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Buddhism has never been pacifistic

One of the major reasons that blogging became a big thing in the 2000s is media criticism. With the decline of blogs most of that has moved to Twitter, but Twitter operates on different principles. Often critiques of media focus around specific issues and concerns which are amplified by positive feedback loops.

But a recent piece by The New York Times, Buddhists Go to Battle: When Nationalism Overrides Pacifism A call to arms for Sri Lankan monks. Ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya in Myanmar. A Buddhist faith known for pacifism is taking its place in a new age of nationalism, highlights how even the most ‘respectable’ of media outlets engage in shortcuts and superficial analysis. Part of me does wonder also if the secularism of the American elite media is one of the reasons they routinely flub anything related to religion.

In any case, the idea that Buddhism is necessarily a pacifist religion is to a great extent a Western fantasy. Much of the genealogy is rooted in Schopenhauer’s interpretations. Though Schopenhauer’s interpretations are as good as anyone’s, they tend to cast Indian religion generally in ethereal mystical terms at strong variance with how they manifest in cultures where they have been ascendant.

The Japanese, Mongols, and Tibetans did not stop being warlike when they converted to Buddhism. The patronage of Buddhism in China was fostered in the early centuries by non-Chinese barbarian military elites. There is nothing particular pacifistic about Thailand or Burma.

The fact that no editor of that well-reported piece even thought to consider these facts, and relied on Western stereotypes, is pretty disappointing, but not surprising.

The weird thing is 20 years on from the heyday of blogging the cultural elite talks and promotes multiculturalism orders of magnitude more. But the cultural elite is fundamentally just as lazy as it was back then, and uses simple heuristics which leverage what their readers know or believe,* rather than actually introducing new and true facts into the discussion.

* Buddhism and Sufism both are treated in American media through the biased and distorted lens of Western gurus and practitioners, rather than living traditions across a variety of cultures with deep and complex histories.


11 thoughts on “Buddhism has never been pacifistic

  1. Sufism — I think that this requires more explanation. 🙂

    I have always thought of Sufis as generally friendly (or at least non-threatening), based on family experience living in Uzbekistan (we are Ashkenazi not Bukhari tho).

    Would appreciate a broader take.

  2. Tamerlane’s religious beliefs can fairly be characterized as Sufi.
    And see the various traditions of Sufi investiture of infidel-slaying ghazis.

  3. Being a generation older than RK, I think I have an explanation for the American take on Buddhism that complements the role he gives Schopenhauer. Americans were first introduced to Buddhism in a big way during the protests against Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963. To those unfamiliar with the religion, the nature of the protests strongly hinted at pacifism and a Gandhi-esque approach to protest movements. Its adoption by or association with the counter-culture just a few years later reinforced this belief.

  4. I agree with your observations. I also discovered that Buddhism was and is not a pacifist religion as we know of till I started living in a Buddhist majority country from 2010. It was in Burma. I studied, learnt and finally discovered that it is as violent as some of the religions and spread of the religion was from Top to bottom(Kings embraced Buddhism to retain/consolidate his power). Final DISCOVERY: Show me a Buddhist country start from Sri Lanka to Japan from history to present day that was or is peaceful!

  5. Its adoption by or association with the counter-culture just a few years later reinforced this belief.

    I think this really played a strong role in shaping the American consciousness regarding Buddhism. And then this further came of age with the Dalai Lama.

    Anyone who has lived in an Asian country with a substantial fraction of Buddhists knows that the American perception is a distorted one. It’s not uncommon to see Buddhist monks riot violently in Asia (even amongst themselves in a power struggle).

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