Thursday, April 16, 2009

Are Buddhists Violent?

Lawrence Osborne, 04.14.09, 03:35 PM EDT

Western stereotypes vs. reality as Thailand descends into turmoil.

Like many former residents of Bangkok, I have been watching the country's slide into virtual civil war with a mixture of incredulity and tetchy disillusion. It is hard for us to think of one of the world's only truly Buddhist states descending into a chaotic thuggery that would, alas, be less remarkable elsewhere. But why? Is it because of misperceptions we have about Buddhism?

Buddhist violence--or violence committed by Buddhists, more properly speaking--is a strained concept for us, to put it mildly. I can easily imagine being assaulted by an infuriated Christian or by a hysterically outraged jihadist, by a Zionist even, at a pinch--but by a Buddhist? What would you have to say to get him mad? Deny transmigration?

I confess that I rather like the idea of an ax-wielding Buddhist thug. It would prove, at least, that stereotypes are stereotypes. Ever since America switched on to Zen, that exceedingly odd variant of Buddhism propagated by the tireless and slightly loopy Japanese writer D. T. Suzuki, among others, we have thought of Buddhism as being inseparable from an exemplary nonviolence.

In some senses, the question is self-answering. If I had entitled this column "Are Baptists Violent?" I would receive 20,000 incoherently enraged rebuttals threatening to enslave my children and rearrange my anatomy within 10 minutes. But Buddhists, if they disagree with you, are more likely to write in with respect, manners and a sense of humor. Rage is not their thing.

Yet our ideas about Buddhism are vague and wobbly for the most part, and our converted boomers who preach its virtues bear little resemblance, say, to the tattooed denizens of a Bangkok slum, many of whom have images of the Buddha burned into their flesh with a hot needle to protect them from evil spirits.

Our popular idea of Buddhism is little better than Madonna's unhinged vision of the Torah, a "spirituality" gutted of context and complexity. Moreover, Buddhists in America and Europe are mostly middle class and economically comfortable. Theirs is a religion of consumerist choice, individual and private, not one of national inheritance and governance, and their form of Buddhism doesn't have to get its hands dirty by running an actual state.


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