Armed Buddhist monks in Thailand are not an exception to the rule; they are contemporary examples of a long historical precedence. For centuries monks have been at the helm, or armed in the ranks, of wars. How could this be the case? But more importantly, why did I (and many others) hold the belief that Buddhism=Peace (and that other religions, such as Islam, are more prone to violence)?
It was then that I realized that I was a consumer of a very successful form of propaganda. Since the early 1900s, Buddhist monastic intellectuals such as Walpola Rahula, D. T. Suzuki, and Tenzin Gyatso, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, have labored to raise Western awareness of their cultures and traditions. In doing so, they presented specific aspects of their Buddhist traditions while leaving out others.
You have monks taking up arms and marching in the Russo-Japanese War, or earlier messianic battles in China when they thought killing people would bring them closer to enlightenment (a Ten Stage Process). Buddhists have fought against non-Buddhists, or other Buddhists. Japanese Buddhists fought to cleanse the impure Buddhist lands in China and Korea. Thai and Burmese fought for centuries against each other, each claiming religious authority as Cakravartins. This is what the book covers.
The recent bloody violence in Sri Lanka and Thailand are but examples of this. Yes, Sri Lanka’s violence has traditionally recognized political and cultural components to it, but the Janata Vimukti Peramuna had very clear religious motivations voiced during their assassinations and calls to exterminate the LTTE.
Shaku Soen and D.T. Suzuki, along with Paul Carus, were instrumental in bringing Japanese Zen to this country. There is a long history of this, covered quite well by Verhoeven in “Americanizing the Buddha.” And lets not forget that Suzuki and his teacher Soen were at the vanguard of Japanese militarism during the Russo-Japanese and second World Wars. In Suzuki’s own words, Buddhism must protect the nation.
Walpola Rahula did the same for Sri Lankan Buddhism in the United States, and he had similar concepts of religiously justified violence in Sri Lanka.
In a way, I wish I could return to that dream of Buddhist traditions as a purely peaceful, benevolent religion that lacks mortal failures and shortcomings. But I cannot. It is, ultimately, a selfish dream and it hurts other people in the process.
Buddhist Warfare certainly contributes to the broader discussion of religious violence, but on a more intimate and local level, I hope this collection will effect some significant change in the way Buddhism is perceived in the United States. Only time will tell.
In the end, what I find odd is how we try to displace a very long and lengthy history as anecdotal or enigmatic examples of people gone awry, instead of seeing the nature of religious violence present in Buddhist traditions (as well as others)