Buddhism: Blood and Enlightenment

Joseph Grosso

What country is in the midst of a long-standing civil war—a war that has displaced hundreds of thousands of citizens, seen the first widespread use of suicide bombers, and in which the government fighting separatist forces has among its most militant allies the country’s religious clerics? Chances are most Westerners thus questioned would search their minds for the name of a Middle Eastern or African country—or at least a country with a Muslim majority. However, the correct answer is Sri Lanka, and the prowar clerics are Buddhist monks.

Buddhist monks have their own political party in Sri Lanka, the National Heritage Party, which holds nine seats in the country’s 225-member Parliament (Buddhism holds a “principal” place according to Sri Lanka’s constitution). The party’s support has strengthened the government’s hand in conducting a fierce offensive against the Tamil Tigers separatist group that has been fighting an on-off secessionist war since 1983. A New York Times article (February 25, 2007) reports that monks have gone so far as to brawl with antiwar protestors and publicly torch Norway’s flag and effigies of its envoy in protest against Norway’s efforts to broker peace talks.

This would seem to contrast with Western conceptions of Buddhism as an “enlightened, peaceful” religion. After all, Buddhism is probably second only to Scientology in terms of affection among Hollywood elites and has long been trendy among educated American liberals. Even many secularists have proclaimed a respect for Buddhist attributes. All of this has served, among other things, to make the cause of Tibetan freedom in vogue on campuses and celebrity rock tours, as well as to make the Dalai Lama the world’s most famous refugee and arguably its most revered man.

However, the current situation in Sri Lanka is not the first time that Buddhism has allied itself with a warring state. An even more illustrative example was the institutional support Buddhist leaders gave to Japanese imperialism during the half-century ending with World War II. In his majestic study Zen at War, Brian Daizen Victoria (himself a Soto priest) explores Buddhist support for Japan during the Sino-Japanese War (1894–95) and the Russo-Japanese War (1904–05), which eventually led to Japan’s annexation of Korea in 1910, and how Buddhist leadership reconciled itself to totalitarianism.

Among the references Victoria cites is this early twentieth-century statement by the famous Buddhist scholar D.T. Suzuki regarding the relationship between religion and the state: “The interests of religion and the state do not conflict but rather aid and support each other in a quest for wholeness. . . . The problem is easily resolved if one thinks of religion as an entity with the state as its body, and as the state as something developing with religion as its spirit. In other words religion and the state form a unity . . . then whatever is done for the sake of the state is done for religion, and whatever is done for the sake of religion is done for the state.”

Through such scholarly support, as well as by serving as military chaplains, missionaries, and indoctrination trainers for soldiers and industrial workers, Buddhist leaders contributed to Japan’s war effort. Toward the end of World War II, as Japan’s position grew desperate, monks were assimilated into the war industry as “industrial warriors.”

It was the most-admired Buddhist ideas, such as selflessness and the elimination of the ego, that morphed into militancy for the cause of aggression and submission to the unity of the state in the person of the emperor. As Christianity had its Pope Urban II rallying for the first crusade, Buddhism had Emperor Hirohito. (More ironic still was some Buddhists’ support for Mao Zedong’s forces during the Korean War.) It’s also fair to note an unhealthy Buddhist influence on Japan stretching back to medieval times: armies of “warrior-monks”—recruited mercenaries who safeguarded temple wealth, blackmailed local towns, and fought neighboring temples over land and political influence. These disputes were frequently settled with the burning of an opposing temple.

Even the just cause of Tibetan freedom is not without its darker side. Contrary to popular conceptions, Tibet before China’s 1950 military occupation was a feudal theocratic state largely controlled by Buddhist monks, especially the always-reincarnating Dalai Lama. In addition, Tibetan history exhibits its share of religious strife between rival Buddhist sects, often with interventions from China. For example, at about the same time Europe was experiencing the Reformation and the subsequent wars between Catholics and Protestants, Tibet was rocked by civil and religious strife between the Karma Kargyu and Yellow Hat sects.

With the fall of China’s Qing Dynasty and the the return of the thirteenth Dalai Lama (predecessor to the current one), and with the aid of Nepalese troops in 1913, Tibet was able to issue something like a declaration of independence. Given that China did not acknowledge the declaration, some Tibetan aristocrats thought it best to modernize the state in order to defend their territory against Chinese ambitions as well as coordinate international support for their cause. The Dalai Lama took some initial steps toward modernization but eventually was blocked by monastic elites quite content with the feudal order. In his book The Snow Lion and the Dragon, Melvyn C. Goldstein writes of their reaction to modernization efforts: “All this, however, sent shock waves through the monastic and aristocratic elites who held most of the land in Tibet in the form of feudal estates with hereditarily bound serf-like peasants. Modernization was expensive . . . [and] was also perceived by religious leaders as an ideological threat to the dominance of Buddhism in Tibet. . . . Equating modernization with Western atheism and secularism, the conservatives believed that it could diminish the power and importance of Buddhism.”

The feudal theocracy was maintained by Buddhist teachings on karma, which taught that serfs had to accept their imprisoned station as punishment, while elites deserved their glorious wealth as reward for virtues in earlier lives. Debts were often passed down for generations, limiting social mobility. The famous Drepung monastery alone owned twenty-five thousand serfs, and out of Tibet’s total population of 1.2 million people, an estimated seven hundred thousand were serfs.

It is from no lesser an authority than the current Dalai Lama that we glean the preeminence of karma. During an interview with Jonathon Hari of The Independent in 2004, the Dalai Lama provided a bizarre response when asked about karma, as follows:

Jonathan Hari: Yet the Dalai Lama has suggested that Tibetans are being punished for “bad karma.” Can this be true, Your Holiness?

Dalai Lama: Yes, of course. We are punished for feudalism. Every event is due to one’s karma.

Jonathan Hari: So, are disabled children being punished for sins in a past life?

Dalai Lama: Oh yes, of course.

Suddenly, a member of the Dalai Lama’s entourage—dormant until now—leaps up and speaks quickly to his master in Tibetan.

Dalai Lama: (to Hari.) This is for Buddhists! Only for Buddhists!

This is not to say that there aren’t some aspects of Buddhism worth defending. Indeed, it probably was the great atheist Nietzsche who first acknowledged elements in Buddhism that humanists could respect, such as its lack of a theistic divinity. However, history reveals that Buddhism has earned a place in the realm of religious cruelty. Like
all religions at various times, it has hitched itself to aggressive states, acquired and preserved political power at the expense of nonbelievers, and blocked progressive modernization. It is clear that whatever the virtues of Buddhism, true “enlightenment” will only be achieved with this acknowledgement.

Joseph Grosso

Joseph Grosso is a librarian and writer living in Brooklyn, New York.


What country is in the midst of a long-standing civil war—a war that has displaced hundreds of thousands of citizens, seen the first widespread use of suicide bombers, and in which the government fighting separatist forces has among its most militant allies the country’s religious clerics? Chances are most Westerners thus questioned would search their …

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