Fear, Loathing, and Terrorism in Buddhist Countries

A guy named Andrew Brown writes in the Guardian UK,

It’s a commonplace that wars and religions are closely associated. Since about 1945 there has been an increasing tendency for wars to be fought along religious, as well as ethnic, economic and cultural lines, though I don’t think many people realise that the most warlike religion in the modern world, measured by the proportion of countries at war where it has a significant following, is actually Buddhism.”

My first reaction to this was, Hey, wait a minute, pal. Then, well, maybe there’s some truth to that. When I took a closer look at the statement, I went back to my first reaction.

To say, “increasing tendency for wars to be fought along religious, as well as ethnic, economic and cultural lines”, is to say nothing really, except that there are many reasons why wars are being fought. And, what does he mean by war?

According to Buddhanet, the top ten countries with the largest Buddhist populations are Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Tibet, Laos, Vietnam, Japan, Macau, Taiwan. And according to the Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP), a data collection project on organized violence housed at Uppsala University in Sweden, which evidently is relied upon by the United Nations, only two of those countries have ongoing military conflicts: Burma/Myanmar (internal conflict since 1948) and Thailand (South Thailand insurgency since 2004).

So I don’t think Brown’s claim is valid.

That does not mean that bad stuff isn’t happening in some Buddhist countries. It is. Some very bad stuff.

Burma: Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA)
Burma: Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA)

I’ve previously written about the situation in Burma (here, here, here, and here). A week ago, Human Rights Watch accused Burmese security forces backed by Buddhist monks of having “committed crimes against humanity” by waging a campaign of ethnic cleansing that has displaced more than 125,000 Rohingya Muslims. Wednesday, the Dalai Lama finally issued a public condemnation of violence there. In December, a number of Buddhist leaders wrote an overly-polite (to my mind) letter expressing their concern about the growing conflict.

I’ve also commented many times on the situation in Tibet (most recently in this post), and it not only qualifies as a conflict, but as far as I’m concerned, it is a war against the Tibetan people. I don’t know much about the insurgency in Thailand except it is led by an Islamic separatist group.

In Sri Lanka, suppression of racial minorities is nothing new. Buddhism is the de facto state religion. The treatment of Sri Lankan Tamil people by the Theravadin majority resulted in a long civil war that officially ended in 2009, however tensions between the two groups still persist. Recently I’ve learned of a couple of hard-line Buddhist Nationalist groups targeting Muslim minorities in Sri Lanka.

One, called the Bodhu Bala Sena, or BBS, which means “Buddhist Strength Force,” has been involved in several incidents of sectarian violence. In one altercation, a mob of hundreds of Buddhist extremists set fire to a clothing store and warehouse in the capital of Colombo. They claim that Muslim students receive favorable treatment in schools, that Muslims use illegal methods to kill livestock, accuse Muslims of building too many mosques, and having too many children.

Another ultra-nationalist Buddhist group, Sinhala Echo, founded by a monk named Akmeemana Dayarathana, makes similar claims, but does not seem to have been involved in any violence.

These things are troubling. Buddhist groups like Bodhu Bala Sena and Sinhala Echo shame the Buddha’s dharma. Equally troubling are journalists like Andrew Brown who don’t do their homework and write inflammatory statements, I suppose to create a stir. Brown, surprisingly, was winner of the 1994 “John Templeton European Religion Writer of the Year” award. Currently he is editor for the Guardian’s Comment is Free Belief section. I suspect he is a Christian.

I make that last comment because many Christian writers have a bad habit of criticizing other religions without having any real knowledge about those religions. A recent case in point is an article I read by Peter Kreeft, a professor of philosophy at Boston College and The King’s College, “Comparing Christianity & Buddhism.” There are so many inaccuracies in this piece it would take an entire post to go through them all. I suppose what really rankles me about what Kreeft wrote was his superior tone and statement at the end: “But Buddhists even more desperately need to hear what they do not know: the news about God and His love.”

I couldn’t disagree more, but that would another post, too. While I am critical of the beliefs of the Abrahamic religions, I certainly don’t approve of intolerance or violence against their believers. The actions of ultra-nationalist groups using the dharma as an excuse for their fanaticism should be strongly (not politely) condemned by all Buddhists.

If you want to read more about the these situations, I recommend this at CNN and this at thinkprogress.org.

Lastly, if you search Google Images using the search terms “Buddhist terrorist,” “Buddhist terrorist groups,” or something similar, you will see a great many disturbing images, especially of the recent atrocities in Burma. They may be difficult to look at, but they will definitely disabuse you of any idealistic notions you might harbor about Buddhism in some of the countries I’ve mentioned in this post.  

Fear is another root of violence and terrorism. We terrorize others so they will have no chance to terrorize us. We want to kill before we are killed. Instead of bringing us peace and safety, this escalates violence. If we kill someone we call a terrorist, his son may become a terrorist. Throughout history, the more we kill, the more terrorists we create.

Thich Nhat Hanh, Calming the Fearful Mind: A Zen Response to Terrorism


Nagarjuna and The Exilir of Gold

nagarjuna-drawing3It is thought that the great Buddhist philosopher, Nagarjuna, was probably born in Southern India and that he came from Brahman (priestly) stock. His time is estimated somewhere between 150–250 CE. There are no historical facts about his parents, his upbringing, education, career, and so on. But there are stories . . .

One of the legends says that his parents had long desired children but had been unable to produce any. One night, his father had a dream that caused him to pray fervently to 100 Brahmans for a son. 10 months later, a son was born. The boy was taken to a soothsayer who told the parents that he was destined to die in 7 days. The soothsayer advised them that the only thing that could be done was to give a feast for 100 persons. That would allow the boy 7 more days of life. But if they also gave a feast to 100 monks, he would live for 7 years. That, however, would be the end of it. There was no way to prolong his life further.

Naturally, his parents gave these feasts, and thus, extended Nagarjuna’s life. But as the 7th year drew near, his mother and father felt they would not be able to bear the sight of their son’s corpse, so they sent him on a journey, accompanied by a number of servants. After some traveling, he reached Magadha, where the great monastic university called Nalanda was located. There he met a teacher named Saraha, who gave him a special mantra that would allow him to overcome the destiny of a short life. 

Interaction with Saraha inspired Nagarjuna to become ordained as a monk. After his ordination, he mastered all the Buddhist teachings, and Saraha initiated him into the secrets of Mantrayana.

This is Interesting, considering Nagarjuna’s alleged tantric connections, as there was a monk named Saraha in the 8th century who is considered to be the founder of Tantra. Whether the Saraha in the Nagarjuna story is supposed to be the same person is anyone’s guess.

Another account of Nagarjuna’s early life has him abandoning worldly life by taking the Buddhist vows of renunciation at the age of 8. According to Bu-ston (1290–1364), a Tibetan historian, after studying with Saraha, he studied with the abbot of Nalanda, Rhaulabhadra. Another source, however, says that Nagarjuna first studied Sarvastivada, an early Buddhist school that held to the theory “all dharmas exist.” At a later date, Nagarjuna asked Saraha to give him instruction in the esoteric Guhya Samaja practice, considered to be the supreme tantric teaching. The legends also say that he received teachings from Ratna Mati, a bodhisattva who was a manifestation of Manjusri Buddha.

Nalanda ruins

One story says that there came a time when Magadha was hit with a severe famine lasting 12 years. Because food was scarce, the prices were very high, more than the poor Nalanda monks could afford. Nagarjuna is said to have kept them alive through his knowledge of alchemy. By reciting special mantras over two sandalwood leaves, Nagarjuna gained the power to teleport, to materialize wherever he wished. Just like in Star Trek.

He placed one sandalwood leaf in the sole of his sandal, and held the other in his hand, and traveled to a distant island where he met a Brahmin who knew how to concoct an elixir that transformed common metals into gold. Nagarjuna asked the Brahmin to teach him how to prepare the elixir. The Brahmin, who was no dope and a bit shady, realized that Nagarjuna must have reached the island through some technique of magic or alchemy. He said, “I will teach you my technique, if you will share with me the method you used to come across the water.” Nagarjuna agreed. He gave the Brahmin the leaf he held in his hand.

Now, the Brahmin really didn’t want to share his secret of the elixir. However, he assumed that since he now had possession of the leaf, Nagarjuna would never be able to leave the island. So, thinking he had nothing to lose, he showed Nagarjuna how to prepare the gold-making elixir.

But, of course, Nagarjuna had the second leaf hidden in his sandal, and used it to leave the island and return to Nalanda. He made the elixir to transform iron into gold and was able to provide the monks with the means to purchase the food they so desperately needed.

It’s told that Nagarjuna eventually became abbot of Nalanda, that he defeated five hundred non-Buddhists in debate, and once expelled over 8,000 monks who were amoral and did not properly observe the precepts.

Modern scholars do not believe Nagarjuna ever studied at Nalanda. There is archaeological evidence that the site was not occupied until sometime after the 4th century (remember Nagarjuna lived in the 2nd or 3rd century) and further, that the university was not even established until the 5th century.

Evidently, many of Nagarjuna’s myth-makers decided there was no reason to let a few facts get in the way of a good story.


Richie Havens and The Great Mandala

Richie Havens died Monday of a heart attack at his home in Jersey City, N.J. He was 72.

Richie Havens performs on stage at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage FestivI think for most people the first time they heard Richie Havens it was from listening to the Woodstock album or watching the opening sequence of Woodstock, the movie. His performance of “Freedom/Motherless Child” in that film was riveting and earned him much acclaim. Many of us, though, had been familiar with Havens long before that, beginning with his first album, “Mixed Bag,” released in 1967.

His voice was soulful and deep. He always sounded eternal, immortal, and profoundly spiritual. His distinctive style owed much to the way he played guitar. He’d tune his guitar in an open D tuning, and fret by baring chords with his thumb; he actually played very few chords, it was his unique strumming that made it sound rhythmic.

He had already made a name for himself playing the coffee houses in Greenwich Village, when in 1967 he signed with Bob Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman, and recorded that first album, which contains one of my favorite songs, “Follow.” As I recall, he only had one “hit” song and that was with George Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun.”

I saw Havens in concert just once. He not only sounded spiritual but he had a very spiritual aura. I don’t know if he followed any particular religion, however his daughter, Rachel Marco-Havens, has been a student of Tibetan Buddhism for over two decades. Tuesday, on The Progressive, she wrote this:

My Father gave everything he had for the purpose of spreading beauty and love. The exchange of love that he shared, through his music, with listeners was unconditional, and every person he has ever touched should know that what they felt during their own personal exchange was genuine. He still loves you. Unconditionally . . .

It gives me great comfort to know that my dear teachers are saying prayers for his swift return, there is a lamp burning for him in the shrine room at Karma Triyana Dharmachakra that will burn for the traditional 49 days of his bardo and the prayers abound. The connections and friendships that he made in the Dharma community were very special to him.

Om ah mi dewa hri

The video below is from a 1990s Peter, Paul and Mary special on PBS. The song, “The Great Mandala (The Wheel of Life)” was written by Peter Yarrow. The refrain is obviously Buddhist inspired, however, Yarrow has said it is not a reference to Buddhism. It’s an anti-war song. Richie Havens’ voice in duet with Yarrow’s gives the song a timeless, transcendent quality.

Take your place on the great mandala
As it moves through your brief moment of time . . .

Photograph: Leon Morris/Redferns


A Constant Thought

Hui-neng, the Sixth Patriarch of the Ch’an school, said,

The Dharma is to be found in this world and not in another. To leave this world to search for the dharma is as futile as searching for a rabbit with horns.”

We can consider “Dharma” here to refer not only to the teachings of Buddhism but also to what we are all seeking, the ‘ultimate reality,’ truth, happiness or whatever you wish to call IT, and “this world and not in another” as referring to anything outside of this realm of existence, as well as anything outside of our life.

buddha-rilke-quoteLooking for IT outside of our life, as Hui-neng notes, is useless, and such a search will always be unsuccessful. And yet, this is exactly what most people do. They may convince themselves they have found IT through belief in a higher power or some purpose larger than themselves, but they have discovered only the equivalent of fool’s gold. The vain search to fill a spiritual vacuum or Void (not sunyata) by looking outside of our lives is a root cause of the political, religious, economic, and ecological crises in our world.

I’m thinking of the Boston Marathon bombing. When we eventually strip away the layers of factors, such as their fractured family history, their immigration experience, ethnic ties to Chechnya, the turn toward a stricter form of Islam, the radicalization, I think we will find the real motive behind the terrible actions of the two brothers is simply the search to find meaning for their lives. For disaffected and alienated young men, radical Islam seems to fill the Void. It offers a narrative for their outer-directed hunt, albeit a toxic narrative, one that offers up an ultimate object for their worship, and it’s not a God, but someone to hate, to resent, to want to destroy.

The irony here is that once people like these two brothers commit their crimes, often they too become objects of this twisted form of worship. Thank goodness, there have been few cries for vengeance in the past week. In this case, the overwhelming response has been a pulling together, a feeling of solidarity.

I think most people do have a sense of interconnectedness, but how deep it runs is a question, because far too often it only seems to arise in the wake of tragedy. I can’t help but feel that what the world really needs at this point is a massive spiritual awakening. We need to find a way to turn the outer-directed search around and instill within everyone a profound appreciation of the interconnectedness of all life. Is it possible? What a silly question. Of course not.

That should not stop us from trying. It’s a noble quest that I’ve always felt Buddhists should lead. Political institutions and ideologies, Western philosophy, and Abrahamic religions will not help, for they are part of the problem. Modern psychology and self-help programs are both a mixed bag, particularly with the latter since some promote the idea of a higher power.

Buddhism is not the only spiritual philosophy that is inner-directed, but perhaps the only one that is both inner-directed and teaches a comprehensive theory of interconnectedness.

Unfortunately, some people who are interested in Buddhism want to debate whether this interconnectedness was part of the understanding of the first Buddhists. It doesn’t matter. Interconnectedness was understood by the later Mahayana Buddhists, and even if it is a new layer of meaning that we modern dharma practitioners have added, that’s great, for it means that we are doing our job by helping the dharma evolve.

Then we have those who are fine with interconnectedness but have some gripe against karma, rebirth or ritual, or who oddly fear that a commitment to compassion and non-violence will blunt our critical acumen or blind us to the nature and origins of violence. Even as I find myself drawn into to such discussions occasionally, I feel they are largely a waste of time.

Regardless of their views on ancillary matters, the vast majority of Buddhists do agree about the inner-direction and few will deny interconnectedness altogether. It seems to me that we, and the world, would be better served if we got past our sectarian identities and petty disagreements and started talking more about the ways we could promote the values we have in common. 

Yet, here, too, is a rub. I’ve heard some folks express the mistaken belief that propagation in Buddhism is not allowed, inappropriate, or just wrong. This is not the case. Buddhism could not have spread throughout all of Asia without propagation. We, in the West, have benefited from propagation. As J. Gordon Melton, an American religious scholar and the founding director of the Institute for the Study of American Religion, has noted, “Between 1917 and 1965 Asian religion changed, at least in one important aspect. It was motivated by a new missionary spirit.”* 

Well, it wasn’t really new, it just appeared so. In any case, it brought Buddha-dharma to our shores. I have seen how some modern Buddhists have abused that missionary spirit, while many others have ignored it. I’m not sure we really need to engage in the propagation of Buddhism per se, but as I said, certainly we could put more effort in promoting some of the ideals of Buddhism.

A mass awakening may not be possible, but small, incremental awakenings can happen. One person at a time, switching on the inner-light within themselves, and then helping another to do the same.

I watched the Boston inner-faith service Thursday on CNN. Afterward, the commentator talked about how every faith was represented. I found that curious. There were no Buddhist speakers. All of the faiths represented a version of the same outer-directed focus, with our President quoting 2 Timothy: 1-7: “God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love and self-discipline.”

It saddens me to think that so many people believe that power, love and self-discipline must be gifted to them from on high. Or that, as Rabbi Ronne Friedman indicated, citing Psalm 147, God will empower the brokenhearted with “strength and courage and restore to them and to all of us who grieve with them a sense of life’s goodness and purpose.”

What could be more empowering that finding all that within oneself? I can’t even imagine a reason to exist if you must rely on some higher power for everything that makes life meaningful.

And for Buddhists, I don’t understand why more of us do not have a sense of urgency, more of a spirit to share our good news, our sense of inner-directedness and interconnectedness with the world.

 The Buddha of the Lotus Sutra says,

This is my constant thought: How can I cause all living beings to gain entry to the unsurpassed Way and quickly realize awakening?”

And this is my constant thought: If we Buddhists don’t radicalize the alienated, the disaffected, and all others to this peaceful, inner-revolution, who will?

P.S. This song came on the radio as I was reading the final draft. It seemed to fit.

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*Melton, J. Gordon (2004). “How New is New?” Bromley, David G. & Hammond, Phillip E. (Eds). The Future of New Religious Movements. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press.


Monkey Mind, Monkey Trial

cdarrowClarence Darrow was born on this day in 1857. Darrow, of course, is most famous for being the defense attorney at Scopes “monkey” trial. As a member of the American Civil Liberties Union, he participated in a number of cases that today we would call high profile, including the defense of the two notorious child killers, Leopold and Loeb. But it is that one case, in 1925, when the State of Tennessee prosecuted educator John T. Scopes for teaching “the Evolution Theory” that usually comes to mind when his name is mentioned.

Did you know that Buddhism played a role in the Scopes trial? A very small role, almost minute, but nonetheless an interesting, and somewhat amusing one.

Darrow’s opponent was William Jennings Bryan, a politician. If you’ve ever seen Inherit the Wind, the play (and later, a film) based on the trial, your impression of Bryan might be that of a turn of the century Rush Limbaugh with a bit more class. However, that would be a mistaken impression. Byran was a pacifist during the First World War, he supported “popular democracy,” and he hated banks, the railroads and had little use for the gold standard. One thing for sure, he was a man of faith, a devout Christian.

Byran (left) and Darrow
Byran (left) and Darrow

And it was for that reason, in a bit of Perry Mason-like strategy, that Darrow called Bryan as an expert witness on the Bible. The judge of the monkey trial didn’t care for that idea much, but Bryan agreed. The exchange between the Darrow and Bryan is priceless:

DARROW: Do you claim that everything in the Bible should be literally interpreted?

BRYAN: I believe everything in the Bible should be accepted as it is given there. Some of the Bible is given illustratively; for instance, “Ye are the salt of the earth.” I would not insist that man was actually salt, or that he had flesh of salt, but it is used in the sense of salt as saving God’s people.

DARROW: But when you read that Jonah swallowed the whale — or that the whale swallowed Jonah, excuse me, please — how do you literally interpret that?

BRYAN: When I read that a big fish swallowed Jonah — it does not say whale.

DARROW: Doesn’t it? Are you sure?

BRYAN: That is my recollection of it, a big fish. And I believe it, and I believe in a God who can make a whale and can make a man, and can make both do what He pleases.

Darrow and Bryan went back and forth like that for about two hours. At one point Bryan expressed his belief that all human life was destroyed by The Flood some 4200 years before. Darrow pointed out that Chinese civilization was estimated to be about six thousand years old. Bryan stated that there were records that documented The Flood and Darrow asked about those documents. When Bryan couldn’t really answer Darrow asked him if he knew anything about religions other than Christianity:

DARROW: What about the religion of Buddha?

BRYAN: Well, I can tell you something about that, if you would like to know.

It took a while but after he first expounded at length on the subject of Confucius, Bryan eventually shared his knowledge of Buddhism:

BRYAN: Now, Mr. Darrow, you asked me if I knew anything about Buddha?

Darrow: You want to make a speech on Buddha, too?

BRYAN: No sir, I want to answer your question on Buddha.

DARROW: I asked you if you knew anything about him.

BRYAN: I do.

DARROW: Well, that’s answered, then.

BRYAN: Buddha…

DARROW: Well, wait a minute. You answered the question.

JUDGE: I will let him tell what he knows.

DARROW: All he knows?

JUDGE: Well, I don’t know about that.

BRYAN: I won’t insist on telling all I know. I will tell more than Mr. Darrow wants told.

DARROW: Well, all right, tell it. I don’t care.

BRYAN: Buddhism is an agnostic religion.

DARROW: To what? What do you mean by “agnostic”?

BRYAN: I don’t know.

DARROW: You don’t know what you mean?

BRYAN: That is what “agnosticism” is — “I don’t know”. When I was in Rangoon, Burma, one of the Buddhists told me that they were going to send a delegation to an agnostic congress that was to be held soon at Rome and I read in an official document…

DARROW: Do you remember his name?

BRYAN: No sir, I don’t.

DARROW: What did he look like? How tall was he?

BRYAN: I think he was about as tall as you, but not so crooked.

DARROW: Do you know about how old a man he was? Do you know whether he was old enough to know what he was talking about?

BRYAN: He seemed to be old enough to know what he was talking about. [Laughter.]

DARROW: If Your Honor please, instead of answering plain specific questions we are permitting the witness to regale the crowd with what some [man] said to him when he was travelling in Rangoon, India . . .

JUDGE: I will let him go ahead and answer.

BRYAN: I wanted to say that I then read a paper that he gave me, and official paper of the Buddhist church, and it advocated the sending of delegates to that agnostic conference at Rome, arguing that it was an agnostic religion and I will give you another evidence of it. I went to call on a Buddhist teacher.

DARROW: I object to Mr. Bryan making a speech every time I ask him a question.

JUDGE: Let him finish his answer and then you can go ahead.

BRYAN: I went to call on a Buddhist priest and found him at his noon meal, and there was an Englishman there who was also a Buddhist. He went over as ship’s carpenter and became a Buddhist and had been for about six years, and while I waited for the Buddhist priest I talked to the Englishman and he said the most important thing was you didn’t have to believe to be a Buddhist.

DARROW: You know the name of the Englishman?

BRYAN: No sir, I don’t know his name.

DARROW: What did he look like? What did he look like?

BRYAN: He was what I would call an average looking man.

DARROW: How could you tell he was an Englishman?

BRYAN: He told me so.

DARROW: Do you know whether he was truthful or not?

BRYAN: No sir, but I took his word for it.

JUDGE: Well, get along, Mr. Darrow, with your examination.

And on they went, absurdly, to other topics.

Now, in a completely unrelated matter, a Facebook friend shared the image below. I don’t know if either Darrow or Bryan, if they were around, would agree with the sentiment, but I like to think they both would.