books: Chris Hedges War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning and also Naomi Klein's Shock Doctrine. Their idea is that we do these things to entertainment and meaning, of sorts. Not sure what I think about that.