Friday, March 28, 2003
As far as I can see, the Buddha seems to have taught what today might be called pacifism. It's sad, but perhaps not surprising, that others have interpreted him diferently (OK I'm skipping over the thorny question of whether the Buddha actually said any of what he supposedly said, and indeed whether he actually existed). But isn't this what happens with many great teachers of peace? I think Jesus is the best example of this. Anyone who can run a war on the basis of following Jesus has to be an expert at doublethink, but plenty have managed it, including staunch Methodists George Bush Jnr and Donald Rumsfeld (I think Tariq Aziz is also a Christian). If Jesus hadn't risen from the dead, he'd be spinning in his grave (that was a weak attempt at a joke, by the way, and I hope no-one has been offended).
If we can't find the 'pure expression' in the religious tradition, we try to go back to the founder, who must surely have taught the real thing. Religions like Christianity and Tibetan Buddhism have a long history of doing just this. The result? Umpteen varieties of the same thing, all competing to be the 'truest'.
It's true that Zen and other offshoots of the Buddha's teaching are quite different, but they all trace themselves back to the Buddha, who, arguably, was the one who taught pacifism. Tibetan Buddhism is no more 'pure' than any of the other versions of Buddhism (although, presumably, the adherents of every version of Buddhism have reasons to belive their version is, well, better.
It pains me to think that Buddhism is not historically as purely pacifist as I would like it to be. Happily the Buddha taught that everything that marked him out (enlightenment etc) was available to all people, and that by taking seriously the four noble truths, the basis for peace and happiness is within all. This is why I believe that the seeds of peace are present in everyone. They just need watering.
Would there be less war if everyone was a Buddhist? Maybe. Would thre be less war if everyone was into deep ecology? Maybe. But maybe these aren't the right kind of questions. A very worthwhile book on building 'cultures of peace' is Cultures of Peace: The Hidden Side of History (Syracuse University Press, 2000) by Elise Boulding. (Read a review.)
Christian theologian Walter Wink calls the present (perennial) set up of the oppressed being forced to support the oppressors in their plans for war 'the domination system', and claims that its religion is not Christianity or Islam (and certainly not Buddhism!), but 'the myth of redemptive violence'.
"May we exist like the lotus - at home in a muddy pond.
Thus we bow to life as it is."
It would be nice to romanticise certain religions, as though there's a 'liberated zone' somewhere in the world that is free of war and the ideologies of war. Unfortunately there isn't. Although Buddhism is generally speaking a peace loving religion (or philosophy or whatever), there are some notable exceptions.
People who think Buddhism has a great pacifist record should read Brian Victoria's book, Zen at War, which indicts some well known Japanese Zen teachers with actively promoting Japanese militarism in the pre-war period, and supporting massacres in China.
Also worth reading on this subject is In Defense of Dharma: Just-War Ideology in Buddhist Sri Lanka by Tessa J. Bartholomeusz. She shows how certain Buddhist texts and stories have been used to defend war against Tamils in Buddhist terms.
Unfortunately, war is everywhere and the seeds of war are in each one of us. Happily, though, peace is everywhere and the seeds of non-violence are in each one of us. With each word and thought and action we have to choose which seeds we will water.
To help us on the way there are sereral well-known Buddhist exemplars of non-violence, such as
the Dalai Lama,
a whole generation of leaders who have consistently chosen to embody the way of peace. And to them, much respect.